The Marlinton Housing Authority wants to contribute funds to plan redevelopment of the downtown area devastated by fire, but it only has about $3,000 in its account. In order to raise more funds for the recovery effort, the Authority has begun selling off public property that it owns in the town.
During its meeting on December 19, the Authority went into closed-door session to discuss the sale of undisclosed town properties. Prior to convening the secret portion of its meeting, the Authority did not disclose which properties it was considering for sale, or what other dispositions of public property the Authority would consider.
Authority Chairman Fred Burns, Jr., said there were “no restrictions” on how the Authority disposes of public property.
“There are no restrictions on it,” he said. “The Housing Authority has the authority to do as they see fit. They can buy and sell land.”
Marlinton councilmember David Zorn, attending as a private citizen, read a paragraph from state code section 16-18-7, which governs land purchases and sales by housing authorities.
“Such sales, lease, exchange or other transfer, and any agreement relating thereto, may be made only after, or subject to, the approval of the redevelopment plan by the governing body of the community,” he said.
Zorn said he was unaware of any council-approved redevelopment plan.
“This redevelopment plan is an entirely different thing from the housing authority,” replied Burns. “A redevelopment plan is a different concept altogether.”
Town businessman Nelson Hernandez also expressed concern that there was no plan.
“It seems like there should be a plan in place before properties are sold,” he said. “A plan that was agreed by everyone. From what I understand – and I’m not an attorney – once a plan has been agreed, then yes, the housing authority can do what they want, as long as it goes along with the plan.”
Burns described the requirement for a redevelopment plan as “a technicality,” and said he would discuss the issue with the Authority’s attorney, Steve Hunter, who was not present.
Members present, who voted unanimously to approve the closed-door session, were Burns, John Snyder, Roger Trusler and Tom Dunbrack. The Authority convened in executive session for approximately 30 minutes.
After reconvening in open session, the Authority voted to approve the sale of a lot at the intersection of Ninth Avenue and 10th Street, contingent on Hunter’s approval. Burns said that the Authority also had discussed leasing another piece of public property during the executive session, but had declined an offer from an interested lessee. Although challenged by The Pocahontas Times, the Authority would not disclose the identity of the buyer, the purchase price, or how the sale had been arranged. Burns said the name of the purchaser and the purchase price would be disclosed at the closing.
West Virginia Ethics Commission attorney Kim Weber told The Pocahontas Times, later that day, that it would be appropriate for Hunter to request an advisory opinion on the legality of withholding the property sale information until closing. Weber said the commission had not yet issued an opinion on that particular point.
On Monday, Marlinton Mayor Joe Smith said it was his understanding that any sale of property by the Authority must be approved by the town council.