Half-hour backroom discussion in middle of open meeting used to work out longer transition for closing flea market

Mebane mayor Ed Hooks took the unusual step Monday night to halt a long procession of public speakers on a proposed rezoning and annexation of 84 acres along Buckhorn Road – while the public comment period was in progress – so that the attorneys for the developer and seller could work out a possible solution to delay the eviction of vendors at the Buckhorn flea market (see related story, this edition).

A crowd of approximately 200 people turned out for the council’s meeting Monday night, overflowing its meeting chambers and spilling into a “overflow” area at city hall.

After hearing from the first nine of 15 speakers who opposed the July 15 deadline given by the property manager to flea market vendors, Hooks called for the break at 7:32 p.m. Monday night.

The mayor was joined behind closed doors by the attorney for the seller (Orange County Investors Partnership) and the developer (R+L Carriers), as well a company representative for R+L, Stan Richards; city manager Chris Rollins; city attorney Lawson Brown; and Mebane mayor pro tem Tim Bradley.

Asked under what statutory provision he had stopped the meeting while it was in progress, Hooks told The Alamance News later Monday night that he had called for the break in order to direct city staff and the attorneys to mete out a solution that would give vendors more time to remove their merchandise and covered “carports” from the Buckhorn flea market.

Hooks told The Alamance News Monday night that the purpose of the 30-minute delay – that occurred in the middle of a public hearing on the request – was to direct city staff to confer with the developers to see whether some sort of mutually-agreeable solution could be reached.

Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr., later informed of the development, said, “This little backroom shindig is an outrage.  Mebane’s mayor, city councilmen, and city attorney all should have known better.”

“There’s nothing that was said that couldn’t, and shouldn’t, have been said in open session.  Instead, by their secret backroom meeting, the mayor and councilman give credence to suspicions that special ‘deals’ or consideration were given in exchange for the more lengthy lead time for closing down the flea market.”

“Exactly what were the arrangements? No one except those cloistered outside public view really know,” Boney said.

Mike Tadych, an attorney with the North Carolina Press Association, joined The Alamance News’ publisher’s skepticism about the procedure used to huddle in the backroom for a half hour.

Noting that anytime there are two or more members of a committee, that group becomes a public body, subject to all the notification and other requirements of the state’s Open Meetings Law.

Said Tadych, “There were two or more members of the de facto “resolution committee” appointed by the mayor at the meeting – himself and another councilman.”  He could have moved for a closed session pursuant to GS 143-318.11(a)(3) but did not and . . .adding the developer and its counsel into that meeting would negate any privilege and would make that meeting legal.”

“It sounds like what happened,” Tadych continued, “ was an official meeting of a public body appointed impromptu by the mayor to which all aspects of the Open Meetings Law should be applicable – i.e., notice, access, minutes, etc.”

Upon returning from the break at 8:02 p.m., Hooks told the audience, “The common theme up until now has been, ‘give us time,’” for the vendors to remove their belongings from the property and find an alternative venue.

The outcome of the 30-minute closed-door “break” in the middle of the meeting was a one-month extension of the deadline for vendors to vacate the flea market property, changed from July 15 to August 14.

David Pokela, an attorney with the Maynard Nexsen law firm in Raleigh representing R+L Carriers, announced, “We are willing to offer a condition where folks at the flea market will have until August 14 to remove what they have.”

The attorney for the property owner (Orange County Investors), Michael Fox of the Tuggle Duggins law firm, added, “It is my understanding there can be no more sales if the zoning passes.”

That agreement, brokered behind closed doors, represented a one-month extension of the deadline to vacate the flea market property, rather than the three months that many of the vendors pleaded with the council to grant Monday night.

“We’re in a box here, in that once you go forward with a project, you have to have to get to a reasonable point in the process, where you have some confidence [that it will receive the necessary approvals to continue],” Fox elaborated.  “[You cannot continue to operate [as a flea market] once you get annexed into the city and you get zoned.”

Fox also noted that the site needs to be engineered, graded, and otherwise prepared so that construction can begin.  “This went through [the technical review committee] four times; it’s been about a six-month process.  Any deal only has so much time; time kills deals.  We’re here tonight ready to go.  I think offering them more time to move is the best we can do.”

When asked about a tentative timeline for completion, Richards, vice president of construction and facility services for R+L Carriers, told The Alamance News that he’s not authorized to speak on any aspect of the project.  He had fielded numerous questions from the council throughout the evening, but potential timeframes for starting and completing construction did not emerge during that portion of the discussion.

At an earlier meeting of the planning board, Sean Mullikin, another company representative had said that construction was estimated to take between 18 to 24 months, projecting a potential opening in 2026.