Montreat meeting turns weird over town hall location
Montreat's board of commissioners meeting Jan. 12 turned testy and bizarre over its vote to locate its new town hall outside Montreat Gate.
A mayor-appointed committee's recommendations on the town hall's location and design contrasted sharply with the town council's original town hall plans. Those 2014 plans came to a halt when a residents-initiated lawsuit forced the town to cancel plans to build the town hall on Florida Terrace.
Reactions Jan. 12 by members of the town council, mired in discord since the facility's location was proposed, varied considerably during the town board's meeting. Mary Standaert, a Montreat commissioner for eight years, contended all voices weren't considered prior to the committee's recommendation.
Standaert and mayor Tim Helms exchanged snide comments with one another on more than one occasion and tensions rose throughout night.
In an open letter on the town’s website (townofmontreat.org), Helms said he appointed the six-person committee, chaired by Montreat resident Brinkley Melvin, “to study details pertaining to a new town hall.” The committee included mayor pro tem Kitty Fouche.
The committee’s report was presented to the town council by committee member Bill Scheu. It contained a broad range of feedback from the public, varying in degrees of relevancy to the committee’s charge. Dozens of Montreat residents made comments about what they believe should and shouldn’t be included in a town hall.
The committee's report recommended the town hall be built on what the committee refers to as the “creekside property,” which sits outside of the iconic Montreat gate and is owned by the Mountain Retreat Association, which manages the Montreat Conference Center. Fouche told the committee that the president of the MRA, Richard DuBose, told her the association's board would likely be willing to sell the land to the town for its appraised value, but would reserve the right to have input into the design.
The town hall committee made that recommendation after considering three additional pieces of property that it deemed or determined to be too steep or not available for purchase. The recommended lot outside the Montreat Gate (and mostly located in the town of Black Mountain) was first suggested in 2014 by a group that opposed the Florida Terrace location.
The committee's support of the lot also included the suggestion that the town council ask the Mountain Retreat Association to consider a redesign of the gate and the resulting traffic patterns.
The lot outside the gate was a “near unanimous” choice by Montreat residents who participated in public forums held by the town hall committee, according to committee member Mike Collie. Many attendees had strong opinions about the design of the building itself.
“Needs of the maintenance, public works and public safety staff should have priority over the administrative staff,” Scheu said the committee concluded.
Basing its decision on public feedback, the committee also recommended the building be 3,500 square feet - roughly half the 7,000 square feet recommended in a 2013 site study by McGill Associates (available on the town’s website).
Scheu said the committee relied on its own judgement to decide how large the building should be, but he didn't offer the methodology it used. Fouche then told Standaert the committee wasn’t tasked with calculating square footage. Standaert began to reply to Fouche but was directed by Helms to only ask questions.
After several more questions directed at Scheu about his committee’s report, the board moved temporarily to agenda items. Board member Kent Otto motioned that the board “do away” with agenda meetings, saying doing so would save the town money because the town wouldn't have to pay staff to attend.
Fouche was also “concerned about the man hours,” she said, and staff could be “doing something more productive” instead of attending agenda meetings. She did, however, have to be reminded of the purpose of agenda meetings by the mayor.
“An agenda meeting is multifold,” Helms told her. “It's to adopt the agenda (that will be discussed at the board's regular meeting), but it's also where we discuss any information, ahead of time, that (town) staff may want to furnish us with.”
The confusion surrounding the purpose of agenda meetings didn’t stop the board from passing what Otto referred to as a “compromise” worked out after Standaert and Ann Vinson expressed opposition to his motion.
“Let’s do away with agenda meetings for six months and see how it works,” Otto said before the motion passed 3-2 (Fouche and Bill Gilliland voting in favor, Standaert and Vinson opposed).
The board then refocused its attention on the town hall committee’s recommendation, leading to a bizarre turn of events.
Vinson made the motion for the board to “accept the report,” to which Fouche responded “no, no, then we’re not taking any action.” Otto inquired what the motion meant, to which Standaert replied “that we accept the report.”
Helms turned to Standaert and said “Are you going to let me run this meeting or not?”
After the exchange, the board then voted unanimously to accept the town hall committee’s report. Standaert then made a motion for Montreat to initiate conversations with the town of Black Mountain to allow Montreat to annex the creekside property.
Before her motion could be seconded, Scheu, the town hall committee member, began instructing the board, from the audience, on how to proceed.
“Y’all need to authorize somebody to start negotiating terms of an offer,” Scheu said.
Standaert’s attempt to respond to Scheu was resisted by Helms, who reminded her there was still a motion on the floor.
Gilliland then attempted to make a motion but was interrupted by Scheu, who told him what the commissioner's motion should be.
“I think the motion should be," Scheu said, "that you authorize the mayor, or Kitty, or Mary, or anybody, to negotiate, from beginning to end, with the Mountain Retreat Association for the purchase of the property."
Gilliland then paraphrased what Scheu told him in a wordy motion that ultimately authorized Helms to negotiate the deal.
The board did not move to act on any of the design recommendations made by the committee.