Montreat council votes to reimburse residents who sued it

Fred McCormick

In a contentious 3-2 vote last week, Montreat’s town council agreed to reimburse four residents for legal expenses they incurred suing the town over the placement of its new town hall.

Heated debates and emotionally charged soliloquies have been the norm the last two years at council meetings. The trend continued at its May 12 meeting before the board of commissioners approved the $82,363 reimbursement.

Also divisive was the board’s discussion of HB2, a controversial state law that limits people to the restroom that corresponds with the gender marked on their birth certificates.

Seeking reimbursement for the legal expenses were Carolyn Zoe Crowder, Nancy Thomas, Henry Darden, Jr. and his wife Carolyn Darden. John Currie was among the plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit against the town, but he passed away in April 2015.

The lawsuit the plaintiffs filed in December 2014 contended there was an “abuse of discretion” by the town in acquiring the land. It also claimed that Montreat violated the provisions of the state statute that requires a pre-audit certificate signed by a finance officer - in Montreat’s case, finance officer Stefan Stackhouse. A Buncombe County Superior Court judge found the plaintiffs did not show a likelihood of success on the abuse of discretion claim. But citing the statute, he ordered an injunction against proceeding with construction of the Florida Terrace site.

The board voted 5-0 in March not to build on the site.

During the May 12 meeting, Joe Standaert and other residents argued against reimbursing residents for suing the town, contending doing so would set a bad precedent. Allowing it to happen would set Montreat up for being sued by anyone who disagreed with the town board’s decisions, they contended.

“I strongly urge you to get the plaintiffs to drop their lawsuit since they achieved their goals and have already cost the Montreat taxpayers a ton of money,” Standaert said. He said the board’s approving reimbursement could “be viewed as political patronage.”

The settlement the board voted for calls for the town to pay $50,000 to the plaintiffs. It also calls for the town to pay $7,227 in legal fees for real estate investment partnership Florida Terrace, LLC. The settlement also provides a $7,315 settlement for legal fees to Selective Insurance Company of America. It also reimburses Stackhouse $17,821 for legal fees he incurred to defend himself against the complaint.

Erskine Clarke, who contributed $1,000 to the plaintiffs in support of the suit, blamed the previous town council for the need to consider the settlement.

“The scandal is that the previous council proceeded against the will of an overwhelming majority of the town of Montreat,” he said. “(It) cost the town an enormous amount of money and would’ve cost the town even more money had it not been for the lawsuit.”

Former commissioner Eric Nichols questioned the wisdom of reimbursing the plaintiffs. “I don’t like it. I hate it, and I think it’s immoral,” he said. “I’m really bothered by it.”

The council itself was clearly split as well, divided by the politics of the issue that have plagued the discussion for two years.

Bill Gilliland and Kitty Fouche, who ran in the November election for board vacancies largely on the town hall issue, defended the reimbursement.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Fouche said. “The discussion was (about) what it was going to cost to continue this lawsuit.”

Gilliland said the settlement was “just not perfect” but was “the fiscally responsible thing to do.” Gilliland, Fouche and Kent Otto voted for the reimbursement.

Voting against it were commissioners Mary Standaert and Ann Vinson, who were on the board when the decision to build the town hall was made.

“I think it’s important for you all to know that one of the solutions that the town council discussed was to go into mediation with an independent mediator,” Vinson said. “I think it’s important to know that the plaintiffs turned that down, flat.”

Vinson said she agreed with much of what Standaert said in her argument against the settlement. Standaert had said “it is wrong to move forward with this” and the proposed reimbursement “has been a legal exercise for a political purpose.”

Montreat has a “reconciliation fund” to collect donations to pay the plaintiffs’ legal expenses, which included contributions from 110 anonymous donors, according to a statement from the town.

The board was also divided when it came time to discuss HB2.

Vinson moved that the board disagree with the “discriminatory language of HB2.” Such a move would underscore Montreat as “a welcoming and inclusive community,” she said.

Otto said it wasn’t the board’s place to make a statement on the controversial bill. Gilliland said he simply did not see the need to get involved in the controversial legislation.

“I don’t think anybody (in Montreat) is in favor of discrimination,” he said. “I think we should stay out of it.”

The board voted 3-2 against the motion, with Vinson and Standaert voting in favor and Gilliland, Fouche and Otto in opposition.

Following the vote, Fouche moved to prevent reconsideration of the topic for six months.Her motion carried by a 3-2 vote. Voting with her were Otto and Gilliland.