Behind closed doors

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Even after a developer who sought 91 acres of Carroll-owned land for the Mayberry Opry property has ended acquisition attempts, a citizen continues to question county officials about other deals in the works and the methods used.

Citizen Mike Goldwasser appeared at both the Industrial Development Authority meeting Sept. 3 and the Carroll Board of Supervisors meeting Sept. 8 to express continuing concerns.

Carroll citizens have reason to be suspicious about the sale of 3.1 acres at Interstate 77 and U.S. 58 to Weststar Investments, the ongoing effort to build shops at the Southwest Virginia Farmers’ Market and the aborted plan to buy land at the county rec park because of processes the county boards have used, Goldwasser told the IDA.

He has difficulties with the fact that there have been no public hearings on disposition of property, and that the IDA and supervisors have discussed the matters in closed sessions instead of in public meetings.

The process has caused mistrust among the public, he said.

“As far as these closed sessions are concerned... there is certainly a perception among many people who have talked to me... that this is being done in a way where the public is not being told everything it needs to be told,” Goldwasser told the IDA.

After the Sept. 8 meeting, Supervisors Chairman Sam Dickson told The Gazette that use of closed sessions is necessary to do the work of the county board.

“The more you’re working on, sometimes, the more you’ve got to have closed,” Dickson said.

And the Carroll supervisors are working on a lot, trying to make things happen in the county, the chairman added.

While a county official assured Goldwasser informally that there wouldn’t be a land deal without a public hearing, now it appears that another deal is in the works, Goldwasser said at the IDA meeting.

Previously, the public was told that the IDA was pulling out of selling land of the rec park and the Market Village deal with Weststar Investments, Goldwasser recalled.

But after it was discovered that a pump station on Virginia Department of Transportation land was mistakenly sold to Weststar, the farmers’ market deal was back on the table.

“There’s so much reason for the public to be suspicious about what’s happened,” Goldwasser said.

The mistake involving the pump station was never made public, except by Goldwasser himself, when he talked about it at a supervisors’ meeting.

“People feel — I think rightly — that when something of that magnitude happens, the first thing that you need to do is make it public and tell people that, you know, we made a mistake or VDOT’s made a mistake or whatever,” he said.

That’s led to the conclusion among some county citizens that the pump station was used as leverage against Carroll County, Goldwasser said.

“I can just tell you that there are a tremendous number of people out there, rightly or wrongly, who think that it was leverage that [Weststar] got through owning that pumping station that forced this deal back on the table,” he said.

If the county had a more open process, then such concerns probably would not exist, Goldwasser added. If he was in position of the IDA members or the supervisors, he would feel “very uncomfortable” proceeding without having a public hearing.

One reason is because someone might have a good idea, he said.

In the case of the 3.1 acres, maybe somebody would have spoken up about the pump station there, Goldwasser said. Now there’s a rumor that Weststar is asking for a large sum of money to sell the pump station back.

“This is the public’s land and the public has a right to know, and the public cares, and there’s been such as a history of distrust of county government in this area, you need to bend over backwards to make it so that people have an understanding and awareness of everything involved in these transactions,” Goldwasser told the IDA.

He stressed that placing blame is not his intention — he’s just trying to learn from the mistakes.

If the county had held public hearings about the 3.1 acres, Goldwasser said, it’s guaranteed that it would have sold for more money, and that greater tax revenue would have derived from it. He believes Carroll would have gotten a more suitable development for the land at the industrial park and the interstate than a real estate office.

While the IDA and supervisors boards have a total of 13 people on them, someone in Carroll’s population of 30,000 may have good ideas to contribute, Goldwasser said.

“I just don’t see any reason why these things can’t be done in public,” he said. “To not give [citizens] the opportunity and to not give them the satisfaction of knowing what’s being done with their land, I think, is just dead wrong.”

It’s time for county officials to take a stand, Goldwasser added. If the decision were his, he’d risk not going forward with the Market Village plan.

IDA member Larry Chambers asked if the 3.1 acres hadn’t been for sale for years.

It had a “for sale by owner” sign on it, Goldwasser answered. He said no respected real estate developer would try to sell property that way.

IDA member Clinton Willie noted there were difficulties selling the 3.1 acres due to the rock there and problems in making it suitable for building.

Two businesses considered the land but turned it down for those reasons, he said.

But Goldwasser replied that Weststar Investments plans to put three businesses on that site, so evidently someone was wrong about that.

Willie said that the mistake regarding the pump station was made back in the 1980s, and not recently.

But the mistake was discovered recently, and still nothing was said about it, Goldwasser responded. When information is withheld, he said, people are rightfully suspicious.

Goldwasser made similar comments to the board of supervisors.

He recalled that the first night he shared his concerns with the supervisors was the night that many people spoke at a meeting about tax concerns.

He heard a citizen ask questions about county government and expenses that night, such as the number of new county positions that have been created. He never heard an answer to the questions.

“Remember that you’re working for us. I appreciate it but we need to know that you’re responsive,” Goldwasser told the supervisors. “We need to know that you care and we need to know that you’re going to answer our questions.”

Just to let it go until people forget isn’t a fair way to deal with the public, he said. Everyone will pay the price if the public’s mistrust grows.

“And the same thing’s true with these closed sessions,” Goldwasser added.

“Now that I know for sure that some of the things that have been discussed in closed session could just as easily — and in fact more appropriately — could have been discussed in public sessions, it makes me wonder what’s going on.”

Dickson said there sometimes are possible consequences to not going into closed session.

He gave the example of a potential business that might locate in the county that might not want anything disclosed until it is ready.

There also are times when, if a local government is working with a state agency, the state wants to make the announcement when it’s time, Dickson said.

When there’s a personnel matter about a person, Dickson believes it should not be aired in public.

For their part, the Carroll supervisors strictly follow the law governing closed sessions, he said, and they consult with their attorney to make sure they use correct procedures.

“We keep them to as minimum as possible, and we try to move them around so it doesn’t interfere with citizens’ time,” Dickson said.