LACONIA — The City Council’s decision to purchase a former Catholic school and a rectory for $1.14 million was done outside the public eye and bonds for the acquisition were listed in the budget only as “XYZ” without further explanation.
It is legal to approve land purchases in nonpublic sessions, City Manager Scott Myers and Mayor Andrew Hosmer said. Government transparency advocates say it’s advisable to let the public know before local officials decide to spend large sums of public money.
New Hampshire’s Right to Know Law generally prohibits governmental bodies from meeting outside public view, but has exceptions, including consideration of buying land “which, if discussed in public, would likely benefit a party or parties whose interests are adverse to those of the general community.”
“The city wanted to make sure it could get the best deal possible,” Hosmer said. “Others may have gotten into negotiations and driven the price up.”
Myers said the purchase would be discussed at the Monday night City Council meeting, but no votes would be taken as the decision to buy the property has already been made.
He said he understands how the public might want to know of such a purchase before it is made.
“It’s a delicate balancing act,” he said. “I can understand both sides of the position.
“From the city’s perspective there are the provisions under 91-A (the Right to Know Law) on sale and purchase negotiations that are typically sensitive. We followed the rules under state law for this particular purpose.”
Myers signed a purchase and sale agreement on Aug. 19 with Saint Andre Bessette Parish to purchase the Holy Trinity School building, the historic John W. Busiel House and surrounding land.
Both buildings are on the St. Joseph Church campus. The church itself is not included in the agreement. An effort is underway to preserve that 91-year-old structure.
The city will gain 84 downtown parking spots it will need as renovation of the 750-seat Colonial Theatre moves forward. The parish will benefit financially through the sale of buildings it no longer needs. Catholic school and religious services are conducted at the nearby Sacred Heart Church campus. The Busiel House was a rectory.
The city will put the two buildings up for sale to try to defray the cost of the purchase. Of the two buildings, the Busiel House would be more straightforward to market as an office building.
A $700,000 bond was put in the city’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget to help fund the purchase. Myers said the bond was a kind of “placeholder” in the budget. It is listed as “XYZ.”
This isn’t the first time the City Council has approved land purchases out of the public’s view.
The Laconia Daily Sun reported last year, based on unsealed minutes of nonpublic sessions, that the city spent $342,000 on real estate without any public discussion or votes in public session during City Council meetings, or notification to the public after the land had been purchased.
One property on Pickerel Pond Road is to be used to allow the public to launch canoes and kayaks and to help protect the watershed. Another piece of land was purchased for possible use by the Public Works Department.
Then-Mayor Ed Engler said at the time that it was an oversight that the deals weren’t disclosed after the fact.
When Hosmer was mayor-elect, he said that going forward, he wouldn’t have a problem in making land purchases contingent on City Council approval in public session.
Early this year, former Laconia Mayor Tom Tardif complained to the state Attorney General’s office that city officials abused the public trust and engaged in official misconduct by agreeing in private to spend money on land purchases.
Assistant Attorney General Nicholas A. Chong Yen of the election law unit told Tardif that the complaint involved an alleged violation of the state Right to Know law and was outside the scope of his unit’s enforcement authority.
In an interview Monday, Tardif said the purchase of the church property should not have been done without the public present. He rejects the argument that public disclosure could have led to a bidding war for the property, which has long been for sale.
“There’s no transparency,” he said. “There hasn’t been transparency with the City Council and other commissions for eight years.”
He said there is no indication that anybody else was interested in the property or that the price would have been jacked up if there were a public disclosure of the city’s interest.
Patrick Wood, a retired attorney who practiced municipal law and chaired the Downtown TIF Advisory Board, said the Right to Know Law does provide an exception for consideration of real estate purchases, but he expressed surprise that the actual purchase would not be done in public session
“I’m not going to second guess the attorney for the city, but normally you would have expected there would be a public decision on expending funds,” he said.
City officials in Franklin and Concord say that when they buy property, they do so in public session. Officials in Plymouth and Tilton say they do such purchases in public through the Town Meeting process.
Meantime, the deal for the rectory and the Catholic school is winning praise by those interested in saving St. Joseph Church.
Wood said it is imperative to save the 1929 building and that revenue from the sale could be used to help make needed repairs.
Father Marc Drouin, pastor of the parish said the church has long tried to find a buyer for the property.
“For more than four years we have explored numerous options to sell the Saint Joseph campus,” said Drouin, pastor of the parish. “I am pleased that the City of Laconia has stepped forward with a plan to purchase the property.”
Hosmer also praised the deal.
“On behalf of the City of Laconia, we are pleased to acquire this portion of the Saint Joseph campus,” Hosmer said. “As Laconia enters a period of robust economic growth, it’s critical that the city supports this growth through strategic acquisitions.
“Over the next few months the city will have a plan in place to leverage these city assets in order to enhance the downtown arts and retail revival.”
The sale is expected to close this fall, after the city completes its due diligence. Last year, the diocese backed off plans to demolish the church amid public demands to save the building.