A Wauseon business owner said his plan to expand was unfairly waylaid when the city quietly sold a Linfoot Street property without first advertising its availability.
But City Council President Heather Kost said the city’s charter allows for the supersession of a state law mandating advertising and a bidding process. And she said the purchaser of the building will offer more bang for the buck.
At a council meeting held Monday, Robert Weber, owner of All In One Sales & Service, complained he wasn’t given the chance to bid on the city-owned building located at 540 W. Linfoot St. The former city recycling center, most recently rented by Blooms Garden Center, will be sold to Pat and Dana Riley, the owners of the adjacent Riley Tractor Parts, for the city’s appraised value of $210,000. The purchase agreement was signed Sept. 21.
Weber said City Council acted unreasonably when it made the decision to sell during executive session, which is closed to the public. He cited the Ohio Revised Code which stipulates a municipality must publicly advertise the sale of real estate for five days before selling.
Instead, at its Sept. 21 meeting, the council suspended the rule of three readings and passed on emergency a resolution to sell the building. Following an executive session at Monday’s meeting related to the sale, Mayor Kathy Huner told Weber the building would be sold to the Rileys.
“She said, ‘It’s in the city’s best interests,’” Weber said. He was also told Wauseon’s city charter permitted the sale without public notice or a bidding process.
Weber had discovered Saturday through an acquaintance that the building was available for purchase. But when he contacted the city Monday morning he was told a buyer had already been found. Public Service Director Dennis Richardson told Weber the city wasn’t obligated to advertise the sale beforehand.
“I can’t believe this is happening, because that’s a heck of a building for $210,000,” he said. “You can’t begin to imagine a building like that for $210,000.”
Weber said he wanted to move his business to the location because it has outgrown its present 3,300 square-foot space at 270 E. Linfoot St. He told council members on Monday he was willing to open bidding at $220,000–more than the building will sell for–and raise that amount during the process if necessary.
According to the Fulton County Auditor’s website, the 20-year-old, 7,200 square foot city property is currently valued at $244,800. The Rileys lesser purchase price did not include some of the property.
In reviewing Wauseon’s charter, Weber’s attorney William Swigart found it doesn’t specifically state whether competitive bidding is or is not a requisite in selling city-owned property. Swigart said while a state statute requires advertising and competitive bids before a municipality sells real estate, the Ohio Constitution does allow for home-rule decisions to take precedence.
Swigart said the issue centers on whether Wauseon’s charter form of government permits the home-rule exemption. “The city believes the general language in there authorizes it to do so,” he said.
He also questions why the city council’s resolution to sell the building was passed on emergency, foregoing the rule of three readings.
“What was the rush?” he asked. “(And) what do you think the taxpayers would think? Wouldn’t they rather (the city get) $10,000 more, $20,000 more or $30,000 more?”
Weber said he wasn’t aware the city’s charter allowed for that type of sale. “I never knew they could do that. They use the excuse that they’re going to bring new jobs to the community.”
He added, “I don’t think the way they did it was fair. We all pay taxes on that, so I think they just gave it away.”
According to City Law Director Tom McWatters III, Section 3.018 of Wauseon’s charter authorizes the city to sell or purchase property. And the Ohio Constitution permits the city to adopt a charter that includes the home-rule provision.
City Council President Heather Kost stands by the panel’s decision to sell to the Rileys. “The council can enter into agreements the way council sees fit. It was a business decision, and we got what we thought was a very fair price on the property,” she said.
Pat Riley had approached the city several times over the past couple of years with inquiries about the building’s availability, Kost said. Had Weber or any other business owner expressed a prior interest they also would have received consideration.
She said Riley’s expectation of adding jobs at the new site factored into the council’s decision.
“It was a matter of filling a building to bring in more jobs for the city. You’ve got to take all the individual pieces of information and bring them together to make the best decision possible. We’re looking at the whole picture,” she said.
Not everyone on the council agrees the deal should have been sealed within an executive session. In fact, Councilor Martin Estrada isn’t entirely comfortable with the concept of executive sessions.
“There should be some kind of minutes taken on those meetings, and they should have an expiration date on them,” Estrada said. “At the end of that time period, that information should be released, instead of having decisions made behind closed doors. That would give the public a little more transparency, and build more trust with the citizens of Wauseon.”
He understands the need for closed-door sessions when the council must discuss more personal issues, such as disciplinary action against a city employee or hearing an employee’s grievances. But he believes some issues, such as the sale of city property, should instead be discussed publicly.
Estrada said to his knowledge the reasons for executive session are not clearly stated in the city charter. For that reason, “it’s important for the city to know what the discussion process is. Because they put it under executive session, the details can’t be discussed.”
Had the building’s availability been made known, “would someone have paid more for that property, or would it have had a different use?” he asked. “Or would it have gone for less money? Now that it’s getting out after the fact, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Estrada said, in fact, Councilor Jeff Stiriz suggested at a previous council meeting that the building sale probably could be made public after a council member had inadvertently referenced it during a previous public session. Estrada said he didn’t act on the opportunity “because I knew someone would say I violated executive session law.”
Kost said the council’s decision was all about timing, “and the best decision council can make to boost business and increase jobs, and not to leave another building empty. The circumstances are really perfect for this property owner.”
She said city property sales may be handled on a case-by-case basis in the future, but the sale to the Rileys was the right move.
“If you’re going to bring new jobs to the city, that’s a more positive impact,” Kost said.
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.