NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — City Councilor Keith Bona is requesting access to the city solicitor to question KP Law about its opinion removing the council from consideration of the Mohawk Theater sale and for the council to revote its authorization declaring the theater surplus property.
Councilors were surprised at last week's meeting when they were informed that the disposition of the theater would move forward without their approval.
According to an opinion provided by KP Law, the order approved by the council in 2019 "gives broad authority to the mayor to dispose of the property without further authorization" provided it complies with the state's 30B law.
The precedent had been to seek council approval for sales of property and materials below assessed value. Councilors had believed that a matter of law.
Buntic bid $21,000 for the gutted theater that he plans to incorporate as an events venue for a proposed hotel in the abutting Dowlin Block at 103 Main St. The structure is assessed at $437,000.
The councilor said he had watched several lengthy meeting videos from 2019 during which the sale of the Mohawk had been discussed by council and the mayor.
"I strongly believe all City Council members approved selling the theater knowing it would come back with bids under the assessed value," he wrote in his communication to the council for next week's meeting. "There is nothing on video or in the minutes that would dispute that."
He particularly pointed to the reference in the opinion to a "governmental body" disposing of property for less than its value.
"Who is the governmental body? Does that include the City Council, which never approved to dispose of the property at a price less than value?" he asked. "Does the solicitor know everything that was discussed and understood by this council before approving the theater to be sold? I don't believe they do and by removing the City Council from the process may make the sale illegal."
Bona is invoking Council Rule 27, which details the process for seeking a legal opinion. The council will take this up during its meeting Tuesday.
He is also asking to use Council Rule 22 to reconsider the vote on the Mohawk since it has been more than a year.
"I would love to see the property sold, but I want it done correctly, and vetted appropriately," he writes in his communication.
Bernard said as the administration was looking at how it was disposing of surplus property, the question was being asked if approval was necessary under the state's 30B laws or was it required by ordinance. That question came into sharper focus when the firm hired to auction off nearly a dozen properties last year asked if the portfolio could be sweetened by tossing in Sullivan School.
"It was clear under the process, that the city had the ability to include it in the portfolio," he said, but it also would have lessened public control over the building's future.
"At some point the city implemented as a habit, and so it became received wisdom somewhere along the line ... it was the position, as I understood it coming into the role, that if it is below this value it must be approved," the mayor continued. "And the the reality is no, and in talking to other people who do similar work, it's 'like no, we don't, we've never followed that process.'"
Bona supported declaring the theater, owned by the city since 1996, as surplus and even voted against a restriction on the marquee because it might deter buyers. But, he said, he still assumed that the council would have some input before it passed out of municipal control.
"When he said their finances are questionable, their timeline is concerning, I thought for sure the next line was going to be 'and this is why I will pass on the them,'" Bona said last week. "My jaw dropped when he said he gave it to them. But my main objection was taking this out of the council's hands and [not] allowing the public to have input."
He is also asking that a number of residents who have submitted requests to speak on the issue be allowed to.
The council had put a deed restriction on the moviehouse marquee but stopped short two years ago of placing a condition that it could review proposals. The assumption had been that no one would bid the appraised amount and it would therefore automatically come back for approval.
Some of Bona's colleagues also expressed some concern about transparency in the transaction and, at last week's meeting, Councilor Marie T. Harpin said the deal felt like it was being rushed.
"We've always had proposals that were less than the appraisal come to the council," she said.
Councilors surveyed this week also thought there should have been more public input.
Councilor Peter Oleskiewicz said there had been an agreement before the request for proposals had gone out that the bids would come back for review if under assessed value.
"We do need to get rid of this property," he said. "But I believe the RFP should be shown to us and we should have a say and also the community should have a say."
"Personally, I would have liked to seen that," said Councilor Benjamin Lamb. "But he's in the boundaries of the law, based on what the counselor has said."
Councilor Wayne Wilkinson said he was disappointed that the council's input had not been sought but added, "we declared it excess property but by law, once we do that, it's in his ballpark."
"I think we should have taken a look at it. Yes," said Councilor Bryan Sapienza. "Considering what I've been hearing from the public, yes, I think we should have brought it back at least to give us a chance to discuss it."
Chatter on Facebook has denounced the proposal, largely based on the low bid for the structure and the fact that Buntic has not made any progress on the two properties he owns in the downtown. He also purchased the Porter building on Eagle Street with partners who are apparently no longer involved with the purpose of turning it into the boutique hotel. Some demolition and structural work was done in there but not much more since the pandemic.
The Mohawk wouldn't be the first property to sell well below assessed value. The most recent was the Notre Dame complex on East Main Street that the city bought for a half-million more than a decade ago. Now assessed at more than $1 million, the property was sold last year to Moresi Commercial Development LLC for $10,000. Low bids are not unusual since most of these properties require significant investment and the city's main purpose is getting these properties into the hands of developers who can make them of benefit to the community.
Council President Lisa Blackmer said the discussion shouldn't be about the control of the final disposition but whether there is a municipal use for property. In this case, the answer is no, she said.
"I know there are memories and strong attachments to the theater, but I do not think the city should be in the business of maintaining and running a theater or performing arts center," she said. "The two other theaters [frequently compared to the Mohawk] in the county are private non-profit organizations and not municipally owned. The city has owned it for 30 years, with little result."
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