Judge: Hildebran violated Open Meetings Law, but town's decision stands

Community activists filed a lawsuit earlier this year against Hildebran alleging the Burke County town violated several laws, including the open meetings law, in deciding to tear down an old school. Following a trial, Superior Court Judge Joe Crosswhite ruled the town council violated the Open Meetings Law but the violation did not effect the board's decision to demolish the school. 

At a January 26 meeting, the Hildebran town council decided to demolish the Old Hildebran School. The school was built in 1917 and used for education until 1987. A year later it was sold to the town, which uses one of the newer additions as its town hall. The remainder of the building has sat largely vacant and neglected. 

In October the town council held a closed session during which demolition of the school was discussed. The Open Meetings Law permits  bodies to discuss property acquisition in closed session, but not sale or demolition. 

In January, a public hearing on the demolition of the school was held and at a meeting later that month the board voted to tear down the school. Mayor Jennie Cook later explained the decision, saying that costs of renovation were too high. 

Residents upset with town council formed an opposition group and filed a lawsuit in February to halt the demolition. They charged that the board violated the Open Meetings Law, that state rules for hiring contractors were not followed properly and that the contractor did not have the necessary license to remove asbestos. 

Following a two days of evidence during a trial this week, Superior Court Judge Joe Crosswhite dismissed the jury and issued a directed verdict finding that the town had violated the Open Meetings Law but no others. Crosswhite then announced that he would not overturn the school decision because the public hearing and public vote to demolish the building came after the illegal discussion in closed session. Crosswhite also did not issue an injunction from the bench requiring the town council to follow the Open Meetings Law. 

The meetings law gives judges the choice of invalidated decisions made as a result of improperly held meetings or enjoin public bodies from violating the law. 

Crosswhite also left in place an earlier injunction preventing demolition of the building, while his decision is on appeal. Attorneys for the citizens group told The News Herald of Morganton that they plan to appeal. 

See coverage from The News Herald here and WBTV here