Hildebran group appeals decision over town's open meetings violation

The Hildebran Heritage & Development Association appealed a superior court judge's decision not to overturn the results of  a town of Hildebran meeting in violation of the Open Meetings Law. The town council voted at the end of January to demolish an old school after improperly discussing the matter in an October closed meeting. 

In the fall of 2014, the town council of Hildebran began wrestling with whether or not to demolish the old Hildebran High School building that dates to 1917. Another portion of the school campus, which has not been a school since 1989, serves as the town hall. 

In October 2014 it held a closed session meeting to discuss the school’s fate, despite there being no exception to the Open Meetings Law for decisions to demolish buildings. As concern about the school’s fate grew in the community, the council scheduled a special meeting January 8 for public comment. A large number of residents spoke in favor of saving the building.

Shortly before the council’s regularly scheduled Jan. 26, 2015 meeting, Councilman Lee Lowman called three of the other four council members to discuss voting to change the agenda and demolish the building. Lowman did not call the one council member who had previously indicated support for saving the school. The public agenda for the meeting contained no indication that a decision on the school would be made Jan. 26. At the Jan. 26 meeting, the council voted 4-1 to change its agenda and then again voted 4-1 to demolish the school and approve a demolition contract. 

The Hildebran Heritage & Development Association filed a lawsuit to halt the demolition alleging violations of the Open Meetings Law and of state contracting rules. Following a three-day trial in July, Superior Court Judge Joe Crosswhite issued a directed verdict in favor of the town on the contracting claims and in favor of heritage group on the Open Meetings Law violation.

Crosswhite’s opinion found that the October 2014 meeting violated the Open Meetings Law, but that the violation was not material to the council’s decision because there was an intervening public hearing and subsequent public meeting. Crosswhite also found that Lowman’s phone calls to other council members were to avoid holding an official meeting, but did not directly address whether or not that constituted a violation of the Open Meetings Law. 

The heritage group filed a notice of appeal and a request for a writ of supersedeas last week.