BY STACIE LETT CAIN
Apparent confusion by one Statesville City Council member about the rules and procedures governing quasi-judicial hearings sparked a debate and some harsh words among council members at Monday’s council meeting.
Monday’s quasi-judicial hearing, in which the council sits as a finder of fact much like a jury in a court proceeding, dealt with a site plan for a mini-warehouse development on Wilkesboro Highway behind the Food Lion.
The plan, which has garnered the support of both the Planning Department and Technical Review Committee, was being presented to council for approval by Beretta Development.
The controversy stemmed from an ex parte conversation held between Councilman John Staford and adjacent property owners prior to the hearing.
Staford announced after a fair amount of discussion about the site plan during Monday’s meeting that he had visited personally with several adjacent property owners to discuss the issue and had advised them that the hearing would be postponed. He told them it would be postponed because he had received an email objecting to the hearing being held when the public was not allowed in council chambers due to COVID-19.
As a matter of law, if a person with standing files an objection to the hearing being held via internet as opposed to in person, the hearing must be postponed until a time that it can be held in person.
The problem, according to Councilman William Morgan, was that the person who submitted the email objection was not an adjacent property owner and did not have standing in the matter. Therefore, Staford’s assurance that the hearing would be postponed was in error.
“I also received an email asking for postponement but that person did not have standing,” Morgan explained. “So you have no written request from someone with standing, the Planning Department has no written request to postpone this hearing. Is that correct?”
Staford admitted that he had no such email, sparking harsh words from Morgan as well as Mayor Costi Kutteh.
“This is past T.R.C., past the Planning Board, proper notices have gone out and this is a complete waste of time,” Morgan stated.
“I would like to know why we didn’t know about this an hour ago, or two hours ago or three days ago,” Kutteh said. “This is absurd. We need a better procedure for this.”
City Attorney Leah Messick also had a warning for the council.
“I would also warn that this is a quasi-judicial proceeding and to talk to a property owner prior to this hearing you have to disclose the entirety of that conversation before a decision is made,” she advised. “I think my suggestion is that the Planning Department needs to reach out to this property owner because you on the council should not be reaching out to them in this type of hearing. We need to determine if the property owner wants to file a written objection or not.”
Matt Grant, who participated in the discussion by phone, voiced his concern with the possible delay in the project as well.
“For the record, we are having these discussions because a council member has talked to a neighbor prior to a quasi-judicial hearing, which it is my understanding is not allowed because this decision is supposed to be made on facts presented during the hearing,” Grant said. “I just wanted to make sure that was on the record.”
Staford, in an attempt to justify his actions, said he did not know that he could not do his own research about an issue in his ward prior to a quasi-judicial hearing and that he did not know that a person had to have standing to object to a virtual hearing.
Morgan rejected those excuses.
“I could eat a can of alphabet soup and crap out a better argument than that so just stop,” Morgan interrupted. “Are we done?”
Morgan apologized for the comment at the end of the meeting, saying it was not appropriate even if it was warranted.
The council voted to approve the site plan conditioned upon the Planning Department contacting the property owner in question to determine whether they had a formal objection they wanted to file. If that objection was filed on the record within 24 hours, the hearing will be postponed until the first part of June. If no objection is filed, the public hearing will be closed after 24 hours and the site plan approved.
The meeting also included a time for public comment on the proposed city budget for fiscal year 2020-2021. No comments were received.