BATH — The city manager on Wednesday apologized for not giving the City Council better guidance concerning the quick sale last year of a city-owned property.
Retired Maine Superior Court Judge Robert Crowley concluded in a Dec. 27, 2013, report that while the city should have been more transparent about the sale of the Mid Coast Center for Higher Education, no corruption was involved.
The city bought the former hospital more than a decade ago for $1 and agreed to sell it to Robert Smith of Phippsburg for $799,000 in May. The council unanimously approved the sale last April, leading to an outcry from some residents, a brief recall campaign against some councilors, and ultimately the investigation.
Giroux told the council that he did not feel he gave the panel “the best guidance through what was a very quick process. Part of that was that we were so excited to be getting rid of (the property).”
“But in hindsight,” he said, “that was not a good quality public process … and I apologize to the council, because I think that through the years I’ve given you better guidance, certainly, than I did on this sale.”
Crowley said there were violations of the state Freedom of Access Act when Giroux did not provide notice that the council would discuss the property sale during an April 8 budget meeting, and when the council did not create a record of the meeting that was available to the public.
In criticizing the sale, some residents noted the property’s $6.5 million assessed value, claimed the city failed to practice due diligence in setting a price, and did not sell the building in an appropriate way. They also said councilors were unresponsive to questions they later submitted about the sale.
The critics threatened a recall campaign against some councilors, until the council agreed to review the process and selected Crowley to conduct the study of the sale.
Councilor David Sinclair, who had answered questions put to him about the sale and suggested his fellow councilors do the same, said that when he first suggested that the city hire an investigator, his hope was that the process and issue of a report would help restore the community’s faith in the City Council.
“I think that can only happen if the community reads it, and makes their own judgements, so I hope that folks will read the entirety of the report,” he said.
Sinclair questioned whether the council would realized the mistakes noted in Crowley’s report if some residents not called out the council on the sale.
“Would it have been better if those questions were asked differently or in a different tenor?,” he said. “I think everyone would agree, ‘yes.’ I think even the folks who asked the questions would likely agree that yes, it could have gone more smoothly. But I’m thankful for every bit of inspection that we get when we do the work we do for the people, because if people don’t participate, then things aren’t done appropriately sometimes.”
Council Chairwoman Mari Eosco called the matter “a really big learning experience,” and said she has “learned of things that I would do differently.”
She recently attended her first Freedom of Access Act training session, she said, “and learned things there about how we could be handling information about our executive sessions.”
Paul Mateosian, the assessor and assistant city manager, has called the assessed value a “cost-approach number,” based on what it would cost to build a hospital that size, minus depreciation. He said the appraisal did not reflect market value.
Smith put the property up for sale again last October for $1.65 million; it remains unsold.
Kyle Rogers, a former councilor who has worked as a real estate agent, said he understood the real estate process and the urgency of finding a buyer. He recalled that “there was a buyer at around $1.4 million” in 2008, and that the property was under contract, but that “then the market died, and the buyer went away.”
“So there was precedent for a price,” Rogers added.