WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, N.C. (WECT) – Paid parking and Wrightsville Beach — it’s a topic that makes headlines nearly every year — but a recent agreement between the town and a local church have raised more questions in recent weeks. On June 24, the town and the Wrightsville Methodist Church (WUMC) agreed to a contract where the town will operate the parking lot at the church, collect revenue, and then split it with the church in a profit sharing program.
The agreement seems to be a winning solution for everyone involved. The town will get some extra money from parking, the church will receive 50% of the profits, and visitors will have even more places to park. However, the part of the agreement that has raised some questions is how the town’s Board of Aldermen went about approving the agreement.
“As you are aware, the Town and Wrightsville Methodist Church entered into a lease agreement for the Town to manage two parking lots that are for beach parking when not in use by the Church. Because of the timing of events and the need to begin the program, the lease was signed. I am asking that you consider ratifying the lease,” Town Manager Tim Owens wrote in the Board of Aldermen’s agenda from July 14.
The contract was signed in late June and enforcement has already begun, but the question as to whether a town can retroactively enter into an agreement like this is one that has been asked.
“Generally speaking, whenever a local government entity is going to expend public funds, it has to do so with a called meeting and properly noticed. So that it gives the public an opportunity to engage in the process and understand what’s happening with public money,” Brooks Fuller, the Director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition said.
North Carolina General Statute 160A-75 explains the process that must be taken before authorizing a contract on behalf of the town.
“An affirmative vote equal to a majority of all the members of the council not excused from voting on the question in issue, including the mayor’s vote in case of an equal division, shall be required to adopt an ordinance, take any action having the effect of an ordinance, authorize or commit the expenditure of public funds, or make, ratify, or authorize any contract on behalf of the city,” it reads.
While the agreement is technically a lease, there are some exceptions in the law.
“No public notice as required by subsection (a1) of this section need be given for resolutions authorizing leases or rentals for terms of one year or less, and the council may delegate to the city manager or some other city administrative officer authority to lease or rent city property for terms of one year or less,” according to General Statute 160A-272.
It’s not clear if the town delegated that authority to the town manager, which would have needed to happen in a public meeting, or if that would apply since the contract has an automatic renewal clause in it for years in the future. Still, if this was the case and the manager was delegated the authority, Fuller said it’s still best practice to make it clear to the public, before any agreements are signed.
“It’s just really important for town managers and City Council’s town councils to explain to the public, like how that authority works, so that people aren’t really left asking questions when the city is engaging in contracts that have already been signed, and sealed, and then they’re going back in time to pass resolutions to approve them. We often say it’s good to ask forgiveness rather than permission. But in the world of open government, it’s always better to ask permission rather than forgiveness. And so we like to see things done with those best practices in mind,” he said.
While this contract seems innocuous, other contracts that towns enter into might not be, Fuller said that’s why it’s important that governments are transparent when conducting the public’s business.
“A lot of contracts get entered into that a town or county might not be as proud of, things like settling lawsuits, or other sorts of claims, or the town is paying out public money to settle claims, because of some sort of dispute that a private citizen or another entity has with the town that they don’t want to be aired in public, necessarily. And the rules apply the same, regardless if it’s the entering into of a legal agreement with another entity,” he said.
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