SECU demurs but could be holding off on “SECU Plaza”
SECU refused to submit documents named in a similar request, although the financial institution’s CEO indicated he would be happy to address by phone the issues raised by the documents in question.
The Tribune made its requests in letters sent by certified mail on January 6 to City Clerk Maggie Burleson, in her capacity as designated keeper of records for the city, and to Mark Twisdale, CEO of The SECU Foundation, which administers SECU’s charitable giving.
The letters were sent following the art museum’s December announcement that it had sold SECU the right to name the forecourt of the Pack Place building “SECU Plaza” in exchange for a $1.5 million contribution to the museum’s capital improvement fundraising effort, which has been ongoing since 2006.
Although the art museum’s lease with the city, which was signed in October, allows the museum the right to “sell” sponsorship of its space to donors, the legality of that lease itself has never been firmly established, owing to the undocumented manner in which the city took control of the Pack Place property last summer. Moreover, the property in question – the paved area in front of the Pack Place building – lies within the boundaries of Pack Square, the property conveyed to the city in 1903 by George Willis Pack for use in perpetuity as a public park and gathering place. The documents requested of the city and SECU by the Tribune relate to both the naming rights arrangement and to the manner in which the city set itself up as landlord of Pack Place (elbowing aside the Pack Place board of directors), then in effect handed control of the property over to the art museum.
Specifically, the Tribune’s letter asked the city for:
“ 1. Any and all minutes or notes that were taken during the closed session following the regular City Council meeting on Tuesday, April 8, 2014. (Our position is that since Vice Mayor Mark Hunt made repeated references to events he said transpired during this meeting during a meeting of the Pack Place Board the next day, he forfeited the confidentiality that would normally apply to a closed meeting.)
2. A copy of the letter dated October 21, 2014, from art museum Executive Director Pamela Myers to Mayor Esther Manheimer, requesting ratification by City Council of the arrangement the museum had already made with the SECU Foundation to sell the naming rights of the Pack Place forecourt to that foundation for $1.5 million.
3. Any reply to the above letter from Mayor Manheimer or her designated representative.
4. A time-stamped copy of the duly signed and notarized lease agreement by and between the City of Asheville and the Asheville Art Museum, as executed on or about October 28, 2014.
5. Copies of any and all direct correspondence by and between the city and the SECU Foundation having to do with the naming rights transaction.”
The Tribune gave the city (and also SECU) until January 26 to respond.
On January 15, the Tribune received an e-mail, not from Burleson but from Brian Postelle at the city’s Office of Communication and Public Engagement, acknowledging the Tribune’s request and was processing it. A week later, on January 22, Postelle sent the following response, keyed to the Tribune’s list of requested documents:
“Here is the City’s response per your attached request:
1. Minutes from City Council closed sessions are not a matter public record under G.S. 143-318.11
2. Our records indicate that we have no such letter
3. Again, we have no record of the letter indicated
4. Lease agreement attached
5. I have requested any emails that may comply with this request and will follow up with you as I have this information.”
If you have any further questions or clarifications, I’m happy to assist where I can.”
In other words, the city invoked the statute that makes proceedings of closed meetings confidential. This was the closed meeting Vice Mayor Marc Hunt told the Pack Place board the next day authorized him to demand the turning over of Pack Place to the city. As stated in its letter, the Tribune’s position, after consulting two attorneys, was that Hunt had forfeited the confidentiality aspect of this statute when he openly discussed what had happened at it during the Pack Place meeting.
Hunt moreover, never produced any written authorization for his actions, and Pack Place has since claimed that the city’s entire position rests on a trumped-up claim of maintenance negligence, the only condition under which the city could take over pack Place without compensating the Pack Place corporation. At its January meeting the Pack Place board, which is still intact, indicated it still intends to pursue a lawsuit against the city for having improperly seized the Pack Place building.
As to the Myers letter, internal city documents indicate that it was received by Manheimer on October 21 or 22, possibly via e-mail. The letter notified Manheimer that the art museum had received an offer of a $1.5 million contribution from SECU in exchange for naming rights to the forecourt, and that the museum would be needing a resolution from council approving the arrangement. It later developed that the museum and SECU had been negotiating their deal for several months without notifying Council of its intention. Critics accused the museum of manipulating both SECU and the council. Several council members expressed annoyance at the museum’s tactics, but the resolution was approved anyway.
Is SECU hedging its bet?
Meanwhile the Tribune received a reply to its SECU letter from James Blain, CEO of SECU’s entire operation, explaining that Twisdale was on leave following a death in his family. Blaine pointed out that as a private charity the SECU foundation was not subject to the provisions of the Open Records Act.
However, Blaine expressed a willingness to discuss the naming deal by phone and seemed to indicate that SECU may be adopting a wait-and-see stance with regard to proceeding further.
“… our feeling is that promoting the arts in Western North Carolina remains a great potential project for the SECU Foundation,” Blaine wrote, “and the Asheville Art Museum seems to be a fine effort and organization.”
“Having said all that, we are aware of the controversy over Pack Place within the Asheville community,” Blaine added. “The SECU Foundation will be happy whichever way the Asheville community decides the issue.”
Blaine was unavailable by phone just prior to press time.
“We look forward to hearing what Mr. Blaine has to say,” said Tribune editor and publisher David Morgan. “As for the city, we are disappointed and frustrated that it seems to be playing dodgeball with us on the most crucial points we are seeking information about. We will use all the tools available to us to press for this information, which the public has a right to know.”