Lawsuit filed

Commercial and residential property owners filed suit against the Town of Chapel Hill today to obtain information that may show whether some Town Council members should be disqualified to vote on the IFC shelter special use permit application. Dogwood Asset Management, the owners of Homestead Station, the shopping center on the corner of Homestead Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and John and Leslie Walker, who live across the street from where the homeless shelter is to be moved, filed suit to vacate the council’s approval of the SUP and acquire access to relevant documents, such as minutes to some of council’s closed sessions, and to ask questions of council members under oath to determine whether some council members had already made up their minds about how they would vote on the shelter SUP application before the public hearing earlier this year.

At the May 9 council meeting, lawyer David Rooks asked Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and council members Matt Czajkowski, Ed Harrison and Penny Rich to recuse themselves from voting on the shelter SUP application. After a quick consult with town attorney Ralph Karpinos, no council members recused themselves. Once the matter goes to court, a judge will decide whether any council members will be disqualified from voting.

Those council members, in responding to a survey sent out by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce prior to the 2009 election, indicated they would vote for relocating the IFC homeless shelter to “its new location” on Homestead Road. Gene Pease responded similarly to the survey, but he was absent from the May 9 meeting.

Few parties, with the exception of John Edwards, perhaps, have the resources to go up against the government and expect to win. The plaintiffs are realistic in their expectations, probably wanting the lawsuit to give them a little leverage to negotiate the emergency beds component and have their concerns be heard. A discovery process may quantify what the rest of us “know in our hearts” (to borrow a phrase from witnesses in the recent murder trial of Brad Cooper): Whether or not council members had made up their minds early on about moving the men’s homeless shelter to Homestead Road, IFC apparently had the emergency beds in its plan all along.

Despite its claims that the facility would be only “transitional housing,” IFC treated the emergency beds as a deal-breaker when Matt Czajkowski proposed approving the SUP without the 17 emergency beds. The IFC would have been able to build the exact facility it wanted, though the emergency shelter portion would not be guaranteed, giving the town and IFC greater power in negotiating with the county and other organizations to do their fair share in caring for the homeless. But except for Czajkowski and Easthom, the rest of the council caved, thus ensuring that Chapel Hill — a small corner of Chapel Hill, at that — would take full responsibility for the homeless.

If nothing else, the lawsuit may serve notice in these months before the November election that voters want council members who will listen to and seriously consider the concerns of all taxpayers.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. What’s the basis of the lawsuit? Is it actually illegal for council members to have their minds made up before hearing all citizens speak?

  2. George, the SUP is granted during a quasi-judicial process. The rules are fairly specified as out-lined by UNC’s David Owens (who guided the Town through the Carolina North process) here:

    The question the Chamber asked (in their usual “yes/no” no nuance fashion) was:

    5.) Will you vote to set a final and firm lease expiration date or a deadline for the IFC Homeless Shelter to vacate the old municipal building downtown and move to its new location on Homestead Road?

    At the time I answered YES as did most every other candidate (Laurin and Jon DeHart were undecided) [].

    I read the question as to mean “transitional housing” only though in subsequent meetings the Chamber’s Aaron Nelson took it further – extending it to emergency housing also.

    I can understand why the lawsuit was filed. When Mayor Foy proposed siting the trash transfer station on Millhouse after a backroom discussion with some of the concerned parties, the idea of filing a similar lawsuit was floated.

    If the end result of this lawsuit is that candidates become even more circumspect than they already are (with some notable exceptions!) then I believe the community will lose necessary clarity and transparency during the election.

  3. Terri Buckner

     /  June 9, 2011

    Matt and Lauren both voted differently from what they said on the survey. As I understand it, the council has to consider 3 questions: 1) does the request meet all local/state ordinances, 2) is the use compatible with the existing neighborhood, and 3) does the use endanger public health/safety. Since the evidence for those issues isn’t presented until the SUP hearing, this lawsuit would appear to be claiming that the council members are disregarding these 3 questions. In other words, the preponderance of the opposition evidence presented during the hearing indicated that the application did not meet these standards and some of the council members ignored that lack of evidence. In other words, those neighbors who are participating in this lawsuit are saying the sitting council members are corrupt/unethical. Should make for an interesting election season.

  4. Walker

     /  June 9, 2011

    Nancy – you may want to update the post to reflect the actual vote

  5. Nancy Oates

     /  June 9, 2011

    In the Chamber of Commerce survey, candidates Jon DeHart and Laurin Easthom indicated they were undecided about how they would vote. Matt Czajkowski indicated in the survey that he would vote for the shelter to move to Homestead Road and close the Rosemary Street facility by a set date, but as he listened to the concerns of many constituents, he came up with the idea of approving the SUP without the 17 beds, leaving room to negotiate or come up with alternative solutions on that point while still allowing the IFC to build the same structure it had planned. On May 9, Czajkowski and Easthom voted against approving the SUP with the 17 emergency beds.

  6. Steve

     /  June 9, 2011

    I wish people who haven’t had a consistent or coherent thought outside of their own blind self-interest would stop trying to put words in other people’s mouth.

    Terri, why do you hate Parkside so much? Perhaps, I can show you around someday. We are one of the MOST diverse neighborhoods in the Town. As for calling people unethical, I don’t think Council was unethical (and I live in Parkside – thus your theory is completely blown out of the water right there). I think the SUP Process is to blame.

    I don’t think a reasonable person, which I think our Council are reasonable people, could understand it. So, please quit trying to play PR and Spin things. We know you support the IFC in whatever they do. Cool. But don’t start calling Council unethical, which is what you implied.

    As a Parkside Resident, I emphatically believe the Council, like everyone else, was caught in this process. If the IFC gets rid of the Emergency Beds, we don’t have any issues at all. Do we?

    It would appear to me that the IFC is saying to the Town – “We’ll take your money and your land. Now leave us alone.” But I would never put words in their mouths.

  7. Mark Marcoplos

     /  June 9, 2011

    Without risking my brain sliding over to one side of my head by examining the legal argument, it seems to go against common sense that we wouldn’t want candidates to honestly answer how they feel about issues.

  8. Terri Buckner

     /  June 9, 2011

    Get real, Steve. I have no idea who all is involved in the lawsuit, but I certainly don’t believe everyone in Parkside signed on. If you are one of the complainants, perhaps you can explain how a lawsuit that says that certain council members already had their mind made up before the SUP process (when each of those polled swore that they didn’t) isn’t a direct accusation that they lied? To me, lying in a quasi-judicial hearing is an ethical violation. Maybe there’s another technical name for it.

    Personally, I think they listened to both sides in the hearing, weighed the evidence and found in favor of IFC. How does that leave them caught in a process?

    I don’t recall hearing a single member of the opposition standing up to say, “if they remove the emergency beds, we will support this move.” In fact, when the issue first arose, over on OrangePolitics, the 3 primary voices of opposition specifically said they wouldn’t accept the move to Homestead even if the emergency beds were removed. So maybe you don’t have an issue except with the emergency beds, but that was not the public message. I think most of us agree that we need to find another alternative for those emergency beds though. I know I do; I just don’t think the IFC should have removed them from the plan until a concrete alternative is in place. How much would you trust/respect them if they simply caved in and said, Oh well, those other homeless people don’t matter as long as we get our facility?