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Wednesday, 17 January 2007 00:00

Maggie alderman profits from land sale to town

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An elected board member in Maggie Valley has collected $6,500 in commission from the town after acting as the town’s real estate agent in the purchase of land for a small park.

 

In general, state law forbids elected officials from profiting off contracts with the body they serve. An exception is made in towns with a population of less than 15,000, however, and Maggie Valley certainly falls under that threshold.

Alderman Phil Aldridge said it made sense to act as the town’s Realtor in the purchase.

“Who is going to represent the town’s interests better than I?” Aldridge asked. Selecting another agent posed logistical problems, he said.

“How are you going to go about finding a real estate agent out of 500 real estate agents in the county? Are we going to draw straws or what? Do you hand out numbers? By the time you got through that process it would be too late,” Aldridge said.

Not having a buyer’s agent at all could have potentially saved the town money, however. Instead of Aldridge making commission as a middleman for the town, the town could have asked the sellers to lower their asking price.

Aldridge’s situation runs counter to the spirit and intent of the 15,000 exception. The purpose of the exception was to keep small towns from being hamstrung if, for example, the only wrecker business in town was owned by a town board member, or the only trash pick-up business, or the only pipe fitter.

“The board member in question might be the only such supplier of that service within some appreciable distance and it is really inconvenient for the town not to be able to contract with that person,” said David Lawrence with the Institute of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Haywood County is home to more than 400 Realtors, but the exception applies nonetheless.

“Once you fit under the exemption, it is up to the governing body to decide whether to take advantage of it,” Lawrence said.

A former Maggie town board member who is also a real estate agent questioned whether it was ethical for Aldridge to profit off the town while serving as a town board member.

“I would not have done it because I would fear there would be a betrayal of public trust. I think people expect more than that from an elected official,” said Linda Taylor, a former alderwoman.

Aldridge said he would be making a donation to the town’s festival grounds, but was not yet sure how much.

“I am a supporter of that festival grounds and I will always donate money to it,” Aldridge said. “If you want to identify that as coming from the purchase of the property or just as a supporter, that could go either way.”

According to state law, the town must post a notice “in a conspicuous place” in town hall disclosing that Aldridge made money from a contract with the town, what the contract was for and how much he made. The notice will have to stay up for 12 months. The disclosure must also accompany the town’s annual audit report.

The land is a small wedge-shaped tract on the corner of Soco and Moody Farm roads. The board decided to buy it during a 40-minute closed-door meeting in October.

“For a long time the town has been looking at this piece of property as a potential site for a park,” Town Manager Tim Barth wrote in a memo to the board prior to the meeting. Barth’s memo noted that the sellers finally appeared willing to compromise on their initial asking price of $300,000. The sellers were allegedly considering an offer of $125,000 to someone who wanted to build an ice cream stand shaped like a 27-foot-tall ice cream cone.

“I think that if the town offered $130,000 and offered to name the park in memory of Mr. Parham (the original owner), then the town might stand a chance of getting the property as a park,” Barth wrote. “If the town does not buy the property there is no guarantee what might get built on the property.”

In the same closed session, the board decided to have Aldridge serve as the town’s real estate agent. The town signed a contract with Aldridge that day.

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