Wednesday, November 12, 2008

HPC Public Hearing - Valid or Not?

I was licking my wounds from Monday night's Historic Preservation Commission meeting again this afternoon, and I got to wondering whether it was, in fact, a legal meeting. I think there is a strong chance that it was not.

The minor point in my mind is that the Commission may not have called the roll of Members present. Without that's having actually been done and recorded, the record and Minutes might only reflect that Chairman Tim Art called the meeting to order at 7:02PM and proceeded with business. For legal purposes, could a case be made that only he was present, since the record won't reflect otherwise?

The major point in my mind is that Monday night's meeting was scheduled as a Public Hearing. My understanding is that testimony in a Public Hearing is sworn testimony. The person about to speak swears (or affirms) to tell the truth, identifies himself by name and address, and then speaks to the Commission. That didn't happen.

The Petitioner spoke. The Objector spoke. Others spoke. All without being sworn. Of course, they couldn't be sworn, because the City Attorney's office didn't send an attorney to the Public Hearing!

If Monday's meeting was not a true Public Hearing, then is the recommendation to the City Council that it grant Landmark status to the building known as Grace Hall worth anything - legally? It may be that a bunch of people just gathered in the City Council chambers on Monday night and exchanged a lot of hot air, and nothing legally took place.

The Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) should find out why its attorney did not show up. How could it conduct business on a matter of some great importance without adequate legal advice at the time of the meeting?

Knowing that Woodstock Christian Life Services is represented by an excellent attorney, Mark Gummerson, should have been a mandate for a senior partner with the City Attorney's office to attend this public hearing. Instead, no attorney from the City Attorney's office showed up. Did the assigned attorney "just forget" or was no attorney designated to attend? And if not, why not?

Further, the HPC should get a written legal opinion from the City Attorney as to the validity of Monday night's Public Hearing. Otherwise, the HPC will forward its recommendation for Landmark status to the City Council, and the City Council will decide that it cannot accept it because no (legal) Public Hearing was held before the Commission voted unanimously in favor of the status.

The clock is running. The countdown to demolition has started. In fact, a month has already passed.

Those in favor of preserving Grace Hall should be gathering support of the entire community. A dozen proponents will not be enough. Fundraisers should be held. A preservation effort should be organized and incorporated. City Council meetings should be packed with those favoring the continued life of Grace Hall. Expert legal advice should be lined up, or else Woodstock residents will be watching the wrecking ball knock down Grace Hall in May 2009.

It cannot be assumed that the City will be of any help at all. The City Council has already doomed Grace Hall, and the coming Ordinance, drafted by the City Attorney, must not be passed by the City Council. But they can be persuaded - if enough people start showing up.

Woodstockers, you - that's Y-O-U - can make a difference. Get involved. Knock on doors.

Was there a clever reason that the City Council picked the target date it did for the deadline? Someone has commented that the date is right after the local election this spring. Let's say that the entire Woodstock City Council is run out of town on rails and a new team moves in. There might not even be time for them to act to reverse the course that was set, when this City Council approved the demolition of Grace Hall in October.

There are legal steps that can be taken, even at the 11th hour when the bulldozers and wrecking ball are rolling into town. The right lawyer, with the right petition to the court, can stop the demolition. But it costs money. Lots of money.

WCLS can examine adaptive re-use in depth and find a creative way to use Grace Hall. It doesn't "want" to do that, but it can. It would be better if it didn't get an alternative jammed down its throat. WCLS claims it "needs" to demolish Grace Hall. Actually, it seems more correct to say that it "wants" to do that; there is no way that it "needs" to do that. It's not a toxic waste site.

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