NORTH ADAMS — A city councilor is pushing for a rules change that could allow the council to block the proposed sale of the Mohawk Theater.
In a letter submitted Wednesday, Councilor Keith Bona is proposing that the council reconsider an April 2019 vote on an order to allow the mayor to sell the property. He also is seeking authorization to directly ask the city solicitor questions “about their decision on removing the city council from the Mohawk Theatre bid process.”
To get a legal opinion from the solicitor, councilors must put it on a council agenda for discussion first, per rules enacted last year. That letter will be discussed at the council’s meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
At a City Council meeting last week, Mayor Tom Bernard announced that the city would be moving forward with a proposal for the theater from Dowlin Building LLC and Veselko Buntic for a multipurpose event and performance space — the sole plan the city received in response to its most recent request for proposals. The company bid $21,000 for the property, much less than the assessed value of more than $400,000.
Bernard cited an opinion by the city solicitor that, under the April 2019 vote, he does not need council approval to move forward with a bid.
“In my opinion, there is no requirement that further authorization by the City Council is required,” reads a late October email from attorney Lee Smith, the solicitor, to Bernard.
Some councilors noted at the meeting last week that, in the past, proposals for less than the assessed value have come back to the City Council for approval. That is where Bona sees a problem.
“I am not opposed to the bidder. I am not opposed to the project,” he told The Eagle. “This has to do with the process.”
He writes in his letter that “it was clear the city council always felt any bids under the assessed value would come back.”
At the meeting last week, Councilor Marie Harpin expressed a similar thought.
“We’ve always had proposals that were less than the appraisal come to the council the whole time I’ve been on the council,” she said.
Bernard said that when the council was discussing the order giving him authorization to sell the building more than two years ago, he thought the council would have to approve a bid below the assessed value, but the recent opinion from the solicitor says otherwise.
“The understanding of everyone, and the received wisdom at the time, was that anything under assessed value required acceptance by the council,” Bernard said. “The opinion that was provided by the solicitor in response to the direct inquiry into that question says that is not, in fact, the case.”
Per council rules, if it has been at least a year after a vote, a councilor who voted for an item can make a motion for it to be reconsidered. In his recent letter, Bona asks the council to use that rule to reconsider its vote on the order.
“Unless anyone else can suggest something to satisfy the needs of the public and make this more transparent before [being] finalized, I don’t see any other options?” he wrote.
Though the solicitor said council approval is not necessary, “he’s not saying he (the mayor) can’t use the council,” Bona said. “It’s the mayor’s choice alone that he is kicking the council out of this process.”
When asked why he would not be getting a vote from the council, Bernard said: “Again, the solicitor’s opinion is, I do not need to. Part of the context for that was when the proposal regarding Sullivan School was brought forward earlier this year, the process that the council followed in not accepting the order for consideration had, what I felt, was a chilling effect on development.”
In February, the council voted to reject a proposal to turn the Sullivan School into affordable housing.
The theater’s sale has not yet been finalized.
“We are working on the purchase and sale agreement to share with the purchaser,” Bernard said Thursday.
It has been a difficult property for the city to sell.
Last year, the city put out a request for proposals for the building, and of the two proposals submitted, one did not meet the minimum requirements. In the other bid, Yina Moore, of Sincerity Builds LLC, offered $100,000 for the building and proposed turning it into the “Mohawk Theater and Performing Arts Center.”
But, for the first few years, the proposal said the building would be an exhibit space for the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum. It was rejected.
“At that time, it just didn’t feel like the proposal that was in the best interest of the city,” Bernard told The Eagle this fall about the bid.
The railroad museum project has not yet materialized, and its future is uncertain.
When the city issued another request for proposals in September, Buntic, of Dowlin Building, was the only one to respond.
The developer has other properties downtown. Dowlin Building bought the Dowlin Block, 101-107 Main St., in 2017, according to property records. Buntic told The Eagle he is in the beginning stages of planning a hotel and said he expects to present plans to the Planning Board in about a year.
In 2016, Buntic bought the Tower and Porter Block on Eagle Street and proposed that it be converted into a hotel. He said he since has decided to turn it into apartments and plans to ask the Planning Board for approval next month.