WILLIAMSON — Disagreement regarding ownership of the old Williamson High School property led to a heated Williamson City Council meeting on Thursday, Sept. 26.
The property was auctioned off Oct. 16, 2018, by the Mingo County Commission to Joe and Cheryl Lycan with a bid of $800,500. Since then, a 103-year-old lease agreement between the city and the Mingo County Board of Education has sparked controversy over who legally owns the property.
The agreement, dated July 3, 1916, states that the buildings and subsequent improvements placed on the property by the lessee, the Mingo County Board of Education, “shall revert to and become the property of the lessor (the City of Williamson), to be used for the public benefit and general welfare of the inhabitants of the City of Williamson.” The lease was agreed to by a 99-year contract, meaning it expired around 2015.
Williamson High School closed in 2011 and, according to tax documents, the property was acquired by the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority on Sept. 19, 2013. In August 2018, the Mingo County Commission acquired it, who auctioned it off two months later.
On Oct. 24, 2018, a new company named HKL, LLC, was formed. The name is an acronym of the company’s co-officers: Williamson Mayor Charlie Hatfield, Sam Kapourales and Joe and Cheryl Lycan. HKL, LLC, is listed as the current owner of the property in the tax documents, having acquired it Nov. 9, 2018.
At the meeting, councilman Randy Price said he has received complaints from citizens, including tenants on the property, who said they were denied access to remove their belongings.
Mike Hamilton, a Nicholasville, Kentucky-based attorney representing the Lycans, interrupted and said the Lycans should have been notified and given an opportunity to prepare and respond if there is going to be a discussion about the property they own.
“I also think that there are probably a few conflicts within the board that need to be sorted out before there’s a conversation and before any official business is done,” Hamilton said.
Price said discussion about the topic had been publicly posted on the meeting agenda since Monday.
Hamilton said he saw the agenda, which listed “discussion of the sale and purchase of the old Williamson High School property,” and remarked that the sale and purchase has already gone by.
“If you’re calling it into question, I think the owners need a chance to be represented and prepared,” Hamilton responded.
Mayor Charlie Hatfield then said the matters should be discussed in executive session instead of an open meeting. Price said it needs to be in an open meeting because the property belongs to the city and then called for an investigation.
“This is the city’s property, and the city’s involved in this, and the city, I feel, is the big loser in the whole issue,” Price said. “I just want to request for an investigation and express, with documents, why I want to see an investigation.”
Hamilton responded that the property belongs to the Lycans and not the city, but Price contended that it is city property. Hamilton then told Price that if he wants to contend that and do it in an open forum, the Lycans should be given notice.
Ryan Donovan, a Williamson attorney representing Price, interjected and told Hamilton to not speak directly to Price in such manner. Hamilton once again reiterated his position that the Lycans should be given advance notice, which led to another response from Price.
“There was an agenda posted,” Price said. “We’re asking about the sale and purchase of the old Williamson High School property. We want to discuss it out here. I think the citizens have a right to know. Are you denying my right to speak?”
“I’m not denying anybody’s right to speak,” Hamilton responded. “We don’t know what the agenda is. I know that Mr. Price wants to be heard. We don’t even know what he wants to be heard about.”
“Well, it sounds like this is going to end up in the courtrooms anyway,” Mayor Hatfield said.
Price said that the tenants who had complained to him had been given the chance to retrieve their property, so he thought the issue was “somewhat alleviated,” but by January, he had been receiving more concerns from citizens about the 1916 lease agreement.
Price said he approached city attorney Nathan Brown, who recused himself because he also works for the Mingo County Prosecutor’s Office. Price said he researched the document himself, which he brought to the meeting and read verbatim, along with several others including the business entity report and the tax documents.
One document Price referred to was minutes from the Oct. 29, 2018, special session of the Mingo County Commission. At that meeting, commissioner Greg Smith motioned to sign the deed of conveyance of the property to HKL, LLC, which was seconded and approved by the other commissioners.
“At that point, I feel the mayor — through HKL, LLC — took possession of the Williamson High School property,” Price said. “Before HKL and our mayor purchased the property, did they do their due diligence on a title search and get a clear title to the property before closing? They knew there were problems with this title, and they were aware of it. I just can’t pin if it’s this lease agreement or not, and that’s why we need an investigation.”
Price read minutes from the Dec. 6, 2018, meeting of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, in which Director Leasha Johnson reported that the final closing of the sale was delayed for several days beyond the 10-day time limit “reportedly due to an error in the source deed.”
“There’s an error somewhere now, people, I’m telling you right now,” Price said. “I feel that this property legally belongs to the City of Williamson, and I feel they (HKL, LLC) had knowledge of this lease agreement before they closed on the purchase. That’s why I feel we need an investigation, and I close at that, and if you guys want to say anything about it, go right ahead.”
Price was met with applause from several people attending the meeting. He then said he planned to make a motion at the end of the discussion to start an investigation, which led to an argument between him and Hatfield.
“Well, there is a discussion, there is no motion,” Hatfield said.
“There’s going to be a motion,” Price quickly responded.
“No, there’s not,” Hatfield said. “There is a discussion.”
Hamilton then took to the floor again and said he has seen the lease agreement. He contended that the agreement isn’t valid because the buildings that were on the property at the time no longer exist and that it was breached because it was not enforced by the city. Furthermore, he said it was not even the same lessor at the time of sale.
“This 1916 lease does not give the City of Williamson any rights,” Hamilton said. “I want the board to know that generally. If the board ultimately moves to try to confiscate some part of the Lycans’ property from them, of course it will result in a lawsuit — but I appreciate the fact that there was a discussion to be had, but not a motion. It’s not on the agenda, and I appreciate that.”
Price then moved to make a motion, which was denied by Mayor Hatfield. The two began to argue and talk over each other repeatedly.
“I make a motion to request an investigation into Mayor Charles Hatfield over property that may be owned by the City of Williamson,” Price said. “Can I get a second?”
“That’s not a motion,” Hatfield said.
“That is a motion,” Price responded. “No, it is not,” Hatfield responded. “I made a motion,” Price said.
“Well you can make it, sir, I’m just following the Rules of Robert’s,” Hatfield said. “I’m not trying to keep you all from doing what you want to do.”
“I can make a motion,” Price said. “I don’t think so,” Hatfield responded.
Local citizen Michael Perry interrupted.
“What about the tennis courts that kids were playing on? There’s not a lot to do down here for them, and the Coalition and the Healthy in the Hills — not to mention you tore down the old Farmer’s Market,” Perry said. “I mean, there’s a lot, it isn’t just this, about that. What’s going on up at the airport? … You don’t know what you own and what you don’t.”
Perry left after his remarks, and Price and Hatfield began to argue again, with Price saying he wants it on the record that he was denied to make a motion. Hatfield said the council can ask for an investigation without making a motion, “although it won’t go anywhere,” and invited Price to contact the West Virginia Ethics Commission.
Hatfield also told Price to put the action on the agenda for the next meeting Thursday, Oct. 10.
“I’m only doing it (denying the motion) as a rule of order, it’s not on here to do it,” Hatfield said. “It’s just for a discussion. You all asked for a discussion of this, and that’s what we’re doing. Randy, you can put it on the next agenda. It’s not going to delay anything.”
The council then moved on to a discussion of duties of the city Planning and Zoning Commission, which was also headed off by Price. At the end of the discussion, Price put forth a motion for Hatfield to put forth a comprehensive plan for a zoning ordinance, which Hatfield said would be put on the next agenda instead.
“See there? Denied again!” Price exclaimed.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not denying Mr. Price his voice,” Hatfield responded. “They wrote it. I didn’t write it. They submitted it to have a discussion, and that’s what that is. If you want a motion, you put it on a motion and this council has the power to vote, but if it’s not on the agenda, I cannot do that. He is welcome to put all these things that he’s stated on the agenda. Mr. Price and some people don’t like what’s going on, so that’s fine, they have a right to disagree. They don’t like me, they don’t like, either, what I do, whatever, but even all that aside, we have to do it by the right way.”
Price interjected again, accusing Hatfield of being in violation of state code for failing to put forth a comprehensive plan. Hatfield responded by telling Price that he is out of order and threatened to have him removed.
“I have been very pleasant to you,” Hatfield said. “(We) had a prayer that we would all be civil — won’t you listen to that as well?”
“You take that advice too, dude,” Price said.
“Mr. Price, you’re really, really pushing it, sir,” Hatfield responded. “You need to be more congenial and respectful of this body, this entity, and these people here. Let’s act mature, thank you.”
The council then went into executive session and, upon returning, acted on several matters in which motions were made. Before they adjourned, Price made one last dig during council member remarks.
“(Fire Chief Joey Carey), you got up here a while ago, and you’re on the agenda, and you made a request to make a motion and you’re not on the agenda to make a motion, and I appreciate the fact that you were presented the opportunity to make a motion and I can’t understand why me as being city council requested to make a motion, and I’m denied,” Price said.
“It’s new business,” Hatfield responded. “Our people bring items to us for their departments and we always do that.”