Special City Council Meeting, Aug 30 regarding Friends of the Jesse Lee home

Attendees at Friday's special meeting of the Seward City Council to consider extending the purchase agreement with the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home.

Update Aug. 30, 11:35 p.m. This article has been updated to reflect comments by City Manager Scott Meszaros.

An agreement between the City of Seward and the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home expires today, Friday, and appears to stand no chance of being extended. The Seward City Council defeated a motion to extend the agreement for 60 days at a special meeting called Friday evening to consider the question.

The motion failed 2–3, with Council Members Sharyl Seese and Suzi Towsley voting in favor. Mayor David Squires, Vice Mayor Sue McClure and Council Member John Osenga voted against. Council Members Jeremy Horn and Kelley Lane were excused absent.

The agreement transferred the derelict Jesse Lee Home to the Friends for a period of five years, to end Aug. 30. The transfer would have been finalized if the Friends fulfilled three conditions in the agreement, namely, to clean up hazardous materials on the site, install 270 feet of water line and 220 feet of sewer line.

The Friends admit that those conditions remain unfulfilled. Asked by Mayor David Squires how much money had been spent on the sewer and water lines, FJLH Board President Dorene Lorenz, who attended the meeting telephonically, said “not a significant amount.”

The Friends intend to convert the building into a charter school.

The meeting drew a dozen community members, who appeared evenly split on the issue, judging by the remarks made during the citizen comments period before the meeting’s action agenda.

Iris Darling urged the council to extend the agreement and give the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home a chance to put volunteers to work.

“We need to allow them to regroup under the new governor,” Darling said. “Once the historic significance of a place is gone, it cannot be revived. I plead with you to give the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home the extension that they ask for.”

Others did not agree. Rhonda Hubbard indicated that she lives in the vicinity of the Jesse Lee Home

“I get to drive by it a lot; it’s not pretty sight,” Hubbard said. “If the voters and the people of Seward want to have such an optical blight in their neighborhood, you should vote to extend the contract.”

Darryl Schaefermeyer concurred.

“There is no viability for the project proposed; it didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense now,” he said. “The organization defaulted. They lost the grant due to mismanagement. It’s time fellas. Put an end to this and move on.”

Two council members spoke explicitly against an extension; those who did not expressed at most lukewarm support for an extension.

“Five years they had to do this, and they didn’t do it,” said Council Member John Osenga. “Today it’s Aug. 30, 5:30 at night, and as far as I am concerned, that contract is done. So we’re not extending anything.”

Council Member Suzi Towsley suggested extending the contract for 60 days, in light of a fracas at City Hall on Thursday, when City Manager Scott Meszaros had FJLH Volunteer Coordinator Susan Lang escorted out of his office by police.

“I did not expect some of the stuff that went down yesterday,” Towsley said. “I wonder if we can consider a short extension.”

Recording of meeting with Lang emerges

The incident involving Lang quickly drew negative attention on social media. The two parties offered diverging accounts of what precisely happened, but both agree that Meszaros sought to end the conversation and Lang refused to leave the office. The meeting also included Lorenz, who was present on speaker phone.

The Seward Journal has since acquired a partial recording of that conversation, but the recording’s origin is unknown. The Journal has been unable to conclusively determine who made the recording.

Both Lang and Lorenz say on the recording that they are not recording the call. Meszaros at one point says he knows he is being taped, but it is not clear why.

The almost 14-minute-long recording begins after the start of the meeting. The remainder of this article draws primarily from the recording.

The recording begins with Meszaros saying the property transfer conditions had not been met and that everyone realizes they won’t be met by the established deadline, which was Friday, Aug. 30. Meszaros also indicates that if the council had granted an extension on the property transfer conditions, $1 million in funding could be lost, referring to a grant for hazardous materials abatement at the property.

Lang questions Meszaros’ statement saying, “I don’t interpret it that way.” She also goes on to say that the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home were required to give the City notice if they needed an extension to meet the property transfer conditions.

“We let you know we needed an extension,” Lang said.

“You let us know the week of the deadline,” Meszaros interjects.

“I wasn’t aware we needed to do that sooner,” Lang said.

Lang then changes the subject. She raises a problem regarding a waterline near the property and questioning the information the Public Works Department had given to FJLH. She adds that FJLH had received an answer to their question about the line this week.

The question centered around whether the existing water line, located along the north side of the property, is suitable to provide water to the property. It was determined not to be suitable, Lang says.

Lang and Meszaros agreed that it was not the City’s responsibility to provide information about the water line to FJLH. Lang then pivots to a provision in the purchase agreement that allows for an extension “if, despite buyer’s reasonable efforts, buyer has initiated the work but not been able to complete the work by the end of the due diligence period.”

The due diligence period began Aug. 29, 2014 and ended Friday, Aug. 30.

Lang goes on to say, “It’s not like I have been sitting on my hands not doing anything. Our concern is that we made a good faith effort.”

“To me, a good faith effort for a land transfer would have been installation of the all of the requirements of the agreement,” Meszaros replies.

Lang then again changes the subject, referring to a delay that was caused by the death of the owner of the architectural firm that FJLH had hired.

“I guess I don’t know what this has to do with the transfer of the property,” Meszaros says.

Mesazros says the property reverts back to the city on Aug. 30 and the mayor has indicated it would be a public process and anyone is welcome to present a plan to the city about how to address the property. He goes on to say it needs to be a well thought out and that City Council would be the deciding body on what plan is chosen.

Lorenz speaks up a short time later, saying she thought that the Council voted Monday night to hold a special meeting Friday.

Mesazros responds that he met with Lang as directed, and that he indicated to Council this week that if they wanted to have a meeting, they needed to call for it.

Lorenz disagreed, saying that the council voted as part of the resolution to call for the meeting.

Mesazros said they did not vote to hold a meeting.

Lorenz questioned whether or not the council gave direction by suggesting a meeting be held. She goes on to say Mesazros has done things, such as write a letter, without a vote of council.

Mesazros responds by saying writing a letter and holding a public hearing are two very different things.

The discussion then morphs into a debate about procedural items pertaining to City process, with Lorenz beginning to ask questions about who Mesazros contacted on the Council about needed to call for a meeting, which he did not answer directly.

She then asks about the possible loss of funds if the property does not revert back to the City and questions what language Mesazros has that indicates the funds would be loss.

Mesazros indicates that that was the opinion of the city’s lobbyists.

Lorenz asks for the lobbyists’ names, and Mesazros indicates he will have Assistant City Manager Brennan Hickok send them to her.

She responds, “You don’t know who our lobbyists are?”

At this point, Meszaros appears to decide that the conversation has stopped being productive.

“We are on an investigation discussion and, I, you know – I know I am being taped, and I just I would prefer to not be quoted in any context,” he said.

Lorenz later says, “But you are not going to tell me what their [the lobbyists’] names are?”

Mesazros responds that he will get her the names.

 “I think we are kind of going south here,” Meszaros says, to which Lorenz agrees.

 “Yes, we are going south really fast, because what you are saying isn’t making any sense and it sounds very shady, frankly,” Lorenz says.

Mesazros says he was directed to meet with Lang and not Lorenz.

“I think we are done,” he says. “Thank you. Goodbye.”

“I’m not leaving, because I think we are getting the run around,” Lang says. “I think we are being railroaded.”

Mesazros then leaves the room. Lang says to Lorenz that she is leaving because Mesazros says he is having the police eject her.

Lorenz instead convinces Lang to stay.

“I just heard that. No can you stay there, and have them escort you out,” Lorenz says.  “Have the police remove you. If he wants to engage that drama, let him engage that drama.”

With Meszaros out of the room, Lorenz and Lang speak to each other, and both indicate they are not recording the call.

“I’m not recording this call. I wish I had,” Lang says. “I can’t record while I’m on the phone.”

“I can’t record while I’m on the phone either,” Lorenz says. “So I don’t know why he thinks we’re recording this call.”

“He’s refusing to speak with me and he’s refusing to give us public information, like Kent Dawson’s name,” Lorenz says, referring to the principal lobbyist at the city’s lobbying firm. “It’s kind of – that’s, that’s shady.”

Lorenz and Lang continue their conservation about different topics not pertinent to the Jesse Lee Home. The Journal has chosen not to share this information at this time.

Finally, an officer enters the room and asks Lang to leave. Lang indicates to Lorenz that she is leaving.

The recording seems to end at the same time as the phone call.

Both Lang and Lorenz acknowledged the recording’s existence, but neither said who exactly produced it. Meszaros told the Seward Journal that he did not record the meeting.

Publisher

Michael Paschall is publisher of the Seward Journal and president of TriDelta, Incorporated Publishing, owners of the Seward Journal.