BREWER, Maine — The Brewer Housing Authority’s board of commissioners held an emergency closed-door meeting Monday morning and postponed a planned purchase of land owned by a former board chairman. The land deal had raised enough concerns with Brewer city officials about the potential conflict of interest to prompt a City Council executive session late last week.
Closing on the land sale, which was scheduled for Monday afternoon, “was postponed for a few days until everyone can get together,” Helen Bean, vice chairwoman of the commissioners, said Monday night.
The housing authority agreed to buy a 4.16-acre parcel on Chamberlain Street from Calvin Bubar, who was chairman of the housing authority’s board until he resigned in July. The property’s price tag is $280,000, which is more than three times the assessed value of the land and more than twice what Bubar paid for it in 2007, according to city records.
Records of meetings show Bubar was chairman of the housing authority’s board while negotiations about purchasing his land at 258 Chamberlain St. were under way.
Gordon Stitham, executive director of the Brewer Housing Authority, stressed last week that there is no conflict of interest because Bubar was not involved in the board’s executive sessions where the land deal was discussed and he never voted on the matter.
The housing authority, in partnership with Penquis, formerly Penquis CAP, planned to build an estimated $6 million, 32-unit elderly housing project on the land. The housing authority would own the land and operate the facility, which would be built by Penquis.
City staff found out about the plans earlier this year when Penquis approached them about tax increment financing for the project and learned about the scheduled closing just last week, according to Brewer City Manager Steve Bost.
“It did not pass the straight-face test,” Bost said of the proposed deal on Friday. When Bubar purchased the property for $120,000, “that raised a few eyebrows, but not nearly as much as the amount the housing authority intends to buy it for,” the city manager said.
The City Council held an executive session last Thursday night to discuss the issue, even though there is little legally that they can do.
“We really don’t get involved with their budget or decisions, but that doesn’t mean we’re not sensitive to what they’re doing,” Mayor Arthur “Archie” Verow said Monday afternoon. “It’s an ongoing story, I guess.”
The City Council appoints members to the housing authority’s board, but that is basically its only official duty, Verow said. He added that housing authority decisions are subject to federal Housing and Urban Development approval.
Councilor Gail Kelly said Monday that because their discussions on the issue were held in executive session, councilors were prohibited from talking about what was said at Thursday’s meeting.
She added, however, “As far as I am concerned, I would be more than happy to have our executive session [discussions] out in the open.”
Councilor Larry Doughty, who is the council’s liaison to the housing authority, added on Monday that numerous residents have questioned him about the City Council’s executive session on the matter.
“Some people in Brewer think the council is involved in this, and the only one involved is Joe Ferris,” Doughty said. “My issue is the conflict of interest.”
City Councilor Joseph Ferris is Bubar’s attorney. Ferris, who left the City Council’s 45-minute executive session after 12 minutes, according to the city clerk, said Monday afternoon that he is “not sure” what happened with the proposed sale of his client’s land.
Several attempts on Monday to reach Bubar and Stitham were unsuccessful.
Stitham said last week that the Chamberlain Street parcel, which is assessed at $88,000 as a residential property, has a much higher value — $260,000 — when assessed as commercial, high-density residential property, which is how it will be used.
The higher assessment, done by Hooper Appraisal Services of Bangor, is contingent on the property’s zoning being changed, which would require planning board and City Council approval.
Ferris said last week that his client’s property was “very attractive … If [the housing authority board members] didn’t want to pay what Cal thought it was worth, they didn’t have to buy it. They made the decision to purchase it.”
The elderly housing proposal “sounds like a great project,” he added.
Stephen Mooers, Penquis director of housing development, said on Monday that his agency is not issuing a comment about the proposed land purchase or the project.
The purchase and sale agreement was signed on July 9, the day after Bubar hand delivered his resignation letter to the city. Even though the letter was received on July 8, he was still officially a board member until the City Council accepted his resignation on July 14.
In fact, Bubar, who operates a real estate business and is a Brewer School Committee member, still is listed as chairman on the Brewer Housing Authority’s Web site.
Bean, the vice chair of the housing authority board, said Monday she is upset with how the information about Bubar is being portrayed by local media.
“The information given to the media was not all right,” she said.
When asked for specifics, Bean said, “I would rather not talk about it until it’s settled. The way it was written up made us look crooked, and that was maddening.”
Doughty said he is concerned about public perceptions.
“My concern mainly is the conflict of interest,” Doughty said. “It’s there and it reflects on us, and it matters.”