Our view

County, museum group finally reach a deal

April 14, 2014 

  • In summary

    York County could have saved $140,000 by agreeing to the settlement offered by the Culture and Heritage Foundation nine months ago.

By any reckoning, the York County Council gained little or nothing from its lawsuit against the Culture and Heritage Foundation. But county taxpayers are left with a $140,000 tab for the nine-month-long legal battle.

The county has been in a long-running dispute with the Culture and Heritage Foundation over its finances, including proceeds from the sale of any remaining property from the 400-acre gift from Jane Spratt McColl and her family. The foundation, which is the former fundraising arm for the county’s museums, has arranged to sell 274 acres for housing and commercial projects.

County and foundation officials had been in negotiations for several weeks leading up to June 2013 when the county broke off the talks and filed its lawsuit against the foundation. The legal battle continued until last month, when both sides agreed to settlement talks with an appointed mediator overseeing the negotiations.

That is what led to the settlement approved by the council this month.

During this dispute, public groups, including The Herald, have been frustrated in their efforts to learn details of negotiations and actions taken behind closed doors by the council. While it was known, for example, that both the foundation and the county made settlement offers prior to the filing of the lawsuit, the terms were not immediately revealed even though the council voted not to accept the foundation’s offer.

But in March, foundation officials agreed to reveal the details of the offer they had made to the county to head off a lawsuit. Yet, even after the foundation’s offer was made public, the county refused to say what the terms of its offer had been.

Now that the lawsuit has been settled in mediation, the public still doesn’t know what the county’s offer to the foundation was. What we do know is that the settlement the county council approved this month was virtually identical to the settlement offer the foundation made to the county before the lawsuit was filed.

In other words, nine months of legal wrangling and $140,000 in public money spent on legal bills accomplished nothing.

As in its earlier offer, the foundation agreed to give the county “all net proceeds” from the sale of the 274 acres. It will give the county the deed for 60 acres to be used for a future museum.

In the settlement, the foundation also agreed to submit to a “forensic audit” by an accountant. If the auditor finds nothing out of line, the county has agreed to publicly state that the audit results “show no evidence of malfeasance.”

But that also had been on the table as part of the settlement offer made by the foundation.

If we give the County Council the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it took nine months to determine that the best deal the county was going to get was the one the foundation made before the lawsuit was filed. But we also believe that the secretive nature of the negotiations and the failure to fully involve the public in the discussion may have hampered the county’s ability to see the foundation’s offer as the best way to end the dispute before entering into an expensive legal battle.

We would like to commend foundation chairman Bill Easley for deciding to make the terms of the final settlement public on April 3. After the council’s vote that day, Council Chairman Britt Blackwell read a prepared statement that said the settlement agreement was not yet “finalized” and that settlement terms were “confidential.”

Easley said that he and the foundation felt free to inform their donors and the public of the settlement because it had been approved at a public meeting by the county’s elected officials. The public might not have learned the terms of the agreement for at least several days if Easley had not been willing to share them.

We are relieved that this dispute finally has ended, apparently to the satisfaction of both sides. We regret, however, that $140,000 in public money was spent needlessly to reach that conclusion.

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