Lawsuit filed aims to stop Morgantown’s purchase of Haymaker Forest

MORGANTOWN — A class action lawsuit filed in Monongalia County Circuit Court on Friday is aimed at stopping Morgantown’s $5.2 million purchase of the 40-acre Haymaker Forest, claiming the expenditure amounts to “malfeasance, misfeasance, breach of public trust and misuse of public funds …”

Richard Vaglienti, M.D. and Judy and Michael Semler are listed as the plaintiffs on the suit. They are being represented by  Bowles Rice Attorney Jeff Ray.

Defendants are the City of Morgantown and six members of city council — Rachel Fetty, Mayor Bill Kawecki, Ryan Wallace, Jenny Selin, Deputy Mayor Mark Brazaitis and Barry Wendell.

The only member of council not listed is 5th Ward Councilor Ron Dulaney, who’s cast the only vote against the purchase.

The proposed acquisition became a topic of conversation and debate since it was unveiled in a May 31 press release disseminated along with the June 5 council agenda. At that meeting council voted 6-1 on the first of two readings to approve the purchase.

Council is scheduled to consider adoption of the purchase agreement following a public hearing at its meeting on Tuesday.

The suit points out that the price the city is considering is more than four times the property’s value according to the Monongalia County Assessor’s Office. The suit lists that value at $1,225,000.

The city did not have the land appraised prior to council’s June 5 vote, but city administration has said a current appraisal will be in hand before council votes on Tuesday.

The suit states that because the city has unfunded liabilities in the form of $30 – $40 million in police and fire pensions, and isn’t adequately funding other parks and infrastructure, the purchase would violate West Virginia Code 11-8-26, which states “a local fiscal body shall not expend money or incur obligations … (4) In excess of the funds available for current expenses.”

It also claims that Brazaitis is guilty of malfeasance and violating state law and the city charter by voting on the issue because he owns property contiguous to the forest and therefore “stands to substantially gain financially” if the city moves forward.

West Virginia Code 6B-2-5(b)(1) states “A public official or public employee may not knowingly and intentionally use his or her office or the prestige of his or her office for the his or her own private gain or that of another person” The language in the city’s charter is similar, stating a council member cannot participate if they have “either directly or indirectly, a substantial financial or other substantial personal interest.”

It goes on to state that the defendants’ actions impact all residents and property owners in the city, thus the class includes thousands of residents that cannot be listed.

The filing concludes by saying, “Overall, defendant councilmembers are willing to trade fiscal responsibility, the pensions of firemen and policemen and the financial support of the City’s infrastructure … for self-dealing and financial recklessness. Such conduct must be enjoined for the good of Morgantown and its citizens and taxpayers.”

The plaintiffs are asking that preliminary injunction as well as a permanent injunction be entered enjoining defendants from purchasing the property and that the plaintiffs be awarded attorney and court fees and any other relief the court deems appropriate.

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