MORGANTOWN — Asked if he would abstain from voting on any future deals regarding the Haymaker Forest, Deputy Mayor Mark Brazaitis responded “absolutely not.”
With a caveat.
“Unless I’m told otherwise, no. By otherwise I mean through the appropriate channels the city attorney is taking,” Brazaitis told The Dominion Post.
He did not wish to comment publicly about what those channels are. A message left for City Attorney Ryan Simonton wasn’t returned in time for this report.
Among the points raised during the weeks of public debate surrounding the city’s, now postponed, purchase of the 40 wooded acres for $5.2 million was the fact that Brazaitis’ property borders the forest off Courtney Avenue, and therefore he stands to benefit from the city purchasing the property creating a conflict of interest.
During an injunction hearing on June 19 — hours before council took up the potential adoption of the purchase agreement — Monongalia County Circuit Judge Russell Clawges agreed with one of the points in the failed injunction request, stating he felt Brazaitis is conflicted and probably should not have voted on June 5, when council passed a first reading of the purchase agreement.
Later that evening, Brazaitis was the lone vote to proceed with the purchase as council went 5-1 in favor of postponing the issue and going back to the drawing board after learning the land is valued at just under half the asking price, at $2.5 million. Council also heard from nearly 40 members of the public opposed to the acquisition during that meeting.
Brazaitis explained that his outspoken desire to preserve the forest came long before his time on council and was central to the campaign that got him elected.
“I made this a campaign promise. Anybody who was paying attention to my campaign, and there was plenty of those people, knew that I was behind saving this forest for our community,” Brazaitis said, conceding that he put himself in the public conversation when he ran for office, but he feels some opponents of the forest purchase have crossed the line.
“It doesn’t surprise me, the response, and it’s been tough on my family. Not only for them to know about some of the hostility, but also to have people, frankly, drive by my house and take photographs or otherwise harass me,” he said, explaining he confronted someone taking photos of his property earlier this week.
“I’m so upset for my daughters and my wife that I politely walked across my lawn and asked him to get out of his car so we could have a conversation. But he didn’t have the courage to even speak to me face to face,” Brazaitis said. “He waved and drove off. That’s upsetting to me for my family.”
He went on to say that he feels he’s become a bit of a scapegoat for some of the frustrations expressed during the public comments on the Haymaker deal — namely that the city is already struggling to maintain what it has.
He reiterated his claim that Morgantown’s annual budget should be closer to $100 million than the $38 million spending plan for the upcoming year. He said expanding the city’s borders and bringing property into the city is a non-regressive way to increase revenue — meaning it doesn’t disproportionately impact low-income residents the same way something like a user fee does.
“I think if we look elsewhere in the community we see some people who have not been good citizens in that they’re holding onto some of the wealth in the community without contributing fairly to the community’s advancement,” Brazaitis said.
“I’m thinking specifically … about the businesses at our borders that are not in the city though they claim to be from Morgantown and are not paying B&O tax that supports BOPARC, that supports the fire department, that supports all the services the city provides and would like to enhance. It’s understandable that people are feeling they’ve been let down by a system that hasn’t dignified them with what they deserve.”
According to the Morgantown City Charter, “No member of Council shall vote upon or participate in the furtherance of any matter in which that Concilmember has, either directly or indirectly, a substantial financial or other substantial personal interest …”
Representatives of the West Virginia Ethics Commission said the commission does not publicly confirm or deny whether a complaint or request for review has been submitted.