Land purchase deemed legal & ethical

Published 5:29 pm Friday, April 26, 2024

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GATESVILLE – The purchase by a Gates County Commissioner of private property adjacent the county-owned Merchants Commerce Center is legal and ethical.

That’s the opinion of Phillip “Pitt” Godwin Jr., a Gatesville-based attorney who serves as legal counsel for the county’s board of commissioners. However, Godwin did advise that it would be wise for the new owner of the property not to vote on matters regarding the Merchants Commerce Center while serving in his role as a commissioner.

The matter was discussed at the outset of last week’s regularly scheduled meeting of the Gates County Commissioners. There was apparently some concern among Gates County citizens regarding the purchase of 1.29 acres of private land adjacent to Merchants Commerce Center by Commissioner Brian Rountree.

Godwin said Rountree purchased the property from its private owner in October of last year. That particular parcel had been listed for sale since November of 2021.

“The first question is did the purchase violate legal or ethical standards,” Godwin said. “The answer to that question is clearly not.”

Prior to entering into an agreement with a private individual to purchase the lot, Godwin said Rountree obtained an opinion from the North Carolina Institute of Government that there was no violation of law or conflict of interest because he purchased the property from a private citizen.

“It didn’t involve a contract with the county,” Godwin stated.

Godwin then spoke to the second part of the issue.

“What happens now going forward and recognizing the potential perception for there to be a conflict of interest, either legally or ethically, should Commissioner Rountree vote on issues regarding the future development of Merchants Commerce Center,” he said. “This is a much more complex issue.”

Godwin noted that state law clearly creates an affirmative duty for local government board members [county commissioners] to vote on matters that come before them.

“It’s clear when there’s a possible conflict of interest, the county attorney can be called upon to issue his or her legal opinion to the entire board,” Godwin said. “My thorough review of the statutory authority, readings of case law, and research bring me to the conclusion that for there to be a conflict of interest, a public officer – in this case, Commissioner Rountree – must be shown to have derived a direct benefit from a contract with a public agency, i.e. the county for which he serves.

“While although Commissioner Rountree has not yet derived any benefit from the purchase of the lot, which is not part of the Merchants Commerce Center, it is my opinion that out of an abundance of precaution and to protect the integrity of both Mr. Rountree and the Board of Commissioners as well as the public perception of these matters, there does exist the potential, yet unknown, for enhanced benefit to be derived if Commissioner Rountree be allowed to vote on matters regarding the future development of Merchants Commerce Park,” Godwin surmised.

With that statement, Godwin stated he was of the opinion that Rountree, acting in his capacity as a county commissioner, should be excused by his peers on that governing board and personally recuse himself from any vote regarding Merchants Commerce Center.

“This is to avoid any potential ethical or legal conflicts, either real or perceived,” Godwin concluded.

Rountree also addressed the issue, citing North Carolina General Statute 14-234 (Public Officers or Employees Benefitting From Public Contracts).

“I did not violate the law because I did not have a public contract,” Rountree stressed. “I had a private contract when I purchased the property.”

He further cited North Carolina General Statute 160A-86 (Local Governing Boards Code of Ethics).

“I did not violate the Code of Ethics because I did not perform official duties of the board [of commissioners] while purchasing the property,” he noted. “Therefore, there was no legal conflict of interest.”

Acting in his capacity as a county commissioner, Rountree confirmed that he would request recusal from voting on matters regarding Merchants Commerce Center.

“Gates County citizens will benefit from the development of Merchants Commerce Center without distractions, delays, and obstacles that would stagnant the Merchants Commerce Center progress,” Rountree said, referencing his recusal from such matters.

“I will not allow the opinion of a few to sabotage the Merchants Commerce Center development,” he continued. “I want all Gates County citizens to benefit from the goods and services that the Merchants Commerce Center will provide.”

Afterwards, the four other county commissioners unanimously approved a motion to allow Rountree to recuse himself from voting on any future decisions relative to Merchants Commerce Center.

In 2022, the Gates County Board of Commissioners approved the purchase of Merchants Commerce Center, a 144-acre site located off US 158 in front of Gates County High School. That purchase, using public funds, was in an effort to attract new businesses, particularly those offering goods/services that are now only available outside the county.


About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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