The Advocate-Messenger questioned the legality of an executive session about whether to talk about Duncan Hill in public. Hays said, "I believe they can." But he didn't provide any specific statute supporting that position. He then excused himself to meet with commissioners.
After a short session, Mayor John W.D. Bowling emerged to say the city had been "approached by an individual" who wants to buy property on Duncan Hill.
The city owns about 3.5 acres across the street from Hilldale Cemetery. It was given to the city in the 1960s by the black community for expansion of the cemetery.
Bowling said the commissioners had asked Hays to "determine the value of that property."
Resident Kerry Kenley said he had seen someone surveying the property, and asked Bowling about a petition that has circulated among some property owners on Duncan Hill.
When The Advocate asked Kenley about the petition, he said he hadn't seen it.
He told commissioners that he believed only people with vacant lots on Duncan Hill had seen the petition, and that the community is against the sale of the property, despite the petition.
Bowling said that he was advised by Hays not to say any more.
The Advocate is trying to get the petition
The Advocate submitted an open records request to the city for the petition on June 23. The request was denied. An e-mail reply to the newspaper from City Clerk Donna Peek said, "This has not been discussed in open session and we do not have a record subject to open records at this time."
The newspaper has challenged that assertion and on Monday made a renewed request for the document.
It was believed that resident Norm Bartleson gave the commissioners the petition when he entered an executive session in late June.
Bartleson has continuously declined to explain or make comment about the property.
Once in June when contacted by the newspaper about the story, Bartleson said, "It's time for Duncan Hill to be cleaned up. We want to beautify it, make it better."
Commissioner Jamey Gay said earlier in the meeting Monday that it made him "uncomfortable" to continue a discussion behind closed doors when there was information circulating in the public, including a petition.
Hays said that at any time the commissioners could vote to discuss the issue in public, but state law specifically forbids voting behind closed doors on anything.
Bowling said that he didn't think they could talk about the sale until he "knew all the particulars."
Gay said he had been "wrestling with himself" about the issue because he knew it was his obligation to protect the price of the property, but that at the same time he thought his "real obligation was to protect the citizens."