Documents obtained from a recent Public Information Act request indicate that Chestertown Town Manager Bill Ingersoll kept dialogue with the Sultana Education Foundation — over the possible purchase of the shipyard on Cannon and Mill Streets — confidential from the Town Council for six months.
Sultana President Drew McMullen expressed an interest in the shipyard in an email to Ingersoll on April 24, 2019. The email included a memo McMullen wrote to SEF’s executive committee, expressing a desire to close a deal by the end of 2019.
“…I think the timing is right to tackle this in 2019 before the Lawrence Preserve gets up and running,” McMullen said in his memo to the executive committee.
Ingersoll and McMullen met that day. The Town Council would not learn of SEF’s interest in the shipyard until October and the public would not learn about it until December.
“As an elected council member, I would like to have known about this, especially because any decisions would have affected my ward,” said former Ward 2 Councilwoman Linda Kuiper in a brief interview on Monday. “We weren’t told about this until late October–and then we were told the matter was confidential until the newly elected council was sworn in in January.”
In September, SEF ordered a boundary survey of the property and then made an official offer in late October. Ingersoll then sent an email to council members indicating that the offer was “confidential” and that the future of the shipyard would be decided by the new council in January following the results of the fall election.
Kuiper said she found it problematic that “an appointed official can decide when issues are worthy for the residents’ elected representatives to consider at any given time.”
“Was there an assumption I would be against it?” Kuiper asked. “My issue is that it wasn’t brought to the council or the public for consideration for eight months.”
She said it shouldn’t be the decision of the Town Manager to “schedule the public’s business around elections.”
Kuiper said the council could have used the eight months from April to December 2019 to partner with Sultana on a “shared vision for the property…or to determine some other future for it that would best serve Ward 2 and the Town.”
Ingersoll also told council members in his October email to respond to only him regarding SEF’s offer and not to themselves–to avoid a violation of the Maryland Open Meetings Act. Discussions between a majority of an elected body become public business whether it be in person, by email or phone.
Mayor Chris Cerino, also the vice president of SEF, was mentioned in McMullen’s memo to the executive team where he and two others proposed major changes to the shipyard property.
In a previous story, Ingersoll justified moving the SEF’s offer for the shipyard to the new council in January.
“The matter of a prospective buyer’s interest in part of the shipyard was deferred, by me, to a matter to be addressed by the new Town Council,” Ingersoll said in an email to the Spy on Dec. 27, explaining why SEF’s offer was not brought to the council in the remaining eight weeks of 2019. “This is planned for the earliest possible agenda in the new year, following the swearing-in of the new council members.”
“[Sultana’s] letter of interest in late October was received at the time of the election and I deferred it for one main reason: the sale of any property by the Town cannot start until the property is declared surplus or excess by Ordinance,” Ingersoll wrote. “This process is a two meeting process, with a comment period and rarely can be accomplished in less than 6 weeks.”
Correction: Ingersoll contacted the two newly elected council members three weeks before their swearing-in January to share an email he sent to council members in October, asking them to determine if they would like to start the process to declare the parcel surplus and transfer the property to SEF.
“Please read this over and let me know if you would like to process with this offer,” Ingersoll wrote in his original email to the council in October. “If you wish to proceed, the property would be declared surplus in an ordinance with a condition that the sale be to the present lessee.”