Gov. Mike Easley may have violated state law when he transferred 205 acres of state land to Currituck County on Dec. 1, 2004, because the Council of State had not approved the transaction. “The deed appears contrary to the statute. Going through the Council of State appears to be the sole mechanism for transferring land,” Currituck County attorney John Morrison told Carolina Journal.
According to the state laws covering the transfer of real property, every proposed conveyance of state land, including conveyance by gift, shall be submitted to the governor and Council of State for their approval. The Council is made up of the nine independently elected state officeholders – the lieutenant governor, state treasurer, state auditor, commissioner of labor, attorney general, secretary of state, commissioner of insurance, superintendent of public instruction, and commissioner of agriculture. The governor and Council meet monthly to approve state real estate matters and certain other statutory duties.
Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry told CJ that she wrote Easley on Sept. 23 and asked him to put the airport matter on the agenda for the Oct. 5 meeting, but she never received a response. She doesn’t understand how the governor could take action outside the law. “To transfer land without Council of State approval does not appear to be legal,” she said.
The 2004 state budget bill contained a provision that stated, “The State of North Carolina shall convey to Currituck County, for consideration of one dollar ($1.00), title to the land on which the Currituck County airport is situated.” Currituck County has been leasing the site from the state since 1972 for $1 per year. The lease was to continue through the year 2028, but Currituck officials wanted to actually own the land so they can sell or lease some of it to private businesses.
The Currituck Airport issue has never been listed on the Council of State agenda, but the minutes of the Nov. 2 meeting stated that the airport was discussed at the very end of the meeting. The Council discussed the role of the Council of State in the legislatively mandated transfer of property located at the Currituck County airport. The minutes stated, “The legislation did not define the acreage or other terms and conditions typically described in a land transfer, and the council took no action on this matter. The Governor and the State Property Office will continue to work with Currituck County to resolve this item.”
Currituck officials expected the transfer of the entire tract, that they say is 531 acres, to take place soon after the state budget was approved last July, but months passed with no action. They were surprised when they learned about Easley’s transfer of the 205-acre parcel, which included the runway, airport buildings, and some land for an industrial park. Easley has offered to sell the remaining 326 acres to Currituck County for $1 million.
Gov. Easley signed the deed. Secretary of State Elaine F. Marshall signed it attesting to his signature and that the deed was in accordance with state laws. Assistant Attorney General J. Douglas Hill also signed the document under the clause “Approved as to Form.”
Marshall’s spokeswoman Liz Proctor told CJ that Marshall said the issue was discussed at the Nov. 2 Council of State meeting and she believed that it was the Attorney General’s opinion that a vote of the full council was not necessary. Proctor said that the Secretary of State does not have any document to support that interpretation. She said Marshall was merely acting in her usual role of acknowledging the governor’s signature.
CJ asked the Attorney General Roy Cooper about the matter. ”There are no documents from the AG’s office that address bypassing the Council of State in this conveyance that I am aware of,” spokesman William McKinney responded.
CJ also asked Gov. Easley’s office for any documents supporting his position to transfer the land without Council of State approval. “There are no documents in our possession that comply with your request,” spokeswoman Cari Boyce responded.
While the issue of the legality of Easley’s deed will eventually need to be settled, Currituck County is still pursuing title to the entire 531-acre tract. Currituck’s attorney, Morrison, filed a complaint Dec. 8 against Easley and the Council of State. The county is seeking a judgment to force Easley and the Council of State to transfer the entire 531-acre tract it says makes up the airport property.
On Dec. 14 Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning, Jr. issued an order for Easley and the Council of State members to appear Jan. 10 in a Wake County court. The order requires them to explain why they have not approved the transfer of 531 acres to Currituck County as, he seems to believe, is required by the 2004 budget bill. The case has been postponed to Feb. 8.
Former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley B. Mitchell Jr., now in private practice with the Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge and Rice law firm, is representing Gov. Easley. Attorney General Roy Cooper will represent the Council of State members. Currituck County has hired the Poyner & Spruill law firm to join County Attorney Morrison. State Sen. leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, and Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, inserted the land transfer into the budget bill. They support Currituck County’s position that the intent was for the state to give Currituck the entire 531 acre tract.
Carrington is associate publisher of Carolina Journal.