HARB member abstained from Garman vote based on advice from borough attorney

mmorgan@centredaily.comNovember 11, 2013 

— One vote could have changed the outcome.

At a Historical Architecture Review Board meeting last month, chairman Samuel McGinley Jr. had to use his voting power for the first time to break a 2-2 tie, siding with developer Ara Kervanjian and casting a vote to recommend the demolition of the Garman Theatre.

A minute before the meeting, borough solicitor Tom Schrack told HARB member Megan Tooker that she could be opening herself up to potential litigation if she chose to vote. Tooker previously pledged money to the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association’s campaign to save the historic building and turn it into a regional arts center.

Though she didn’t get any financial gain, Schrack said the HARB bylaws are clear that where money is concerned, it’s best not to vote.

Tooker, who had planned on disclosing the donation but still casting a vote, made the last-minute decision to abstain, swinging the vote in the other direction.

“I just walked away saying, ‘that’s how it’s not supposed to go,’ ” she said.

Ultimately, Tooker feels the pledge would not have affected her vote and she hasn’t even completely decided which project would be the best for Bellefonte‘s historic district. She said it’s not about saving the Garman, it’s about the effect on the streetscape.

If Kervandjian’s plan included salvaging the facade of the current building and demolishing the remainder, she said she would have voted in favor of his proposal.

He made an attempt to save the facade and work it into his design plans, but a $500,000 price tag derailed that option. Kervandjian currently plans to raze and Garman and the next-door Hotel Do De to create one building of workforce housing apartment units to combine with the nearby Cadillac Building.

Tooker said she also felt some pressure from the borough, receiving a document of legal ramifications when it came to the vote.

Borough Manger Ralph Stewart said the letter was sent to provide actual legal advice when members of the community tried to raise nonpertinent issues at a meeting and influence the vote. He said he wanted to make sure HARB only focused only on issues that mattered.

“I could tell the HARB members didn’t know what to listen to,” he said.

Schrack, who would not release the letter to the Centre Daily Times citing attorney-client communication, said it just contained pertinent legal advice and expatiation of the conflict of interest clause in the bylaws.

The issue now goes to Borough Council for final approval of the recommendation. The vote will take place at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Lambert Hall.

Matt Morgan can be reached at 235-3928. Follow him on Twitter @MetroMattMorgan.

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