FURTHER legal advice and guidance from the Local Government Auditor are being sought in a bid to resolve the ongoing dispute over the future of Inver Park.
Larne Borough Council has agreed to sell the football ground to Tesco for 5.2 million, but the deal is subject to vacant possession and in the past week the council has asked its solicitor for clarification as to who owns the lease on the property.
Meanwhile, a meeting of Larne Football Club shareholders has been called to discuss the Inver Park board's support for a rival developer's claim that Inver Park could be retained and modernised adjacent to a major retail development on the bleach works site. The meeting is to be held in the social club at Station Road next Tuesday (February 10) at 7.30pm.
As previously reported, councillors were embroiled in lengthy debate on the issue at a meeting in camera last week and in open session at the monthly meeting on Monday night Ulster Unionist councillor Brian Dunn, who maintains his honorary role as Larne FC medic is not a "significant interest", continued to press for clarification of the council's legal standing.
Cllr Dunn has said he believes the council has been negotiating "with the wrong people". In its efforts to secure the vacant possession on which the Tesco contract hinges, the council has dealt only with shareholders in Larne FC Ltd. However, the football club board insists it has tenure of the lease, which has some 27 years to run, while Cllr Dunn understands from trustees of the club that their names are on the lease and that title has never been assigned to anyone else.
Minutes of last week's private meeting reveal that council solicitor Stephen Orr assured members that the process embarked on by chief executive Geraldine McGahey was "very much above board to ensure the council was not exposed" to legal challenge.
The official record adds, "He also explained that he had been in lengthy negotiation with the football club's solicitor, saying that there was no reason to doubt that the solicitor represented the shareholders. He also stated that the trustees were obliged to act in the best interest of the club."
Pressed by Cllr Mark Dunn, Mr Orr "reiterated his previous comments: he had been dealing with a solicitor who had told him that he represented Larne Football Club and he had no reason to doubt this," the minutes state.
They continue: "Cllr M Dunn asked if the lease was with the trustees, saying that the lessees were the trustees, not Larne Football Club Ltd. Mr Orr advised that he would report back through the chief executive.
"The councillor then enquired as to what the council might do to gain vacant possession and also as to what would happen if the lessee was unwilling and also as to what would happen if the lessee was unwilling to give up the site.
"Mr Orr again indicated that he would provide a written response."
It is clear from the minutes that Cllr Brian Dunn and Mrs McGahey were in conflict on the legal issue. He claimed at one stage that the chief executive had given a "hostile presentation" to councillors of the alternative proposals. The official record reads: “The chief executive said that while Cllr B Dunn thought that the advice which she had given was hostile, she reiterated that Council was in contract with Tesco. She further commented that it was unfortunate that he felt that the advice given had been hostile, a matter which she might take up at another time.”
The minutes add that Mr Orr “stressed that it would be inappropriate to engage with anyone else when Council was in contract with another party”.
In open council, Cllr Brian Dunn referred back to the consultation with the solicitor, asking, “If he is sure who holds the lease, why does he have to report back to the chief executive?”
He pointed out that the solicitor was also having to write back in response to Cllr Mark Dunn’s question about gaining vacant possession. “Where does that leave us?” he demanded.
Cllr Brian Dunn was critical of legal guidance presented to elected members at the special meeting, pointing out it amounted to “one sheet of paper” and the solicitor’s oral presentation, adding, “and when he comes to the council it is not clear”.
He reminded colleagues that they were discussing “a big scheme” involving “millions of pounds and the council has not seen the legal advice on it”.
Referring to an assertion by the chief executive that the council as a body had signed up to the Tesco deal and all members were subject to corporate responsibility, Cllr Dunn said, “As a councillor I feel I cannot carry out that corporate responsibility unless I am sure what I am doing is correct. I need to see the legal advice, otherwise I think we are leading Tesco down a blind alley.”
He repeated his request for sight of the full text of a barrister’s legal advice to the council. He wanted assurance “in back and white” that counsel had explored all the issues “and tells us who is the legal entity of Larne Football Club”.
It was Cllr Mark Dunn’s opinion that the question at issue was: who holds the lease? “Our solicitor was not able to tell us,” he said. “Maybe he was not asked to find that out. Maybe the club owns it, but it’s just this uncertainty.”
Cllr Mark Dunn added, “Why colleagues cannot be concerned with this point ... confounds me.” He and his father were asking for nothing more than confirmation that the council was acting properly. “If everything is tickety-boo I can rest easier,” he said.
Invited by Mayor Bobby McKee to respond, Mrs McGahey said the issue of ownership of Larne FC was a matter for the club. The council had embarked on the process in 2002 at the request of the then chairman of the football club board, who had asked for assistance in helping the club to meet new ground standards required by the Irish FA.
“The fact the board changes is a matter for the club,” she stressed. She was “satisfied” that Larne Football Club Ltd had tenure of the lease, pointing out that the club had gone through legal process during a restructuring exercise in 1998.
“In terms of the contract we have with Tesco - yes, it is conditional on vacant possession. That has been assured to me by the limited company”, said the chief executive, adding that if the Inver Park board disagreed, they had a right to judicial challenge.
Mrs McGahey revealed that she had asked the local government auditor for guidance on the issue. She said, “If the contract is forfeited on the basis that we could not get vacant possession I want it to be clear that it was not through my fault or members generally; I want him to give his opinion as to the process and whether he thinks mistakes have been made.”
Mrs McGahey added that she was implementing the will of the council in progressing the contract with Tesco and seeking to ensure by legal means that a new multi-sport stadium would be built as a legacy for all the community.