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Wake commissioner spoke at fundraiser for group that may sue county over park site

Drone video: Wake leaders vote to sell former Crooked Creek Golf Course

The Wake County Board of Commissioners voted to sell the Crooked Creek Golf Course despite a previous vote to make the land a future park.
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The Wake County Board of Commissioners voted to sell the Crooked Creek Golf Course despite a previous vote to make the land a future park.

Current and former elected leaders — including a Wake County commissioner — attended a recent fundraiser held by a group that has said it may sue the county.

Commissioner Matt Calabria, Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears and former Commissioners John Burns and Erv Portman were all listed on a news release from the South Wake Park Project as attending a “Beers for the Park” event meant to raise money to support the project.

The project’s supporters want to keep the former Crooked Creek Golf Course outside Fuquay-Varina preserved as a county park. The Wake County Board of Commissioners voted to buy the property last summer and then, with a change in commissioners, voted in January to put the property up for sale.

The fundraiser was held at Bombshell Beer Company in Holly Springs, which donated 10 percent of beer sales to the GoFundMe.

Calabria said he attended and spoke at the Feb. 1 event at the request of the South Wake Park Project, but he said he hasn’t donated to the cause.

“No commissioner has done more to discourage citizens from suing the county over this issue than I have over the last several weeks,” Calabria said. “In fact I spent a great deal of time encouraging them not to do so.”

A lawsuit would cost taxpayers money, but it would also stop groups from talking to one another, he said. He asked the group to instead wait and see what the county comes up with for the future of the land.

“Park supporters have tried to remain positive and convey positive messages about hopes for the park,” Calabria said. “The commission and county staff continue to explore possibilities for what the land might be used for.”

Norma Houston, a lecturer with the UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government, said based on what she was told about the incident, Calabria’s presence posed no legal conflict of interest.

“There is nothing in state law in terms of the statute that directly speaks to your question about attending a fundraiser and contributing to a private organization that might sue the county,” she said. “I think that could potentially fall into general arena of ‘conflict of roles’ with the commissioner acting as a private citizen in a way that is adverse to his or her role as a county commissioner, but it doesn’t violate state law.”

People often ask if local leaders’ actions are ethical or moral, but Houston said she only looks at what is legal. She wouldn’t say whether the action is “appropriate, because people can draw their own conclusions.”

The park supporters’ GoFundMe was created just a few days after the Wake County commissioners voted to put the former golf course up for sale. Donors are invited to “join the legal fight to keep the South Wake Park Project alive.”

“In all likelihood, because of the egregious conduct by certain commissioners, multiple legal challenges may surface in the coming months,” the GoFundMe campaign says.

The group has raised more than $18,000 toward its $100,000 goal. More than 200 people have donated, including $305 from Bombshell Beer Company and nearly $450 in donations from the Beers for the Park event.

Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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