The Department of Justice has largely absolved Dewey Beach of blame after residents filed complaints saying the town government violated the Freedom of Information Act as it negotiated to buy land for a new town hall.

Residents Marcia Schieck and Dell Tush – a former Dewey mayor – had delivered separate letters to the DOJ making the case that Dewey’s mayor, Diane Hanson, and town manager Marc Appelbaum “met behind closed doors to decide to purchase the properties and expand the town hall without engaging in any public discussion of these transactions.”

In an Aug. 19 opinion, the DOJ said the residents raised eight possible FOIA violations, but found only two of them had merit, and said the town had already taken simple steps to correct the mistakes.

“We do not believe that these violations affected substantial rights of the public,” Deputy Attorney General Katisha D. Fortune said in the opinion, which was approved by Acting State Solicitor Aaron R. Goldstein.

Dewey bought the two properties, which contain small store buildings, for $875,000. Hanson signed a contingent contract with the seller, Tsionas Properties, before the entire town council knew about the contract or had voted on whether to enter into it.

The contract, Hanson and Appelbaum have noted, had a clause letting Dewey out of the obligation to buy if the council did not approve the purchase by March 16. Council voted 3-2 on March 14 to complete the purchase.

Fortune said a review of the residents’ complaints and records supplied by the town showed Dewey Beach failed to take minutes during a short open-door meeting on Jan. 2 and missed a deadline to deliver documents Schieck had requested under FOIA without explaining the delay.

Those amounted to FOIA violations, Fortune’s opinion said, but Schieck eventually got the records she sought, and the town retroactively approved minutes for the Jan. 2 meeting on Aug. 14.

Other disputes Tush and Schieck raised about meeting agendas, notices, and email communications did not violate FOIA, the DOJ opinion said.

At one point, Fortune called attention to the fact that three of Dewey’s commissioners did not know until late January that Hanson, Appelbaum and commissioner David Jasinski were discussing the property buy in emails as early as December 2014.

“It is perhaps troubling that the commissioners were not involved in a public discussion regarding the potential acquisition of the properties,” her opinion said, but “we cannot find that the email communications, standing alone, constituted a ‘serial’ meeting in violation of FOIA.”

Dewey has taken no action to redevelop the properties so far.

Contact James Fisher at (302) 983-6772, on Twitter @JamesFisherTNJ or jfisher@delawareonline.com.