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City Council should trust Three Corners committee

Barring an egregious mistake in the Three Corners Evaluation Committee’s final rankings – something that would immediately be obvious to all of us – there is no chance the Vero Beach City Council members would dare reject and override the panel’s recommendation.

Nor should they.

The seven-person committee, appointed by City Manager Monte Falls and approved by the council earlier this year, possesses the combined expertise necessary to effectively analyze and assess the various components of the four proposals submitted for the much-anticipated development of the mainland’s waterfront.

The council, on the other hand, lacks – as a group – anything close to the same level of proficiency and experience in those areas, and everyone on the dais knows it.

Why, then, do the council members now feel compelled to duplicate the committee’s work, which continues next week when the four development groups are scheduled to come to town to make formal, behind-closed-doors presentations and respond to inquiries about their proposals?

Why, we must ask, is the council requiring the developers to return to City Hall on May 21 to repeat the same process in the same closed environment, but with the mayor presiding over its own version of a members-only meeting?

Surely, the council members are satisfied with the exhaustive lists of questions that were suggested by the city’s financial consultant, expanded by the committee during its initial meeting two weeks ago, and then forwarded to the developers.

And it’s extremely unlikely they’re disappointed with the committee’s impressive performance at that April 26 session, which included comprehensive discussions of each proposals’ strengths and shortcomings.

So we can’t help but ask: Is it possible the council members don’t trust that the committee, despite the competence and commitment that was on full display in its public debut, will get it right?

Or might it be something else?

Something that has nothing to do with making sure the city does everything possible to choose the most qualified and compatible developer with the best plan to realize our community dream?

Something like, say, politics?

To be sure: Nobody is suggesting that any council member would allow personal political ambitions to sway his or her decision as to which proposal is best for creating the desired dining, retail, social and recreational hub at the west end of the 17th Street bridge, on the 17-acre site that currently contains the city’s defunct power plant.

Some, though, might be tempted to seize this everyone-is-watching opportunity to enhance their stature as an elected official … or candidate.

Remember: It was Tracey Zudans – engaged in a tough campaign against incumbent Laura Moss for the County Commission’s District 5 seat in this year’s elections – who pushed hard in February to expand the Evaluation Committee to include her and the other council members.

Citing the importance of this transformational project to the community’s future, Zudans said she believed it would be “neglectful of my duty to the citizens” to not have firsthand involvement in the process of choosing which of the Three Corners proposals the committee would recommend.

A majority of the other council members, however, at that time disagreed.

John Carroll was absent from the Feb. 13 meeting, but Mayor John Cotugno, Vice Mayor Linda Moore and newcomer Taylor Dingle voted to stay with the city’s original plan to keep the council – which will have the final say, anyway – out of the preliminaries.

Cotugno ably defended his position.

By not being on the committee, the mayor explained, individual interactions between council and committee members during the evaluation process would not be subject to the state’s Sunshine Law, which requires meetings of government boards, councils and commissions to be open to the public.

“You can go to each and every committee member and query them,” Cotugno said at the time, adding, “So you have added flexibility by not being on the committee. That, to me, is great.”

Apparently, it wasn’t good enough.

Six weeks later – again at Zudans’ urging – the council reversed course, voting unanimously to tread on the committee’s turf, this time by inserting into the city’s Three Corners schedule a series of unnecessary, face-to-face interviews with the four developers on May 21.

By then, though, the council will already have watched video recordings of the committee’s interviews with the developers. The council will already have received the committee’s recommendation. And the developers will already have answered every meaningful question about their proposals.

So why bother?

Cotugno initially argued against changing the process, expressing concern the council – by thrusting itself into the interview phase – would risk the appearance that it was undermining, or at least second-guessing, the extensive work done by the committee.

He also warned the council was providing an opening for skeptical citizens to question its intent and motives, saying, “We need to stay above the fray.”

Besides, he added, there is nothing prohibiting council members from submitting their questions through the committee, which could ask them during its interviews with the developers next week.

His words persuaded no one – both Moore and Dingle changed their positions, and Carroll wanted to interview the developers – so the mayor backed off his opposition and voted with the majority, if only to present a united front.

“I thought the committee did an outstanding job of evaluating the data, discussing the pertinent topics and raising important questions,” Cotugno said last week. “Who knows what will happen with our interviews?

“My guess is, there will be a specific question or two from a council member to a specific developer about some specific aspect of a proposal,” he added. “Or, maybe, someone will want to re-ask a question to verify an answer that was given to the committee.

“So far, the process has played out pretty much the way it was expected to – except we’re having one extra meeting that’s not going to cause any delay whatsoever.”

Under the council’s original plan, the committee was to evaluate the four proposals, discuss them publicly and rank them, as it did two weeks ago, when it made the spectacular $500 million submission from Indiana-based Clearpath Services the early frontrunner.

The committee would then invite each of the four developers to Vero Beach to make formal presentations – one at a time, with their competitors not in the room – and field questions.

Those sessions are scheduled for next week: Clearpath and the Fort Lauderdale-based Edgewater Group are to appear on Monday; and SuDa, CREC Capital, Madison Marquette of Pompano Beach and Vista Blue Vero Beach Resort & Spa will get their opportunities on Friday.

The SuDa partnership, which got a late jump on its proposal and submitted a plan that lacked the depth of specifics city officials wanted to see, needs a big showing next week after being ranked No. 4 by the committee.

“Everyone is curious to see what SuDa comes up with,” a source close to the process said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Look for them to come in with some serious renderings and answers to all the questions.

“They might come in and blow people away,” the source added, “but it won’t be easy to knock off Clearpath, even if SuDa does something fabulous.”

If there are no delays, the committee will hold a public meeting at 2:30 p.m. Friday (May 17) for one final discussion of the proposals before re-ranking them and announcing its No. 1 choice – the developer and plan it will recommend to the City Council.

The council already has scheduled a public meeting for 6 p.m. on May 28, when it will invite community input, discuss the committee’s recommendation and, once and for all, decide which proposal to accept.

From there, it will be up to city officials and the developer to negotiate the terms of a 99-year lease. If they can’t come to an agreement, the council may move on to the committee’s No. 2 choice.

That’s how the process was designed. And, for the most part, that’s how it will work – except for one last-minute tweak that gives council members an opportunity to grandstand without having any serious impact on the selection of the proposal.

There’s no doubt Zudans will cite her involvement in the Three Corners project during her commission race. Likewise, we can expect Moore and Carroll to do the same if they choose to run for re-election in November.

They should.

That’s what politicians do.

And, as a group, the council has done a commendable job of overseeing the progress of this project, along with the city’s other major undertakings – the relocation of its wastewater-treatment plant, expansion of its marina and revitalization of downtown Vero.

But let’s be clear: There’s no real need for the council to re-interview the developers of the Three Corners proposals and duplicate the work of a committee that seems to know what it’s doing.

There’s little chance the session will produce an ah-ha moment. There’s no chance it will provide a reason for the council to override the committee’s recommendation.

Nor should it.

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