Three jeers for clown show on Three Corners


When it mattered most in the long Three Corners process – when we needed the five members of the Vero Beach City Council to be at their absolute best – they gave us the disappointing and embarrassing clown show many local skeptics had predicted.

But nobody was laughing last Friday as Mayor John Cotugno gaveled to a close the two-hour, special-call meeting, after a council majority publicly disgraced itself with repeated and desperate attempts to defend the indefensible.

Nobody should be laughing now, as we’re left to wonder why this majority chose to abandon the city’s best interests and disregard the concepts of fair play, integrity and honor.

After six years of slow-but-steady progress that survived a global pandemic, a seemingly effective process to create a dining, retail, social and recreational hub on Vero Beach’s mainland waterfront was, for no good reason, brought to a halt last week.

Worse, the wrongheaded members of this council majority – in a pathetic attempt to give its favored-but-flawed development group a “second bite at the apple,” as Cotugno put it – voted to reject all four of the submitted proposals and issue an entirely new Request For Proposals this summer.

A do-over was the only way to save their beloved SuDa, CREC Capital, Madison Marquette partnership, the Pompano Beach-based development group that eked out a seemingly manipulated, one-point victory at the council’s May 28 meeting.

The SuDa group clearly violated the terms of the city’s RFP, which prohibited direct communication with council members, when its lead partner, Gaurav Butani, sent emails to City Clerk Tammy Bursick on May 27 and May 28.

In the body of both emails, Butani asked Bursick to “share” the correspondences with council members in what obviously was a last-gasp effort to enhance SuDa’s standing in the hours before the final vote.

It was this infraction, which was mentioned during the May 28 dais discussion but not acted on, that prompted Cotugno to request a follow-up meeting last week.

It was at that meeting Vice Mayor Linda Moore and council members Taylor Dingle and Tracey Zudans – they each had ranked a still-evolving SuDa proposal No. 1 and, for the most part, operated as allies on the dais – diminished themselves with their feeble and shameful attempts to excuse Butani’s actions.

Dingle’s response was particularly troubling as he first questioned the need for a follow-up meeting, then wholly embraced the arguments and explanations put forth by the SuDa team, which, in addition to a melodramatic Butani, sent two attorneys and a just-hired professional lobbyist to the podium.

The council newcomer also felt it necessary to give SuDa the benefit of every doubt, including attorney Mark Grafton’s nonsensical claim that Butani’s emails were “innocuous” and amounted to nothing more than “technicalities that are irrelevant.”

Dingle, whose naivete was on full display, also bought Grafton’s absurd contention that sending the emails to Bursick with instructions to share them with council members was inadvertent – that Butani mistakenly placed the wrong names in the “To:” and “cc:” headers.

The mayor didn’t buy it.

Nor did Councilman John Carroll, who bolstered Cotugno’s rebuttal by noting the May 27 email’s subject line read: “Clarification letter to the City Council.”

Sensing SuDa was in trouble, Moore rushed to the group’s defense, saying it was “incredibly reasonable for an outside person,” such as Butani, to assume the clerk was the city’s gatekeeper for the developer-selection process.

Cotugno shook his head.

“This is not their first rodeo,” the mayor said of the SuDa team, adding, “These are professional developers who engage in the RFP process on an ongoing basis.”

The council then moved on to the meeting’s public-comment segment, where Paul Colella, a local software engineer, challenged the integrity of SuDa’s proposal, which he said appeared to have included images generated using artificial intelligence technology.

Alluding to lingering questions about SuDa’s bare-bones initial proposal and an irrefutable conflict of interest involving the city’s marketing consultant, Colella suggested the group was not being held to the same standard as the others that submitted plans.

“I don’t think we should be compromising on professionalism at every step for them,” he said. “I would really hate for us to put (the project) in the hands of someone who has not shown the level of respect that this deserves.”

Retired developer Jeb Bittner, chairman of the Vero Beach Planning & Zoning Board and member of the city’s Three Corners Selection Committee, went to the podium to warn that lawsuits are likely if the council did not disqualify SuDa.

One such lawsuit could come from Indiana-based Clearpath Services – the group that produced the aspirational $500 million proposal the Selection Committee strongly recommended, only to finish second to SuDa in the council’s final rankings.

According to the RFP, the city was to identify its top choice and attempt to negotiate a contract. If an agreement could not be reached within 180 days, the city would then move on to its No. 2 choice.

Thus, after the council disqualified SuDa, the city should have given Clearpath an opportunity to make a deal.

But that won’t happen.

The council’s decision last week to begin anew with an updated and amended RFP – a misguided move that appeared to be orchestrated by the pro-SuDa majority on the dais – deprived Clearpath of its rightful place at the bargaining table.


Moore, Dingle and Zudans still want SuDa to develop the Three Corners site, so they trashed the process in hopes of giving the group a second chance.

They punished Clearpath, which did nothing wrong, and rewarded SuDa for its bad deeds – and they did so dishonestly, ignoring City Attorney John Turner’s warning and relying on a bogus claim to accomplish their goal.

Turner told the council members that, although the RFP gave them the discretion to start over, they must publicly provide a valid reason for taking such action. But they didn’t have one.

So Moore and Zudans – with assistance from the SuDa team and no objection from Dingle – concocted a farcical tale about former Indian River Shores mayor Brian Barefoot being a principal in the Clearpath group.

The allegation, intended to accuse Clearpath of the same RFP violation that disqualified SuDa, was based on emails Barefoot sent to Zudans and Dingle to express his disappointment with their rankings at the council’s May 28 meeting.

But Clearpath’s representatives immediately refuted the claim, as did Barefoot.

“I can’t believe they dragged me into this the way they did,” Barefoot said. “I’m not a principal. I’m not an investor. I’m an advocate for Clearpath’s plan, just like other people are advocates for other plans.”

None of that mattered to the council’s three SuDa supporters.

They manufactured a narrative that the selection process had been tainted beyond repair, citing the emails authored by Butani and Barefoot – even though Barefoot was not a member of the Clearpath team and his emails were sent as a private citizen.

“We have two developers who potentially have been invasive in this process to try and affect what happens on this dais,” Zudans said, “and that’s not OK.”

Lying is also not OK. Only one developer invaded the process and tried to influence the council.

If the process was compromised, the blame goes solely to Butani. By disqualifying SuDa, the council provided the necessary cure.

Moore, however, continued to push hard for a do-over, claiming the emails stirred distrust in the community.

“This is crazy,” she said, adding, “I don’t see a way forward.”

Clearly, she didn’t want to see a way forward that didn’t include SuDa.

Truth is, there was no valid reason to discard the process, which, according to the RFP, should have continued on as scheduled with Clearpath replacing SuDa in negotiations with the city.

Remember: SuDa was not a runaway winner in the council’s rankings, which rightfully raised eyebrows when Moore and Dingle both put Clearpath at No. 3 on their lists.

Moore inexplicably listed the Fort Lauderdale-based Edgewater group – which submitted a marina-centric proposal that was at the bottom of almost everyone’s rankings, including those of the Selection Committee – at No. 2.

Also suspicious was Zudans’ stunning recusal from the vote to disqualify SuDa.

Zudans, who is challenging County Commissioner Laura Moss for her District 5 seat in November, openly rejected Turner’s warning that, in his legal opinion, she lacked the statutory grounds for recusing herself.

She claimed Barefoot’s May 30 email created the “appearance of a conflict of interest,” because he stated her decision to put SuDa atop her rankings convinced him and others to not support her campaign.

“I have been advocating for you,” Barefoot wrote in his email, “but because of your vote, I will not be supporting your candidacy for County Commission, nor will many of my friends.”

Is that sufficient grounds for recusal? Or merely politics as usual?

More alarming was Zudans’ response to Barefoot: “It would have been helpful if you had told me that ahead of time. My biggest concern was whether or not they (Clearpath) could actually finance the project without taxpayer funding.”

Was she implying that, if she had received Barefoot’s email before the May 28 meeting, it might’ve impacted her rankings?

As it turned out, Moore was concerned enough about the potential risk of lawsuits that could be filed against the city – by Clearpath and, possibly, the Vista Blue Vero Beach and Edgewater groups – to vote with Cotugno and Carroll to disqualify SuDa for its RFP violations.

Only Dingle voted against it.

Minutes later came Moore’s motion to start over, and Cotugno, who spent much of the morning defending the process in place, returned the favor and voted with her and the pro-Suda majority.

“The reality was that there were three votes for a do-over,” Cotugno said, “and I’m the last person on the dais to vote.”

You’ll notice Zudans voted, too.

Apparently, the alleged conflict that prevented her from voting on the SuDa disqualification magically disappeared before the council’s vote to cheat Clearpath and start over.

Or was Zudans’ recusal based on a political calculation to avoid alienating county voters on either side of the SuDa-Clearpath divide?

The lone council member to remain completely apolitical throughout this sorry session was Carroll, who relied on his 40 years of engineering experience and expertise to shred SuDa’s proposal.

“The SuDa team made a mockery of the Three Corners RFP process,” Carroll said, harshly criticizing the group’s “incomplete flawed proposal” and “bait-and-switch” tactic utilized in its in-person interview with the Selection Committee on May 17, when he claims its updated presentation relied on “AI-generated images and random photographs of outdoor spaces, buildings and waterfronts.”

He went on to say the ever-changing, still-incomplete SuDa proposal was “all smoke and mirrors” and didn’t provide nearly enough information – including accurate cost estimates for development – to allow the city to engage in contract negotiations.

In fact, Carroll said SuDa’s initial proposal was so lacking that it should not have received any consideration, adding, “I told staff to kick them out, and it fell on deaf ears.”

Carroll, who cast the lone vote against starting over, has conducted himself honorably throughout the RFP process, which functioned as it was designed until it reached the dais, where a we-know-better council majority shrugged off the Selection Committee’s recommendation.

The plan submitted by Clearpath was spectacular, going beyond what anyone here believed was possible and possessing the wow factor to excite residents and tourists for generations.

But because three small-thinking council members didn’t – or couldn’t – think big enough, the city’s much-anticipated Three Corners project is back to where it was nearly a year ago, with little reason to believe the next clown show will produce a different outcome.

Photos by Joshua Kodis

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