Kool-Aid in the City Hall water cooler?

Kool-Aid in the City Hall water cooler? 
Ocean Gateway now up for grabs; public comment minimized

By Chris Busby

The question of whether the Portland City Council can include Ocean Gateway in a deal to redevelop the Maine State Pier was answered with a single word last night by city attorney Mary Costigan: “Yes.” 

Don’t expect the ensuing debate over that answer to be nearly as brief, or even a shade as dispassionate – even though citizens will be given a very small window of opportunity to comment before the Council votes on whether to negotiate a private deal for control of both public facilities next month. 

As The Bollard reported last week, the prospect of building a so-called “megaberth” at the Ocean Gateway cruise ship and ferry terminal has enticed both private companies vying to redevelop the pier next door. The city itself has been trying for years to fund construction of the long berth there, in part because waterfront staff believe it’s a much better location to handle large cruise ships than the Maine State Pier. 

The city’s official Request for Proposals (RFP) to redevelop the Maine State Pier did not include the nearly $21 million public facility two blocks to its east. However, it did ask respondents to “discuss ideas and accommodations” for Ocean Gateway’s vehicle queuing plan – a plan now under construction on the same plot of land both teams have designed to be a grassy public park. 

At last night’s special Council “workshop” session on the proposals being pitched by Ocean Properties and The Olympia Companies, Councilor Ed Suslovic asked if an Aug. 10 memo from lead city attorney Gary Wood meant it was legal to include Ocean Gateway in negotiations for the pier. 

Costigan replied in the affirmative, then sat back down. Wood was not in attendance. 

The memo does not specifically address Ocean Gateway or the megaberth. Rather, in response to allegations the RFP process has already been illegally manipulated to benefit Ocean Properties, Wood makes the case that councilors are free to create their own rules when leasing or negotiating the private development of public property. “[W]hatever process the Council creates or uses is up to the Council,” he wrote.

In an interview after the workshop, Suslovic said Ocean Gateway’s megaberth should be on the table during negotiations for the Maine State Pier. He suggested the city could ask the developer to put up an additional $6 million to build the megaberth. In exchange, he said the city “might have to allow for perhaps more intensive redevelopment of the Maine State Pier to generate the additional revenue” the developer would need to cover that added expense.

The idea of suddenly throwing another huge piece of public waterfront infrastructure into play doesn’t sit well with critics of the process as it’s been managed so far. Some, like City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, feel the prospect of building the megaberth is cause to pause these proceedings and consider the wider implications for the surrounding waterfront.

“I think the merits of developing Ocean Gateway calls into question doing anything on the pier right now,” Donoghue said after last night’s workshop. 

Told of Suslovic’s interest in making the megaberth part of private negotiations for the pier, Donoghue said with disgust: “He’s drunk the fuckin’ Kool-Aid.” 

Donoghue, whose district includes Ocean Gateway and the Maine State Pier, held a public forum on the pier’s potential redevelopment last Wednesday. According to a transcription of the night’s comments provided to fellow councilors and The Bollard, many speakers share his sense that something fishy’s afoot… 

“Greg Shinberg: We should be concerned that we only got 2 proposals. This indicates that process is broken…. The process stinks.”

“Alex Landry: … Process smells bad.”

“Joe Lewis: … RFP process is broken, unfair.”

“Bobi Keppel, North St.: Yes, it stinks…. We need to step back several steps and look at who is planning what for whom…” 

“Barbara [sic] Vestal: … It looks like a train wreck.”

As detailed in our July 11 article, at least one of the development teams, Olympia, has already threatened to sue the city over its handling of the pier RFP. There’s also been talk of a citizen-initiated “people’s veto” campaign to overturn any deal for the pier approved by the Council as a result of this RFP.

Longtime City Councilor Cheryl Leeman said the city’s handling of this matter reminds her of the way officials provoked public outrage by allowing waterfront condominium development in the late 1980s – a move that led to a citizen-initiated moratorium on such development and stricter zoning along the harbor.

“I am just absolutely flabbergasted by all the twists and turns that keep happening with this process and with the proposals for the Maine State Pier,” Leeman said. “This is the very process which pushed the public to say, ‘Enough!’ [20 years ago], and they took control of the process.”

If individual citizens want more than three minutes to weigh in on everything at stake here, they may have to demand that at the ballot box. 

According to Mayor Nick Mavodones, the public will have one brief opportunity to comment on the redevelopment proposals for the Maine State Pier and Ocean Gateway before councilors vote on whether to enter closed-door negotiations with one of the two companies. The order to begin negotiations will be one item among many others on the Council’s Aug. 20 regular meeting agenda.

Mavodones said he hopes the Council vote will take place Sept. 5. “I’d like to stick to a fairly tight schedule,” he said. 

Any deal worked out during private negotiations would subsequently come back before the Council for approval, and there would be an additional opportunity for public comment before the vote to sign or reject the agreement. 

City officials expect that whatever plan results from these negotiations will look substantially different than the plans presented by the developers thus far – though it’s impossible to predict how, or how much, the proposals might change. For example, now that Ocean Gateway’s on the table, the agreement that comes back to the Council could include two major public marine facilities, not one. 

At the end of his Aug. 10 memo, Wood addressed the possibility the resulting deal will be challenged in court, and suggested the selected developer could help the city defend the agreement. 

“Nothing can or will prevent either applicant and possibly others from filing a lawsuit challenging the Council’s final decision,” Wood wrote. “If that happens, I and my staff, along with what I expect will be considerable assistance from the successful applicant, will defend that decision in court which is the appropriate forum for resolving legal disputes.”

The prospect of filing suit to stop either development is a daunting one, given the legal and financial firepower at the teams’ disposal. However, in this sense, comparing Ocean Properties – the favored developer so far – to Olympia is like comparing the New York Yankees to the Portland Sea Dogs.

Olympia has Maine Street Solutions on its side, the legal and lobbying firm headed by former Maine House Speaker Mike Saxl. Maine Street is part of the law firm Verrill Dana, which has over 100 attorneys practicing in several U.S. cities, according to its Web site.

By contrast, Ocean Properties, a much larger company, has former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell on its team. According to his online bio, Mitchell is Chairman of the Global Board of DLA Piper and Co-Chair of the Government Controversies Practice Group. DLA Piper, one of the world’s largest law firms, has over 3,400 attorneys practicing in 25 countries, according to its site.

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