Waxman may be swing vote that gives pier to Ocean Properties
Fellow councilors call for her to abstain, citing past ties
Like a nor’easter gathering strength in the Gulf of Maine, a political shit-storm is brewing on the horizon as the Portland City Council prepares to vote again on the future of the Maine State Pier.
Now that The Olympia Companies’ negotiations with the city to redevelop the public pier have collapsed, the Council essentially has two options. One is to commence negotiations with Ocean Properties, the rival developer with strong political connections that submitted a similar plan for the pier last year. The other is to step back and reconsider what type of development is appropriate on the eastern waterfront, then figure out how to realize that vision.
Recent interviews and past votes and public statements indicate the new Council is nearly evenly split between those two approaches. The swing vote who could push a divided Council to pursue a deal with Ocean Properties may end up being newly elected at-large Councilor Dory Waxman.
It’s that prospect that’s whipping up the odorous political winds.
Waxman has significant business and political ties to Ocean Properties, one of the largest hotel and resort development and management companies in North America. The most obvious of these is the fact she was paid by Ocean Properties to promote the company’s pier proposal to citizens and city officials last year.
As proposed, Ocean Properties’ $100 million mega-project includes a luxury hotel, an office building, restaurants, a public market, cruise tourism facilities and a parking garage on the pier and on city-owned land adjacent to the pier. Its development team included Bob Baldacci, brother of Gov. John Baldacci, and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.
Ocean Properties executives and prominent supporters of its pier bid, both paid and unpaid, contributed heavily to Waxman’s successful Council campaign against then-Mayor Ed Suslovic, who favored Olympia’s plan. A member of Ocean Properties’ pier development team, Rosemont Market co-owner John Naylor — who’d hoped to have a hand in the produce and seafood market the company planned to build on the pier — co-chaired Waxman’s campaign this year.
The idea of Waxman voting to give her former employer and political supporters rights to develop prime public waterfront property doesn’t sit well with some of her Council colleagues, who say she should abstain from taking part in those votes.
“For me, it’s about public confidence in the integrity of the process,” said at-large Councilor John Anton.
Anton noted that many in the community questioned the integrity of the earlier process that ultimately led councilors to select Olympia. That months-long saga involved all manner of political intrigue and charges of shady dealings from both sides.
Notably, Suslovic said that when he was considered the swing vote last year, members of Ocean Properties’ team offered him political support in exchange for his vote. “The Ocean Properties approach was almost universally a political argument,” he said. “Basically, ‘You help us, we’ll help you.’”
“If there was ever an instance to err on the side of caution and recuse oneself to diminish the appearance of a conflict of interest, this would be the case,” said Anton.
Councilors Dave Marshall and Kevin Donoghue agree. “I think that it would be wise for her to recuse herself and avoid the mess that will ensue” if she doesn’t, said Marshall. “We’ve certainly already heard publicly about concerns involving this.”
Trouble is, Waxman doesn’t think she needs to recuse herself, and there’s nothing other councilors can do to make her step aside.
“I don’t see myself as conflicted,” she said. “I think I can make a fair and honest decision.”
Waxman consulted with the city attorney’s office in late November, and was told she is not legally obligated to recuse herself. She no longer works for Ocean Properties, and does not stand to directly benefit financially should the company get the pier deal. Given that, city attorney Gary Wood said she should “disclose her prior contacts with Ocean Properties, and then, based on what I know, she should proceed to vote.”
“The basic obligation that sometimes gets overlooked in these settings is that everyone elected has not only a right, but an obligation to vote on matters that come before that elected body,” Wood added.
Mayor Jill Duson and Councilor Dan Skolnik both think Waxman’s past associations with Ocean Properties are irrelevant. Duson went on to say that the idea Waxman should recuse herself to avoid public perception of a conflict of interest is “absolutely ridiculous and insulting.”
Councilors who feel differently “can state their concern on the Council record and give her an opportunity to respond,” Duson said. “She has stated many times that she doesn’t feel she’d be influenced by that past, brief relationship.”
Anton, Donoghue and Marshall all favored Olympia’s proposal over Ocean Properties’, and all now advocate for a reassessment of the city’s needs on the eastern waterfront before another development deal is pursued.
For example, they say the city should first decide whether cruise ships should continue to dock at the deteriorating Maine State Pier, or whether a berth large enough to accommodate them should be built at Ocean Gateway, the new public marine passenger terminal next to the pier.
Waxman, Skolnik and Duson favored Ocean Properties’ pier plan, and while none of them are explicitly saying the city should make a deal with the company now that talks with Olympia are over, they all say it’s imperative to make a decision and move the process along quickly.
Given that Ocean Properties already has detailed plans for the pier’s redevelopment and has claimed it’s able to finance construction itself, it’s difficult to imagine a faster way to get the job started than striking a deal with them.
“I believe we should get started on fixing the pier this Spring,” Skolnik wrote in an e-mail to The Bollard. “This will create jobs in a worsening economy, and the City Council has an obligation to do that where it can. We’d be foolish to waste that opportunity for political reasons.”
Before The Bollard went to press, Duson was tentatively scheduled to hold a private meeting with Ocean Properties founder and chairman Tom Walsh and City Manager Joe Gray. The company has already made it known it’s still interested in developing its project, but Duson said the meeting is being arranged so she can hear that directly from Walsh in an official setting.
A public Council workshop session would soon follow that closed-door meeting. Duson said she will “relay” Walsh’s position to her colleagues at that session and “read where the Council is at. If they’re ready for a particular position to come to the agenda for a vote, I’ll schedule it.”
Given that timeline, a vote to begin negotiations with Ocean Properties could take place early next year, perhaps as soon as next month.
Incoming Councilor John Coyne did not return a call seeking comment, but is considered partial to Ocean Properties’ proposal and a political ally of fellow Democrats who now control the Council. It’s unlikely Coyne would break ranks with this block the way Suslovic, a Democrat, did, colleagues said.
Councilor Nick Mavodones did not respond to a request for comment, either. Mavodones voted for Ocean Properties’ proposal before and has shown little interest in revisiting waterfront policy at this point.
Councilor Cheryl Leeman supported Olympia’s bid, but has not been as critical of Ocean Properties as some of her colleagues. “I never did have a dog in this fight,” said Leeman, the lone Republican on the ostensibly non-partisan Council.
Leeman’s apparent ambivalence could also make her a swing vote, but like Anton, Marshall and Donoghue (all registered Green Independents), she is inclined to revisit the city’s goals for the area — especially the relationship between the Maine State Pier and Ocean Gateway — before entering negotiations with Ocean Properties.
The prospect of building a so-called “megaberth” — a dock large enough to handle most cruise ships — at Ocean Gateway threw discussion of the Maine State Pier’s redevelopment for a loop last year. That’s because building that berth undercuts the primary reason the city wants a private developer to fix the Maine State Pier: so it can continue to handle cruise ships. Furthermore, removing cruise tourism facilities from Ocean Properties’ pier plan would leave it with too little marine-related development to satisfy waterfront zoning requirements.
Perhaps not surprisingly, supporters of Ocean Properties’ bid say the company’s project should be considered separately from efforts to build a megaberth — even though Ocean Properties has said it’s willing to pay for a megaberth at Ocean Gateway.
“We spent millions of dollars creating Ocean Gateway, and that money was clearly spent with the vision that [Ocean Gateway] was where our cruise ships would berth,” said Leeman. “It defies logic to do that twice.”