Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Westfield To Perform A Do-Over On Soccer Arena, Still Gets It Wrong

Westfield Mayor Andy Cook makes comments to the hundreds of people that turned out for the grand opening ceremony for Westfield's Grand Park, which, when finished, will be the country's largest multipurpose youth sports complex, on Saturday, June 21, 2014. The three-day celebration that began on Friday includes live music, a Ferris wheel, food and fireworks, and of course a youth sports tournament. The facility has 31 multi-use soccer/football fields and 26 baseball/softball diamonds throughout 400 acres.
Mayor Andy Cook at Grand Park's opening ceremony (Charles Nye/Star Photo)
I previously reported that Westfield city officials blatantly violated the state's public-private partnership agreement last year when Mayor Andy Cook privately negotiated a 25-year agreement with Holladay Properties to build, operate and maintain an indoor soccer arena that could cost city taxpayers up to $53 million over the 25-year life of the agreement. The Star's Chris Sikich wrote after the council's approval of the deal that its finance committee met and acted upon the long-term agreement at meetings which were not publicly-noticed in violation of the state's open door law. The state's public access counselor agreed that the open door law had been violated. That prompted mayoral candidate Jeff Harpe to file a lawsuit challenging the agreement's validity last December. City officials have decided to re-start the process according to Sikich's later story rather than fight Harpe's lawsuit, but that's not enough to correct the problem.
. . . "This is a great victory for the residents of Westfield," Harpe said. "This lawsuit held city officials accountable for their actions and now that city officials have decided to start the process over, the residents of Westfield will be able to make the decision of whether this indoor soccer facility is a good idea for all taxpayers of Westfield." 
Harpe wanted to consult with his attorney, Steve Stoesz, before deciding whether to drop the lawsuit. But Tuesday, that seemed likely. Harpe was asking a judge to overturn Westfield's approval of the indoor arena to force the city to restart the process — action the city already is taking . . 
In legal proceedings, the city has admitted no fault and maintained that it violated no open-door laws.
However, Todd Burtron, the mayor's chief of staff, said it has become apparent that simply restarting the process to approve the arena would be a quicker and surer way to proceed with building the arena than litigating the case . . . 
After the lawsuit was filed, Burtron said the city began to field phone calls from developers who were concerned that the legal action would delay or stop development of the arena.
"The development community has called and expressed deep concern," Burtron said. "Their business model incorporates the business from the indoor facility."
"We didn't do it purposefully or with malice," Burtron said.
No, this isn't a great victory, and the process is not being restarted properly, Mr. Harpe, because the public process that would have helped ensure the taxpayers got the best deal is still being avoided altogether. I get that the media despises what I do at this blog in calling out the folks behind all of these corrupt deals that defraud the public, but if there is one thing I know something about is the P3 law that governs this particular transaction. I helped write the damn law so I know something about it.

That law unequivocally required the City of Westfield to conduct an RFP process that allowed developers to competitively bid on the right to build, operate and maintain the indoor soccer arena. That never happened. The corrupt city officials, instead, negotiated secretly and made a sweetheart deal with Holladay Properties and cut every other potential bidder out of the process. Remember what happened when Lawrence Mayor Tom Schneider handed control of the city's water utility to his political cronies? Yeah, it got thrown out by a court in a process that cost Lawrence taxpayers dearly. Not even the fact that the powerful Ice Miller law firm was behind that project could prevent that outcome. Big surprise to find Ice Miller involved in this deal as well. I've brought this point to Sikich's attention, and he refuses to write about it. I've also brought this to the attention of Harpe's lawyer and a member of the Westfield city council. Yet nobody will do or say a damn thing about it. And please, Mr. Sikich, go back and read the archives of your own damn newspaper if you don't want to take my word for it.

And here's another thing. Somebody needs to ask Mayor Cook why the out-of-state professional soccer arena operator with whom he was originally discussing the project walked away from it only weeks before he announced plans last June to let Holladay Properties build it. The professional soccer arena operator walked away from the deal because the Mayor was allowing Holladay Properties to stiff city taxpayers by increasing the construction costs by at least 25% by charging exorbitant development fees that out-of-state operator wanted to avoid entirely in exchange for the right to operate the facility. Why was Cook allowing Holladay Properties to stiff Westfield taxpayers? For the life of me, I don't understand why we have a media, public officials and a public that just no longer give a damn when our government assets are being used to line the pockets of private developers and business interests which have unseemly relationships with government decision-makers. The entire system has broken down. Until people rise up in revolt, it's only going to keep getting worse.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Spot on, Mr. Welsh. Spot on.