A decision to hire an independent law firm to analyze issues relating to equestrian projects divided the Wellington Village Council at Tuesday’s meeting.
In a 3-2 decision, council members voted to contract with Claudio Riedi of the law firm Tew Cardenas LLP to do an independent analysis of the processes surrounding the approval of Equestrian Village and changes to the Country Place PUD master plan. Councilwoman Anne Gerwig and Vice Mayor Howard Coates dissented.
The decision also authorized an initial $250,000 to be spent on litigation concerning that and other properties, but the amount could come out to more.
Gerwig noted that litigation has prompted the village to hold a special hearing to evaluate the applications, permits and processes that occurred in order to get approval for the Country Place PUD changes.
“I want it on the record that I am against holding that hearing,” she said.
Coates explained that he felt an individual evaluation was necessary for the issues.
“The issue at this hearing is going to be whether there was a misrepresentation in the application process,” he said. “Corresponding to that is going to be how much the village knew, how it was disseminated to the council and why there was some disconnect, in the sense that maybe council wasn’t made aware of everything that staff was made aware of.”
Mayor Bob Margolis said he approached village staff with this idea because he wanted an independent perspective.
“Staff is so closely involved with this issue, including the village manager, including the village attorney and everyone on staff, and may be potential witnesses,” Margolis said. “Because they were so close, I’m looking to get some independent body to come in and review everything for us.”
Village Manager Paul Schofield noted that Wellington is currently named in several litigation cases.
“We have a number of litigations that are ongoing,” he said. “There are costs associated with those. I would like to establish an initial amount of $250,000 to fund those.”
Schofield said that the $250,000 would pay not only for the contract with Tew Cardenas but other costs associated with litigation. He noted, however, that the costs could go beyond the initial budget.
“The litigation is likely to be lengthy and costly,” he said. “We will bring back to you a more formal budget amendment.”
Riedi said that he appreciated the opportunity to work with the village. “We have provided services to the village before,” he said. “I think it was a good cooperation, and I think it worked out well. I will act in a way of a neutral adviser and try to take a fresh approach toward some of these issues.”
Gerwig said she thought Wellington was sufficiently represented by Village Attorney Jeff Kurtz.
“I don’t know this is necessary,” she said. “I understand the concept of bringing in an outside person, but I think we are adequately represented.”
Coates said he isn’t against an independent adviser but thinks the request is beyond the scope of what he requested.
“I think we need to decide what role [Riedi] is going to play in this,” he said. “I am not interested at all in having the village retain an attorney to represent itself in this [hearing], because we have an attorney to do that.”
Coates added, however, that he was in favor of an independent evaluation of the village’s processes.
“That way there is no question that the independent evaluation will let the chips fall where they may, in terms of who, what and why it wasn’t disclosed,” he said. “That’s what I am in favor of.”
But Coates said he was not comfortable with an open-ended budget — not “when there has been no suggestion that our village attorney is not able to handle the litigation that we are currently involved in or that we anticipate going forward.”
Councilman Matt Willhite said though he wasn’t concerned about Kurtz’s ability to handle the litigation, he was concerned that the amount of work could be overwhelming.
“I have concerns with the day-to-day operations being able to run without assistance,” he said. “There’s potentially five pending lawsuits that we may be involved in, outside of our day-to-day operations.”
However, Willhite echoed Coates’ concerns about the budget. “I don’t think the intent was to give a $250,000 line-item for the law firm to just spend,” he said. “But frankly, I do think we need help.”
Councilman John Greene said that initially he was concerned there might be a conflict but that it had been resolved.
Kurtz said the conflict had been resolved.
“There is no current conflict,” he said. “What this has to do with is [Tew Cardenas’] former representation of Glenn Straub or entities controlled or run by Mr. Straub. There is nothing currently on the horizon, but they have agreed not to represent Mr. Straub in any Palm Beach County matters and certainly not any Wellington matters.”
Margolis said he wanted a neutral party to give both sides of the issue. “We need to have another set of eyes come in,” he said. “We have to take staff out of the equation, review all the documentation and have him give us a review of his findings.”
Margolis said he didn’t expect Riedi to represent the village, but to give an opinion prior to the hearing.
But Gerwig said she thought all of the review would be done at the hearing. “It sounds like we’re doing things twice,” she said. “That’s what the hearing is supposed to provide.”
Willhite made a motion to approve the item, which passed 3-2, with Gerwig and Coates dissenting.