Litigation over the controversial Equestrian Village property will not be settled this year. Instead, Wellington Village Council members asked Tuesday for a private meeting with the village’s interim attorneys to discuss a counteroffer.
Discussion on what to do about litigation also led to a request by Vice Mayor Howard Coates that the Palm Beach County Office of the Inspector General look into communication between some council members on the matter.
At Tuesday’s meeting, council members abandoned tentative plans to have a rehearing on the issue in order to have further discussion with attorneys now that they have new representation.
“I think a shade session would be appropriate, only because we have new counsel,” Mayor Bob Margolis suggested. “That way, [attorney Claudio Riedi] can understand where this council is coming from, because he hasn’t had an opportunity to sit down and discuss this with us.”
Riedi acted as the village’s representation in July during discussion of the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center master plan, and will be taking over the Equestrian Village litigation while the council discusses its options for hiring a new village attorney.
Equestrian Village representatives proposed a settlement in late November, but council members rejected it Tuesday. It would have allowed for existing structures to remain, Village Manager Paul Schofield said.
“It would allow the two barns, the covered arena and other existing structures to stay in place and continue to be used,” he said.
Equestrian Sport Productions CEO Mark Bellissimo told council members that the settlement was an attempt to come to an agreement on what is currently built on the property.
“We’re willing to accept what has been done,” he said. “There is no more hotel, just the structures already on the site. We will accept that so we can move forward as a community.”
But council members said they thought they could better discuss the issue with a rehearing of the item, which would allow public discussion of specific portions of the settlement agreement, as well as proposals from council members on what they’d like to see. However, Wellington does not have provisions in its code to conduct such a hearing.
“We’re told that we can’t respond to this in a meaningful way except through a [rehearing],” Vice Mayor Howard Coates said. “Maybe one of the failings is that we don’t have an ordinance that specifies how to go about this.”
Margolis noted that a closed session would allow council members to discuss their concerns. He also said it would allow for continued talks between Wellington and Equestrian Village representatives.
“I think it’s also appropriate for [them] to continue the conversation to see if there can be a meeting of the minds somewhere soon so we can come to a resolution, possibly before Jan. 30,” he said.
Equestrian Sport Productions attorney Dan Rosenbaum agreed. “I think that will really help the process,” he said. “What I had suggested was the possibility of a settlement ordinance because I don’t see where your code has a provision where the council can get together, come up with an offer and present it to us.”
But the conversation was derailed when Riedi suggested that Wellington respond to a petition by Equestrian Sport Productions to have the lawsuit reexamined. Previously, Wellington has not mounted a defense to such petitions, even though it is a named party in the lawsuit.
“It is important that the court asked Wellington to respond to this,” Riedi said. “I don’t think that it should be taken lightly. I understand that in other cases, the village has not stepped forward… but I believe the village should put its position in.”
Councilman Matt Willhite agreed and made a motion for Wellington to defend the petition. “We think our position is defensible,” he said. “We have a right to defend our position, which represents the village.”
Margolis seconded the motion.
But Councilwoman Anne Gerwig said she believed lawyers from the Shubin & Bass Law Firm, which represents the Jacobs family, were defending the village’s position.
“The reason this council decided not to defend the [petitions] that were filed was because both sides seemed to be interested in defending their opinions,” she said.
Riedi said that he thought there were some aspects about the village’s position that could be better explained.
Coates said he was concerned that the decision might have been pre-determined.
“This is not the first time that an issue has come before this council where I feel like the decision was made before we even had the meeting,” he said. “We had numerous meetings where the issue of responding to the petition was discussed, and the consensus of this council, up until tonight, was that we do not respond.”
Coates was also concerned at how Riedi had come to be chosen to represent Wellington in litigation. “Lo and behold, we come to this meeting tonight and without the approval of the council, we hear that we’ve retained Mr. Riedi as an attorney in this matter,” he said. “And then, unsolicited, Mr. Riedi says, ‘By the way, I think you should be responding.’ I don’t know what the perception of the public is, but my perception is that it stinks.”
Coates said he wanted an investigation done on the matter.
“I want an investigation into how Mr. Riedi got involved in this, and whether the issue of his retention also revolves around the advice he has rendered to this village,” he said. “What I think needs to be investigated is if there was discussion with Mr. Riedi that involved the council’s position on whether or not to respond, and whether that was conveyed to other council members. This is not the first time that an issue has come before this council where everyone seems to be in lockstep, that a decision has already been made.”
Councilman John Greene called the question on the motion, and it failed 3-2, with Coates, Gerwig and Greene opposed.
“I think we have discussed this at length… and made the decision that we are not responding to [petitions],” Greene said. “I don’t feel we should change that course.”
Instead, Schofield proposed that council members check their schedules in order to arrange a closed session with Riedi.
ABOVE: An artistic rendering of the controversial Equestrian Village project.