With the Village of Wellington locked in an increasing number of lawsuits with the owners of the Winter Equestrian Festival, the question of whether Wellington should continue to associate itself with the community’s signature horse show series arose at this week’s Wellington Village Council meeting.
During her council comments at the tail end of Tuesday’s meeting, Councilwoman Anne Gerwig brought up a planned Palm Beach County League of Cities luncheon scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 20 at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
“Is this council concerned about being in litigation with the entities that control that property?” Gerwig asked, noting that Wellington would be considered a sponsor of the luncheon. “I want to get this out in the open. I don’t want the League of Cities to be left hanging. My understanding is that it’s not costing Wellington anything, but we would be required to be a host.”
Village Manager Paul Schofield said that plans to host the luncheon at the show grounds had been made when Wellington was still negotiating with property owners Wellington Equestrian Partners about the litigation.
“Since that time, [the negotiations] have stopped and two different lawsuits have been filed,” Schofield said. “Under those circumstances, it would be my recommendation that we not continue.”
But Gerwig disagreed.
“I don’t understand why we would turn down an opportunity to showcase what we all agree is a world-class facility for show jumping,” she said. “It’s not an expense for Wellington. If we were putting some taxpayer money on the line here, I would say that I agree we can’t be in that kind of relationship while someone is suing us.”
Gerwig said she brought the issue to light because she didn’t want it to be swept under the rug.
“If we vote not to do it, that’s fine,” she said. “But I want a public discussion. I don’t want it to be anyone’s secret. The League of Cities is under the impression that this is scheduled. I don’t want anyone to be left in the lurch.”
Vice Mayor Howard Coates asked that if it is a League of Cities function, why Wellington is required to be listed as a host.
“They won’t hold the meeting without a municipal sponsor,” Schofield explained.
Councilman John Greene asked if Wellington could host the event at one of its own facilities.
Schofield noted that the Wellington Community Center is not available, and that because it is a luncheon, it would not be appropriate for the council chambers.
Coates said that council members must be aware of the implications of completely disassociating Wellington from the show grounds.
“If what we’re saying is that we’re going to extract ourselves from anything to do with the show grounds because of the litigation, then we’re no longer the equestrian capital of the world and we shouldn’t bill ourselves as that,” Coates said. “We shouldn’t have references on our web site to the horse shows or anything.”
He noted that Wellington often associates itself with the show grounds and the Winter Equestrian Festival, from touting itself as the winter home of show jumping to actual village-owned signs directing people to the show grounds.
“Assuming we’re all invited, I think it’s a good idea to showcase this village and take the opportunity to be a sponsor,” he said. “I want to be careful that just because we’re in litigation we don’t say we’re not going to have contact with this entity.”
But Greene said if not holding the event at an equestrian venue would cause an “identity crisis” for Wellington, they could hold it at another venue.
“If this is going to be a lightning rod in terms of location, why not look for more locations that are neutral hosting grounds?” he asked, suggesting other equestrian venues.
But Gerwig said that choosing the location was not Wellington’s responsibility. “It’s not our responsibility to search for a location,” she said. “The offer was made to hold it there.”
Greene asked Gerwig why she seemed to be endorsing holding it at the show grounds, which Gerwig said she wasn’t.
“I don’t want to leave the League of Cities without their luncheon date,” she said. “I don’t want to be the problem here. I don’t care if we ever host another luncheon, but I don’t want there to be a black eye about it. If it’s not going to happen, I want them to know that now.”
Schofield said that although he tries to stay out of policy decisions, he felt there could be hostility going into the event.
“The emotions on both sides run very high,” he said. “In the last number of days, there has been one new lawsuit filed, one amended lawsuit and articles that ran in the Palm Beach Post. The Palm Beach International Equestrian Center is a significant part of Wellington, and it’s part of our responsibility to make sure they can survive and be successful. But given where we are at, with the level of discord that exists, I’m not sure how you go into that venue in this circumstance.”
Given that opinion, Coates asked how Wellington could support the horse shows at all while the lawsuits continued.
“How is it, as a council, we can support anything that occurs there?” he asked. “If you draw a line in the sand and say that because they’re litigants we no longer want to associate ourselves with them, how can we support those activities?”
Gerwig agreed and noted that she was planning on attending the Great Charity Challenge on Saturday, Jan. 26.
“If that’s a problem, I’d like to have legal staff tell me that I shouldn’t go on the property,” she said.
Interim Village Attorney Glen Torcivia said it was not a problem in his opinion.
Greene said he was concerned that certain council members would not be allowed on the property for the luncheon, but Schofield didn’t believe that was the case. “I am certain they will allow us out there,” he said.
Mayor Bob Margolis suggested that Schofield contact horse show representatives to be sure that was the case, which Gerwig supported. “If we need to get assurance that the entire council is allowed, I think that’s appropriate to ask for,” she said. “I believe we have to proceed with some kind of relationship with them.”
Schofield said that he would speak with show promoters.
“I’ll find out if all members of council are welcome,” he said. “And also ask that during [the luncheon] we won’t be asked to comment on litigation one way or another. If so, then I’ll move forward with the League of Cities.”