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A day of business at City Hall

The developers of the Vinoy Park Hotel got another favor from City Hall last week. How they got it is as instructive as what they got. First, remember that the Vinoy project has been intensely debated in this city for 15 years, has been the subject of two referendums, has been dragged into the court, has faced countless public hearings and government actions. Remember that the public has afforded the private development extraordinary privilege, including granting the owner public parkland, a portion of a street and the rights to build a private marina in the public Vinoy basin. Remember that just three months ago the City Council, much to the chagrin of many residents, approved sweeping changes to a voter-approved land swap agreement _ without even so much as holding a public hearing first.

On Thursday, then, one might have expected an attentive council, one that not only would scrutinize further Vinoy concessions but would make certain the public was aware and protected. Instead, the council approved new concessions as casually as they would the minutes of the previous meeting.

A day of business for the Vinoy went something like this:

The agenda for Thursday's council meeting did not include the Vinoy. Administrators decided to add the item late, as if it were an emergency and waited until council members were asked to vote before handing out copies of a seven-page "Consent and Estoppel Agreement." The agreement has the effect of allowing lenders for the Vinoy project to take over the marina lease with the city, should Vinoy developers default, but that point was scarcely mentioned. Instead, attorneys told council members the agreement was necessary to help satisfy Vinoy lenders. Never mind if it satisfies the public.

Two things about the "consent agreement" are particularly notable: 1) Voters had intended to limit the right to lease the Vinoy basin, and allowing the lenders to take over the lease contradicts that intent; 2) The city attorneys who were recommending the agreement be approved had never even seen the lender's papers on which it was based.

To put it politely, the manner in which the agreement was adopted did not represent public policymaking at its best. The city agreed to give a private business, in this case a bank, the right to take over a marina in a public basin without even seeing the bank's agreement with the Vinoy development group. Is this the way City Manager Robert Obering conducts all his business dealings at City Hall, blindly?

Certainly Vinoy lenders would like to hide their business agreements. But they are not dealing with another bank. They are dealing with the public, the public's property and, frankly, the public's charity. One would hope Obering would try to explain that obligation to Vinoy developers; instead, he was too busy granting another concession. Doesn't anyone at City Hall represent the public interest anymore?

Council members and city administrators are right for wanting to help the Vinoy project succeed. What is disconcerting is their approach. To see them so eagerly and carelessly cater to a private developer is to wonder who they represent.