Wellington’s Global Dressage Festival Scores a Victory Over Political Opponents

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Palm Beach International Equestrian Center's Stadium complex that will host the Global Dressage Festival and Winter Equstrian Festival grass derby field events in the 2013 winter circuit. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

WELLINGTON, Florida, Dec. 11–The vice mayor of the Village of Wellington delared his intention Tuesday night to file a complaint with the Palm Beach Commission on Ethics over what he described as “lockstep” decisions made by political opponents of Palm Beach International Equestrian Center’s Global Dressage Festival.

In a rare victory for the organizers of America’s richest dressage circuit with almost $300,000 in prize money almost a year since the election of a majority on the council that governs the village and has revoked previous approvals for the dressage show grounds, three of the five council members voted in favor of a move that favors the organizers.

The turnaround in the fortunes of Wellington Equestrian Partners that own the Palm Beach show grounds hosting both the dressage events and the Winter Equestrian Festival of 12 weeks of jumper and hunter competitions came in a sparsely attended public hearing on whether to accept an agreement worked out between the show organizers and the village.

Tuesday’s meeting came after top international jumper and hunter riders joined with dressage competitors in warning against attacks on the Wellington show grounds that are funded privately with no taxpayer dollars.

Wellington Equestrian Partners (WEP) have spent tens of millions of dollars constructing a new dressage facility of five arenas with world class footing, a covered arena that can hold more than three full size dressage rings and 200 permanent stables alongside a grass derby field for jumpers and hunters.

The dressage grounds are on polo fields that were the original center of equestrian sports in Wellington. But they were no longer used for competition. The dressage grounds were built in time for last winter in the second phase of rebuilding the Palm Beach center that has become the world’s largest winter equestrian destination. The village council at the time approved construction of the dressage grounds plus a condominium hotel and a boutique retail plaza.

A political campaign against the hotel and the retail plaza funded with hefty campaign contributions from a single family, the Jacobs, opposed to the development led to election of opponents of the project and gave them a majority on the five-member council.

That new council revoked the approvals. To save the dressage circuit and the derby field, the developer shelved plans for the hotel and the retail center.

However, the new majority limited use of the facility to six months–from Nov. 1, 2012, to April 30, 2013–thus depriving charities and non-profit groups from free use for 30 days a year as well as competitions under cover during Wellington’s hot and humid tropical summers.

The Wellington partnership filed a lawsuit in Palm Beach Circuit Court seeking to oveturn the the revocation. The court asked the village government to respond, but the council decided against doing so.

At the same time, the WEP group negotiated a settlement with the government of the village of 55,000 residents that would allow year round use.

That agreement was the central issue at Tuesday night’s meeting.

Debate among the council members turned fiery when an outside lawyer suggested the council should reverse itself again and respond to the court, an action supported by the mayor and another council member who have opposed the dressage facility.

“It stinks!”Vice Mayor Howard K. Coates, Jr. declared.

He said the “gratuitous” recommendation of the lawyer that meshed with the opinions of opponents of the dressage grounds smacked of decisions made in violation of Florida’s open meeting or so-called “Sunshine” laws, perhaps the strongest in the United States and designed to guard against decisions made behind closed doors.

“This needs to be investigated,” he said. “This appears to be an improperly done process. This is not the first time we’ve had the votes that make a decision in lockstep. It’s quite frustrating. We’re at a point where it needs to be looked at.

“My belief is there has been a Sunshine violation. There is too much consistency in the positions of the three members. It’s incredible.”

The village announced that the formal complaint would be filed on behalf of the vice mayor with the Palm Beach Commission on Ethics within the next few days. The purpose of the commission “is to foster integrity in public service, to promote the public’s trust and confidence in that service, and to prevent conflicts between private interests and public duties.”

Mark Bellissimo, the WEP managing partner, told the council he was willing to accept what is already in place–the competition and warmup rings, 200 permanent stables, the Van Kampen covered arena–and erect temporary tent stabling, spectator seating and a VIP pavilion “so we can move forward as a community.”

“What’s the problem with that?” he asked.

To not do so, he said, would incur legal costs that could run into “millions of dollars.”

“At the end of day all we’re asking for is the right to do what what we have already done and that has already been approved. We want to tone everything down.”

John Greene, one of the three council members who has previously opposed the dressage facility, objected to being lumped with Mayor Bob Margolis and Matt Willhite. Instead, he voted with the vice mayor and Anne Gerwig against responding to the court order. The effect is that the court will determine the lawsuit based on the case made the Wellington partners and an opposing filing from the the Jacobs family.

The council decision on the settlement agreement was to approve attorneys for both sides to discuss the issue for the next five days to seek a solution.