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Why Is Abele Afraid of Transparency in Sale of Valuable Milwaukee County Real Estate?

Jul. 18, 2012
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Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele unveiled his favorite proposal for the publicly owned 2 acres of prime real estate overlooking Lake Michigan, a 44-story tower dubbed The Couture.

Abele's announcement followed an informal vetting process conducted by an ad hoc committee that had only met once, a smattering of private discussions with some county supervisors, and no public input.

The Couture, proposed by Moderne developer Rick Barrett, would replace the county's Downtown Transit Center on East Michigan Street and feature high-end apartments, a restaurant, shops and a boutique hotel. Abele and Barrett say that no public dollars would be used for the $125 million project.

But Milwaukee County Supervisor Patricia Jursik, the chair of the Economic and Community Development Committee (ECD), has questioned the process through which Abele picked The Couture.

She said she had no opinion about the merits of the Couture proposal, which will be vetted by her committee. But she said she wasn't comfortable with how Abele backed the proposal publicly while withholding information from supervisors.

"This is a once-in-a-century opportunity to do something very significant," Jursik said. "It's across the street from the Calatrava, for crying out loud. You want to make sure that you do this properly. This is a very bad procedure that's being used. And, quite frankly, it's led to the county executive blessing this project and saying, 'Here it is. We're doing it. Period.'"

Jursik had wanted to schedule an ECD meeting on the proposals in September to allow more time for public input. On Friday, however, four Milwaukee County supervisors—David Bowen, Jim "Luigi" Schmitt, Steve Taylor and John Weishan, who form a majority of the ECD committee—called a special meeting for July 23, despite Jursik's objections. The July 23 meeting is about giving Abele the authorization to negotiate the sale of the property.

Abele Committee Vetted Four Proposals

The decision to look for the site's options was public and part of an overarching study of the development of the lakefront. But the way in which Abele picked The Couture was private.

Abele asked the city's development commissioner, Rocky Marcoux, to set up a committee to field Requests for Interest (RFI), a more informal way to gather proposals than Requests for Proposals (RFP).

Abele spokesman Brendan Conway said the county chose to go with an RFI process because it gave developers "more freedom" to come up with ideas for the site.

The RFI went out on April 2; responses were due on April 30.

The six members of the committee met once, on June 25, to go through the proposals and hear pitches from developers, Conway said.

"Rocky did this as an extra step," Conway said. "None of this was necessary. While all of this was going on, all of the board members on the economic development committee and anyone else who wanted to could be briefed on the proposals."

The committee selected Barrett's Couture, as did Abele, separately, according to Conway.

The members of the independent committee are not listed on the county's website, nor are there notices of the June 25 meeting. The committee members are Supervisor Russell Stamper II; the county's manager of real estate services, Craig Dillmann; philanthropist Michael Cudahy; architect Greg Uhen; Dan Casanova, senior economic development specialist for the city's Redevelopment Authority; and Marcoux.

The four proposals are nowhere on the county's site—although Abele stood in front of renderings of The Couture at last week's press conference—because the administration says the information in the RFIs is proprietary.

Conway said the public didn't need to weigh in at this point in the process.

"Why does there need to be public involvement?" Conway said. "There's public involvement at the county level. We haven't gotten there yet."

Conway said the county board would allow public hearings on the proposal and hopefully give the administration the go-ahead to sell the land and negotiate with Barrett.

Jursik: 'It Is a Mess'

Jursik, who called the transit center parcel the most important development site in the state, took issue with the way in which The Couture was selected, a process set up before she became chair of the Economic and Community Development Committee (ECD).

"I preferred an RFP, which is the formal way of doing proposals," Jursik said. "You can assure someone of confidentiality. You can review them. You can rate them. You can get a pretty good understanding of what they would be willing to offer. We never got to do that."

She said she discussed the process with members of the ECD committee and they wanted to see all four proposals. The item was on the committee agenda for June. But she said Abele's economic development director, Brian Taffora, didn't brief the committee. She said the administration had said it was concerned about sharing the proposals in a public meeting because they contained proprietary information.

Jursik said she felt concerned because the administration was treating the informal RFI process like a more formal RFP process.

In fact, the RFI states that it is "a preliminary step intended to foster [dialogue] about development opportunities and to establish a basis for future real estate negotiations" and that the submissions are not binding.

"A more defined process will be established by the county," the RFI explains.

She said the county's attorneys said the ECD committee could review the proposals in a closed session. But Taffora didn't bring the responses to the committee, Jursik said. Supervisors could see the information individually in his office.

"We never got the information" on the committee, Jursik said. "The county executive made the decision to go public with all of this information on the Barrett proposal, which our committee had been told could never be shared in an open meeting because it was proprietary. It's very strange to me. It's OK for the administration to share this on the front page of the paper, when our committee was not allowed to have a meeting because proprietary information would be disclosed? It is a mess."

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