A motion to reject all bids to lease a 300-plus-foot section of city-owned riverbank for private boat docking facilities was defeated after the president of Marietta City Council weighed in to break a tie vote during a special council session Thursday afternoon.
"This has been a very difficult decision, but we're under the letter of the law, which is why I voted 'no' (against rejecting the bids)," council president Walt Brothers said after casting the deciding vote.
Councilman Steve Thomas, D-3rd Ward, was unable to attend Thursday's meeting, which left only six council members to vote on the measure that, if approved, would have required J.J. Sands, owner of the Valley Gem Sternwheeler, and Dan and Shana Woodford, owners of the Muskingum River Boat Docks, to re-bid on the 10-year riverbank lease.
The lease area up for bid is just south of the Washington Street Bridge and the current mooring location for the Valley Gem Sternwheeler, and is the site of the Muskingum River Boat Docks, owned and operated by the Woodfords since 2009.
In December, city council members decided to advertise for bids on the property after learning the latest lease had expired at the end of 2011.
Only the Woodfords and Sands submitted bids for the lease, and when the documents were opened on Feb. 14 the city administration recommended Sands be approved as he was the highest bidder, offering $3,141 per year. The Woodfords had submitted a bid of $3,002.
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City law director Paul Bertram III said the city's bid specifications were met by both bidders, but some council members questioned whether Sands would continue to operate private boat docks in that area or use it for commercial purposes related to the Valley Gem.
The bid specifications required the docks be used for private boats no more than 90 feet in length.
"It's very clear in our specifications that the private docks and Valley Gem would be kept separate," Councilman Tom Vukovic, D-4th Ward, said Thursday. "But I believe (Sands) wants to use that lease area for commercial purposes. And I don't want to see our local boaters lose that dock space."
He added that once the lease is let no future council would be likely to rescind it.
"Once the Woodfords have to move out and the Valley Gem is in, it will stay that way," Vukovic said. "And that looks to me like it would be a violation of the lease agreement."
Councilman Harley Noland, D-at large, agreed, noting that the Valley Gem Sternwheeler and its accompanying barge, the Miss Lily, would encroach on the waters occupied by the private docks when Sands links the two vessels for additional passenger space several times a year.
"The Valley Gem would then be within the non-commercial area," he said.
Noland also refuted rumors that city council is not allowing the Valley Gem to dock anywhere in Marietta. He said the sternwheeler would still be able to operate from its current berth beneath the Washington Street Bridge.
In fact, council had also developed a lease agreement for the section of riverbank occupied by the Valley Gem and advertised it for bids in December as well.
But Sands was the only bidder on the Valley Gem property, and that lease was unanimously approved by council Thursday.
"I couldn't be happier to pay the city for lease of that property," Sands said. "The city should be paid for use of that area."
He explained there had been no lease agreement when his father began the sternwheeler excursion business back in 1973, because the city gave him license to use that area for as long as he needed it. Sands later took over his father's business and that agreement continued until this year.
In the end, Vukovic, Noland, and Roger Kalter, D-1st Ward, voted in favor of rejecting the bids, but Councilmen Michael Mullen, I-at large, Mike McCauley, D-2nd Ward, and Denver Abicht, D-at large, opposed the measure, with Brothers adding his vote to defeat the proposal.
"I believe Mr. Sands was the high bidder and I personally can't find any reason not to accept his bid," McCauley said. "And he followed the law on the bidding procedure."
"We need to vote the way our constituents want us to vote," he said. "I've had emails, letters and phone calls about this and I'm voting 'no' on rejecting the bids."
Mullen concurred, adding that, although both bidders met the specifications, Ohio Revised Code requires such leases to be awarded to the highest bidder.
"Our personal thoughts are not what the law proscribes," he said.
Law director Bertram said Thursday that a letter to council from the Woodford's attorney, indicating the possibility of legal action against the city and suggesting the bids be rejected, was not the reason council members considered rejection of the bids.
Asked why rejecting the bids was proposed by council, Bertram said that decision was made during an executive session Tuesday, and by law the council's reasoning could not be disclosed.
Defeat of the measure means the city administration's recommendation that Sands be awarded the lease still stands, and the issue will be up for a formal vote during the next city council meeting March 21 at 7:30 p.m. in the community building at Lookout Park.