Group renews Obici fight

Published 7:46 pm Saturday, December 5, 2009

For the citizens’ group that formed earlier this year to try to protect Obici House from what they worried was its imminent destruction, the fight isn’t over, despite recent setbacks.

When a plan that was submitted in response to a city Request for Proposals was rejected outright on Nov. 6, the Citizens for the Preservation of Obici House sought a meeting with Suffolk officials to try to understand the decision and, perhaps, update the proposal.

Although Assistant City Manager Patrick Roberts expressed a willingness to set up that meeting in a Nov. 13 letter, city officials since then have been unwilling to pursue the matter.

“That RFP is completed,” Suffolk spokesperson Debbie George stated in a terse Nov. 23 email that is representative of the city’s response to questions about the Obici House RFP. “We will continue to evaluate options as it applies to Obici House.”

Those options may have been expanded this week, with the announcement by the Suffolk Professional Firefighters Union on Wednesday that it had submitted an unsolicited proposal to take control of the House and make certain repairs using volunteer labor.

“Anyone can submit an unsolicited proposal at any time,” George said on Wednesday in reference to questions about the fact that the firefighters’ proposal had come weeks after the RFP process had been closed.

Hearing of the firefighters’ plan and of the city’s apparent willingness to entertain proposals for Obici House outside of the RFP process, members of the Citizens’ group held a hastily convened meeting on Thursday and decided to give it another shot.

“The Citizens for the Preservation of Obici House are pleased to learn that the City is accepting unsolicited proposals for the preservation and re-use of the historic Obici House properties,” Susan Blair, the group’s president, wrote in a cover letter included with the proposal, which she said was to have been delivered on Friday. “Please accept the attached proposal in this regard, as it represents a thoroughly researched and fully supportable proposal to properly restore the House and again open it to the public.”

With two unsolicited proposals for restoring and reusing the historic home and carriage house that sit adjacent to the 18th green at Sleepy Hole Golf Course, the way forward for the city seems unclear.

On Wednesday, after hearing of the firefighters’ proposal, George said, “There is a very specific process that has to be followed.”

On Friday, though, after being told of the CPOH plans, she said, “There is no governing ordinance” covering unsolicited proposals in Suffolk.

George refused to identify who would be evaluating the proposals, though she acknowledged that they likely would be handled differently than an RFP originating from the city’s purchasing department.

She also said that the city’s attorney had determined that the firefighters’ unsolicited proposal would not trigger the city’s version of Virginia’s Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002, which is designed to provide a framework under which municipalities and government agencies can evaluate unsolicited proposals involving public property or facilities.

“It is not a public project,” she said in an apparent reference to the ordinance’s opening paragraph, which states that the PPEA “grants a public entity, the City of Suffolk, the authority to create public-private partnerships for the development of a wide range of projects for public use….”

A version of the PPEA, however, was recently used by the Southeastern Public Service Authority to negotiate the sale of the regional waste agency’s waste-to-energy plant to a private company.

Generally, the act allows a private company to make a proposal — often for construction of a school or extension of public utilities, for example — without the locality having to go through the process of setting up extensive project specifications in advance.

Once the original proposal is in hand, the locality must then post much of the plan and allow a set number of days for competing proposals to be developed and submitted.

In the case of SPSA, the original proposal by Covanta Energy Corp. was eventually passed over in favor of one offered within that period by a competitor, Wheelabrator Technologies Inc.

According to George, however, the PPEA doesn’t apply in the case of Obici House.

“The proposed use is not public,” she said, referring to the firefighters’ desire to use the building as a union hall.

As of noon on Friday, George said, the city had received only one unsolicited proposal for Obici House, assumedly from the union — though she would not confirm its origin.

She also declined to explain the process by which that proposal — or any others submitted — would be evaluated, and she declined to describe how, when or even if multiple proposals for the same facility would be compared.

“At some point, there has to be a public hearing” on any such proposal that City Council would consider accepting, she said. At the very least, she added, competing proposals could be presented then.

For its own part, in its cover letter to City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn, the Citizens for the Preservation of Obici House made clear its intention to stick with the process, wherever it goes.

“Should the City reject all unsolicited proposals on this matter, given the continued high level of community interest in the preservation of Obici House we urge the City to initiate a new Request for Proposal process to preserve this property,” Blair, the group’s president, wrote.