One of the five Eugene Water & Electric Board commissioners will refrain from the crucial selection of a riverfront property master developer.
Commissioner Steve Mital said he wants to avoid any possible appearance of conflict of interest, so he will not vote this fall when the board chooses a developer to buy or lease EWEB property near the Willamette River.
One of the three development groups competing for the right to acquire or lease EWEB's land is led by the nonprofit University of Oregon Foundation.
Mital, a UO employee, said he has been advised that he could vote on the selection without having a conflict of interest. The foundation provides funding to the university.
But, Mital said, he will abstain from voting to avoid "the potential for a perceived conflict" of interest.
"For that reason, I let (EWEB General Manager) Roger Gray and the other four commissioners know on June 10 that as long as the UO Foundation's proposal is active, I will recuse myself from voting on it," he said.
Mital's abstention raises the possibility of a tie vote among the four remaining board members, though the board chairman says he will strive to avoid a deadlock.
Williams & Dame Development of Portland and Trammel Crow, one of the nation's largest developers, are vying with the UO Foundation for the right to develop EWEB's mostly vacant property on downtown's east edge.
Mital works for the UO as its sustainability director.
With a $600 million endowment, the UO foundation receives and disburses private donations to the university according to donors' wishes.
Because of his university employment and role as an EWEB decision maker, Mital said he sought a legal opinion to see if he would have a real or potential conflict of interest if he voted on the master developer selection.
Mital said the EWEB board's legal counsel, Eric DeFreest, wrote that he wouldn't have a real or potential conflict of interest because the UO Foundation is a separate organization from the university.
"I wouldn't gain personally" if the foundation acquired and developed the property, Mital said.
But there is the potential for a perceived conflict, Mital said, so he informed Gray and the other commissioners that he would abstain from voting.
Mital said he's working to expand the university's environmental loan fund that finances energy efficiency and conservation projects on campus.
There's a chance the UO Foundation could contribute to the fund, Mital said. That gave him another reason to "remove any connection, real or implied" to a conflict of interest, he said.
EWEB is attempting to sell much of its property along the river because the utility moved its operations division four years ago to a new complex on Roosevelt Boulevard in west Eugene.
EWEB and city leaders hope the drab, surplus industrial site near downtown can be redeveloped into apartments, condos, shops, offices and restaurants with public parks, paths and open space close to the river.
EWEB plans to use proceeds from the land sale or lease to start paying off the $64 million in debt it incurred to build the west Eugene operations complex.
The board is scheduled to pick a master developer this fall and start negotiating to sell or lease the site.
The land is to be developed according to a community-inspired master plan.
EWEB Board President John Brown acknowledged that without Mital voting to select a master developer, a tie vote is theoretically possible. But Brown said he and the other commissioners will make a selection by evaluating the background, building record and financial capability of each development team.
"This community deserves better than a split decision from its elected officials," Brown said.
But if the board deadlocks, "we'll go back and figure it out," he said.
The three development teams on July 30 presented their development visions for the riverfront property to the EWEB Board, a nine-member evaluation committee and the public.
The committee of EWEB and city of Eugene employees, and EWEB's economics consultant ECONorthwest, is evaluating the developers through a scoring system. The results will be given to Gray in September.
Gray could bring his recommendation to EWEB commissioners on Oct. 7 or later.
The evaluation committee and some EWEB commissioners next month could visit developments identified by the competitors as examples of their work. Interviews of people familiar with the developers' work also will be done, EWEB spokesman Joe Harwood said.
Mital said he will not accompany other commissioners on the development tours.
However, if an important question occurs to him during the board's discussions that would help the other four commissioners "better understand the pros and cons of each team's proposal, I wouldn't hesitate to ask," he said.