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A Mixed Pedigree

Winter Park's blend of public and private interests raises control issues.

From the start, Winter Park has been sustained by an unusual combination of private interest and public subsidy. This hybrid, known as the Winter Park Recreational Association -- a 22-member nonprofit board that runs Winter Park on behalf of the city -- has at times been regarded with suspicion.

When Denver mayor Wellington Webb proposed selling the resort to the WPRA in 1993, critics of the $53 million deal accused boardmembers of scheming to take control of a public asset. There was speculation that the board would immediately "flip" Winter Park to another owner for even more money, pocketing the difference. Furthermore, because several longtime WPRA boardmembers belonged to the exclusive Arlberg Club, some skeptics wondered if the group's members were conspiring to take over Winter Park -- the very playground they helped launch.

After Webb renegotiated the city's agreement with the WPRA in 1994 and the ski area agreed to pay Denver $2 million per year to support urban parks, the city transferred ninety acres of city-owned land to the WPRA. This allowed the association to consolidate control of the 173-acre base area. Five acres of that property were sold to Houston-based Hines Inc. for the development of the 230-unit Zephyr Mountain Lodge condos, which opened in 1999.

However, once Denver selects a private partner to run the resort and develop the base, it's unclear what role, if any, the WPRA will play in Winter Park's expansion. Yet a turf battle between Denver auditor Don Mares and the WPRA is the latest example of how private business dealings and public accountability have a way of clashing at the resort.

What prompted Mares's interest in Winter Park was a real-estate transaction in 1998. The WPRA had arranged for the purchase of three and a half acres in downtown Winter Park for a planned gondola station after the resort determined that that land was the only possible site to run a gondola from the mountain into town. Such a gondola has long been desired by both the resort and the town of Winter Park, since it would link the two and give visitors and employees an easy way to travel back and forth without getting on the highway.

However, the desired site was owned by three different people, and Winter Park management feared that if the owners knew the resort needed the property for the gondola, they would inflate the purchase price. To further complicate things, one target parcel was owned by Nick Teverbaugh, Winter Park's mayor and a WPRA boardmember.

Teverbaugh took a four-month leave of absence from the board in 1998 because the town was going through zoning approval on plans for the Winter Park base area, and he didn't want to have a conflict of interest. While he was off the board, the WPRA negotiated with him and the other property owners through a front company, the Grand County Land Company. Teverbaugh insists he had no idea what the Grand County Land Company was when it came knocking at his door.

"The negotiations started with a representative whom I'd never met and who said he represented some developers who wanted the property for a larger project," says Teverbaugh. "We negotiated all this stuff and then finally got down to details. Before they signed the deal, they informed me who was behind the Grand County Land Company. They wanted me to know who was behind it so I could back out of it if I thought it was inappropriate."

Teverbaugh believed the construction of the gondola was vital to the town's future, and he sold the land for $430,000. (Winter Park wound up spending just over $1 million to assemble all the land it needed for the gondola, although construction is currently on hold.)

An anonymous tipster phoned the auditor's office and said the sale was an insider deal that should be investigated. Mares thought there was potential for conflict of interest on the WPRA board, and he decided to conduct an audit.

"We had enough concern that we wanted to pursue it further," he says.

Under the terms of the city's agreement with the WPRA, city parks and recreation director James Mejia represents Denver on the board and sees all the financial documents on which the board signs off. Last year, Mares contacted Mejia's office and asked to examine all the WPRA records relating to the sale, including correspondence and copies of the minutes from board meetings.

Mejia says he gave the auditor all of the documents relating to the actual land sale. But he drew the line at minutes from board meetings and other items he regarded as not pertinent to the real-estate transaction. He insists that public disclosure of that information could damage Winter Park.

"The problem is that then, marketing and financial information is in the hands of competitors," says Mejia. "No other resort has that same pressure."

After Mejia refused to give the auditor access to all of the requested documents, Mares filed a request under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA), which obligates public agencies to disclose most of their records unless there is a compelling reason for the information to be withheld.

"It was a way to get around the stonewalling," explains Mares.

The WPRA objected to the request, and the dispute wound up in a Hot Sulphur Springs courtroom. Last month, Grand County District Judge Richard Doucette dismissed Mares's request, ruling that the auditor had no legal standing to file suit. In a decision that startled many legal observers, Doucette said the auditor is not a "natural person," the term the law uses to describe someone seeking documents.

Mares now intends to ask the Colorado Legislature to take up the matter, maintaining that the judge turned the law on its head by singling out public officials as exempt from CORA.

"If any citizen can get information to line a bird cage, why can't I?" asks Mares.

Privately, some on the WPRA board say that Mares -- a potential mayoral candidate -- is pursuing the issue to get his name in the papers. "This is all about politics," says one.

Further muddying the waters is the presence on the WPRA board of William Dean Singleton, owner of the Denver Post. Singleton has been on the board since 1997 and has substantial real-estate holdings in the Fraser Valley. He reportedly told the board that his paper would crusade against Denver selling Winter Park, and he intervened when Mares retained local attorney Thomas Kelley to represent him in the open-records case.

Kelley is one of the best-known First Amendment attorneys in Denver and has represented the Denver Post in numerous trials over several decades. After Singleton told Kelley it would be a conflict of interest for him to represent the auditor and also work for the Post, Kelley withdrew as the Mares's counsel. (Singleton did not respond to requests for comment.)

Teverbaugh says Mares has tried to suggest there must have been wrongdoing, even though he's made no specific allegations.

"It's easy to imply that something had to be squirrelly or wrong with it," he says. "It's easy for the auditor to throw rocks at it."

The WPRA has handed over all the documents on the real-estate transaction to Mejia, adds Teverbaugh, and that's all it is obligated to do.

"The agreement between Denver and the WPRA doesn't enable the auditor of the City and County of Denver to audit Winter Park," he adds. "Winter Park reports to the director of parks and recreation."

Mares scoffs at this.

"WPRA is an agency of the city," says Mares. "They are a trustee over city assets, not unlike the art museum or botanic gardens. We have every right to audit them."

One reason the board has taken such a strong stand on the issue, according to Teverbaugh, is that Winter Park's competitors could use the open-records law to try to garner information on the resort's finances. He says that could scare away a development partner that the city is courting.

"If an elected official can say he has the authority to audit your minutes and your books, I worry that that could affect the negotiations with a future partner. Having a deal with a public entity and a private partner raises the issue of what information should be public. It's not black and white, which the auditor seems to think it is."

But Mares insists that when taxpayer-owned assets are involved, he has the right to see the books.

"The WPRA continues to be the trustee of the taxpayers' property and is subject to public scrutiny," says Mares. "I must have those documents and must be in control of the audit." -- Steers

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