CLEARWATER — A judge on Tuesday threw out a lawsuit filed by two residents that sought to derail the results of a Nov. 5 voter referendum that approved a new downtown aquarium.
The plaintiffs, Thomas Petersen and Inge Spatuzzi, argued that the city violated the Florida Constitution by entering into a tentative agreement with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. They argued that the referendum's results should be voided because the ballot's language was defective.
The city countered that the ballot language was clear. The city said its agreement with the aquarium was just a template for future negotiations, and it would not leave taxpayers on the hook if the project failed.
Circuit Judge Jack R. St. Arnold ruled in the city's favor.
"In clear and unambiguous language the voters were provided with fair notice of the chief purpose of the proposed charter amendment," the judge wrote. "The voters were not misled and were informed of the decision they were requested to make."
Last November, the city got voter approval to enter into negotiations with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for a 60-year lease on the waterfront property currently occupied by City Hall.
"The city and council were comfortable all along that the language was appropriate and met the standard that was set, and we will proceed with the next steps," Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said Tuesday.
Aquarium officials were pleased by the ruling. "We always felt assured that the lawsuit was flawed and that the city's actions were appropriate," said aquarium CEO David Yates.
The plaintiffs live in condominiums near the site of the proposed new aquarium.
"We believe that the judge got it wrong, that the voters were misled by the language used, and that the deal can't be certain until any appeal is decided, so the city would be reckless to enter into a lease under these circumstances," Petersen said.
CMA will be allowed to build an aquarium on the City Hall property only if negotiations with the city bear fruit. The aquarium would also pay $7.5 million to the city toward the cost of building a new city hall. That money would be generated by a 50-cent surcharge on tickets at the new aquarium. After that sum was paid, the aquarium would pay $250,000 annually to the city for the remainder of the lease.