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Former St. Petersburg council member Kathleen Ford backs group fighting to save the Pier

ST. PETERSBURG — Former mayoral candidate and council member Kathleen Ford has joined a group fighting to save the Pier in a lawsuit against the city.

The suit seeks to force the City Council to allow a referendum on the inverted pyramid that has served as the city's Pier since 1973. It also asks for a temporary injunction to stop its demolition pending the court's ruling and the outcome of a vote.

The group voteonthepier.com, which had collected more than 20,000 signatures in an effort to put a Pier question on the Nov. 6 ballot, saw its hopes dashed early this month when council members denied the request.

City Council member Wengay Newton, a staunch supporter of the voteonthepier effort, learned of the suit from the Tampa Bay Times.

"I am not surprised. Whenever you get voter suppression, you're going to have lawsuits," he said. "It's a shame that it had to come to this."

Council member Karl Nurse, who voted with Newton to allow a Pier referendum, also was not surprised. "I think that disregarding all of those petitions was a mistake," he said.

"As to whether it's a legal mistake or not, that will be for the lawyers to tell us."

"We are confident in the appropriateness of the city's actions and we're looking forward to showing that in court," Joseph Patner, head of litigation for the city, said shortly after the city was served Thursday.

Meanwhile, another group of residents is preparing to take action against the city's plans to demolish the Pier and replace it with a new structure. William Ballard, a retired construction and banking lawyer, said his group's response will probably not take the form of a lawsuit. He praised Ford's efforts.

"We think Kathleen has hit the legal points quite well. I won't tell you what we are thinking about, because we have not worked through it yet," he said, acknowledging only that Bud Risser of Risser Oil Corp., who gave generously to the voteonthepier.com petition drive, is part of the yet-to-be-determined action.

Ford's lawsuit, filed on behalf of herself and those who signed the voteonthepier.com petition, states that the council's 2010 vote to demolish the inverted pyramid — "the utter and complete destruction of a significant part of the city's waterfront property" — conflicted with an earlier ordinance that called for its restoration.

The suit seeks to get the city to place "mandatory referendum language" on the ballot in the next general election or at a special election. The city's charter, it notes, states that "no waterfront or park property owned by the city may be sold, donated or leased without specific authorization by a majority vote in a citywide referendum."

City Attorney John Wolfe had advised the council that there was no legal obligation to hold a referendum based on the petitions. The city's charter, he said, addresses petitions only for a proposed ordinance or repeal of an ordinance, whereas state law refers to petitions only in relation to changing a charter.

Ford's complaint takes a different stance. It states that petitioners could not use the referendum process under the city's charter because the ordinance they would have proposed — restoration of the Pier — was already in place at the time the council passed a resolution to demolish the structure in 2010. "Petitioners acted in good faith," the suit says.

Despite 15,652 certified petitions and thousands more, council members voted 6-2 against a referendum.

Council member Jeff Danner said he and his colleagues "really weighed all the input from all the citizens, and that's why we voted the way we did."

"This was one group, and there wasn't even a clear consensus among the group about what they wanted," he said. "I am confident the council made the right decision."

After reading the complaint, council member Charlie Gerdes, a lawyer, said he has confidence in the city's legal position.

"I admire very much Kathleen's passion and commitment to the city she loves,'' he said. "I just think, legally, that the city did everything correctly."

Council member Steve Kornell is content to let the legal action take its course. "Hopefully, when the judge makes a ruling, people will come together and move on together."

Mayor Bill Foster could not be reached for comment.

The city, meanwhile, has signed a contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture, a Los Angeles firm, to design the inverted pyramid's replacement.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

Former St. Petersburg council member Kathleen Ford backs group fighting to save the Pier 08/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 23, 2012 10:57pm]
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