ST. PETERSBURG — The summer months could turn one of the city's most controversial issues into a three-month, political sprint.
The finish line comes Aug. 27 when voters cast ballots on whether to move forward with building the $50 million Lens to replace the 1973 Pier.
The anti-Lens group Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg announced Friday that the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office has verified that they turned in enough signatures to force a public vote on the project.
"The citizens want a better answer for St. Petersburg," said Fred Whaley, one of the group's leaders. "We have done that today."
If passed, the group's ordinance will cancel the contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture, the Lens' designer. The vote will be held on the same date as the city's primary election, when the mayor and four council seats are on the ballot.
Concerned Citizens isn't opposed to another structure being built, but Whaley said the Lens isn't the right fit for one of the best waterfronts in the country. The group plans to educate voters this summer, he said, adding: "It will be a sizable campaign."
Bring it on, Lens supporters say. "I'm looking forward to it," said Anthony Sullivan, head of WOW Our Waterfront St. Pete. "I hope everyone can make an informed decision. I want everyone to know what the stakes are."
Sullivan declined to provide details on how supporters will work to win over residents. He didn't want to stoke any more controversy on the Pier's final day. "It's a historic day," he said. "I want to be respectful. I hope the Pier goes out with a bang. Today is a turning point."
At the news conference, council Chairman Karl Nurse accused administration officials of confusing voters by not using the word "Lens" in the possible ballot question and the title. Nurse said some "folks in the administration are content to muddy the waters."
The council squabbled over the issue during a workshop Thursday after the legal department wrote the possible question.
City Attorney John Wolfe scoffed at the accusation. "I have to follow what their ordinance says," Wolfe said. "Nowhere does it say Lens. Nowhere. If they wanted it to say Lens, they should have included it."
Meanwhile, mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford held a news conference later Friday at Demens Landing to discuss Pier issues. She reminded voters that she is appealing a judge's ruling that prevented residents from voting on whether to spare the current Pier from a wrecking ball. She sued the city last summer after council members rejected an attempt by the group voteonthepier.com to get a Pier question on the ballot. "The citizens deserve a vote," she said. "I don't think it's right without a vote by the citizens of St. Petersburg." She acknowledged time is crucial and doesn't know if a ruling would come before demolition starts later this year.
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.