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Judge rules in city's favor in Pier lawsuit

ST. PETERSBURG — Bid farewell to the iconic inverted pyramid that has beckoned visitors to the city's waterfront since 1973.

A judge's ruling Friday makes it almost certain the unusual Pier will be demolished. What, if anything, will rise in its place remains the subject of contentious debate.

The Pier's death knell was sounded by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Jack Day, who ruled against former St. Petersburg City Council member Kathleen Ford and five others in their bid to force a referendum on its fate.

Ford, a lawyer, sued after the council rejected an attempt by the group voteonthepier.com to get a Pier question on the ballot. The group had amassed more than 20,000 signatures in a months-long petition drive.

Day ruled the petition did not provide the basis to compel a charter amendment referendum. He also ruled that demolition of the Pier does not require a vote.

"We are obviously pleased with the court's decision today, and appreciate the court's thoughtful review of the facts and law surrounding this case," Mayor Bill Foster said.

Safety Harbor resident Tom Lambdon, who led the effort by voteonthepier.com, called the ruling "very, very sad."

"The more than 23,000 people who signed our petitions shouldn't have to fight so hard against City Hall,'' he said. "Silencing the voters will come to a head on Aug. 27 (the date of the city's primary election)."

But Foster, pointing out that he had publicly supported the effort to get the measure on the ballot, said he doesn't fear a backlash.

Ford, who once ran against Foster for mayor, said she respects the decision and doesn't know whether she will appeal.

Day's ruling seemed to send a message to both sides.

"Clearly, thousands of concerned citizens wanted some kind of vote about the future of the pier," he wrote. "It is most unfortunate more attention wasn't paid to the requirements of law at the beginning stages of their effort."

The judge's ruling ends one skirmish in the bitter battle over St. Petersburg's waterfront. Voters may yet get to vote on the Pier.

Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, which is fighting plans for a new $50 million pier, called the Lens, is confident it will soon collect the required signatures to legally warrant a vote to halt the project. Meanwhile, the City Council will hold a public workshop April 18 to discuss the opposition's technical concerns about the Lens, and to discuss the latest referendum challenge. On May 2, the council will decide whether to release additional money for the Lens.

With the project in an apparent state of flux, William Ballard, president of Concerned Citizens, said, "It makes no sense to proceed with the destruction of the Pier without knowing the path the city is on is clear."

But supporters of the Lens, led by international TV pitchman Anthony Sullivan, are prepared to redouble their efforts.

"This is a great day for the city," said Sullivan, founder of WOW Our Waterfront St. Pete.

"We will do everything in our power to ensure that the people of St. Petersburg get the new pier and are not left with a boarded up, dilapidated building."

The structure is scheduled to close May 31, regardless of the surviving petition drive. Demolition is scheduled to follow in late summer.

Council member Steve Kornell also was gratified with the ruling.

"It gives a clear-cut answer that the city's position was correct and the idea that we somehow found a flimsy legal technicality to violate people's rights is something the judge did not agree with," he said.

City Attorney John Wolfe had advised council members they were under no legal requirement to hold a referendum based on the voteonthepier.com petition. The city's charter, he said, addresses petitions only for a proposed ordinance or repeal of an ordinance, while state law refers to petitions only in relation to changing a charter. The petition did not contain that language.

"It was defective and we have been saying that since last year,'' said Joe Patner, the city's head litigator, who fought the case.

Going forward, however, city attorneys have conceded that the Concerned Citizens' petition drive would be legally conforming, and the council would have to consider its proposed ordinance to terminate the city's contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture, designers of the Lens.

The city has a $4.7 million contract for architectural and engineering services with Maltzan. The contract with Maltzan allows the city to suspend or terminate work at any point, but it would have to pay the costs and fees already incurred.

Voteonthepier and its supporters are pinning their hopes on the Concerned Citizens' effort.

"There are thousands and thousands of St. Petersburg voters who would like to have a say about their beautiful waterfront," Ford said.

City Council member Wengay Newton, a staunch opponent of the Lens, said he fully expects the group to get its initiative on the ballot.

"It's sad to hear the judge isn't recognizing the intent of over 20,000 people who signed petitions," he said. "Either way, the people are going to vote."

He emphasized that critics don't want a referendum every time the city spends $50 million. No public votes are needed to spend $90 million on a new police station and water treatment plant, he said.

The Pier is different, he said. "It's about an asset that belongs to the people, not self-serving politicians."

Council member Leslie Curran, a Lens supporter and a member of the jury that chose the design, is pleased the city prevailed in the Ford suit.

She acknowledged the other opposition group will be an issue.

"What's going to happen will happen," she said. ''We'll deal with that when we get there."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459.

Judge rules in city's favor in Pier lawsuit 04/05/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 11:25pm]
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