ST. PETERSBURG — With a referendum aimed at canceling the contract between the city and Lens designer Michael Maltzan Architecture in little doubt, City Council members are being asked to add ballot language of their own to the citizen-instigated public vote.
A scheduled Thursday discussion could be prolonged and circuitous, starting with Mayor Bill Foster's trio of suggestions to gauge the desires of residents about the next phase of the city's 114-year Pier tradition, if voters make it clear they don't want the Lens.
At least one council member is not in favor of adding questions to the Aug. 27 ballot, which centers on an ordinance proposed by Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg that would terminate the contract with Maltzan. The group collected more than 20,000 signatures, currently being validated by the city clerk.
As proposed in a memo from City Attorney John Wolfe, voters would be asked nonbinding straw vote questions concerning whether they want to build a publicly funded municipal pier; have it built and operated by a private company with a 99-year lease; or whether they would prefer a flat, wooden fishing pier with basic amenities.
"I don't see the need for any more questions," council member Jeff Danner said.
"Nowhere did I see strong support for a wooden Pier. Why would you ask that question? I don't see those questions as solving anything. . . . You are never going to reach a consensus of design by referendum."
Council member Bill Dudley agreed.
"We are never, never, ever going to get a large plurality of people that will be in favor of something," he said. "They didn't like the inverted pyramid either when it was put in."
Council chair Karl Nurse said the questions could be better worded.
"I think the idea of something that says effectively, if we are not going to build the Lens, then give us an idea of what you want us to do going forward would be a good idea."
"I think the privatizing thing is such a horrible idea," he said, adding that he would oppose such a question.
"I would be happy to have a question saying essentially, would you like one of the options that the Pier task force recommended? There were four different designs that the Pier task force came up with," he said, expressing a preference for option four.
That option suggested a new building in the upland and a new, narrower pedestrian Pier structure.
Bud Risser, a leader of Concerned Citizens, is not impressed with the mayor's questions.
"If the mayor wanted to have a vote on the Pier replacement, the time to do that was last summer," he said, referring to an earlier petition from the group Voteonthepier.com.
"When you look at his proposals, it's clear that he really isn't asking for what the people want. He has trivialized the process by the choices he's offering. If he really wanted to know, he would have included several obvious alternatives," Risser said.
Anthony Sullivan, founder of WOW Our Waterfront St. Pete, which backs the Lens, said he thinks the mayor "is insuring himself" in case the Lens is rejected.
"I think the sad part is that the Stop the Lens people have offered no alternative, so right now, waiting for them, there is no Pier at all," he said. "Maybe it has to be handed over to the private sector, or we have the option of a wooden Pier, which will send the wrong message. I think St. Petersburg needs an iconic Pier and the Lens passes the test."
Danner said he believes the Lens has a good chance of winning.
"I think people like what it offers," he said.
Both Danner and Nurse said the city has not done enough to explain the proposed Pier design, which was chosen through an international competition.
"I think that to our detriment, the city did a horrible job of promoting it once it was picked,'' Danner said. "We have to keep explaining it to people."
"The continuing evolution of the project has been confusing to the public, even though in many respects it was to try to stay within budget and respond to what the public wants," Nurse said.
Dudley said he is frustrated. The process of what to do with the Pier has been ongoing for years, he said, and dozens of public meetings were held.
"I know where the mayor is coming from," Dudley said. "I know people are saying that the questions are lame. Has anybody else offered anything? Right now, these are three ideas. I think the three questions have got some legitimacy to them. The wooden pier, there are people who have actually said that."
Following its discussion Thursday, the council will vote on the ballot questions at its June 6 meeting.
Wolfe said the language for the Aug. 27 ballot must be submitted to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections by June 28.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.