ST. PETERSBURG — They clamored for the petitions by phone, got them in the mail, downloaded them from computers, signed them at the request of clipboard-wielding advocates and stuffed them by the thousands into boxes across the city.
Now many city residents are learning that their eagerness to have a say about the fate of the city's Pier has gotten them involved in a lawsuit — whether they want it or not.
Former City Council member Kathleen Ford, who filed the suit against the city on behalf of herself and the petitioners, has alerted signers by postcard about the legal action and given them a deadline to decide how they will be aligned.
"I have named you as a plaintiff seeking the right to vote on the Pier. If you have changed your mind since you signed the petition, and no longer wish to vote on the Pier, please let me know by January 17, 2013, and I will then change you from being named a plaintiff, to being named as a defendant," the mailer said.
The city has countered, saying the suit was brought on behalf of people not seeking to be part of the legal action and that it should be dismissed. This comes days before a scheduled court-ordered mediation. In fact, the city is asking that the Jan. 18 attempt at a settlement be postponed.
The dispute has devolved into a struggle beyond the courtroom. Copies of a letter said to be written by Ford and published on a local website, along with her postcard to petitioners, have been attached to the city's court filings. Emails exchanged between Ford and a former assistant city attorney, who wanted his wife's name pulled from the suit, also have made their way into court documents.
Ford declined to discuss the case with the Times. "I'm not litigating this in the press," she said.
Joseph Patner, head of litigation for the city, also declined to talk.
Ford filed her suit last August, seeking to force the city to hold a referendum to amend its charter so as to "preserve and refurbish the iconic inverted pyramid" that is St. Petersburg's current Pier. The suit seeks a temporary injunction to halt demolition of the 1973 structure pending the court's ruling and outcome of a vote. More than 15,000 petitioners supported the referendum drive by voteonthepier.com, a group headed by Safety Harbor resident and Northeast High School graduate Tom Lambdon.
In December, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Amy Williams ordered the two sides to early mediation. Patner argued for dismissal of the suit on technical grounds. Williams granted his request in part, but held that Ford had the basis for legal action and allowed her to file an amended suit, naming each of the 15,652 petitioners.
Now the city wants the court to ask Ford to "vouch for her authority to represent those parties."
Included in the city's filings are affidavits from people who say that though they signed a petition, they did not agree to sue the city and had not spoken with Ford about a lawsuit.
"I find it extraordinarily surprising that signing a petition makes you a necessary party to litigation," said Michael P. Allen, a professor at Stetson University College of Law.
"Simply mailing a postcard to them is not enough to satisfy the requirements associated with making a person a party to a litigation unwillingly,'' he said. "The U.S. Constitution would not allow anything that happens in this lawsuit to be binding on anybody who has been named, but has not formally been served or agreed to waive such service."
St. Petersburg resident Nina J. Light has asked Ford to remove her name from the suit.
"When I signed the petition, months ago, I was told that the petition was being used so that the general public could pick the design that would replace the old inverted pyramid that is in such ill repair. I never had any idea that this group would turn their efforts into "Stop the Lens" (and that is what all this is about!)," she wrote, referring to the proposed replacement of the current Pier.
Ford also heard from former assistant city attorney Robert Eschenfelder, who told the Times that he had asked that his wife, Beth, be dropped from the case, but then realized that Ford was following the judge's orders to name each petitioner.
"(Beth) doesn't really feel passionately one way or the other and doesn't understand the need to name all the individual petitioners in the lawsuit," he said.
"The reason ALL of the petitioners must be named in this lawsuit is because each and every one of them has an interest (the right to a referendum on the preservation of the Pier) that will be impacted by the Court's decision," Ford wrote in a letter posted on the local website.
"Furthermore, I do not need all of the petitioners' 'permission' to be included in the lawsuit because they are "necessary parties." Their participation in this lawsuit is indispensable to the Court ruling on any one petitioner's complaint. Now that we have to name them, however, it is appropriate to give them notice of the lawsuit. And, we have prepared a notice to be mailed and posted."
That notice told petitioners that if they decided not to be plaintiffs in the Pier effort they would be named as defendants, an assertion disputed by the city.
"This is wrong and smacks of coercion," the city's court filing said.
Allen, the Stetson professor, said he is unclear about what's behind Ford's reasoning, but that a person could initially be made a defendant and then realigned as an involuntary plaintiff. This appears to be necessary, he said in an email, "because of Judge Williams' ruling that all the petition signers must be formal parties to the litigation in order for it to proceed."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.