ST. PETE BEACH — A judge's displeasure may force the cancellation of an August referendum on the city's comprehensive plan.
The City Commission will meet in special session at noon Monday to discuss comments made by Circuit Judge David Demers during an emergency court hearing Thursday.
"We were trying to be proactive and do what we thought the judge had previously ordered, but the judge's preference is that we not do anything until he rules at trial," City Manager Mike Bonfield said Friday. "Trying to do the right thing just created more problems."
Bonfield said he and the city's attorneys will recommend the referendum be postponed until the regular municipal election in March.
Demers called Thursday's hearing to hear arguments on a request from Ken Weiss, an attorney representing residents opposed to the comprehensive plan, for an injunction blocking the Aug. 24 referendum on revisions to the plan.
The plan was approved by voters in 2008, but subsequently was changed slightly at the urging of state officials. Under the city's charter the revised plan must again be approved by voters.
The 2008 referendum has been the subject of a half-dozen lawsuits filed by residents Bill Pyle, Bruce Kadoura and Richard McCormick.
Pyle, who was at Thursday's hearing with his attorneys, Weiss and Tony Battaglia, argues that the 2008 ballot language was misleading and therefore violated state law.
A trial on those and other issues relating to the 2008 referendum is scheduled for Aug. 19 and 20.
In a previous ruling, Demers indicated another referendum would be required because of the minor changes to the comprehensive plan, but he did not specifically rule on what the ballot question should say or when that referendum should be held.
Earlier this month, the City Commission scheduled the August referendum on the recommendation of its attorneys.
"The idea is to move these cases forward, to show good faith," Suzanne Van Wyk, a city attorney, said at the time.
After the commission vote, Weiss filed a request for an injunction to block the referendum until after the trial is concluded and Demers rules on the ballot language issue.
Thursday, the judge pointed to the time and resources the court had already spent on the case and said if the referendum were held in August, it could lead to a new round of litigation forcing the court to start all over again, according to both Weiss and Bonfield.
Demers preferred the referendum be delayed, Bonfield said, but appeared frustrated and uncertain he has the actual legal authority to cancel it.
An attorney representing Deborah Clark, Pinellas County's supervisor of elections, said Tuesday is the last day a decision can be made to cancel the referendum.
The judge indicated he would rule Monday on the injunction. Bonfield said Van Wyk has informed the judge that the commission will meet Monday to "reconsider" the August referendum.
"Unfortunately, it took a threat from the court to get the city to take the commonsense approach we originally suggested: postponing the referendum until after the trial and the judge makes a decision," Weiss said Friday.