ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council decided late Thursday night not to kill the $50 million Lens project and instead let voters decide the fate of the contract with designer Michael Maltzan Architecture in an Aug. 27 referendum.
Council member Charlie Gerdes made a motion to kill the controversial Lens deal that has roiled the city, but his effort died when no other member backed his proposal. The council instead voted 8-0 to let residents decide the issue.
"Let the chips fall where they may," council member Leslie Curran said. "We need to have an opportunity to let democracy work."
The council also voted unanimously to include the word Lens in the referendum title, which was not in the original ordinance signed by more than 20,000 people to get the issue on the ballot.
Residents will vote yes or no on: "An ordinance terminating the Michael Maltzan new pier design agreement based on the Lens concept."
"We have a moral obligation to put it on the ballot and to call it what it is," council Chairman Karl Nurse said.
Prior to the vote, mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford reminded the council that she was before them a year ago and told them to put the issue to voters. Mayor Bill Foster also told the council that he had wanted the issue on last November's ballot.
Foster, who is seeking re-election, noted that he and Ford rarely agree on anything.
The council rejected the idea in August.
Residents will vote as a result of a petition drive spurred by Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg.
"I am thrilled," said Bud Risser, one of the group's leaders. "They finally listened to the people."
After months of controversy, support for the Lens began to crumble among major supporters Thursday.
First, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to Foster and the council urging the city to end the contract.
Chris Steinocher, president and CEO, explained how the group had always supported the Lens. But the group had never expected the issue to go on the ballot.
He stressed that the city shouldn't be without a pier.
"Nothing is not an option," Steinocher said. "If we are going to change the process, let us make the process fair."
The chamber also asked the city to immediately start a new process to find a new design and allow the Lens to be a finalist, noting that taxpayers already have spent $3 million on that design.
Later in the day, the project's biggest cheerleader conceded defeat.
Anthony Sullivan, leader of Wow Our Waterfront St. Pete, stood in front of City Hall and said the Lens has pitted neighbor against neighbor.
The animosity isn't good, the TV pitchman said. He urged the council to stop the contract.
"Maybe we can get together to build a pier for the city," Sullivan said. "We need to come together as a community."
Thursday's debate was the first time opponents and critics agreed on something: Both sides wanted residents to vote.
Willi Rudowsky, a Lens supporter, said the city failed by not educating the public about the project and addressing the wording of the petition title. But she supported putting it on the ballot.
"There are people who support the Lens," she said, "and they would feel disenfranchised if they are not allowed to vote."
Lorraine Margeson, an anti-Lens critic and candidate for City Council, said: "Don't you dare not let us vote."
But even if both sides agreed that the issue should go on the ballot, it was for different reasons and tension still festered.
More than 30 minutes after the council decided the ballot language, members still bickered and took jabs at each other about how to educate the public before the vote.
At one point, council member Steve Kornell asked: "Can we tone down the rhetoric and have a real discussion?"
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459.