ST. PETERSBURG — A judge's order that the city proceed to mediation to resolve a lawsuit contesting plans to demolish its Pier and build a replacement could add another hurdle to what has been an unpredictable and controversial process.
On Wednesday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Amy Williams ordered mediation in a lawsuit filed by former City Council member Kathleen Ford seeking a referendum to save the 1973 inverted pyramid. The suit asks for an injunction to stop demolition pending the court's ruling and outcome of a vote. Mediation could take place within 60 days.
City Council members are scheduled to vote on the next phase of the $50 million replacement Pier. Today, the council will decide whether to approve $5.4 million to allow Michael Maltzan Architecture — designers of the new Pier known as the Lens — to complete the design and Skanska USA Builders to continue preconstruction services.
It's anyone's guess what will happen next. Some council members are calling for a lull in the process, while others advocate pushing ahead.
Mayor Bill Foster said the developments with the Ford lawsuit were not unexpected.
"That is all very standard protocol," Foster said. "When the judge orders mediation, you do so and do so in good faith. I've always said, until I get different marching orders from the City Council or the court, we're going to proceed as planned."
Council member Charlie Gerdes said he is more concerned about the efforts of another group, Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, that is collecting petitions to stop the Lens.
"While I support going forward with the Lens, I also realize that there is this potential major roadblock that needs to be dealt with," he said. "I am going to suggest considering holding back on Lens-specific spending until we get this referendum issue resolved one way or the other, which may include putting a referendum on the ballot ourselves. I think the reality is, we are going to have to confront a referendum at some point. … Let's take the bull by the horns and put a referendum on the ballot and get the answer faster."
The catalyst for Ford's suit was the council's rejection of an effort by the group voteonthepier.com to get a Pier question on the Nov. 6 ballot. The group collected more than 20,000 signatures, 15,652 of which were certified by the Pinellas County supervisor of elections.
Council member Wengay Newton, who signed the first petition, sees the judge's decision as another reason to pause.
"I think everybody should stand down. I will probably move to do a deference until we get this mediation done," he said.
Colleague Karl Nurse recently joined Newton in opposing the new Pier.
"The rational thing to do is to stop and not to commit to spending any more money until we sort out this legal issue," he said. "Whether people will do that or not, I don't know the answer. There is a faction that is, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."
The council voted to demolish the five-story inverted pyramid in 2010. Officials have said that an engineering report showed that the foundations of the Pier approach and area around it are crumbling. The building itself also needs costly repairs and the attraction requires an annual operational subsidy averaging about $1.4 million, the city says.
Supporters of a new Pier say the decision has come after years of study and public input.
"I intend to move forward with the project that we've spent years planning and years working on," council member Steve Kornell said. "I think the process was a fair process, and I think the design is a fantastic design for our waterfront."
Another firm supporter of the design, council member Jeff Danner, also believes the project should proceed. Many residents have sent emails urging that the new Pier be built, he said. Danner added that developments in the Ford suit are not a concern.
"I don't see the council stopping the process and going to a referendum. We've already taken that vote and decided to proceed," he said.
Ford and her supporters welcomed the judge's decision urging mediation.
"The court would like us to come together to come up with ballot language to get this matter resolved, and we want to get this done," Ford said.
Joseph Patner, head of litigation for the city, had argued for dismissal of the case on procedural grounds. Judge Williams granted part of his request and gave Ford until Dec. 12 to file an amended suit. Ford said she will.
No date has been set for the mediation ordered by Williams.
Council member Jim Kennedy said he will not be thinking of the lawsuit when he makes a decision about the Lens today.
"I see no connection between the lawsuit and a decision," he said. "The legislative authority that the City Council has to appropriate money is totally separate and independent from whatever Ms. Ford's lawsuit is."
But Kennedy, who missed Tuesday's workshop on changes to the Lens design, said he has questions about the project and wants to hear the views of people whose opinions he values. He said he would not oppose delaying the vote. "This has been a very long process, and I don't see a need to sprint to the finish line at this point in time," he said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.