ST. PETERSBURG — Faced with thousands of petitions demanding a vote on the Pier, City Council members decided Thursday to consider an ordinance to put the measure on November's ballot.
A public hearing and a decision to pass or reject the ordinance could come Aug. 2, one day before the Supervisor of Elections' deadline for ballot language.
City Attorney John Wolfe had said the city has no legal obligation to hold an election based on the petition effort, but the 20,597 petitions submitted by the group voteonthepier.com swayed council members Karl Nurse, Charlie Gerdes, Steve Kornell and Bill Dudley, who felt that the collective voice opposing the new $50 million Pier should be acknowledged.
"I candidly think we have an obligation to put something on the ballot," Nurse said.
Gerdes added, "I would agree that we have to listen to 20,000 voices."
For council member Wengay Newton, who has stood against his colleagues as they moved forward with the new Pier and worked with voteonthepier.com to save the current structure, the 5-3 vote was a victory.
"The people just want to vote," he said.
Council members Jeff Danner, Leslie Curran and Jim Kennedy were against putting a question on the ballot.
"If the majority of the people vote that the Pier is structurally sound, does it become so?" Kennedy asked afterward.
The city has said that the superstructure of the Pier approach and Pier head — the area surrounding the five-story structure — is crumbling, and the cost of renovation would be prohibitive.
But even supporters of putting a Pier question on the ballot appeared to be conflicted about their decision.
"Twenty-thousand petitions being turned in is something to consider," Kornell said, adding, though, that there has been a lot of misinformation in the community about the Pier project.
Gerdes said there had been plenty of time for people to get involved.
"It's very frustrating from my standpoint," Dudley said, noting that there had been a yearslong process to get to this point.
"My question is, where the heck were you in '05, '06 and '07?" he asked petitioners.
The 20-month effort to save the current Pier and get residents to vote is headed by Tom Lambdon of Safety Harbor.
"I'm very excited for the voters of St. Petersburg to finally potentially have the opportunity to have their voice heard regarding their Pier," he said Thursday after learning that his group had accumulated the requisite 15,652 verified petitions.
But according to Wolfe, ballot questions concerning the Pier will be nonbinding. And Lambdon's group might not get the simple question it wants, which is whether or not to save the current Pier.
Wolfe has offered several suggestions for the ballot questions, including whether the city should replace the existing inverted pyramid at an estimated $24 million more than the $50 million budget and whether it should cease the current plan and explore alternatives.
Council members will decide what goes on the ballot and have voted to discuss the questions at a committee meeting.
Meanwhile, the process to build the new Pier, known as the Lens, is continuing. On Tuesday, a city committee selected Skanska USA Building, which has an office in Tampa, to manage the construction. In May, the city signed a contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture, designers of the new structure. This week, Lisa Wannemacher, the architect's local partner, began making presentations emphasizing adjustments that have been made in response to public feedback. Wannemacher has appeared before the Council of Neighborhood Associations and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. Curran also invited her to make a presentation Thursday. Council members were impressed.
Some lamented that the city had not properly promoted the project. "If we wanted to hear 'scrap this and start over,' that's what we got," Danner said.
In the weeks since signing a contract with Maltzan, the city held four public input sessions meant to allow people to tell the designers what they wanted to see at the new Pier. Instead, the sessions often deteriorated into a platform for opponents.
Mayor Bill Foster defended the project's overall process and likened naysayers to Rip Van Winkle, who had suddenly woken up.
"I've been consistent in saying if they get the signatures, they've earned it. But now the signatures have been verified, what do you want to do about it?" he said. "I don't think we slow down the process, but the process turns into a campaign."
That could present a problem. Wolfe said the city cannot legally promote its side. Individual council members can on their own, but not the council. Educational forums are acceptable, he said.
The current Pier is scheduled to be closed on May 31, 2013, and demolition is expected to follow in the summer.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.