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St. Petersburg leaders still divided over whether to let voters decide fate of Pier

ST. PETERSBURG — After more than three hours of often testy debate, the City Council finally settled on how to ask voters if they want to save the Pier.

After several false starts, the council decided to use the same question that was on the petition that forced it to consider putting the issue on the ballot in the first place. The question simply asks whether voters want to preserve and refurbish the iconic inverted pyramid built in 1973.

What city leaders have yet to decide is whether to actually put the question on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. The council is divided on whether to give voters a say even as plans for a new Pier continue to take shape.

They will make that determination Thursday to meet the Friday deadline for getting ballot language to the Supervisor of Elections.

Monday's discussions were contentious despite the fact that five council members — Karl Nurse, Charlie Gerdes, Steve Kornell, Bill Dudley and Wengay Newton — support a referendum. Council members Jeff Danner, Leslie Curran and Jim Kennedy do not.

"My preference is that someone would change their vote" to allow the new Lens design for the Pier to move forward, Danner said.

One sticking point was whether the question should include the cost of refurbishing the current Pier, which the city has said could be $24 million more than the $50 million budgeted to replace it.

Some council members wanted to tell voters that a hike in cost would mean an increase in property taxes. Others want to talk about including the fact that the Pier's crumbling approach and head would have to be rebuilt even if the city opts for rehabbing the current Pier.

"If you give citizens a choice, you've got to tell them what it's going to cost them," Dudley said. "We need to come up with a way to let their voices be heard and let them know what the consequences are."

Gerdes argued against including costs, saying they would taint the ballot question.

Further, he said, no one really knows how much it could cost to refurbish the Pier.

Newton also disputed the projected renovation costs and objected to their inclusion on the ballot.

"It's a poison pill," he said. "The people want to vote. I would hope they would give the people an opportunity to weigh in."

Curran, holding up a copy of the voteonthepier.com petition, said the only thing to consider was the question that petitioners wanted.

"This is what they signed," she said. "They did not sign any other question that we think should be on the ballot."

Kornell and Nurse submitted ballot questions of their own ahead of Monday's special meeting. Kornell's questions offered options: refurbish the existing Pier, move forward with the Lens, select a new design or demolish the current Pier and not build a replacement. Nurse's single question asked whether the city should proceed with the Lens or seek alternate designs.

Residents offered ideas of their own. Former City Council member and mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford proposed several questions, including whether to renovate the current Pier, build the Lens or start with a new design, with none to exceed $50 million.

Mayor Bill Foster referred to what he called two ongoing "parallel processes."

One is moving toward building the Lens.

The other is the petition, he said. "It's not perfect, but they worked their butts off to get something in front of us," he said.

If voters decide they want to save the inverted pyramid, he said, "Then we save it … . I'm still going to push for process one."

City attorney John Wolfe has said council members have no legal obligation to hold an election based on the petition effort, which amassed more than 20,000 petitions.

The current Pier is scheduled to close May 31, 2013. Demolition is expected to follow in the summer.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

St. Petersburg leaders still divided over whether to let voters decide fate of Pier 07/30/12 [Last modified: Monday, July 30, 2012 8:37pm]
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