ST. PETERSBURG — After procrastinating Thursday, City Council members have two weeks to make up their minds about what to do about the proposed $50 million replacement for the city's Pier.
The 5-3 decision to postpone a decision on whether to spend another $1.5 million and move on to the next phase came amid confusion and maneuvering over legalities and time constraints involved in scheduling an almost certain referendum about the project.
The delay is a victory for Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, a group that is opposed to the project known as the Lens and that says it has enough petitions to force a referendum to halt the project.
Bud Risser, a prominent St. Petersburg resident and leader of the group, lobbied council members this week to dissuade them from spending additional money before a public vote.
Risser said he didn't want to take credit for Thursday's developments.
Still, perhaps he had persuaded the council to consider the Lens "carefully and thoroughly," he said.
Hal Freedman, a Realtor and financial services consultant who wore a turquoise "Make Lens not War" T-shirt symbolizing the pro-Lens group WOW Our Waterfront St. Pete, was disappointed.
"I think we'll win the vote," he said of a referendum.
Despite Thursday's action, Mayor Bill Foster remained optimistic.
"I currently believe we're moving forward," he said, adding that he will make sure council members get the information they want before they meet in two weeks.
By then, he expects Concerned Citizens to have deposited its signatures with the city clerk.
"The signatures need to be turned in,'' he said. "That removes any uncertainty"
But Risser said his group will not turn in the petitions until the end of the month. Concerned Citizens wants to make sure the Pier vote coincides with the Aug. 27 mayoral and council primary, he said, because the group wants to spare the city the $250,000 it would cost for a special mail-in ballot election.
"I think spending $250,000 for a mail-in ballot is a bad use of money," Foster agreed.
Turning in the petitions would start a clock that would require an election no more than 90 days after they have been verified by the city clerk, city attorney John Wolfe said.
An email from Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark to Foster warns of a complicated situation.
"There are very real concerns about scheduling a special referendum election prior to your primary election if it results in overlapping time lines," she wrote.
"The most important concern is the confusion it could create for your voters," she said.
Mail-in ballot elections also require voters to take extra steps, Clark said, adding that her office would work with the city if it decided to move in that direction.
The discussion apparently began in early April, when city clerk Eva Andujar called the supervisor's office to say that the council might want to schedule a mail-in election. The deadline for providing the final ballot language for the primary is June 28.
Council member Jim Kennedy made the motion Thursday to postpone the Pier vote. He said it was based on receiving the latest report about the project, all 400 pages, too late to ask staff questions about maintenance of the Lens' iconic canopy.
Other council members also wanted additional information.
Council members Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner and Wengay Newton voted against the delay.
Danner and Curran said they did not understand how a delay and more information will move the project forward. Newton, a staunch opponent of the Lens, wanted the council members to decide Thursday.
The council's decision was preceded by speakers for and against the project. Howard Taylor, who recently moved to St. Petersburg, arrived with a PowerPoint presentation to convince the council the Lens is unworkable and even unsafe.
Anthony Sullivan, founder of WOW Our Waterfront St. Pete and a TV pitchman, made a video appearance.
If the council decides to go forward two week from now, it will have another decision to make in August or September, when another $1.5 million to $1.6 million will be due.
In the meantime, Michael Maltzan Architecture, the designer of the Lens, has pledged to continue its work.
"Regardless of the decisions pending, we will continue to move forward through the summer," the design team wrote in a letter to Foster and council members on Wednesday.
Wolfe, the city attorney, urged caution.
"We need to make clear" that what they do is "at their risk, not ours," he said.