ST. PETERSBURG — City Council member Wengay Newton is accusing city attorneys of throwing him out of a closed attorney-client session with other council members that concerned a lawsuit about the Pier.
"I was put out," he said Monday on the steps of City Hall. "I was told I had to recuse myself, because I signed the petition."
"That assertion is simply not true. It's a lie," was Mayor Bill Foster's response.
The controversy surrounds a petition drive organized to give residents a vote on the fate of the city's current Pier, the 1973 inverted pyramid. The voteonthepier.com effort headed by Safety Harbor resident Tom Lambdon amassed more than 20,000 signatures.
Newton, who acknowledged that he had been the first to sign the petition, said he is not part of the subsequent lawsuit filed against the city by former City Council member Kathleen Ford and 15,652 petitioners certified by the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections.
Newton said it took him five minutes of research to find out that he was not part of the legal action against the city.
"I should not have been put out of the meeting,'' he said.
Chief assistant city attorney Mark Winn said Newton's name had been included among those who could attend the closed session on Dec. 13.
"We knew of no legal reason why he should not be allowed to participate," he said.
"We're looking at calling another closed session and the office is still of the opinion that we know of no legal reason why he could not participate."
Winn said he could not discuss what occurred after the meeting began.
"Basically, this is a closed session and that information is supposed to be not public information until the end of the trial," he said.
Winn said it is against the law to speak publicly about what occurred after the start of the closed session.
"It's kind of a novel question when one of your clients is doing that type of activity. We will probably talk to him and make sure he is aware of what the state statutes say," he said, referring to Newton.
During an interview in his office, Foster said it was Newton's responsibility to know whether he had been part of the lawsuit. Asked whether city attorneys also should have been aware of Newton's position, Foster answered, "You're assuming that he was told that he had to recuse himself."
The next legal session to discuss the Pier lawsuit is scheduled for Jan. 17. Newton could participate.
"If he is not a party to the lawsuit, absolutely," Foster said.
Newton said Monday that city employees who had signed the petition also have been targeted.
"I have no idea where that is coming from," Foster said. "Every employee has a voice … the right to sign a petition, the right to sue the city.
The lawsuit filed last August hopes to force the city to hold a referendum to amend the charter in order to "preserve and refurbish the iconic inverted pyramid." It also is seeking a temporary injunction to halt its demolition —- a precursor to building a $50 million replacement called the Lens —- pending the court's ruling and outcome of a vote.
Staff writer Mark Puente also contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.