ST. PETERSBURG — The men behind the second of two petitions targeting the city's Pier project are straining to distinguish themselves from the other guys — even as they share a common goal.
First, they're not the ones with the lawsuit. And the upside-down pyramid that thousands of St. Petersburg residents say they want to save? That's not their battle.
Talk to leaders of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg and they'll firmly declare that their focus is on blocking plans for the Lens, the controversial, would-be replacement of the inverted pyramid.
Further, they'll tell you, the Lens, with its showy double bridges and vaulting crown, is out of place on the waters that lap their beloved St. Petersburg, where they have sailed for decades.
Why is the distinction important?
The problem is, while Concerned Citizens is trying to galvanize the masses to sign its petition to "Stop the Lens," 15,652 people have already committed to an earlier Pier petition that has been in the news for a lawsuit that attempted to drag every one of the signers — many unwillingly —- into a court battle.
The fear, said Bud Risser of Concerned Citizens, is that residents will pair the petition with the lawsuit and run for cover. So, the group, with its iconic red circle crossing out an image of the Lens, is about to kick off an ad campaign to clear up misconceptions.
"We want that ad out there to eliminate the confusion, to remind people of the fact that this is all about having a vote on what goes on the waterfront," said William Ballard, president of Concerned Citizens.
Perhaps more important, the organization wants to relay the message that its anti-Lens petition has a good chance of success.
The earlier effort, spearheaded by the group voteonthepier.com, failed to get the City Council to put a question on the ballot, which led to the lawsuit.
Whereas the voteonthepier.com petition ran into snags, even city officials concede that Concerned Citizens is on the right track. As part of its painstaking mobilization, the anti-Lens group hired a lawyer versed in municipal law to make sure that if they collect the required number of signatures, City Council members will have no choice but to put their Pier question to the vote.
City Attorney John Wolfe had advised the council that it had no legal obligation to hold a referendum in voteonthepier's case. The city's charter, Wolfe said, addresses petitions only for a proposed ordinance or repeal of an ordinance, and state law refers to petitions only in relation to changing a charter.
Concerned Citizens' petition proposes an ordinance that would terminate the city's contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture, designers of the Lens.
"If the Stop the Lens group gets sufficient signatures, the council will then have to consider the ordinance they have proposed," Chief assistant city attorney Mark Winn said.
That would mean either choosing to adopt the ordinance or committing it to a public vote.
Meanwhile, the anti-Lens group is attempting to gather the required petitions. It has lined up locations, including UPS stores, Gold's Gym, Rent-a-Centers, a couple of liquor stores and its own office at 944 Fourth St. N, for people to sign petitions available at those sites or received by mail.
The group is revising its direct-mail piece to try to "enhance the returns," Risser said.
"Our test mailing suggested to us that people were confused by the two petitions and that fear of becoming involved in a lawsuit was probably keeping people from signing our petition," Ballard said.
"We realized we really have to get our message out."
But for diehard opponents in both groups against the city's plan for a new $50 million Pier, that message is inconsequential.
"We do have one thing in common," Risser said.
"All we want is a vote. You can vote on saving the Pier, or you can vote on stopping the Lens. If they had chosen a design that had captured the emotions of St. Petersburg, it would have been a done deal."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.