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Two more big defeats for St. Petersburg illustrate the culture at City Hall

Let's review two recent news items. First:

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet on Tuesday upheld a judge's decision to block new development on Tierra Verde, a barrier island on the southern tip of St. Petersburg.

The 4-0 decision was a victory for the Tierra Verde Civic Association and a defeat for the city of St. Petersburg.

And the second item:

The city has capitulated in its four-year legal battle with former officers who sued to get back money they paid into the pension fund while on the police force.

In the coming weeks the city will pay back 351 former officers a total of $1.5 million —which doesn't include interest, the officers' legal fees or what the city itself spent in an ultimately futile fight.

Both of these defeats show the government of St. Petersburg at its worst — a stubborn, almost childish denial of reality. The city is always right, even when it isn't.

In the first case, the city invaded Tierra Verde with a bizarre annexation in 2008, using a "snorkel" of submerged land to connect to exactly two developers who wanted a deal.

The city then passed new rules for those developers, over the objection of the rest of the island, allowing them to stuff their "city" land with more density than the county had allowed.

The city breezily asserted that the new growth would present no problem for public services or evacuation.

However, to quote again from the news:

The judge said the increased density would adversely affect hurricane evacuation times and storm shelter capabilities, that the city had failed to demonstrate a need for the developments, and that it would be incompatible with surrounding land uses.

The police-pension case is even more interesting.

State law says flatly that when a Florida police officer leaves the job before 10 years, he or she "shall be entitled to a refund of all of his or her contributions" to the pension fund, "less any benefits paid to him or her."

But St. Petersburg refused to refund the contributions. It was the only pension plan in the state not to do it.

The city made officers sign a paper saying they had given up their refunds. The city also argued that the way it would have to pay the refund would be a "benefit." Lastly, the city claimed that being forced to pay would be an "unfunded mandate" by the state.

All of these defenses were thin if not ridiculous. In 2009, a Pinellas judge decided the case for the officers.

The city appealed.

In July, the 2nd District Court of Appeal issued yet another slam-dunk ruling.

My favorite part is where the court drily instructed the city on the meaning of the word "shall" in state law:

"The use of the mandatory term 'shall,' " the judges wrote, "normally creates an obligation impervious to judicial discretion."


Had the city admitted it was wrong when this issue first came up a decade ago, the taxpayers would have been out a few thousand to a few officers. Instead, taxpayers are on the hook for $1.5 million. Plus interest. Plus legal fees.

To repeat: well.

I am sure the folks at City Hall will be plunged into deep self-examination by these repeated whackings. By which I mean, I doubt they will think about it for a millisecond.

They do get dug in.

Two more big defeats for St. Petersburg illustrate the culture at City Hall 11/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 10, 2010 8:52pm]
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