Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Opinion

Inverted pyramid, invertebrate leaders

With the remote exception of a seminar on the artistic oeuvre of a Kardashian, rarely has so much verbiage been wasted for so meager a result.

But there was the St. Petersburg City Council on Monday, dithering for 3 ½ hours over proposed ballot language with all the legal standing of Dogpatch's dress code.

How stultifying was this? At one point there were more heads buried in hands than the winning ticket holders of the scratched I'll Have Another at the Belmont Stakes.

At issue is a meaningless petition drive to preserve and refurbish the Pier, rather than blow the thing up before it crumbles into Tampa Bay and replace the aging structure with the Lens. The Paris peace talks were a thing of efficient comity compared to this cluster kerfuffle.

It never should have come to this. The Lens design was a product of years of work by a civic task force, voluminous community input, some 63 public meetings, weeks of displays of all the finalists and a 7-1 City Council vote approving the design by Los Angeles architect Michael Maltzan. All told some $1.5 million was spent to reach consensus on the project.

And that should have been that, except for Mayor Bill Foster, who in another life had to have been a weather vane. A petition effort led by Tom Lambdon, who doesn't even live in St. Petersburg, produced 20,000 signatures to preserve the Pier and demanding a place on the November ballot. Never mind that saving the outdated Pier would cost about $20 million-plus more than to the replace it with the Lens.

Foster could have grown some leadership … uh, skills, and told Lambdon to take his petition and go away. Even if it were placed on the ballot, it would have no legal standing to prevent the razing of the Pier and the development of what promises to be an iconic, elegant and utilitarian piece of public art.

Instead, Foster took a dive on exercising leadership and accepted the petitions. So it fell to those pillars of legislative brilliance, the St. Petersburg City Council, to agree on the exact — but hollow — ballot language.

There's a simple philosophical premise at work here. What is the role of an elected official? The council members and the mayor were elected to lead the city, especially in this case, where the Lens project had been years in the making.

Sure, public officials need to pay attention to public input. But at the same time the future of the Pier and the Lens had been the source of lengthy, detailed public discussion. And let's be honest. If you walk down the street and ask people if they would support a $50 million investment in public art, what do you think the response is going to be? That's why leaders lead.

At the council workshop Monday, it didn't take very long to get bogged down in arcane, rambling bloviating over the role of elected officials in a republic as opposed to a direct democracy. Folks, we're talking about a public art works project, not Plato's Republic.

Foster didn't help things. Summoning up the vacillation of a thousand Hamlets, the mayor told council that while the sham petition drive could result in a sham straw poll ballot measure leading to a sham result demanding the Pier be saved, it would still constitute a mandate from the public that will need to be heeded.

Or put another way, the mayor just threw years of civic input, 63 public meetings, and $1.5 million under a pile of meaningless petitions. What future architect would ever want to work with the city if they can't trust the mayor?

Think of this as the fluoride of public art.

Back and forth the council members went, unable to agree on the wording of the ballot question or even how many questions to ask. Settling the Northern Ireland Troubles was easier.

Council Chair Leslie Curran, who is not exactly the warm and fuzzy type, presided over countless failed votes. She grew understandably frustrated before five of her colleagues embraced the language of the original petition drive.

This was not exactly like passing Roosevelt's New Deal, but it will have to do.

Of course, when council meets Thursday the whole thing could be reworded again. Or even better, thrown out altogether.

By then, Foster might decide he really has no use for a phony ballot measure that would sink all of the work done so far. After all, he has 48 hours to boldly take several more firm positions.

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