St. Petersburg City Council members have an opportunity to stand for something today — and it's not just for an impressive new design to replace the outdated Pier. They can embrace the logical, grass-roots decisionmaking that brought the pier project this far. They can act confidently based on the facts generated by city staff and consultants. And They can demonstrate that council members are elected to make difficult decisions based on their best judgment, not on how loudly misinformed opponents scream.
There really is more at stake than whether council members vote to place a referendum question about the Pier on the November ballot. First, there is the credibility of individual council members. They are the ones who helped appoint a citizen task force, reshaped the proposals to allow for broader visions, created the design competition, backed the Lens design and approved a contract with the architect. It will be difficult to confidently follow their direction the next time a big issue pops up if they are so prone to caving in to a petition drive that holds no legal standing.
Second, there is the potential damage to the city's reputation on a local and national scale. Good luck finding civic-minded residents to spend countless hours working on city endeavors if their efforts can be so easily set aside. Good luck holding another nationwide design competition for anything if opponents can kill it by a voter referendum after the design is approved by local officials and a contract is signed. Here's a question: Would voters have approved the innovative design for the Dalí Museum that has won worldwide acclaim?
Third, embracing government by referendum puts St. Petersburg's future at risk. The next time, it could be a petition drive to hold a voter referendum to kill the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which brings international attention. Some voters will want a referendum on building the next condominium tower when the economy rebounds, or on building a new police station. Other residents would love to see a voter referendum on stopping those noisy waterfront concerts, the gay pride parade, or St. Anthony's Triathlon. Vibrant cities are not run by voter referendums or by City Council members who easily succumb to the negative voices who oppose change and cling to the status quo.
Council members Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner and Jim Kennedy want to stay the course and oppose a referendum. Wengay Newton has opposed the pier project from the start and is a lost cause. That leaves Bill Dudley, Charlie Gerdes, Steve Kornell and Karl Nurse. Among those four, there must be one with the courage to stand up for community involvement, thoughtful representative government — and against a referendum that would say as much about St. Petersburg's unsteady leadership as it would about any pier design.