Democracy is not well served when a handful of well-financed activists with an impossible demand can persuade St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and five City Council members to derail a public project informed by years of public input. The best hope now for the future of the Pier is that at least one more council member will come to realize it is not possible to write a question for the November ballot that will appease critics and provide a viable path forward. The council already has a clear path; it just needs the political courage to follow it.
Council members Bill Dudley, Charlie Gerdes, Steve Kornell, Wengay Newton and Karl Nurse voted Thursday to consider placing one or more still-undetermined questions before voters on what to do with the Pier. The irony, of course, is the movement that triggered the council's 5-3 vote — the voteonthepier.com group that's gathered an estimated 20,000 petition signatures seeking to save the inverted pyramid — has no realistic hope of actually seeing its vision fulfilled.
Gerdes and Kornell say they won't support putting the petition's actual language on the ballot because saving the inverted pyramid would be fiscally indefensible — costing at least $74 million, or $24 million more than the city has set aside in future tax proceeds for the project. Even Newton, the group's biggest champion, said he didn't care so much what was on the ballot, just that voters have a say.
But there's the rub. For four years, residents have been telling the city what they thought. A citizen advisory group held 63 public meetings; the council did its own study with citizen input; and an international design competition and the resulting design process provides the opportunity for even more public input. All along it's been clear that any solution to such a complex problem would always require leadership from City Hall.
Council members Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner and Jim Kennedy displayed that leadership by voting to stay the course. As Kennedy noted, no referendum will change the fact that the 90-year-old concrete pier approach and pier head is deteriorating and set for condemnation in two years; or that the aging pyramid requires an annual operating subsidy of at least $1.5 million. Nor can a ballot question suddenly illuminate an option that unites the city more than the still-evolving design known as the Lens. Already architect Michael Maltzan and his team have responded to public input by adding more shade and public amenities. More positive changes are expected.
Curran, Danner and Kennedy understand that the best way to serve the public now is to focus on perfecting the Lens concept for future generations, not rehashing the same argument of the last four years. Just one more council member needs to display that same leadership.