Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Editorials

Upstart muddies the waters

Karl Nurse, who was appointed to the St. Petersburg City Council less than two months ago, has wasted no time becoming a divisive force. On the eve of an important council vote — one that could help determine Major League Baseball's future in the city — Nurse has insulted his more experienced colleagues by trying to undermine their debate today on a ballot question proposed by the Tampa Bay Rays to build a new waterfront stadium.

The council is to take a vote to start the procedures to schedule a November referendum so voters could decide if a $450-million stadium should be built on the site of Al Lang Field. As part of that plan, the Tropicana Field site would be sold for residential and retail development and returned to the tax rolls. This is just the first step in a multistep referendum process, and it is a reasonable move to enable negotiations to continue to progress over the summer. Council members have until August to make a final decision on putting the stadium question on the November ballot, and there is no reason to prematurely end the discussion now.

Now Nurse wants to muddy the waters and confuse voters. He said he would introduce a competing, and potentially conflicting, referendum question today. Nurse is acting at the urging of former council member Virginia Littrell, a vehement stadium opponent who lost her 2005 re-election bid. She wants to rezone the Al Lang site, which has been used for baseball for decades, and restrict development on it.

So if the council lets Nurse and Littrell succeed, voters could be faced with two questions that could cancel each other out. It is an underhanded effort to thwart a straight-up decision by council members and voters. There is no doubt that the Rays need to explain their proposal more fully and that more work needs to be done on the financing of the project, parking and other issues. A vote today to begin the process to put the issue on the ballot would give the Rays and the city time to nail down specifics and St. Petersburg voters time to reach an informed conclusion.

By opposing such clarity, Nurse is reneging on two assurances he gave city residents when he was appointed to the District 6 seat vacated by Earnest Williams after his unsuccessful run for the Legislature. Then, Nurse denied any involvement in antistadium efforts and vowed to help residents understand the Rays' complex proposal. His actions break both promises.

According to a recent poll by the St. Petersburg Times, city voters oppose a new waterfront stadium at the moment — but they also want an opportunity to vote on the issue. It would be a straight-up vote, for or against the stadium, without Nurse's interference.

Both council members and city residents need to keep a clear head when defining the issues in front of them. The outcome is of utmost importance to the city's future. Should the city make a long-term commitment to the Rays, and at what cost to taxpayers? Will development of the Trop site pay the way for the new stadium? Is Al Lang a good spot for a landmark structure?

Those are issues that need further public discussion, and the council can provide that opportunity by moving forward with plans for a clear referendum. Nurse wants to confuse voters with a sneak attack, and he should not get away with it. The council would be foolish to let this upstart take their eye off the ball.

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