ST. PETERSBURG — It has been 16 months since environmental activists sued the city, accusing it of "serious and ongoing" violations of the federal Clean Water Act amidst the 2015-16 sewage crisis.
City council members on Thursday sent mixed signals about whether they want to settle the lawsuit or fight it out in federal court. They talked about settling the case — and then voted to double the retainer for the law firm representing the city.
The federal case is the last vestige of St. Petersburg's massive sewage crisis, during which the city released up to 1 billion gallons of waste — up to 200 million of which ended up in Tampa Bay. Environmental groups Suncoast Waterkeeper, Our Children's Earth Foundation and Ecological Rights Foundation filed it in December 2016, hoping to force the city into a pact enforced by the federal government to improve its ailing sewage system.
Right now, the city is operating under a consent order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that calls for it to spend $326 million to fix the problems.
The issue was this line on the council agenda: whether to increase the amount the city is willing to pay to the law firm of Manson Bolves Donaldson Varn to fight the suit. The retainer would go from $200,000 to $500,000.
That prompted a bitter discussion at Thursday's council meeting that saw the public, a lawyer for the environmentalists and Council member Charlie Gerdes all trade barbs.
Gerdes called the lawsuit an attempt to extort taxpayer money.
"I consider it a terrorist lawsuit," he said.
Rose Roby, a Gulfport resident and co-chair of the Pinellas County Green Party, likened the city fighting the suit to a car manufacturer weighing the financial cost of recalling vehicles vs. the cost of fighting lawsuits.“I’d like to think we also have the courage and the strength to say no to putting more money into fighting the absolutely necessary environmental changes that have to happen here,” she said.
That accusation set Gerdes off.“We are not putting profits over people,” the council member lectured from the dais.“I’m offended that we’re being sued after we entered into a consent order with the state of Florida that the federal government said was good enough for them to go away and not do anything,” Gerdes said later in the meeting.
Council member Steve Kornell wants the city to settle. During Thursday's meeting, he said he was willing to agree to the environmentalists' demands that the city's sewage system be placed under federal oversight.
Gerdes shut Kornell down, insisting discussions about a settlement be kept to private meetings between council members and attorneys. The council scheduled a closed-door meeting with its legal team for April 19, the date of the next council meeting.
Gerdes also told Justin Bloom, executive director of Suncoast Waterkeeper and one of the attorneys suing the city, to convey what kind of settlement they would be willing to agree to before April 19.
Annie Beaman, director of advocacy & outreach for Our Children's Earth Foundation, said her side has been clear from the beginning about what they want from the city: More stringent oversight of the city's troubled sewage system.
To the environmentalists, that means turning to the federal government.
And in a letter they wrote to the council Wednesday, they said settling is not only the right thing to do, it also makes financial sense:
"If the city continues to pursue a litigation approach rather than a settlement, it will almost certainly be on the hook for potentially large civil penalties."
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon.