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Opposing sides work to clear confusion over pier ballot language

Neighbors on 16th Avenue NE in St. Petersburg use their lawns to show their differing opinions on the St. Petersburg pier issue.
Published Aug. 11, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — It would appear that voters have two clear choices in the upcoming referendum about the Lens, the replacement pier being proposed for the city's prized waterfront:

*No, we don't want the $50 million Lens.

*Yes, go ahead.

But as early voters peruse their ballots, some are bewildered by the convoluted referendum language.

Madeline Wilson, 83, a retired insurance claims adjuster, found it confusing. And deceiving, she said.

"When I was at the beauty parlor, someone said, 'How do I vote?' And she said, 'I read it several times and I didn't understand.' "

Boiled down to plain English, voters are being asked whether to build the Lens or not. But such straightforward language isn't part of the ballot. The meandering question centers on accepting or rejecting an ordinance to cancel the contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture, the Los Angeles designer of the Lens.

"It's the most confusing ballot initiative in history," said Mike Collins, a leader of the new group BuildThePier, which aims to save the Lens project. "You have to say no to say yes to progress. It's very counter intuitive."

"Yes, it does sound confusing," said Bud Risser of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, the group that has been working to stop the project and spearheaded the successful petition drive that put the issue on the ballot.

To dispel the confusion, Risser's group has turned to postcards and robocalls. Bumper stickers say, "Vote Yes to Stop the Lens." To further clarify the message, the bumper stickers are also being stuck to "Stop the Lens" yard signs.

"Our current focus is to make sure people understand and to make sure people go out and vote so that the public's real opinion of the Lens will be reflected in the vote," said Fred Whaley, chairman of Concerned Citizens.

BuildThePier also has rolled out postcards. "Vote No and let's build the New St. Pete Pier," they say.

"We've got scores of volunteers who are working door-to-door," Wilson said, adding that the group also has been making telephone calls and launched a television and social media campaign. "We're telling them that in order for them to say yes to the new pier, they have to vote no on the ballot."

"It's something that doesn't fit on a bumper sticker," said Jesse Landis, another BuildThePier supporter. "I think it's harder to explain that no means we are moving forward."

How did things get so complicated?

Bill Ballard, president of Concerned Citizens, explained.

"What drove the form of the petition, which, in turn, drives the form of the ballot question, was the city charter," he said.

When Concerned Citizens decided to launch its petition drive to stop the $50 million Lens project, it enlisted the help of a lawyer versed in municipal law, Ballard said. The group learned that the only type of petition that could be successful was one that either proposed an ordinance or an amendment to the city charter. Hence the language.

"It seems to be unfortunate, but the way most of these ballot questions have to be worded, to be legally correct, becomes a little bit difficult to understand for the general public," Whaley said.

After Concerned Citizens got its petition signatures validated, it then fought to get the word "Lens" included in the ballot title.

"My client's interest in the ballot title is to ensure that the voters of the city clearly understand the question being placed before them," the group's Bradenton lawyer, Patricia A. Petruff, wrote in a letter to City Council Chairman Karl Nurse. City attorney John Wolfe had noted that the word Lens had not appeared in the group's proposed ordinance.

Shirley O'Sullivan, a community volunteer and BuildTheLens supporter, said some people are blaming the pro-Lens effort for the ballot language confusion.

"We are hearing that all the time," she said. "It definitely needs to be stressed that the wording comes about by the way the petition was written by the Stop the Lens group."

With the Aug. 27 referendum mere days away, both sides are convinced that their efforts to educate voters are working.

"If people will take just a moment to read the question, the confusion will go away," Risser said.

"Our task is simple," he said, noting that "every single poll" shows the Stop the Lens effort ahead. "We are focused on winning. We can see the finish line."

Not so fast, says the other side.

"They have been very confident of victory," Collins said. "This is not a coronation. This is an election. I learned a long time ago that confidence in an election should come the day after the election, not a month before."

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