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Scientists criticize lack of transparency in Pier plans

Published Oct. 31, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — At least one marine scientist is unhappy about the way discussions about the replacement of the city's Pier and its proposed underwater feature are being handled. And he has some support.

Albert Hine, of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science, has several gripes.

First, he says the scientific community should have been involved in the $50 million Pier project, known as the Lens, from the beginning. Further, Lens designers failed to include scientists from key disciplines in recent discussions. Also, he says, it is being made to appear that St. Petersburg's Ocean Team, a consortium for marine science, oceanographic, and environmental research agencies and institutions, is supporting the city's plan for a new Pier.

Hine expressed his feelings in a lengthy email triggered by a decision not to allow the public to attend a meeting among the Ocean Team, the Michael Maltzan Architecture team, which designed the Lens, and city staff.

"After 37 years as a practicing Ph.D. level research scientist in oceanography, I can say with great confidence that scientists strongly prefer to work in open, transparent environments with no restrictions preventing expression of ideas, data, or conclusions," he wrote in a letter that was forwarded by Lens opponents to Mayor Bill Foster.

Late Tuesday, the meeting scheduled for Wednesday morning had been canceled. And Chris Ballestra of the city said the next one will be public.

"It's not a city meeting," he said of the meeting arranged by a Maltzan consultant. "It's important to allow community input, but it's critical that the scientists and the designers have an opportunity to talk and exchange ideas without losing focus."

Ballestra said Wednesday's meeting was called off because two scientists were stuck in the Northeast and several others could not attend.

At least two of Hine's colleagues also spoke of the need for transparency.

"I think there is secrecy. It doesn't seem like a wise thing, considering the emotion and controversy involved," said Walter Jaap, a retired Fish and Wildlife Research Institute scientist, who now works as a consultant.

"Generally, it's best to keep things out in the light of day," said Margaret "Penny" Hall of the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

"We can't undo the past in terms of maybe not being consulted earlier and can only move forward, and as we move forward, it's probably best to keep the public in the loop."

Hine's letter was a reply to an email from Bud Risser, a leader in the Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg group working to stop the Lens. Risser had mentioned the closed meeting in an email blast.

"I wrote the mayor and I said, on several levels, this is offensive when the city is spending several million dollars to develop a plan," Risser said in an interview.

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"I think that the Maltzan group is disingenuous in working with the Ocean Team. This is not really about getting useful information. This is attempting to take the credibility that these scientists have and moving it over to the Lens project."


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