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St. Petersburg: Referendum on pier is certain, but project still mired in controversy

On Aug. 27, St. Petersburg residents will be asked if they want to cancel the city’s contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture, designers of the Lens.
On Aug. 27, St. Petersburg residents will be asked if they want to cancel the city’s contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture, designers of the Lens.
Published Jun. 7, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — Only one question on the Aug. 27 ballot will determine the fate of the city's proposed $50 million pier.

Residents will be asked if they want to cancel the contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture, designers of the new pier known as the Lens. There will be no reference to additional questions suggested by Mayor Bill Foster to quiz residents about what kind of pier they want if they don't want the Lens.

The City Council made those decisions Thursday but did not determine the language that will appear on the ballot. The sticking point is the title of the ballot question.

While more than 20,000 petitioners signed the Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg ordinance to cancel the Maltzan contract, the proposed law did not mention the Lens by name. The group's leaders are now seeking to get the Lens included in the title.

In a letter to Mayor Bill Foster, Concerned Citizens' attorney Patricia Petruff urged inclusion of "the Lens" and "new pier" in the title. Those specific words, Petruff wrote, were included in the petition people signed.

"We didn't come this far for it to be improperly described," said Fred Whaley, chairman of Concerned Citizens.

Council member Steve Kornell balked at changing any language.

"I have a problem with politicians and their attorney rewriting a petition," Kornell said. "The idea that after 20,000 people just signed it that they are not going to recognize the wording, I don't understand it."

The council asked City Attorney John Wolfe to report back with suggestions for a title, which can't be more than 15 words long.

"The petition says more than their ordinance does, that is their argument," Wolfe said. "There is some leeway with respect to ballot titles and they can be more inclusive of the popular notion of what the question is."

Blogger and political consultant Peter Schorsch told council members that he had just formed a political action committee, People for an Informed Electorate, to clear up misinformation being spread about the referendum.

"The people that I represent intend to make sure it is tied up in court if the ballot language is changed," he said.

"They are in a briar patch," he said, referring to Concerned Citizens. "Whether they get out of it, is up to them. … They're looking for the City Council to bail them out."

Council chairman Karl Nurse noted that it was the council's goal on Aug. 28 to move forward, not to be involved in a legal entanglement.

Whaley said he isn't concerned about Schorsch's threat to sue the city if the word Lens is added to the ballot title.

"It really is the responsibility of the council and legal department to provide that information," he said.

Schorsch filed paperwork Thursday afternoon to create his political group. He declined to say who is part of the organization.

"I've always been aligned with the forces to move the city more forward. … I can bring substantial resources to the electorate field," he said.

Members or donors will remain secret until the group files campaign documents next month.

The mayor previously had said he wouldn't change any part of Concerned Citizens' ordinance or title, not even to add a comma.

"A title to a book describes a book and a title draws you into a book," Foster said.

"At this point in time, we need clarity," Foster said Thursday. "Their shirts say it, their signs say it. The plot is to stop the Lens. … If we need 15 words to describe the plot of this whole endeavor, then we should have the word Lens."

Foster had originally suggested the addition of three nonbinding, straw poll questions to gauge the lay of the land if the referendum succeeds in halting the disputed project.

Hal Freedman of WOW Our Waterfront St. Pete, which supports the Lens, asked the council not to add any "unnecessary and unrealistic straw poll questions" which would "muddy the waters." He also urged them not to change the wording in Concerned Citizens' petition. Doing so would be an "invitation to litigation," Freedman said, adding that the residents should know that "the only alternative to the Lens at this point is no pier at all."

Under the city's charter, council members faced two choices when Concerned Citizens' petitions were validated. They could either cancel the Maltzan's contract themselves or schedule a public vote.

A public hearing of the proposed referendum ordinance will be held June 20. The ballot language must be submitted to the Pinellas elections supervisor by June 28.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at or (727) 892-2283. Mark Puente can be reached at or (727) 893-8459.