ST. PETERSBURG — Three referendum questions will accompany the City Council candidates on the Nov. 5 general election ballot in the Sunshine City.
Two are charter amendments. One will allow the city to accept grants for parkland preservation, according to city officials, something the charter, as currently written, prevents from happening. The second,, largely procedural, deals with the day newly elected city officials assume office. A third referendum question relates to the St. Petersburg Yacht Club’s operation of the city’s sailing center. .
The 33-page charter is the city’s governing document, akin to a constitution, defining the powers and limitations of the mayor, City Council and city departments. Any alterations to it require a majority vote.
The parkland preservation referendum tries to fix an unintended consequence of the charter’s heavy protection of park and waterfront land, city officials said. The charter says no park or waterfront land can be “sold, donated or leased without specific authorization by a majority vote” in a city referendum.
The city wanted to accept a $900,000 preservation grant from the Southwest Florida Water Management District for a portion of Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. But the water management district wanted a “conservation easement” on that portion of Boyd Hill, guaranteeing it remains preservation land forever, thereby protecting its investment. That guarantee is what puts the grant in conflict with the charter, even though it strengthens the protection of the preservation land.
The charter defines a sale as “the sale, donation or any other permanent disposition” of property. Basically, a conservation easement can’t be placed on preservation land without a referendum because that is a permanent disposition. Even though this is about land that is already protected through the charter.
Under the current rules, the city would have to hold a voter referendum to accept the water management district’s grant. And the city would have to hold referendums for every individual conservation grant it wishes to accept in the future. City leaders see that as burdensome, and worry they could lose out on grant money for parks.
If passed, the referendum would carve out an exception to the charter that allows the city to accept conservation grants without a voter referendum. The city can already accept grants on charter-protected park land for utility easements and recreational uses.
City officials promised this isn’t a workaround to change parkland uses. Under the new rules, accepting grant money and creating conservation easements would require six votes on City Council. Normally Council requires a simple majority.
“It doesn’t give up ownership, it’s a layer of protection for land,” said city Leisure Services Administrator Mike Jefferis. “Parkland is in our DNA, so we want to give it the highest level of protection possible."
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The second referendum, if passed, would extend the St. Petersburg Yacht Club’s operation of the sailing center, which is owned by the city, through 2040. The current agreement between the city and yacht club is set to expire on Nov. 30, 2021.
Since the sailing center is on Demens Landing, which is a waterfront park, any lease longer than five years requires voter approval.
If passed, control over the sailing center won’t come free for the yacht club. It will have to spend at least $800,000 on new projects over the 20-year lease term. A preliminary list of projects from the yacht club to the city indicates it could spend $155,000 on projects within the first four years, including renovating the bathrooms, putting up new fencing and installing new floating ramps.
Projects in years five through nine could include dredging, parking lot resurfacing and hoist replacing, for a total of $360,000. Long-term projects include installing new floating docks and a shaded deck and adding storage for small boats. Those projects could cost $285,000.
The procedural charter referendum about newly elected officials deals with when they are sworn into office. In the past, newly elected council members and mayors have taken office on Jan. 2, irrespective of the day of the week.
That was leading to swearing-in ceremonies on the weekend occasionally, or a day or two before a regularly-scheduled City Council meeting, city officials wrote in an ordinance approving the referendum.
If the referendum passes, the day newly elected city officials take over will correspond with City Council meetings. That means either the first Thursday in January — or, if that day is New Year’s Day, then the second Thursday of the month.
Amending the charter in this way would, according to city officials “make attendance at the swearing-in ceremony easier for council members and the mayor, or other city officials and staff, family members and friends, officials conducting the swearing-in ceremony, and the public,” plus eliminate redundant meetings.