1. Letters to the Editor

County has long been active in downtown St. Pete redevelopment

Re: "County has plenty to do, without Pier issue"

Sandra Gadsden's column was representative of much of the Pier debate — short on facts, long on biased rhetoric, and was apparently written in an attempt to silence the Pinellas County Commission on this issue. Let me be clear: The commission will not be deterred from its fiduciary responsibilities by such hyperbole in the guise of editorial opinion.

Ms. Gadsden stated that the "County Commission wants a piece of the action." The fact is that county taxpayers have contributed more than $46 million to the Intown CRA (community redevelopment area) for projects in St. Petersburg's downtown. The county is a full partner in the redevelopment of downtown St. Petersburg, and has been for decades. With that partnership comes a responsibility to work with the community and elected officials to ensure the best use of public funds. Far from "usurping the authority of elected city leaders," as Ms. Gadsden alleges, the county has worked cooperatively with the city to amend the interlocal agreement to give the city more flexibility for Pier redevelopment, the Mahaffey Theater project, and support for the new Dalí Museum via the county's bed tax.

The usurpation allegation is pure fabrication. The commission has stated repeatedly (including last week), that we have neither the desire, nor the authority to interfere with St. Petersburg elected officials' home rule authority, and that we only set broad parameters for projects, not specific design elements. Last year, and this year, I have chaired commission meetings in which we specifically stated to Lens opponents that the Lens is an acceptable use of county/city redevelopment funds. However, spending an additional $1.5 million of those funds for a specific design at this point, when an upcoming election may completely change the project, is a different matter entirely, and doesn't make fiscal sense in my opinion.

Obviously the "why jump in now?" question is moot, since the county has long been an active partner in St. Pete's downtown redevelopment. Moreover, a minimal amount of research (or perhaps walking down the hall and speaking to Times reporters Waveney Ann Moore or Anna Phillips), would have informed Ms. Gadsden that city representatives had submitted an application to the county for a permit, for which the County Commission would have to approve a variance. The commission's recent public comments were in response to that permit application. Was Ms. Gadsden unaware of this development, or did she simply choose to ignore it?

Ms. Gadsden's scattershot remarks on the Rays, fluoride and term limits are an obvious attempt to kill the messenger. Again, minimal research (or simply reading the Times) shows that the commission re-engaged the Rays discussion earlier this year, in a productive session which Mayor (Bill) Foster and council members attended, and led to a meeting between Mayor Foster and Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg. The fluoridation issue was resolved by the current commission, which has new membership after last November's election — earning the Times a Pulitzer in the process, a fact of which Ms. Gadsden is surely aware. As to term limits — the state court did not rule directly on the Pinellas charter issue as Ms. Gadsden incorrectly asserted — that case will be heard in early May in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. The term limits case is not new, however it is only now that Ms. Gadsden perceives a threat to the Lens project from the commission's potential involvement, that she wants to weigh in on the term limits issue as judge and jury.

The bottom line is that the commission will continue to address issues within our authority, and no amount of slanted opinion columns or half-truths will change that. As President John Adams said famously, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." Or alternatively, "thou doth protest too much."

Kenneth T. Welch, Chairman

Pinellas Board of County Commissioners