St. Pete City Council denies referendum on Pier despite 23,000 signatures listen08/02/12 Janelle Irwin
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Thursday the St. Petersburg city council rejected petitions from 23,000 residents who want to save the iconic waterfront pier at their meeting today. Leaders of the massive petition drive say they aren’t going to stop the fight.
The 6-2 City council vote was a blow to Tom Lambdon who chairs the group VoteonthePier.com. He has been one of the loudest voices opposing plans to build the Lens. Instead he wants the existing structure and its approach refurbished and preserved. Now he says the group plans to take the matter to court.
“We’re going to take it to a higher power and let them decide if the people should be able to be heard on this significant development with the city where many of them have said all along, they supported voters if we got the signatures and now we’ve got the signatures all certified and they’re all trying to figure out what to do now. It’s just really irresponsible for such a long-term decision to just leave all these people on the side of the road.”
The 23,000 qualified petitions were signed by St. Petersburg residents. But the majority of city council members chose to ignore them. Lambdon said officials have not done a good job of letting the public participate in the decision-making process.
“The process has failed, it’s proven it’s failed, now the people need to be heard. I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but we are going to take it to the next level for the people.”
Lambdon started his crusade to save the downtown pier nearly two years ago. Since then, the city has entered into a contract with Michael Maltzen Architecture to build the new Pier, called the Lens. They’ve also applied for a demolition permit. But up until today, council members were torn over whether to let voters decide if the existing pier should be saved. Wengay Newton has been opposed to demolition from the start and was one of two council members to vote to place that question on the November ballot.
“Twenty months ago I also made a motion that we put something on the ballot to let the people decide the fate of the Pier. Twenty months ago! This whole process has been flawed from the beginning. It’s all here. It’s in black and white.”
At first, council members seemed to support the idea of letting the matter go to voters. But they couldn’t figure out how to do it. Today only one question remained – do you want to save the inverted pyramid? Dozens of speakers said yes. Erika Fulton, a long-time St. Pete resident said people don’t like the Lens design which is an over-water walking and bike path.
“We don’t need another beach-front community. We are not going to compete with the other beaches. St. Pete, the traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian would be a nightmare in downtown St. Petersburg. We have a nice quiet community and we like it that way. And if the city council continues to try and push this agenda on the people of St. Petersburg, the people will push back.”
Fulton became so passionate about the topic she nearly got thrown out of council chambers. She chastised council members for referring to the proceedings as a “republic”.
“And I am personally researching how to have you and any other member of this council removed from office because the will of the people of St. Petersburg ...your so-called ‘republic’ policy. We live in democracy – a democratic country.”
But even though most of the speakers either wanted the chance to vote on saving the existing pier or, at the very least, scrap the Lens design, some spoke against putting a referendum on the ballot. Hal Friedman, who lives downtown, said the 23,000 signatures weren’t that big of a deal because it’s easy to sign something when a person doesn’t know what they’re signing.
“I think it would also create more confusion than it would eliminate. Let’s say it goes out as is, no cost involved and the vote comes in – yeah, we want to preserve and refurbish the Pier. Number one, it’s non-binding. Number two, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s the same as signing a petition.”
The confusion is ultimately what caused council members who were on the fence about a referendum to kill it. Any question on the ballot would be non-binding which means officials could chose to ignore the results. And St. Pete Chamber of Commerce’s Anne Drake McMullen said during public comment that it’s time to move forward anyway.
“The city asked for additional public input for the final elements that would be incorporated into the design. Isn’t that the stage we’re supposed to be at right now? Isn’t that where we’re supposed to be offering our input? I don’t think we want a divided community, but constructive input.”
The group trying to save the Pier raised thousands of dollars to fund their petition drive. St. Pete city council member Karl Nurse, one of only two pro-referendum votes, said the amount of effort and the number of people who have voiced their concerns shouldn’t be ignored.
“Clearly we have a lot of people in our community who are uncomfortable with where we are and so I would suggest that we try to find a way that engages the public – that allows more back and forth.”
The current Pier is scheduled to close in May. The city can’t get a demolition permit until it is vacant and all utilities are removed. The wrecking ball is expected to come out sometime next summer.