CLEARWATER — Ballot language in last fall’s referendum to approve a land lease for a downtown Clearwater aquarium was written clearly and did not mislead voters, a circuit court judge ruled Tuesday.
Critics of Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s multimillion-dollar project had hoped to overturn the results of the November election, when 55 percent voted in favor of leasing the city hall property for the aquarium.
Downtown residents Tom Petersen and Inge Spatuzzi sued the city and the county’s supervisor of elections in August, before the vote, claiming the referendum failed to inform voters the land lease would create an exception to the city charter, which restricts the land to municipal uses.
Circuit Court Judge Jack St. Arnold ruled the city clearly stated the “chief purpose” of the referendum, which was to grant permission for a proposed lease with the aquarium on public property.
The city is “not required to explain every detail or ramification of a proposed amendment; indeed in the present case that would be an impossible task with the word limitations imposed by statute,” he wrote. Summaries are limited to 75 words.
“The voters were not misled and were informed of the decision they were requested to make,” he wrote later in his order granting the city’s request for summary judgment.
In May, both sides made motions requesting summary judgment from the court, which was followed by a hearing June 2.
Petersen, a leading critic of the aquarium, previously has said the losing side could appeal the decision, but did not comment on the results Tuesday.
“I have not had an opportunity to speak with our attorney, thus, I do not have any comment at this time,” he wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon.
City and aquarium officials have insisted the referendum process carefully followed the law.
The court agreed and further stated there were insufficient grounds for overturning the decision of a clear majority of voters.
“There is a strong public policy against courts interfering in the democratic processes of elections,” the judge’s order states.
The outcome came as no surprise to Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, who said he was confident the ballot conformed to the law and voters had a clear understanding of what they were approving.
The referendum authorized a lease, but city staff still is in negotiation with the aquarium about the specific terms of the deal and an adjacent parking garage.
“Whether we end up working this out or not, we’re going to do it publicly, we’re going to do it openly and I’m confident even those who are opposed to the project will be satisfied they’ve had their fair hearing,” Cretekos said.