CLEARWATER — Downtown residents filed a lawsuit against the city Thursday, claiming a referendum on whether to use City Hall property for a new aquarium violates the law.
The lawsuit, filed in Pinellas County circuit court by residents Tom Petersen and Inge Spatuzzi, contends the ballot language for the Nov. 5 referendum misleads residents into thinking they’re voting on a lease for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
A “yes” vote actually would offer an exception to the city charter for the aquarium, violating provisions that restrict the land to municipal uses, Petersen said.
The agreement also forces the city to pledge to build a new city hall without sufficient assurance of being reimbursed for the costs, according to the lawsuit.
The memorandum of understanding approved by City Council last week requires the aquarium to use a 50-cent ticket surcharge to reimburse the city $7.5 million for a new city hall and provides for escalating interest to be paid to the city. After that, the aquarium would pay an annual rent of $250,000 for the remainder of the 60-year lease.
“We’re not against the aquarium at all. The aquarium does a lot of wonderful work,” said Petersen, who lives in the Water’s Edge condominiums on Cleveland Street.
“The issue is the ballot language and whether this site is the best use of city resources.”
Petersen spoke to media at Clearwater City Hall Thursday, joined by his attorney, Robert Lincoln, and a handful of downtown residents who support the lawsuit.
The lawsuit is not associated with a political action committee that recently formed to sway voters against approving the aquarium agreement, Petersen said.
Current city charter provisions only allow the City Council to lease land for more than five years if the property is surplus and not being used for city activities, Lincoln said.
“The core problem there really is that they’re taking existing property that’s not surplus and turning it over to a private entity and in that process will be incurring significant taxpayer obligations to fund a new city hall,” Lincoln said.
Aquarium officials were also present at Thursday’s press conference and immediately rebutted Petersen’s complaints.
“I’m disappointed that there is basically a scheme to thwart the voters’ ability to make a decision on what the future of City Hall will be,” said Frank Hibbard, the former mayor who serves on the aquarium board.
The agreement with the city requires the aquarium to pay more than fair-market value simply to lease the property as well as reimburse the projected costs of a new city hall, Hibbard said.
That agreement is not legally binding, but it lays out the structure of the deal that voters will consider this fall.
The reason for the referendum is to amend the city charter to allow the land to be used for building an aquarium, Hibbard said.
The City Attorney’s office is reviewing the lawsuit and will respond within the court system, said city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli.
Mayor George Cretekos said he was confident the city followed the correct procedure in crafting the referendum and that the voters would have their say on the issue.
Petersen said he felt compelled to file the suit after the aquarium made a presentation to residents at his condo. A downtown aquarium will only bring tourists to visit the attraction and won’t benefit local businesses, he said.
“It’s Clearwater Beach that is the tourist mecca,” he said. “Nobody comes to downtown Clearwater on vacation. I’m sorry. They just don’t.”