Ruling in St. Pete Pier lawsuit could come today
ST. PETERSBURG -
A judge could rule Thursday on whether or not a petition drive to save the current pier is legally valid.
City Attorney Joseph Patner and former City Council member Kathleen Ford spent three hours Wednesday arguing in court about whether the group VoteonthePier followed city rules in collecting more than 15,600 signatures to force a referendum on the fate of the aging pier.
Circuit court judge Jack Day is considering Ford's lawsuit to force the city to put the issue on the ballot as well as her claim that plans to tear down The Pier's businesses requires a public vote.
Day questioned why VoteonthePier organizers did not seek professional advice in crafting the language of its petition to stave off legal challenges by the city, but he said the number of signatures the group obtained carries significant weight.
“It should be troubling for all of us that that many folks felt that strongly in some way, and it's going to lead to naught,” he said.
Day said he would consider the case overnight and contact both parties in the morning, though supporters of the lawsuit said the ruling might take several days.
Both sides made a motion for summary judgment after stalled mediation, asking the court to make a ruling on the lawsuit.
The city rejected VoteonthePier's petition because it did not contain required language about altering the city charter in order to place the issue on the ballot, Patner said. The petition also failed to include information about the projected costs of saving the 1973 pier and used emotional verbiage, such as calling the structure “iconic,” a practice that runs contrary to state and municipal ballot law, he said.
The petition drive being pursued by Stop the Lens complies with those rules, Patner said.
“We can't substitute vocal support or vocal opposition for what the rule of law requires,” he said.
Ford argued that the petition question was clear and that the city has a responsibility to help craft the ballot language in a way that complies with the law.
“We believe the petitioners have met all the requirements of the statute, which would require the city then to prepare a ballot,” she said.
A second point in Ford's case centers on whether the city's plans to close The Pier's 78,000 square-feet of commercial space constitutes a loss of valuable waterfront real estate, which must be decided by a referendum vote, according to the city charter.
Patner contended the charter provision applies only to the sale of waterfront property, not plans to replace or redesign it.
Supporters of VoteonthePier as well as the separate Stop the Lens petition listened carefully during today's hearing.
Regardless of the judge's ruling, Stop the Lens organizers say they will continue gathering signatures on a petition forcing a referendum asking voters whether they want the city to cancel its contract to build a new pier known as the Lens.
“We are firmly convinced before the end of April we'll have the full petition count needed to get the vote,” said Fred Whaley, chairman of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, which is organizing the petition.