Mediation Ordered for Pier Lawsuit
Attorney Kathleen Ford, representing 15,000 petitioners, and the city of St. Petersburg are ordered to sit down with a mediator and work toward drafting a referendum.
The St. Petersburg Pier's future may be decided by voters.
Circuit Court Judge Amy Williams ruled Thursday that the city of St. Petersburg and attorney Kathleen Ford, representing the VoteOnThePier petitioners, have to meet with a mediator within 60 days to come up with ballot language for a vote on the future of the St. Petersburg Pier.
"Why don’t we just do it? Let’s get together and let's do it," Williams said. "It just seems like we can all agree here." She ordered the two sides to meet soon, so that a citywide vote may happen as early as the March election.
Williams also ruled that Ford had to re-file the suit by Dec. 12, naming all the people who signed the petition. She said she could not dismiss the case on the grounds that the petitions did not have cause, which the city had argued.
"I can’t determine at this point in time if something is true or not true," Williams said.
At issue is whether voters should decide whether the 1970s-era pier should be demolished and replaced with an updated structure. The City Council is moving forward with a handpicked design dubbed "The Lens." The existing pier is slated to close in 2013.
Ford said after Wednesday's hearing that she is hopeful the mediation will lead to a public vote on the future of the St. Petersburg Pier.
"We look forward to working with the city attorneys on (a) proposal for ballot language that we can all agree on rather than going forward with (litigation)," Ford said. "I think the court was certainly directing the parties to come up with ballot language. That’s how in interpreted that order. That is what the mediation would be about."
Attorney Joe Patner, representing the city of St. Pete, argued that the case should be dismissed. He said that the city has the right to rebuild the pier, because nothing in the charter prohibits it.
Having the pier located within the community redevelopment area and TIF district allows the city to bond out the money for the pier without holding a public vote.
"If we get into this governance by referendum, it creates paralysis," Patner said. While his motion for dismissal was denied he argued that nothing in the charter allows for a public vote on a capital project within the CRA/TIF district.
Patner also argued that the petitioners did not form a legal group, entity or corporation. Therefore, he said Ford lacked the standing to sue on behalf of them.
The most disagreement Wednesday centered on the city' position that the city is "ready, willing and able" to hold a vote on the pier.
"I did not get that perception that the city was ready, willing, and able (to put in on the ballot), because if they were ready, willing, and able, there would have been a ballot," Ford said.
Patner said the city was willing, but that the petitioners are unclear about what they want.
Williams disagreed with that assessment. "That’s really what this petition wants," she said.
The city and Ford will have 60 days to meet with a mediator on the issue. Ford will have to re-file the case listing the names of the petitioners. Also, the words "city council" and "CRA" were removed from the suit.
Ford originally filed suit on Aug. 22, on behalf of the 15,652 people who signed petitions to force a vote on the pier, after council voted against a pier referendum.
Thursday, the city council will be voting on the "basis of design" report of the "Lens." That action would allocate $5.4 million for Michael Maltzan Architecture and Skanska USA Builders to continue the pre-construction process. The updated "Lens" design was presented to the council on Tuesday.
"It doesn’t sound prudent to me to go forward with the Lens design," Ford told reporters after Wednesday’s hearing. "This council has wasted money in the past. I’m hopeful they would take a pause on how we should best spend citizens money."