City Councilor Wengay Newton accused the city administration Monday of targeting him and unnamed city employees for supporting a petition to force a citywide vote on the future of the St. Petersburg Pier.
Without naming names, Newton said during a Monday press conference that city employees who signed the VoteOnThePier.com petition were asked to sign affidavits by the city to recuse themselves from a lawsuit that aims to stop the development of the $50 million "Lens."
Mayor Bill Foster denied the allegations in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.
"I have no idea where that is coming from," Foster said. "Every employee has a voice … the right to sign a petition, the right to sue the city."
The skirmish underscores increasing tensions over the future of the 1970s-era pier and whether voters should have a say in the matter.
At issue is a lawsuit that seeks to have a referendum vote on the future of the St. Petersburg Pier.
During a December 2012 city council meeting, Newton tried to ask questions about Circuit Court Judge Amy Williams' ruling that the city and Kathleen Ford will have to go into mediation. Ford is representing the 15,652 VoteOnthePier petitioners.
Newton's questions were rebuffed, and he was told it was inappropriate to answer/ask questions about Ford's pending VoteOnthePier.com lawsuit in the public forum.
Therefore, an attorney-client session was called on Dec. 13, 2012.
At that meeting, after his name was read into the record, Newton said he was asked to leave by the city's legal team because he was part of the VoteOnThePier.com lawsuit, because he signed the petition.
According to Newton, however, that move was illegal because he is not part of the lawsuit.
In a Jan. 4 email between Newton and Pinellas County Elections Administrator Kirby Scott, Newton was told, "per our phone conversations from today, our records of your voter file do not indicate that we verified a signature petition of the most recent initiative concerning the pier."
"My attorney told me I had signed the petition and was part of the lawsuit. This was far from the truth," Newton said Monday afternoon at a press conference on the steps of City Hall. "I should not have been put out of the meeting. I thought it was deliberate and blatant."
(Patch messages to the City of St. Petersburg legal team were not returned.)
Mayor Bill Foster told the Times that Newton's allegations are a "lie."
"That assertion is simply not true. It's a lie," Foster told the Times.
In November 2010, Newton was the first to sign the VoteOnThePier.com petition, in hopes to force a public referendum on the future of the St. Petersburg Pier.
While he signed the first petition, his ballot is not part of Ford's lawsuit against the city, because his petition was not one of the 15,652 petitions verified by the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections.
Once a petition reaches a threshold, the Elections office stops counting. More than 20,000 people submitted a VoteOnThePier.com petition, but only the first 15,652 petitions submitted are part of Ford's lawsuit.
Newton said it is not just himself being targeted, city staff that signed the petitions are being targeted as well, he said.
According to Newton, city administration is up to no good.
Newton argued that if the city can look up and determine which employees have signed the petition and are included in the lawsuit, it should have been able to figure out that he was not a part of the lawsuit. That would have allowed him to participate in the closed attorney-client session.
"Now, if they are looking through those people that signed the petitions to find out who signed it, you think they would have took the time to look at the nine elected officials ... to make sure they weren’t a part of that lawsuit," Newton said.
On Jan. 17, another attorney-client session is scheduled regarding Ford's lawsuit against the city. Newton said he is unsure if he'll be able to attend but hopes he will be allowed in light of the new information.
"I have been the sole voice, the sole long dissenting vote on the pier," Newton said. "I believe that structure belongs to the people of the city of St Petersburg, not some self-serving politicians. It’s always been my belief that the people should vote.
"I don’t think the city is going to be forthright in mediation if the city is doing things like this," Newton added.
"But I do know this, on Aug. 27, 2013, the people of the city will get to vote. The mayor and four council seats will be up for a vote. They can play all the games they want, but they can’t stop the inevitable."
The 1970s-era pier is set to close on May 31, and demolition is scheduled for August.