Newest pier controversy called "political circustry"

8:22 PM, Jan 7, 2013   |    comments
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St. Pete Pier design proposal: "The Lens" by Michael Maltzan Architecture (courtesy: City of St. Pete)
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ST. PETERSBURG, Florida -- "Political circustry."

It's a word St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster says he made up just to describe the newest situation that's arisen from controversy over the plan to demolish The Pier and transform it into The Lens.

"They want to make it a circus, and it's not," Mayor Foster says. "We take this very seriously."

Here's what's happened: is part of a lawsuit against the City of St. Petersburg and the city council aiming to let people vote on the pier's fate and, at least temporarily, stop the existing structure from being demolished. More than 15,000 people have signed a petition urging a public vote, and those whose signatures were certified by the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office are named as a group of plaintiffs in the suit.

A judge has ordered mediation in the case. Last month, during one of the city's attorney-client meetings leading up to that mediation, city council member Wengay Newton says he was told to recuse himself because he signed the petition, and therefore would have a conflict of interest.

The Supervisor of Elections Office has since emailed Newton, and confirmed to 10 News, that his name was not among those counted and certified as part of the petition.

"So as you can see, I'm not part of the lawsuit and I should not have been put out of the meeting," Newton said Monday during a press conference on the steps of City Hall. "I thought it was deliberate and it was blatant."

Because most details of closed meetings are confidential, no city officials would confirm whether Newton was told to recuse himself. A video clip recorded just before the December 13 meeting went into closed session announced Newton's name among those allowed to attend the attorney-client meeting.

Foster heard a part of the press conference on Monday and says he "didn't hear a single thing said by Council Member Newton that was true," including a claim that city workers were "targeted," as Newton phrased it.

According to the City Attorney's Office, an affidavit has been created for people who signed the petition but do not want to be a part of the lawsuit. However, chief assistant city attorney Mark Winn says those affidavits are not forced upon city employees or anyone else, and people must ask for an affidavit in order to even receive one.

"Those that are willing parties to a lawsuit against the city, go for it. There are no ramifications at all, it doesn't affect your job at all," Foster says.

But Newton sees the situation differently, and wants to be a part of future attorney-client meetings.

"I don't think that the city is going to be forthright during mediation if they're doing things like this," he says.

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