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An open letter to anyone who expects a certain kind of reporting about the Pier

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Dear Pier lovers, haters and obfuscators,

Earlier this week I wrote about what City Council can and cannot do about whatever final ranking is put before them by the Pier Selection Committee.

I quoted a letter sent by Bill Ballard, who headed the group behind the Lens coup in 2013 to members of the Pier Selection Committee, Mayor Rick Kriseman and the St. Pete City Council.

I pointed out that in his letter Ballard said City Council could not only vote “no” on whatever ranking the selection committee sent to them for approval, but could go so far as to adopt a “resolution or ordinance … to select the Destination St. Pete concept as the pier project they wish to have built and to direct the issuance of an RFQ for design services to implement that specific project.”

I also pointed out that while Council can reject the selection committee’s top pick, they cannot, in fact, do anything else.

That’s because they are prohibited. State law requires the selection committee’s involvement to ensure teams meet minimum qualifications. City Council doesn’t meet that requirement.

Pointing this out wasn’t meant to be a slight to Mr. Ballard. it was intended to be a public service announcement of sorts to set the record straight.

Ever since the Pier Selection Committee spent 12 hours going back and forth about which Pier designs trumped all others, only to leave a final ranking hanging in the balance, the public has been awash with speculation.

The bottom line is, the only thing City Council can do is vote the top ranking design up or down. That’s it.

But Ballard sent a follow-up email to me and posted that email on a public blog for all to read. Because that email is now in the public domain, I’m inclined to respond just as publicly.

In his email, Ballard goes on a lengthy explanation of his dissection of the city’s original RFQ (request for qualifications) to design teams. He notes what is written on which page and paragraph. He makes valid points.

For example, “it is not reasonable to … compel a municipality to spend millions of dollars on plans for a project when its governing body has no intent to build it.”

Sure. But I bet City Council members would disagree with the sentiment here. I’m nearly certain they all want to see SOMETHING built and I’m not sure many of them even care what anymore. That term “pier fatigue” is probably most relevant within City Council.

He then points out that an independent attorney told him “a governing body always has the authority to reject a committee report or recommendation.”

Yes, that’s why they can vote “no” on whatever top-ranked design is put before them.

Then Ballard asserts the city now owns all of the design proposals from each of the teams short-listed that received public dollars for a stipend to develop plans. That may very well be the case, but it doesn’t matter.

Mr. Ballard didn’t point out anything much different than what I did, he just phrased things a little differently, in a much more complicated way and added a little of his own conjecture. Granted, he is an intelligent man and his advocacy is impressive, but simply saying City Council can do something doesn’t make it so.

In his email, Ballard asks me to reconsider my post, “No, City Council can’t hijack the pier selection process by voting on an ordinance.” I won’t do that.

It’s not because I’m stubborn or even because I think it’s right that City Council has so little a role in this charade. It’s because my information came from several sources within the city. I attributed my information to the mayor’s communications director and that intel has since been corroborated by several others.

Ballard ends the email by proposing yet another solution. He suggests combining a design, like Destination St. Pete Pier, with another using “creative” financing for a restaurant or bar on the uplands – like Alma. It would meet the “critical mass” included in the Pier Advisory Task force recommendations from 2010.

He’s not the only one with alternative suggestions. It’s not meant to be a critique of individual ideas, but these suggestions of alternative projects are creating smoke and mirrors surrounding what is happening now and what is restricted by a very regimented process.

Even if City Council rejects a final ranking, the Pier Selection Committee will likely re-rank designs from the ones currently on the table. The only way a process starts from scratch and ideas like Ballard’s can be vetted is if the selection committee is disbanded. My sources within City Hall tell me that won’t happen.

This issue has become a passionate debate among St. Pete natives. In a comment on the same story, Ballard responded to one resident who quotes a line from the story – “the team could just throw their hands in the air and put Destination St. Pete Pier before Council.” He asks, “why do you consider ranking Destination #1 ‘throwing up their hands?’”

This question illustrates the problem. A lot of people have an opinion. Some of those are so strong that anything even remotely perceived as opposing it is a bash to that particular mindset. Look back at all of my pier coverage and you will find a mix of reporting. Some is critical of Destination St. Pete. Some seems supportive. Some stories have criticized the process, others have supported it.

The point here is to report what is happening, not to further any agenda. If the Pier Selection Committee chooses Destination St. Pete as its top pick it will be a “throw your hand in the air” kind of scenario. Mathematically speaking, the committee ranked Alma as its top pick and Destination as its third. Changing that now would be a response to public outcry.

Again, not that there’s anything right or wrong with that, but that’s how it is.

And likewise, if City Council votes a pick down, it won’t be taking matters into its own hands. This is just reporting facts.

I’m not your loud speaker, I’m your watchdog. The process is what the process is. If you take action, I will report it. If you send public letters touting incorrect points, I’m going to correct it. Please stop taking it so personally.

My intention is not to offend those with creative ideas. It is to, as I said before, set the record straight.

Let’s try to see the forest through the trees, huh?

Signed,

The Gal Just Trying To Get The Facts

 

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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