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St. Pete Polls wasn’t allowed to show its Pier survey and it’s not clear why

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During Friday’s marathon meeting in which the Pier Selection Committee was supposed to choose final ranking of three designs, but didn’t, one person during public comment was essentially silenced at the podium during his 3-minutes.

That person is Leonard Schmiege. He works for St. Pete Polls and was attempting to show results from an independent survey his company conducted that verified the city’s own survey results.

St. Pete Polls and Schmiege conducted the poll after questions surfaced about whether or not the city’s voting process through its website was accurate. Because of the way the city collected verifying information to determine whether someone was a resident, it would have been easy for someone to cast several ballots in the names of friends, family and neighbors.

But the St. Pete Polls survey mirrored results from the city’s very closely – namely with Destination St. Pete Pier being at the top of the list.

But when Schmiege approached the podium to share the results, he was told he could not show visuals during his time because such materials have to be pre-approved by the Clerk’s office. He said that rule was intended to ensure visuals were not in violation of copyright. Schmiege was denied twice in that meeting.

“I’m sorry sir, we wont be granting that request at this late notice.”

“To be asked to put up a poll that has not been vetted, in terms of its … is unfair to the process and frankly contrary to the process,” Connors told him.

It wasn’t the end of the world for Schmiege, he simply read the results verbally, but it did raise an eyebrow or two.

Connors cited the process twice in his denial to Schmiege, but he seems to have cast that same process aside by vehemently siding with a design team largely unflavored by the public.

Not only is he actively pushing for Alma over Destination St. Pete despite multiple surveys that show Alma has very little support, he is also jockeying against Destination.

During the meeting he made it a point to let everyone know that the inverted pyramid is already 50-years old. So, by the time it reaches the end of its next 75-year run, it will be 125-years old.

Then, when asked about his support for Alma and lack of a decision following a 12-hour meeting, he refused to answer.

Rewind to his statements about showing visuals during the meeting, it’s difficult to find a policy Connors is referencing.

In city council agendas there are instructions for public testimony during quasi-judicial hearings.

“Presentation by Opponent. If anyone wishes to utilize the initial presentation time provided for an Opponent, said individual shall register with the City Clerk at least one week prior to the scheduled public hearing,” that policy reads.

However, that is referring to a ten-minute “presentation” not to the three-minute public comment allowed individuals during any public meeting.

According to City Clerk Chan Srinivasa, the policy Connors was referencing was instead an unwritten one that has been in place for years. It requires items to be shown over a projector to be given to the clerk an hour before a meeting because the item has to be placed into record. Handouts, at least 15 copies, also have to be given to staff at least an hour prior to a meeting to ensure delivery to council and administration. Video presentations have to be given to St. Pete TV 3-days in advance so the team over there can verify it meets FCC standards.

Any powerpoint presentations have to be given to the clerk’s office by noon the day before a meeting.

Srinivasa began working on formalizing those rules in December. They are currently being reviewed by legal staff.

“t’s not a problem if it isn’t cumbersome,” said St. Pete Polls owner Matt Florell. “But the fact that this was not a published policy and I’ve never had it enforced on me makes me think there is something smelly going on.”

The group has now sent results from their independent survey to individual committee members by mail since they were denied the opportunity to present the results in person. Florell said he eventually did get contact information for a person to approve visuals for public comment, but was not shown an actual policy.

Florell isn’t the only one who has voiced concerns that something seems amiss about the committee’s apparent dismissal of public opinion. While state law forbids them to use a public poll as the sole source of making a decision on this, it was always meant to be taken into consideration.

The group could start with a number of studies and polls addressing the same question. But, “the whole charge that this working group is going to have is to go out to the public and hear from the public, so that when you come back and make your report it’s solely based on the input you received from the public,” Mayor Rick Kriseman explained to Fox 13 last year.

But now the Mayor seems to have stepped back from that.

“Thank you to our Selection Committee and the public. The Pier is a source of great pride, but also passionate debate. The process is working and it continues. I am supportive of any action the committee ultimately takes,” Kriseman wrote on his Facebook page following the selection committee meeting.

There’s also concern Kriseman would quickly dismiss the will of the public after he did an about face on choosing a new police chief. Kriseman led a process heavy on public outreach while vetting candidates only to scratch all of them from the list and choose someone entirely different.

The Pier Selection Committee is set to meet again at a date yet to be determined to hear from architects and design teams to answer lingering questions about the designs.

Once they choose the final ranking, city council will be charged with approving or rejecting the number one choice. In the latest poll conducted by St. Pete Polls for Florida Politics, more than half of respondents indicated city council should reject any design that is not the public’s top choice.

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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