© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 2002
Just two weeks ago, Pinellas County commissioners and St. Petersburg City Council members gathered and declared a "new day" of cooperation between the two governments.
On Tuesday, it was more like the old days.
St. Petersburg wants to annex state-owned conservation land on each side of the Howard Frankland Bridge, known as the Gateway Preserve.
But Pinellas County, which helped pay for the purchase and manages the 700-acre tract, wants the land to remain unincorporated.
Commissioners said Tuesday they're not happy about the city's plan.
"This march to the north by St. Petersburg is not helping the era of good feeling between the city and the county," said Commissioner John Morroni.
County commissioners recently agreed to take over ownership of Tropicana Field, at the city's request, to save city taxpayers $1.4-million a year in property taxes. Both sides talked then about how the two governments would work together more often.
On Tuesday, county Commissioner Bob Stewart griped that Mayor Rick Baker wasn't even at the meeting to explain why the city wanted the parcel.
"There's one person who could answer (the county's questions), and he's not here," Stewart said. "We could get a lot of this cleared up if the mayor were here to address us."
Stewart said later he thought Baker should have asked to come before the board. But county staffers also should have asked Baker and the city to come see commissioners, he said.
"There could have been much better communications between the policy boards," Stewart said. "An issue of that magnitude and sensitivity deserved a full explanation and answers."
But with no city officials at Tuesday's meetings, commissioners were left to speculate on the city's motives.
"This is very clearly a march toward (annexing) Feather Sound," said commission Chairman Barbara Sheen Todd.
Baker was leaving town Tuesday and couldn't be reached for comment. St. Petersburg City Council member John Bryan said city officials want to work with the county, but they want to annex the preserve, too.
"I'm very interested in having a great relationship with the county," Bryan said. "I think all of us are. But by the same token, we've got to do what's right for the city."
Bryan said he wasn't aware of any city plans to annex Feather Sound. But annexing the preserve would be a natural move that "squares off" the north end of the city, Bryan said.
The city already borders the southern half of the preserve. Bryan's home, in a city development north of Gandy Boulevard, overlooks the preserve.
"Nobody's going to be doing anything other than maintaining it," Bryan said. "And nobody will want to protect this environment more than I will."
But county staff members say they have more experience managing such conservation areas. Administrator Steve Spratt said that properties of "regional significance," such as the preserve, the county jail and the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, should stay in unincorporated areas, free of city controls.
Todd agreed. She wrote a letter Oct. 18 to David Struhs, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, asking the state not to support annexation.
Todd told commissioners about the letter Tuesday, saying she had to write before other commissioners could discuss the issue because the state was pressing the county for a response. Commissioners agreed, 6 to 1, to back Todd's action.
Commissioner Ken Welch disagreed.