St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Airport's fate hangs on three questions

The City Council decides which questions voters will answer about Albert Whitted Airport on Nov. 4.

Published September 19, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - After five months of discussion and at least four workshops, City Council members decided Thursday on ballot questions that would allow voters to decide the fate of Albert Whitted Airport.

It was literally an 11th-hour debate: Today is the deadline to submit language to the Supervisor of Elections Office for the Nov. 4 ballot.

The first question asks voters: "Should Albert Whitted Airport remain open forever by amending the City Charter to require retention of an airport?"

The second question deals with whether city officials can continue to accept 20-year grants to pay for the airport's maintenance and operation. The city has been using these grants from the Federal Aviation Administration for years, but some critics say this violates the city's charter, which does not allow waterfront land to be obligated for more than a decade.

Airport supporters packed City Hall for a public hearing on the ballot language. They urged council members to give them a choice at the ballot box.

"I have been involved in protecting the airport for 21 years and I want this thing settled once and for all," said Ruth Varn, president of the Airport Advisory Committee. "I think taking it to referendum is the way to do it."

Jay Lasita was the only council member present who did not support both of the airport questions. Council member Virginia Littrell was out of town.

During the months the council was arguing over how to word the Albert Whitted referendum, a citizens coalition was gathering signatures to put on the ballot the option of replacing the airport with a waterfront park.

After four months of stopping people outside supermarkets and knocking on doors, Citizens for a New Waterfront Park collected the necessary 14,571 signatures.

Friction arose earlier this week when City Attorney John Wolfe suggested rewriting the group's ballot question. Wolfe advocated making it clearer that building a waterfront park would close the airport.

The City Council has ultimate authority over how questions will appear on the ballot.

Peter Belmont, the group's president, called the revision unnecessary.

"It seems to me that it would be clear to everybody that if you create a park, then that land is not going to be an airport, at least as it exists right now," he said.

Belmont, a lawyer, offered a compromise that slightly changed the wording to clarify that Albert Whitted would be replaced by a park. Council members agreed, saying they did not want to alter a petition that was already signed by voters.

Shortly before midnight, the council approved the park question.

Park advocates were represented at the public hearing. They asked council members to keep the options simple for citizens. Brent Fisher, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, said his group supported eliminating the Albert Whitted question entirely.

"If it is voted up as a park, then it is settled," Fisher said. "If it is voted down, then you can revisit the issue."

The vote came at the end of a long day for council members. Hoping to reach consensus before the public hearing, they held a workshop earlier in the day. Five minutes after it was scheduled to start, Wolfe bustled into the council chamber with a sheaf of papers under his arm.

"Still warm from the copier," he said, as he distributed the latest draft of the referendum. It was the third version Wolfe wrote this week.

At the workshop, council members decided to put two Albert Whitted questions on the ballot. Airport supporters had advocated combining the two questions into one, saying it would be less confusing.

But City Council members said the two-question version would be less susceptible to a legal challenge. Under state law, a ballot question can't address more than one subject.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.