tampabay.com

An apology is apropos in casino boat's wake

By HOWARD TROXLER
Published July 26, 2005


Oh, heck, just for old time's sake, let's ask the question one last time:

Where's the boat?

The Ocean Jewel , that 450-foot, purple floating casino monstrosity in St. Petersburg, appears to have skipped town, not even a year after it finally showed up.

Do not forget how we got here:

(1) Mayor Rick Baker says in late 2002, "Let's turn over the port of St. Petersburg to obvious clowns from New Jersey and elsewhere whom any idiot could see possess all the credibility of Mr. Haney from Green Acres ."

(2) The City Council says at once, "Hey, that sounds keen! In fact, we won't even need to approve the contract. You handle everything."

(3) The company, Titan Cruise Lines, goes through ridiculous ownership and personnel contortions before finally producing a boat and starting its gambling cruises, one year and eight months after the original schedule.

(4) The vessel, originally to be called the Spirit of St. Petersburg , turns out not to be a glamorous Love Boat after all. St. Pete has leased itself out as the parking lot and toilet for offshore gambling.

(5) Oh, yeah, and then the boat soon stops, you know, actually sailing in and out of St. Petersburg. Titan uses shuttles to run gamblers offshore.

(6) Oh, yeah, and the shuttles keep catching on fire and banging into public bridges and stuff.

(7) Under the city's brilliantly drawn, watertight contract, Titan Cruise Lines simply opens up a second operation up the Pinellas County coast, taking passenger revenues away from St. Petersburg.

(8) Now, they have shut down and appear to be on the verge of pulling out. Of course, the city has the threat of a big payback - the $108,000 deposit that Titan had to leave behind. Ooooh, that'll show 'em!

I cannot wait for the mayor and council to explain that everything is just fine, because the city didn't really lose anything. (Other than, you know, degrading the city's character, getting in bed with hucksters and being used as a patsy.) Then everybody will pretend they never did this.

This silly saga is important for two reasons.

First, this is the judgment that is running St. Petersburg. For all the good things Rick Baker has done as mayor, and for any talents the City Council might possess, they also were capable of this.

And make no mistake - they were not fooled or tripped up by unforeseen factors. It was abundantly clear from the beginning what this deal was, and they did it anyway. They were almost defiant about it.

Which brings us to the second reason this is important.

St. Petersburg is more than a decade into the "strong mayor" form of government. There has been an evolution of the mayorship from David Fischer, the last old-style mayor, to Rick Baker, who has done well with the job's new powers.

But the City Council lags behind.

I don't even give Baker most of the blame. He was trying to boost the city. True, he was blinded by a romantic vision of St. Petersburg as a port of call. Until a real cruise line came along, a fake one would do.

But the council is the worse disappointment. For Pete's sake, this ain't Mayberry. You ask questions. You read contracts. YOU READ CONTRACTS. Good God! How many contracts will they NOT read, and have the taxpayers pay the price, before they understand? This is the same body that didn't bother to read the Bayfront Medical/BayCare contract, because, you know, we're all good friends here and a handshake will do.

Here is what the council should do:

Apologize.

"Be it resolved: That the City Council of St. Petersburg apologizes for turning the city into the parking lot and platform for a cheesy, purple, offshore gambling operation," the resolution might say. "We were wrong not to operate with greater independence from the mayor."

That would be a start. Then we might still be able to cling to the hope that Rick Kriseman or Earnest Williams or any other council member who runs for the Legislature one day might actually have some business being there.