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Incumbent faces extra opposition in election

An attorney who's against St. Pete Beach's redevelopment plan is pushing for Commissioner Deborah Martohue's defeat.

Published February 8, 2006

ST. PETE BEACH - Though there are two candidates for the District 1 commission seat, the election has a third party of sorts.

"The race seems to be shaping up between me and some attorney from Treasure Island," said Commissioner Deborah Martohue, whose declared opponent is Michael Finnerty. "Ken Weiss seems to want a legislative voice in St. Pete Beach. People wonder if my opponent is an alter ego for Mr. Weiss."

Weiss is the attorney for Citizens for Responsible Growth, a group that opposes the city's redevelopment plans calling for mixed-use development and taller hotels to bolster tourism. As he shepherds litigation seeking CRG referendums on the city's plans, Weiss also is urging people to vote against Martohue, one of the plan's most ardent supporters.

But Finnerty says Weiss has nothing to do with his campaign. He said he barely knows Weiss and distanced himself from a document Weiss is circulating as evidence Martohue is hypocritical concerning a possible referendum.

"Don't affiliate me or connect me with that," Finnerty said.

The document, a legal memo Martohue wrote in July, is connected to a pair of lawsuits Weiss filed on behalf of CRG to force the city to release files and meeting transcripts related to its unresolved lawsuits over CRG's referendums. The city challenged the referendums and a court has thrown out three of them, upheld one, but has yet to rule on two more.

"The commissioner said one thing in public, then sends this memo to a lawyer," Weiss said of the strategy matrix Martohue, herself an attorney, shared with the city's outside counsel last year. "She said, "We just want to make sure this is right,' but then she writes this memo trying to show the referendums are unconstitutional. I think it's two different public statements."

Martohue said she doesn't see any contradiction.

"There's nothing in here we didn't say in commission meetings," she said of the memo. "I don't understand what his question is. I don't understand what the smoking gun would be."

Four of the city's five commissioners voted to ask a judge to decide if the referendum questions are valid so as to avoid developer lawsuits later if the referendums proved not to be. Only Commissioner Ed Ruttencutter has opposed that strategy.

Martohue's memo lays out the first four referendum questions CRG initiated, then lists parts of the city charter and state law referendum questions could contradict. She calls it a research document, exploring options. The city's challenge of the referendum questions was based on some of these same arguments and a judge has agreed with much of that lawsuit. Weiss is appealing the judge's decision.

Finnerty has said he is not opposed to city redevelopment but does feel the city commission is preventing a vote and doesn't think the citizens should be "bullied." Though such statements are in line with CRG's, Finnerty says he has no connection to the group.

"I'm not their candidate," he said. "I don't think they have any members in my district. I know there's a lot of them supporting me, but they don't vote in my district."

Finnerty said some CRG members have offered to volunteer for his campaign and have donated money.

Weiss said he sees no difficulty that he represents an organization seeking a referendum but is involving himself in an election.

"I do it because of the positions she's taken," he said. "The fact is that she voted to retain a law firm which alleged that the petitions were unconstitutional. I think it is relevant for the voters who signed those petitions to know that the commissioner in their district wrote a memorandum to the city's law firm outlining how to prove that the petitions that her district residents signed were invalid."

Others in the city find Weiss' campaigning a problem.

"He's interfering with our elections," said Mike Cohen, the head of Save Your City's Future, a group supporting the city's plans but not endorsing candidates. "Ken Weiss is trying to impose his will on St. Pete Beach even though he's not a resident here."

[Last modified February 8, 2006, 01:15:22]

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