Commission disbands city hall committee
By AMY WIMMER
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2001
ST. PETE BEACH -- The City Commission on Tuesday night disbanded the committee that continually questioned plans for a new city hall on Corey Avenue, but commissioners insist they dissolved the citizens group because its job is complete, not because they wanted to quell the committee's message.
Earlier this month, developer Paul Skipper backed out of the deal and said much of the blame rested with his interrogators on the City Hall Advisory Committee.
Some allies of the committee -- including former Commissioner John Bailey, former Mayor Terry Gannon and activist Ralph Lickton -- believe the city will end up buying the land that would have been given to it had the deal worked out. They believe some city officials, particularly Commissioner Peter Blank, are saying the deal is over to justify breaking up the city committee.
"I have never seen a more done deal, more an orchestration of a play that takes the public for a group of idiots," Bailey said Wednesday. Bailey and a handful of others showed up Tuesday to protest the disbanding of the committee.
The committee breakup occurred during a week when those opposed to the new city hall on Corey Avenue became more distrustful of where the city will go next with its plans to remodel or rebuild its city hall. Commissioners, particularly Blank, have maintained that this group is simply an outspoken minority.
"It's the same 10 people 90 percent of the time," Blank said late last week. "These people are the ones you listen to some of the time and, I think, sometimes you start to get a tin ear because they say the same things."
Also last week, the state attorney's office announced it will not file criminal charges against the six members of the City Hall Advisory Committee for an alleged violation of the Sunshine Law.
After members met individually with their chairman at his home last month to read and initial a memo sent to commissioners, a memo that suggested the city end its dealings with Skipper, City Manager Carl Schwing referred the matter to police Chief Ray Kaminskas, who reported it to the state attorney's office. A second state attorney's investigation into the details of the former contract between Skipper and the city is still under investigation.
Skipper offered to donate land at the Corey Causeway entrance to the city in exchange for a contract to build the new city hall. He rescinded the offer earlier this month but might be willing to sell the site, recently valued by a private appraiser at $1.2-million.
City officials appear to disagree on their chances of working out a way to build a city hall on Corey Avenue.
Mayor Ward Friszolowski, City Manager Carl Schwing and Jack Ohlhaber, formerly the advisory committee's chairman, all say their meetings with Skipper have left them upbeat about the possibilities.
"I've had discussions with Paul Skipper. I think maybe some of his thoughts have changed -- things do change," Ohlhaber said. "Unfortunately, I hate to give up. I'm very bad about that. I believe this is a good idea, and I would like to see it carried to fruition."
Blank, on the other hand, was more adamant that the old city hall deal will not be resurrected.
"I think it's important that the commission take back our responsibility to do what we have to do with this property," Blank said. "Corey Avenue is over, I'll tell you right now. In my opinion, it's done. If we want to buy the property, we can buy the property, but as far as a city hall on Corey Avenue, it is now terminated."
Bailey questions why different city officials portray different ideas of how seriously the city is considering purchase of the Corey Avenue property.
"In my mind, Peter Blank knows that the chances are excellent that the city is going to buy that property," Bailey said. "It's far from over."
Blank has been criticized for his friendship with Skipper, and the two often lunch together with a group of other residents at Skidder's Restaurant. Late last week, Blank said he thinks discontinuing his relationship with Skipper is unnecessary, but he does have second thoughts about some of the statements he made when the Corey Avenue deal was still alive about the developer's need to protect his interests.
"I did that a couple times, and I shouldn't have," Blank said. "Am I supposed to just say, "I'm sorry, Mr. Skipper, I can't even talk to you?' Quite frankly, I was trying to help a deal go through."
Bailey is organizing a petition for a charter amendment that would force the commission to put all expenditures of more than $1-million to a voter referendum. He does not plan to get the charter amendment question on this year's ballot but likely will collect signatures for his petition at city polling places during the city election.
The question of why this issue was never put to referendum is one that hasn't gone away for commissioners.
Bailey pointed out at Tuesday's meeting that three of the four issues commissioners have taken to referendum have been approved by the voters, and he asked Friszolowski why this issue should be different. "Every issue is different," Friszolowski replied.
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