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They want big-ticket items to go to a vote

A group in St. Pete Beach wants all city expenditures of $1-million or more, except emergency ones, voted on.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


ST. PETE BEACH -- John Bailey hopes the voters will show more interest in his idea this year than the City Commission did four years ago.

Bailey and a group of city residents who support his plan are launching a campaign to amend the city charter and force onto the ballot nearly all city expenditures totaling $1-million or more. They will begin collecting signatures Tuesday morning outside the Warren Webster Community Center, where District 4 voters will cast ballots for a city commissioner.

"This is about what the tradition is in this community," said Bailey, pointing out that St. Pete Beach, by convention, has taken big-ticket items to voters, and he wants to make that policy mandatory. "It's sort of been an unwritten covenant that that's what we do."

Of the past six referendums dealing with expenditures that the commission has placed on the ballot, voters have passed five, including pay raises for elected officials, a new police station and a reclaimed water system. Voters rejected plans for a marina behind City Hall.

Bailey has been down this road before. When he represented District 4 on the City Commission from 1997 to 1999, he urged fellow commissioners to put a similar idea up for referendum. At that time, Bailey wanted all expenditures totaling more than $500,000 to be on the ballot.

None of the other commissioners agreed.

Now Bailey is trying to put the issue on the ballot through a citizen-led petition drive. Working with a committee of residents that includes former Mayor Terry Gannon, Charles Hartman, Jay King and Antoinette Luse, Bailey decided to increase the amount to $1-million this time around.

The wording of their petition allows commissioners to make emergency expenditures of more than $1-million without a referendum.

"We don't want to stop government in its tracks," Bailey said.

According to the city charter, the committee needs 762 signatures from registered voters in St. Pete Beach to get the issue on the ballot in the 2002 city election. The group had planned to seek signatures outside the polling places in Districts 2 and 4, but District 2 Commissioner Jim Myers faces no opposition this year, leaving the committee to work only in District 4.

Bailey said his group hopes residents citywide will visit Warren Webster Community Center on Tuesday.

The city's plans to build a new City Hall on Corey Avenue, on land donated by a local developer in exchange for the construction contract, prompted Bailey's campaign to get the issue on the ballot.

Throughout 2000, Bailey and other opponents of the idea continually asked commissioners to take the issue to referendum. Commissioners declined, saying the donation of prime land was too good to pass up and time constraints prevented them from getting the voters' opinion.

"Where did this mayor and this commission get the self-importance to deny and defy a tradition that has served this community well since we were incorporated as a city? Where did they get that idea?" Bailey said.

Once the deal began to fall through, even Paul Skipper, the developer who offered the land, said voters should have had the chance to vote on the plan.

Early this year, Skipper backed out altogether. The city now is struggling to decide what to do next to replace or repair the aging building that houses many of its employees.

The petition

Here is the wording of the petition a committee of city residents is supporting:

"We, the qualified voters of the city of St. Pete Beach, wish to amend the city charter by adding a section that provides: Unless authorized by the electors of the city of St. Pete Beach at a duly held referendum election, the commission shall not enter into a non-budgeted, non-emergency purchase contract in excess of $1-million."

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