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Residents to have say on Bayfront

Comment will come after the medical center's membership in the BayCare network ends.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Now that it has already made the biggest decision on its own, the St. Petersburg City Council is willing to hear the public's thoughts on Bayfront Medical Center's relationship with the city.

In October, the council refused to sell the city government's interest in the hospital in the midst of a controversy over religious practices the hospital had adopted.

Bayfront officials wanted to buy out the city in the hope of curing a possible violation of the separation of church and state and allowing the religious restrictions to continue. The city had sued Bayfront to end the religious restrictions.

Bayfront wanted the city to hold a public hearing in October and then vote on whether to sell. But the council met in executive session, then shot down the sale without public comment.

Bayfront's membership in the BayCare network of area hospitals was the source of the controversial Catholic religious directives against abortion and other practices. After the council declined to sell, BayCare responded by kicking Bayfront out, the very thing Bayfront was trying to avoid.

Now, with that divorce nearly final, the council Thursday set a Jan. 4 public hearing on whether the city should sell the land. The vote was 7-1, with Bea Griswold voting no, saying there was no longer an issue to discuss.

Bayfront CEO and President Sue Brody said Thursday that selling the land now would be too late to save the BayCare relationship, which ends Dec. 31. The hospital and its closest BayCare partner, St. Anthony's Hospital, are nearly finished untangling their shared systems and personnel.

But the way the council handled the vote on the sale has drawn criticism, and council members seemed to be looking for a way to mitigate that Thursday.

Some 60 anti-abortion advocates -- who liked BayCare's policy against abortions -- decried the council earlier this month in a protest outside City Hall. Other residents have written or called council members.

St. Petersburg City Council member Bill Foster -- who voted against selling the land in October -- tried for the second time Thursday to move toward letting voters make the decision in the voting booth in March.

Despite his own opposition to selling, Foster said, "we should allow the citizens of this city an opportunity for meaningful debate and a vote on a sale."

The City Council defeated his idea the first time in a 4-4 tie six weeks ago, but Thursday, there were two new members on the council.

Foster's idea to let the council's subcommittees discuss a referendum again failed in a 4-4 tie. Members Griswold, Earnest Williams, Rene Flowers and Kathleen Ford voted no.

Council chair and mayoral candidate Larry Williams has long supported selling the land to Bayfront. Thursday, he put forward his own proposal, asking the council for a public hearing, after which "a referendum should be the mechanism to establish a long-range plan allowing Bayfront to control its own destiny without the interference of the City Council."

Larry Williams mentioned that the hospital could work off the value of its land and earn independence by documenting a certain amount of indigent care over several years.

Brody said the hospital would be interested in some sort of deal to gain its independence.

"The issue of clearly delineating Bayfront as a private, not-for-profit entity that can be in essence in control of its own destiny is something that we very much do want," Brody said.

Also Thursday, the council:

Issued a stay, neutralizing the city Environmental Development Commission's rejection of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's plans to turn an old hospital building at 401 13th St. N into a food center and an 88-bed short-term shelter for the homeless. The City Council will examine the proposal and rule at an upcoming meeting.

Swore in interim members Earnest Williams and Richard Kriseman, who replace resigning members Frank Peterman and Bob Kersteen until the March city election.

Authorized the purchase of another $2.3-million worth of property for preservation in the area of Clam Bayou, with $750,000 of the amount from a state grant.

Agreed to pursue legal action to collect more than $30,000 in dockage fees owed by the owner of a Russian submarine that finally was towed out of the city port recently.

- Times staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report.

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