City Hall letter may go under microscope
By AMY WIMMER
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 2000
ST. PETE BEACH -- The state attorney now might investigate both sides in the dispute over a new City Hall.
The city, already the subject of a state attorney's investigation into how it has handled its contract to build a new City Hall, has asked the state attorney to launch a separate investigation into the actions of a city-appointed committee.
Members of the committee, which has raised many questions about the deal, initialed a letter outlining the criticisms and seeking to kill the plan. They will hold a special meeting on Monday at 10 a.m. at City Hall to deal with the controversy.
In a letter to Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe on Thursday, St. Pete Beach police Chief Ray Kaminskas asked McCabe to investigate whether the six-member City Hall Advisory Committee broke the Sunshine Law last week when members signed a letter criticizing City Hall plans.
"Since this is a political issue, I believe it is best investigated by a fair and impartial entity, such as your office, which is outside the scope of the city of St. Pete Beach," Kaminskas wrote.
The call for an investigation is the latest event in the deepening rift between city officials and the advisory committee, composed of city residents who were appointed by the City Commission. City Manager Carl Schwing acknowledged Friday that the city is looking at dissolving the committee, though the City Commission must make that decision.
The involvement of the state attorney's office comes at a crucial moment for the new St. Pete Beach City Hall, to be built at the Corey Causeway entrance to St. Pete Beach on land donated by local developer Paul Skipper in exchange for a contract to build the building. The City Commission is scheduled to vote on several aspects of the deal Tuesday night, including the release of $1.2-million into an escrow account for the project.
As proposed, the building was to cost $2.8-million. That number climbed as the developer and the city negotiated the quality of the building, and now the official purchase price is $3.09-million, which does not include some peripheral costs. In August, a Times estimate of the project's cost, including finance charges and other costs, put the figure at $3.89-million.
Throughout the process, the advisory committee has peppered the city with questions about the deal and the building: Are concrete roof tiles as good as clay? What type of material should be used for the parking lot? How can the city ensure its building is made with quality materials and quality workmanship when the contractor and price were established without a bid process?
"I think they've been more active, certainly, in the review of certain details of the project that probably they weren't expected to burden themselves with," Schwing said Friday. "We always appreciate the public input, but at some time, the project needs to move forward because there's always the chance that we could lose the project."
Throughout, city officials have said they fear that Skipper, the developer, could withdraw his offer of free but valuable land if the city languishes. St. Pete Beach hopes to create a waterfront park on the land it would vacate by moving its City Hall to Corey Avenue.
City officials have declined to respond to concerns raised in the committee's letter. In a press release Thursday, Mayor Ward Friszolowski expressed "disappointment and surprise" that the committee acted outside the Sunshine Law in drafting the letter.
Committee Chairman Jack Ohlhaber drafted the letter, which ultimately calls for the city to back out of its contract with Skipper. He called individual committee members and asked them to come to his home one by one, where they read and initialed the letter without, Ohlhaber says, discussion.
But even without conversation, the event could be a Sunshine Law violation. According to the law, "if a memorandum reflecting the views of a board member on a pending board issue is circulated among the board members with each indicating his or her approval or disapproval and, upon completion of the signatures, the memorandum has the effect of becoming the official action of the board, there is a violation of the Sunshine Law."
"The content of the memorandum is not so important as the manner in which the memorandum came about," Friszolowski said in the release. "What the city hall committee members apparently fail to understand is that the public must be informed of meetings like this so that varying views can be expressed, understood and taken into consideration as decisions are made. In this case, the committee did not allow that public notice and interaction to take place."
In their letter, the committee members questioned why Skipper was weeks late in submitting some required information to the city and also asked why he declined to include in the building many details they thought had already been hashed out.
In more than 200 pages of building specifications, an architect outlined brand names, workmanship standards and other things they expected Skipper to use in the building.
But Skipper and his representatives crossed out references to stainless-steel nails, deleting references to the quality of nails used in the project. He also crossed out brand names of various products to be used, indicating only that the products used would meet code.
Schwing said those documents are not finalized, and he disagrees with Skipper on several of the items. Committee members, meanwhile, say they simply want to do a good job for the city by making sure the developer promises to use the right materials.
Ron Holehouse, a member of the advisory committee, said he is discouraged that he was asked to volunteer his time for the city, then expected to look the other way when he sees something disturbing about the project.
"In light of what has happened this week, I've just decided to do what I think is right and stick with the facts and leave the rest of the garbage and gossip out of it," Holehouse said. "I've tried to put the focus back on, "Is it a good deal for the city of St. Pete Beach, knowing what we know right now?' "
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
South Pinellas desks