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Turmoil pursuing building of new City Hall

The latest upset is the resignation of an architect assigned to help protect the city's interests.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000


ST. PETE BEACH -- Mike Russell, the architect charged with assuring the city gets a good deal on its new City Hall, resigned Tuesday, citing problems with the builder and unexplained soaring costs.

"(On Monday) the contract amount increased by $120,000 for reasons unknown to us," Russell wrote. "What began as a $2.8-million project now sits at $3.08-million. Yet the city does not know with certainty what it is getting for that amount."

His resignation letter arrived on a crucial day for the most expensive project ever approved in St. Pete Beach without a referendum. Tuesday night, city commissioners were expected to approve a higher purchase price and release to an escrow account their biggest payment yet -- $1.2-million.

Instead, City Attorney Jim Devito planned to advise commissioners on what they could do next. Building permits for the City Hall were expected to be issued at the end of the month.

"Receiving this letter was a surprise to us," City Manager Carl Schwing said. "We did not know it was coming."

Schwing also said he disagrees with Russell about whether the city is getting a good bang for its buck. The price of the project went up again recently, Schwing and developer Paul Skipper explained Monday, because Skipper had never taken into account all the changes and upgrades the city wanted to see in the building.

"I don't agree that we don't know what we're buying here," Schwing said. "I think the building is generally pretty specific."

The resignation is the latest in a string of controversial events surrounding City Hall in the past week.

First, the State Attorney's Office acknowledged it is investigating the relationship between the city and the builder of its City Hall. Then, after a city-appointed citizen's committee wrote a letter criticizing the developer, the city manager turned the matter over to the police chief, asking him to look into whether the act of members signing the letter was a violation of the Sunshine Law.

The chief gave the information to the State Attorney's Office to get the politically charged issue out of City Hall. Meanwhile, Skipper has threatened to sue each of the six committee members who signed the letter for defamation of character, unless they apologize to him in writing by the end of the year.

Russell was a key figure in a complicated deal that allowed the city to build a new City Hall without following the traditional public bidding process. Under the arrangement, the city will accept a donation of land from local developer Paul Skipper and allow him to build the new City Hall on the land.

State law requires the city to hire someone independent who represents the city's interests to the developer. That was Russell, who said in his letter that he is "increasingly uncomfortable" with the proposed City Hall.

Russell also said he had learned only Monday that "well-intentioned citizens are being threatened by lawsuits and state attorney investigations."

The City Hall Advisory Committee is composed of residents appointed by the City Commission. City leaders says the committee has delved into too many details of the project, slowing progress and making things more cumbersome.

Committee members say they have asked so many questions because the city provides few concrete answers.

At a committee meeting Monday morning, one member, Joe Londo, offered a public apology to Skipper, although the developer will not say whether he is serious about pursuing litigation.

"I don't have any personal interest in hurting any of these people, even those who have worked against me personally," Skipper said Monday afternoon.

In his resignation letter, Russell cited this lawsuit threat as one of the troubling aspects of his work with the city. He also said the developer has been continually late delivering materials, such as specifications, to the city that are required to move the project along.

"This is not a climate for the start of construction of an important project," said Russell, with the St. Petersburg firm Wannemacher Russell Architects. "It is an environment in which we no longer feel we can advocate on behalf of the city."

Russell resigned the day after city officials cited miscommunication between the two architects on City Hall as a stumbling block for the new building.

All parties -- the citizens' committee, city officials and the developer -- blame poor communication for many of the troubles that have plagued the project. In an interview Monday afternoon, Skipper, who said he feels "kind of bruised through this process," said he wishes city residents had been given an opportunity to vote on their new City Hall.

"If I could back up the clock, I would want this to go to voter referendum," Skipper said.

In fact, despite rising costs on the building, Skipper said he doesn't expect to make any money on the deal.

"If I received anything out of it at all, all it would do is offset the money I paid for the land, and I'm never going to get all that back."

Nailing down an accurate figure on the cost of City Hall is difficult, some committee members say, because the city keeps poor records of the committee's past meetings. The group has met 12 times this year, but only five sets of minutes were accessible in the city's records as of Tuesday morning.

The state Sunshine Law requires the minutes of public meetings to be "promptly recorded and open to public inspection." The last minutes recorded for the committee at City Hall are from March 9.

"It's confusing and frustating to me that issues that have been thoroughly and thoughtfully discussed end up unresolved over and over again, and we try to go back to the discussion we had, and there are no minutes," said Ron Holehouse, a committee member..

Schwing said the city is working to rectify the situation. He said the confusion arose over who was responsible for taking the minutes, and he hopes the city will be able to officially reconstruct the minutes based on tapes.

Meanwhile, tensions remain between the city and its committee.

"This is a good project for the city," Mayor Ward Friszolowski told the committee at its meeting Monday. "I've been working hard; I know our staff's been working hard."

Committee member Augie D'Alessio interrupted: "And this committee's been working hard, mayor."

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