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New group forms to support St. Pete's Lens project

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Published:   |   Updated: July 5, 2013 at 06:44 PM

ST. PETERSBURG - It seemed as if supporters of the Lens had thrown in the towel when the Wow Our Waterfront St. Pete group disbanded after its own polling showed most residents did not like the $50-million proposed pier project.

But some supporters of the futuristic pier are not ready to give up and have formed a new group, Build The Lens, and plan to campaign up until the Aug 27 referendum on the pier's future.

The group's Facebook page already has 400 followers, and it has scheduled a fundraiser event on Friday at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

That event has raised questions about whether the group is breaking election law by campaigning and collecting donations without first registering as a political action committee.

Under Florida election law, a group that collects donations of more than $500 in a single year to advocate for a candidate or issue must form a political action committee. Such groups are required to keep records, including a list of expenditures and donations, which must be filed with the City Clerk's office every quarter.

Officials at the City Clerk's office said Friday afternoon they had not received any paperwork from Build The Lens. Yet, the group has already spent money, paying $150 to the St. Petersburg Museum of History to hire a room for its fundraising event. The group also had a display booth manned by volunteers at last weekend's St. Pete Pride festival.

Museum officials said the rental fee was paid by St. Petersburg resident Shirley O'Sullivan, a vocal supporter of the Lens at City Council meetings.

O'Sullivan, who declined to comment, is also a member of Mayor Bill Foster's 828 Alliance, the task force formed to help the city move forward with either building the Lens or seeking a replacement if voters reject it.

Leaders of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, the group that submitted more than 20,000 signatures to force the referendum on the Lens, said they have no plans to report Build The Lens to the City Clerk's office.

"Anybody that deals in the political arena should abide by the law," said Fred Whaley, one of the group's leaders. "If they are breaking the law, I'm sure someone will bring it the attention of election officials."

Hal Freedman, a St. Petersburg resident who volunteers with Build The Lens, said he expects the group will formally register in the near future. He said the group cannot match the organization and funding of Concerned Citizens, which has hired a political consultant and a Bradenton attorney.

"This is a total grassroots group," said Freedman. "We have no deep pockets."

Recent polls suggest the group faces an uphill task.

A May poll of 300 likely voters conducted by McLaughlin and Associates found that 62 percent of respondents saw the pier as a "$50 million sidewalk."

A June 17 poll conducted by StPetePolls found that almost 63 percent of 1,524 registered voters contacted by telephone supported scrapping the Lens. The poll's margin of error is 2.5 percent.

People will respond to the group's message when they realize defeat for the Lens will mean the city is left without a pier, Freedman said.

"There is always hope," Freedman said. "The Stop the Lens people have no alternative."

Leaders of Concerned Citizens, however, remain confident of victory.

"The thing we early on found out is that 70 percent of people agree with us that the Lens does not have the character, size and function for a pier for St. Petersburg," Whaley said.

codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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