CLEARWATER — When a group of businessmen began an initiative that prompted the City Council to vote last month to place a strong mayor referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot, they did not put forward a potential candidate. Instead Bud Elias, a human resources consultant who helped lead the effort, predicted dynamic leaders would come out of the woodwork if residents voted to change the mayor’s job to a full-time role in pay and authority.
Under the current council-manager form of government, Mayor George Cretekos cannot make decisions independent from the City Council and is paid $24,755 annually for a four-year term. City Manager Bill Horne, a professional appointed by the Council, runs day-to-day operations, implements Council policy and makes hiring and firing decisions. He is paid $202,660.
A strong mayor system would eliminate the city manager position and give day-to-day authority to an elected politician. Clearwater’s proposed ordinance calls for paying the strong mayor no less than $120,000 annually, by nature opening the door for candidates to run who may be restricted by the time commitment under the current system because of full-time jobs.
The proposed charter changes would require the mayor to hire a city administrator but does not specify a salary.
If voters pass the referendum Nov. 6, the strong mayor system would take effect in 2020, when Horne said he plans to retire and Cretekos’ term is up. The only requirements to be a strong mayor is to get the majority of votes and be a resident of the city at least one year before qualifying to run for office.
With speculation already swirling, the Tampa Bay Times asked some of the names popping up: "If the strong mayor referendum passes in November, would you run in 2020?"
Frank Hibbard, former mayor 2005 to 2012: Hibbard, a financial adviser, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. At a Skycrest Neighborhood Association meeting in June, he said he would not run for mayor in 2020 if the referendum passes. When asked in a later interview if he would run for mayor if the current form remains, he said he’ll "decide that after November."
Brian Aungst Sr., mayor 1999 to 2005: "I have no plans on doing that. I am running for cover right now. ... I have a vested interest in only seeing good government in Clearwater and continuing to see the city prosper because I worked very hard to move it in that direction, as did Frank Hibbard, and it’s time to look forward. I hope Frank Hibbard runs again and I will support him 100 percent. If he doesn’t, we’ll see what happens down the road." Aungst said he supports the referendum "because it’s a better form of government and gets things done quicker."
Brian Aungst Jr., lawyer and community activist: "It is my opinion Frank Hibbard would be the best candidate under either system. If he runs, whether the strong mayor passes or not, whether the referendum passes or not, I’ll be supporting him. If the referendum passes and if (Hibbard) decides he’s not running, then get back to me. It would be a tremendous honor to serve as the citizens representative in City Hall and I think the citizens will have a number of quality and diverse candidates who would pursue the opportunity. ... I think the entire system would be more competitive and would bring a lot more high quality candidates to the table than the current system."
Karen Seel, current Pinellas County Commissioner, Clearwater City Council member 1996 to 1999 : "I am unsure. ... I enjoy what I do now. I am unsure, that’s the best way to put it." Seel said she supports the change of government for the accountability and progress it could bring to the city. Lives in Belleair and would have to move to Clearwater one year before qualifying.
State Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, running for a third term in District 67 Nov. 6: "I have not thought about that one bit. I’m focused on this election and I’m not worried about any future elections. ... I think Clearwater is in a position that we’re becoming a more and more relevant city and it has nothing to do with the city manager, who I consider a friend, but I think the person that’s making the day-to-day decisions should be accountable to the voters. That’s why I support a strong mayor and with a strong mayor it would help Clearwater become even more relevant."
Former Congressman David Jolly: "It certainly is not something I’m planning or laying any groundwork for. Should the Clearwater voters amend the Charter to have a strong mayor, there’s an opportunity for remarkable leadership to come in, particularly for the downtown corridor and the future that holds." Jolly said he "could be convinced on either side" of the issue and that "it depends who the mayor is going to be." Lives in Belleair Bluffs and would have to move to Clearwater one year before qualifying.
Mayor George Cretekos, staunch opponent of strong mayor system: "If strong mayor were to pass, which I hope it doesn’t, I will have to talk to (my wife) Carolyn and some of my friends who have encouraged me to do so to see what I would be doing. In 2020 I would have entered my 50th year of public service, and some people would probably say that’s long enough, but public service is in my blood so I’m going to look at it. I think it’s best for the citizens of Clearwater that we keep the city manager form of government and that’s what I’m concentrating my efforts on now." Voted against placing the strong mayor referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot.
City Council member Hoyt Hamilton: "Absolutely not. I am not interested at this point in my life. I’m not looking for nor am I interested in a 24-hour a day, 7-day a week job. Not interested." Voted against placing the strong mayor referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot.
City Council member David Allbritton: "No I’m not looking to run for mayor. I don’t have that in my vision for the future. ... but I think Clearwater is ready for a strong mayor." Voted to place the strong mayor referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot.
City Council member Bob Cundiff: "It’s a hypothetical. I have told many people I don’t really want to be mayor. It doesn’t mean I’m going to rule out running but it wouldn’t be my first choice." Voted to place the strong mayor referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot.
City Council member Doreen Caudell: "Undecided. Really need to see how the ballot question plays out. I’ve said before I do not have a crystal ball." Voted to place the strong mayor referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Zebbie Atkinson, Vice President of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP: "No I haven’t even thought about it." Atkinson has spoken on behalf of the NAACP branch’s opposition to how a task force spent only seven once-weekly meetings drafting the proposed strong mayor ordinance before the council voted to put it on the ballot. "We’re against having a strong mayor as it is presented today. The charter is incomplete."
Ben Mallah, Tampa Bay real estate mogul who moved to Clearwater from Largo in 2017: "No I wouldn’t (run) because I don’t believe I’m qualified. All the big shots have been asking (restaurateur) Frank Chivas but I absolutely support a strong mayor. ... There’s a lot of people in this town that are very strong financially that want to see downtown grow and they have the people willing to back a guy ... they just don’t have a leader lined up. A lot of people have businesses to run."
Frank Chivas, owner of Bay Star Restaurant Group: "No, no, no. Definitely No. I’m too busy, I own about 10 restaurants." Chivas, who lives in Belleair, said he wants to see how residents of the city vote on the referendum before taking a side but said "I honestly feel Clearwater is probably the best run city in all of the southeastern United States" under the city manager.
Former City Council member Bill Jonson, who served four terms in office: "I have no such plan at this time," declining to take a position on the referendum.
2018 CLEARWATER STRONG MAYOR COVERAGE
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.