Battle lines forming over Clearwater’s strong mayor referendum

JIM DAMASKE   |   Times  A strong mayor referendum is not even officially on the Nov. 6 ballot yet, but the group of businessmen who pushed the initiative have already started their campaign.
JIM DAMASKE | Times A strong mayor referendum is not even officially on the Nov. 6 ballot yet, but the group of businessmen who pushed the initiative have already started their campaign.
Published August 14
Updated August 14

CLEARWATER — A strong mayor referendum is not even officially on the Nov. 6 ballot yet, but the group of businessmen who pushed the initiative have already started their campaign.

And they set up their political committee so it can pay for more than just this Clearwater issue.

Clearwater Downtown Partnership Chair Matt Becker registered the Accountable Government political committee with the state on July 18. On Wednesday, the group created a nonprofit with the same name.

The sole reason the group created a political committee with the state rather than the city clerk is so fundraising can be spent elsewhere and for efforts beyond Clearwater’s strong mayor referendum, the committee’s Tallahassee-based attorney Emmett Mitchell confirmed. He said the underlying nonprofit is needed for tax purposes, but incorporating the two entities means all contributions will be public record.

For now, the group is not disclosing what other activity it could become involved in.

"This was never formed to be a one-off," said spokesman Zach Thorn. But when asked what other initiatives are planned, Thorn said "I have no idea at this point."

The initiative officially began in April, when Becker, CDP Vice Chair Grant Wood and CDP board member Bud Elias met with City Manager Bill Horne and Mayor George Cretekos to advocate changing the government from a council-manager system to a strong mayor.

On May 3 the City Council formed a joint task force, chaired by Elias, that spent seven once-a-week meetings writing a proposed ordinance detailing how a strong mayor would function.

The council on Aug. 2 gave initial approval to the ordinance and to put the strong mayor question on the ballot. The council will cast a final vote Tuesday. Citizens would have to approve the referendum Nov. 6 for the strong mayor to take effect in 2020, when Horne plans to retire.

Most municipalities in Florida have city managers, where an appointed, professional manager runs daily operations, proposes a budget and implements council’s policies. Strong mayor systems, like in Tampa and St. Petersburg, give day-to-day powers to an elected politician, who can hire and appoint boards with approval of the council, fire without approval, propose a budget, and use veto power.

Before their Accountable Government political committee, Becker, Wood, Elias and Thorn formed the Next Century Clearwater nonprofit on March 29, before the council even formed the task force. Thorn said it was created to be ready in case the council voted on May 3 to place the referendum on the ballot rather than forming the seven-week task force.

Next Century Clearwater was dissolved Aug. 1, and Thorn said it did not collect any money. Because it was never registered as a political committee with the state or city, its funding records are not public record.

As a statewide political committee incorporated with a nonprofit, Accountable Government will be able to raise and spend money on advertising and campaign literature advocating for the referendum and will be required to disclose donors, Mitchell said.

"There’s not any dark money transfers between the (nonprofit) and the political committee, it’s just one entity," Mitchell said. "We have one bank account. Every nickel that goes out for an ad will be reported."

However several experts say the group has missed a step to ensure transparency.

State records show the "Accountable Government, Inc." nonprofit created on Wednesday is incorporated, but the "Accountable Government" committee filed with the state July 18 is not. Unless the group amends its committee paper work with the state to include three letters — Inc. —the entities are separate, said Tallahassee election law lawyer Ron Meyer.

In that case, the standalone nonprofit, which is not required to disclose donors, could contribute money to the political committee under the name "Accountable Government, Inc.," according to Ben Wilcox, research director of government watchdog group Integrity Florida.

Mitchell disagrees, saying the committee’s "inc" is not needed.

As proponents of the change in government gear up, a movement to shut it down is also brewing.

Beth Rawlins, a Clearwater-based political consultant who has fought strong mayor initiatives across the state, said no political committee on her side has been formed.

When it does, she expects the International City/County Management Association and its state arm, which employs her as a liaison, to be involved.

The ICMA contributed $71,300 of the $134,560 raised by a local PAC opposing the strong mayor referendum in Lakeland, which voters rejected in November, The Ledger reported. Almost all of the nearly $1 million raised by the PAC supporting the referendum came from one Lakeland real estate developer.

"I have been appealing to city leaders and opinion leaders in Clearwater and have a number of them who have expressed interest incoming together and forming a grassroots organization to stop this," Rawlins said. "That organization is in the process of jelling ... And we wouldn’t use Tallahassee lawyers."

2018 CLEARWATER STRONG MAYOR COVERAGE

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: A strong mayor for Clearwater? Some think it’s time.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Clearwater mayor warns against being ‘bamboozled’ by pitch to change government

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Here’s what a strong mayor would look like in Clearwater

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Clearwater Council votes to put strong mayor question on November ballot

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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