CLEARWATER — In the middle of the City Council meeting Thursday, about one hour before officials would discuss whether to put a strong mayor referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot, Vice Mayor Doreen Caudell walked unexpectedly into the chambers and flipped the outcome of vote.
Caudell was scheduled to be absent Thursday due to a last-minute trip out of state for her construction business.
It left the fate of the initiative uncertain: with Mayor George Cretekos staunchly opposed and Council member Hoyt Hamilton "highly conflicted," only council members David Allbritton and Bob Cundiff were sure votes.
But after reading Hamilton’s comments in a Wednesday story on tampabay.com about being undecided, Caudell said she bought a $1,200 plane ticket to get to the dais to then fly back to her work Friday morning.
"I flew all the way here because I believe that I needed to support the citizens," Caudell said, declining to disclose to where she had traveled for work or for what specific reason. "We are putting this on the ballot for the citizens to decide."
The Council voted 3-2 to change the City Charter to eliminate the city manager and establish a strong mayor. Cretekos and Hamilton were opposed.
The Council would have to approve it again Aug. 14 in order for the referendum to be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot. The referendum would have to be passed by voters in order for the strong mayor to take effect.
If Caudell had been absent, the 2-2 vote would have pushed the first reading to Aug. 14. The Council would have had to call a special meeting if officials wanted to hold a final vote before the Supervisor of Election’s Aug. 21 deadline to get a referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Cretekos, a fierce critic of the change, urged the council-manager form of government is what keeps the city professional. He warned the strong mayor initiative is being pushed by a small group of "downtown special interests" who have not taken responsibility for the private sector’s lack of investment in downtown.
"They haven’t made the same kind of commitment to the community that you and I have, that the city has made, so now they’re trying to fool us, to bamboozle us into thinking that this is a groundswell to change our form of government," Cretekos said.
The council in May formed a task force to draft charter changes at the request of a handful of business advocates, all tied to the nonprofit Clearwater Downtown Partnership. Charter changes are typically made during review committees every four years. The next one is scheduled for January.
Clearwater has operated under a council-manager form of government for nearly 100 years, where a professional, appointed manager controls day-to-day operations and implements council’s policy. A strong mayor system, which operates in Tampa and St. Petersburg, gives an elected politician power to hire and fire, write the budget, and control other day-to-day decisions, some needing council approval.
If the voters approve the referendum on Nov. 6, the strong mayor system would take effect in 2020, when City Manager Bill Horne said he plans to retire after a 20-year run and three council seats are up for election.
About a dozen citizens addressed the Council, and the comments were split. Zebbie Atkinson, vice president of the North Pinellas branch of the NAACP, and former mayor Rita Garvey warned against change, both skeptical of the process that put it forward. Travis Norton, spokesman for the Pinellas Realtor Organization, said he was endorsing the change on behalf of its 8,000 members for the progress it could bring.
Bud Elias, a CDP board member who urged the Council to form the task force, said the prospect of a strong mayor has been floated for 20 years. He said the seven-week process of writing proposed charter changes was thorough, and the voters should be allowed to decide once and for all.
"Now is the time to put the question on the November ballot," Elias said. "What do we have to lose by asking the citizens of Clearwater to make a decision or to weigh in on the question?"
Resident Mike Riordan posed the question a different way.
"It’s crazy not to believe that four major changes in 2020, an inexperienced first time strong mayor; a weakened city council adjusting to a new strong mayor; a new city administrator, a watered down version of a city manager under an inexperienced strong mayor; a new city attorney under a new inexperienced strong mayor — what could go wrong?" Riordan said.
Before casting his vote against the initiative, Hamilton said ultimately he was not satisfied with the process of rewriting the charter for a strong mayor by a task force in seven weeks. He questioned what a strong mayor could do that the current government could not.
And he addressed the unspoken issue at hand — the question of whether a strong mayor would be able to, once and for all, bring vibrancy to Clearwater’s long stagnant downtown.
"Is a strong mayor going to be able to snap his fingers and make downtown happen? Absolutely not," Hamilton said. "Talk about St. Pete, talk about Tampa, talk about Dunedin. Everybody has different sets of circumstances that they have to deal with ... we have to deal with ours."
Cretekos also focused on the process of how the decision came before the council. If there really was "a groundswell" movement by citizens for a strong mayor, the CDP group would have been able to collect enough signatures to get it on the November ballot, he said.
Instead, Cretekos said, they forced the hand of the Council to vote on it. He predicted that process will haunt the campaign that will be gearing up through November.
"Mark my words, you will see a flyer saying ‘Council supports a change to the strong mayor form of government’ because we put it on the ballot, not the people," he said.
2018 CLEARWATER STRONG MAYOR COVERAGE
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.