CLEARWATER — Mayor George Cretekos on Monday cautioned the City Council "we should not be bamboozled" into changing the government structure on a whim at the behest of a handful of businessmen.
The idea to switch from a city manager to a strong mayor government has been pitched at all four charter review committees over the past 20 years but never became more than talk. Cretekos said he’s never before had a resident approach him with an urgent request to pursue it.
But after a few members of the nonprofit Clearwater Downtown Partnership, "many of whom neither live in downtown Clearwater nor have offices in downtown" raised getting the question on the Nov. 6 ballot, Cretekos said, the idea is gaining momentum it has never had before.
The City Council is expected on Thursday to vote on how to proceed. At a work session Monday, officials discussed reconvening the 2015 charter review committee to draft language for a ballot question and to iron out details like salary and structure.
With Cretekos the sole opposing voice, the four other council members supported putting the question in front of voters.
"The only way to know what the public wants is to ask them," Council member Bob Cundiff said. "If residents vote it down, that’s okay with me. If they want it, that’s okay with me."
The council took up the discussion at the request of Bud Elias, owner of the human resources firm Advantage Group. Elias is part of a group that began building this renewed effort last year along with: Matt Becker, owner of a staffing agency and chair of the Clearwater Downtown Partnership; Grant Wood, a real estate developer and CDP vice chair; and Zach Thorn, project manager for downtown real estate investor Daniels Ikajevs.
Becker said with 2020 approaching, when three council seats including the mayor are up for grabs and City Manager Bill Horne plans to retire after 20 years, the time is right to re-evaluate the government.
Clearwater has had a council-manager form of government for 95 years. About 67 percent of municipalities in Florida operate this way, according to the Florida League of Cities.
It’s meant to keep politics out of city business, with a professional administrator in charge of hiring, firing, forming the budget and day-to-day decisions, said Robert E. Lee, assistant professor of public affairs at Florida Gulf Coast University.
"The idea was let’s have an appointed, professional expert serving as CEO when you’re dealing with other people’s money, someone ethical, competent and experienced because they have to deal with thousands of regulations," said Lee, who worked in city management for 26 years.
Strong mayors, like in Tampa and St. Petersburg, are elected politicians who act as top administrator and are able to make deals and employment decisions without council approval.
With significant changes coming in 2020 and the city about to spend $55 million on its waterfront redevelopment plan Imagine Clearwater to revive downtown, Becker said there’s an opening for a dynamic leader to make an impact with strong mayor authority.
"If you step back and look at tremendous growth St. Petersburg and Tampa are experiencing, it’s really looking at what the vision is going to be for Clearwater," Becker said in a recent interview. "I would be hard pressed to think people really know what Clearwater government wants because they keep changing directions."
For a question to make it on the Nov. 6 ballot, language approved by the council would have to be sent to the Supervisor of Elections by Aug. 21, according to City Clerk Rosemarie Call.
Council members on Monday said they’d want logistics of how the strong mayor would operate to be formalized before they vote on ballot language.
Cretekos said he feels the issue is being pushed by a few unhappy with the slow pace of redeveloping the slumped downtown even though the government has operated for years under Horne with high quality of services and little turmoil.
He said if there is "such an urgent need" for a change, the Downtown Partnership should show that by garnering enough citizen signatures to get it on the ballot instead of via City Council approval.
"Let them show that there is a grassroots movement to change this professional, stable, and admired government that we are part of into one where control and authority is concentrated in the hands of one individual."
Vice Mayor Doreen Caudell said she does not see the question as a reflection of Horne or how the government is currently run. She said with change coming in 2020, and 95 years under the same system, it could be a chance to re-evaluate.
"Let’s make the citizens make that decision," Caudell said. "Maybe this is the right time."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.