Clearwater moves closer to offering voters strong mayor option

JIM DAMASKE   |   Times
 A task force that will be appointed May 17 has until July 19 to define the powers of a proposed strong mayor government. The City Council is expected to vote in August whether to put the question to voters Nov. 6.
JIM DAMASKE | Times A task force that will be appointed May 17 has until July 19 to define the powers of a proposed strong mayor government. The City Council is expected to vote in August whether to put the question to voters Nov. 6.
Published May 4 2018
Updated May 4 2018

CLEARWATER óA task force of about a dozen citizens will have two months to iron out details on how to replace the council-manager form of government that has operated here for 95 years.

The City Council on Thursday voted 3-2 for a panel of 15 members from past charter review committees to define how a strong mayor system would work: what authority the strong mayor would have; how much power would remain with council; how large the council should be; and other logistics. Mayor George Cretekos and Council member Bob Cundiff voted in opposition.

Voters will have the final say, as the plan would require changing the city charter. The council agreed to appoint panel members at its next meeting May 17. In order to make the Supervisor of Electionsí deadline to get a question on the Nov. 6 ballot, the council would have to give first approval to the language Aug. 2 and final on Aug. 16.

That means the task force must submit proposed charter changes for council review by July 19.

City Attorney Pam Akin called it "a very tight timeframe for reconfiguring your government."

"It actually ought to be a very exacting process and ought to take a lot of time and a lot of consideration," Akin said after the meeting. "You canít just change a few words and make it a strong mayor charter. Itís going to take a lot of work."

Council member David Allbritton proposed the task force, assuring the council is not obligated to put a question on the ballot if what the committee comes up with disappoints.

"Itís in our hands," Allbritton said. "If it comes back and we donít like it, we can say no, itís not ready."

The prospect of a strong mayor has been discussed at all four charter review committees over the past two decades, but the idea never evolved into anything but talk.

A handful of business advocates began pitching the concept to elected officials last month with an eye on the 2020 election. That year, three council seats including the mayor will be up for grabs and longtime City Manager Bill Horne plans to retire, opening a unique window to transition into a new vision that could elevate Clearwater, said Matt Becker, owner of a staffing agency and chair of the nonprofit Clearwater Downtown Partnership.

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"Now is the time to push forward, now is the time to trust the citizens of Clearwater, now is the time to get this on the ballot in November," Becker told the council.

Cretekos doubted the task force will have time to perfect the components of a strong mayor system by the end of July and suggested the council put a non-binding straw poll on the August primary or November general ballot to gauge public interest instead.

The outcome could have guided the regularly scheduled 2019 charter review committee, which would have a year to research and define the strong mayor role. Cretekos said if the straw poll proved public interest, the question could have gone on the March 2020 ballot.

"Weíre rushing into this without giving due consideration for how complex it is," he said.

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Becker cautioned that two years of limbo would create confusion in the business community during a time when the city will be implementing its $55 million Imagine Clearwater redevelopment plan and working to revitalize downtown.

"The more developers have uncertainty, the less things are going to happen in Clearwater," he said.

After Nov. 6, the next regular election is in March 2020. So if the council wants the public to vote on a strong mayor change between then, the city would have to hold a special election, which could cost about $100,000, according to City Clerk Rosemarie Call.

At a work session Monday, Cundiff supported giving residents a chance to vote on a strong mayor. But he voted against the task force Thursday with Cretekos, stating "Iíd rather do it right than do it fast."

Zach Thorn, a project manager for downtown real estate investor Daniels Ikajevs and member of the group pushing the change, emphasized this is not a new concept but "a culmination of decades worth of conversation."

But Beth Rawlins, a Pinellas County based political consultant who has worked for the Florida City and County Management Association, said thereís danger in rushing the process and delivering something half baked.

She said the fact this concept keeps getting raised over the years without growing legs shows thereís no urgency. The appropriate path to getting a charter change on the ballot, Rawlins said, is through the regularly scheduled charter review committee or by garnering signatures of at least 10 percent of voters in a petition. Not by a hasty task force.

"You have a handful of people with an idea," Rawlins said. "It may be a good idea, it may be a bad idea. But this is not a groundswell. This is not a movement, and they have a way to earn their path to the ballot."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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