CLEARWATER — What would a strong mayor look like in this city?
A proposed ordinance finalized Thursday drew pieces from Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando and West Palm Beach governments, where an elected politician has power over all day-to-day operations, the ability to hire and fire, a hefty veto power, authority to negotiate contracts and write the budget.
Next month, the City Council will vote on whether to place the strong mayor question on the Nov. 6 ballot, letting voters decide whether to change the council-manager form of government that has been in place for nearly 100 years.
If approved, it would take effect in 2020, when longtime City Manager Bill Horne plans to retire and three council seats are up for election.
A small group of business advocates, all tied to the nonprofit Clearwater Downtown Partnership, in April requested the city undertake the effort, prompting a 14-member task force who wrote the proposed ordinance with the council over seven weeks.
"It’s healthy for Clearwater to have this conversation today," said CDP Chair Matt Becker, who has noted the concept has been raised repeatedly by charter review committees over the years but never brought to voters.
The ordinance is a 16-page document, but if the council approves it in August, voters will see only a 75-word question on the Nov. 6 ballot summarizing the changes. The system would operate so the strong mayor:
•Is elected by majority to a four-year term, limited to two consecutive terms, and would be paid no less than $120,000.
•Appoints a city administrator with "management, executive or administrative experience" to assist day-to-day operations. Can hire police and fire chief, city administrator and appoint heads of boards all subject to council approval. Can fire without council approval.
•Can establish and discontinue any city departments and boards subject to council approval.
•Prepares the budget that must be tied to the mayor’s strategic priorities. Council does not have authority to approve these strategic priorities. The budget must be approved by council.
•Negotiate contracts and acquisition and sale of property. Council approval would be required to finalize the deals.
Clearwater’s proposed strong mayor ordinance has standard checks of power, like requiring council approval for hires, contracts and the budget. But Robert E. Lee, assistant professor of public affairs at Florida Gulf Coast University, who reviewed the ordinance, said it also comes with the inherent risks of a strong mayor system.
City managers have the same authority to fire without council approval, but the difference lies in accountability, Lee said. The city council can fire a city manager at any time.
The council cannot fire a strong mayor. The only check would come from voters at election time.
"A council can’t fire the mayor because he wants to fire the parks or police chief or anyone else," Lee said. "The City Council is stuck with that mayor for four years. A lot of damage can happen in four years."
The council could reject the mayor’s budget and propose its own not tied to the mayor’s initiatives, but the mayor has veto power to override elements of that, according to City Attorney Pam Akin. It would take a super majority of council votes, four out of five, to override a mayor’s veto. Lee said it’s more typical to see veto overrides by straight majority in strong mayor charters.
The only qualifications for a strong mayor are being a resident of the city and garnering a majority of votes in the election.
Lee said this embodies one of the core differences between a city manager and strong mayor. A city manager is a professional administrator, not a politician, who is hired and held accountable by the council, and is responsible for hiring, firing, the budget, and day-to-day operations.
Unlike a politician, managers are typically credentialled and follow a code of ethics that bar them from trading favors.
"Yes vision sounds good, but vision is something that’s set collectively by the city council working with a professional manager and engaging the citizenry," Lee said. "You don’t have one person coming up with the vision based on their strategic initiatives. Those initiatives may have been represented to the mayor by three to four key business leaders as what they want to see. You don’t know what goes on behind the scenes."
About 67 percent of Florida’s 412 municipalities have a council-manager form of government, according to the Florida League of Cities.
But David Lloyd, who served as vice chair of the joint task force that wrote the proposed ordinance, said the strong mayor structure would help boost the city to a regional level. He said "one elected person in charge that’s directly accountable to the people" could help make progress on downtown stagnation, transportation issues and a sense Clearwater is unfriendly to business, not able to attract young professionals.
He said the checks and balances by the council prevent a "runaway strong mayor." And ultimately, the voters can hold a mayor accountable at the ballot box.
"I actually have faith the citizens of Clearwater are more capable of governing themselves than people give them credit for," Lloyd said. "A full time executive mayor could truly set a vision that’s accountable to the voters to have transparency and accountability but also be able to be at the regional table, where we are not currently."
2018 CLEARWATER STRONG MAYOR COVERAGE
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.