CLEARWATER — The City Council could soon vote to extend its time in office by nearly a year, sparking tensions among its members, who disagree on whether it's a good idea.
Some members say that moving the election for three City Council seats from the January presidential primaries to the November general election would give the current council extra time for important pension negotiations with the city employees' and police officers' unions.
But Vice Mayor George Cretekos, who will run for mayor, said such a change would force city candidates to compete with expensive state and presidential campaigns for voters' attention.
"It's just wrong," he said during a tense council meeting last week. "We're going to get buried and lost."
The council voted 3-2 to ask for an ordinance delaying next year's election, with Cretekos and council member Bill Jonson dissenting. The council could approve the change during a second reading in August.
Some voters will slam the move as self-serving. But Mayor Frank Hibbard and council member John Doran, whose terms end next year, insist the extension is not a play to draw out their final months in office.
Hibbard first suggested a November election last year, after a March 2010 city election drew a staggeringly low voter turnout of 8 percent.
A longer term, Hibbard and Doran said, would give them more time to deal with Clearwater's pension costs, which have more than tripled over the last decade. The council has been involved with this round of employee negotiations for about three years, and city human resources director Joe Roseto said changes to the city's pension plan could be ready for a voters' referendum by November 2012.
Union bargaining "is a complicated issue. It takes a fairly lengthy amount of time to get up to speed," Hibbard said. "I'd love to keep the team together to get some of these pension changes completed."
Doran said he expected critics would say "distasteful" things about the council's motives.
There is a significant "number of people who will see it only as a desire to stay in office," Doran said. "Those are people who have never had to approve a budget."
But their most vocal opponent has been Cretekos, the only council member to have launched a political campaign for next year. On Wednesday, Cretekos wrote an e-mail to his mailing list, saying that changing the election date could hurt his chances.
Soon after Cretekos' e-mail, the first notes of backlash were sounded by city residents. Linda Christman wrote the move would "cause our local candidates to be lost in the shuffle." Cheryl Hopler wrote, "I really have a problem following the logic of this council."
Hibbard, receiving a copy of Cretekos' message Thursday, forwarded it on to city officials, saying, "Cretekos should have forwarded to all of us, as a courtesy." He also said it "explains the (complaints) that have all of a sudden been coming in."
Last year, the Dunedin City Commission debated cutting election costs and improving turnout by moving its vote to November. Voters approved that idea by 55 percent in a referendum.
Yet unlike Clearwater's proposal, Dunedin's move included a delay ensuring that no current commissioner would see a longer term.
Florida law allows for municipalities to change election dates as they see fit without a public vote.
Even if Clearwater's vote is shifted, there's no guarantee the pension referendum could be ready in time for the new council. If the city and unions reach an agreement, the unions must ratify it, the council must approve it, a plan actuary must analyze it and the state must review it before the referendum can hit the ballot.
Steve Sarnoff, president of the city employees' union, said the council's consistency would likely make little difference during negotiations. City Manager Bill Horne agreed, saying, "I really have no reason to believe a new set of council members couldn't come in in January and get the job done."
Hibbard, who considers pension costs to be one of the city's most important issues, said he was reluctant to make the suggestion given the potential for controversy.
"All I can do is give them the reasons I think it's a good idea," Hibbard said of the public. "They'll judge how ever they want."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.