CLEARWATER — During Thursday's City Council meeting, Mayor Frank Hibbard took aim at a St. Petersburg Times editorial that called him "the mayor who demolished playgrounds," slamming what he called an unfair characterization that the decision to tear down playgrounds was his alone.
In response to Monday's editorial, Hibbard asked city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli to help him draft a two-page letter to the newspaper, beginning it with, "We, the Clearwater City Council would like to respond."
However, council members didn't have any prior input on the letter and didn't see it until Thursday night's meeting, when they seemed lukewarm to the idea of signing it, as Hibbard wanted.
While they agreed that demolishing playgrounds was a council decision, not Hibbard's alone, some wondered if his letter went too far.
"Quite frankly, personally, I would prefer that we let this matter drop," Vice Mayor George Cretekos said.
Member John Doran said, "The fact that we're having this discussion will probably be all that needs to be said."
Nine of the city's 34 playgrounds were destroyed within the last five years, city records show. Five more are scheduled for demolition by 2019. The city claims the structures had outlived their recommended lifespans, although the next two playgrounds on the chopping block don't appear to be in need of repair.
Hibbard said the 2005 council decision to dismantle playgrounds was made "in anticipation of an economic downturn." However, budgets for the city general fund and parks and recreation department grew through 2007. Meanwhile, playgrounds at Ed Wright, Overbrook and Cypress Point parks were demolished.
City officials defend the decision to tear down playgrounds, saying all residents will still be within one mile of a playground. Still, council member Bill Jonson wondered Thursday night whether the city could install less expensive playground equipment, better matched to younger children, instead of razing the playgrounds altogether. He suggested the council discuss alternatives.
However, Hibbard said he didn't "really want to get into a discussion of park policy."
"We've kind of started down a path," he said, "and if we're going to do this, we have to be consistent."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.