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Clearwater panel debates a 'strong mayor' system

CLEARWATER — Tampa does it. St. Petersburg does it. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago do it, too.

Governing with a "strong mayor," whose power and influence goes mostly unchecked by the city council, is by and large the system of the big city.

Could it be Clearwater's, too?

The city's Charter Review Committee met Tuesday for one of its early exploratory meetings, discussing potential changes to what serves as the city's constitution. Such a committee meets every four years, exploring topics that could radically rework the city's government — including, chief among them, a switch to a strong-mayor system that would shake Clearwater's normal protocol to the core.

The city's system now: City Manager Bill Horne serves as the head of the city, hiring, firing, creating the budget and running day-to-day business. The City Council is staffed by five elected residents, each with an equal vote. The mayor's title is mostly symbolic, though many, like Mayor Frank Hibbard, appear often for public events.

Strong-mayor governments move the power role to the mayor's seat, converting the manager to an administrator at the mayor's strict service. The city would largely be beholden to the mayor's platform, charisma and ego. The council's role would be limited.

For years, the committee has considered proposing the switch, with Hibbard in 2007 leading one conceptual push. The idea never gained enough support. If this year's committee were to endorse a switch, members would still need to seek approval from the City Council and consent from Clearwater voters.

The committee, made up of 13 local volunteers appointed by the City Council, will continue to meet for months, and members have yet to lean decisively either way. Among them: chair Cyndie Goudeau, a former city clerk; vice chair Jack Geller, chairman emeritus of the county's Humane Society; Clearwater Downtown Partnership vice chairman Howard Warshauer; and Community Development Board members Nick Fritsch and Norma Carlough.

Hibbard and Horne both spoke to the committee Tuesday. Hibbard said strong mayors have the ability to be more aggressive about economic development, attracting business in ways that managers or slow-moving councils can't.

Any change to the charter wouldn't affect Hibbard, whose nine-year tenure ends next year. But as a strong mayor, he said, he would have tried to assume power over local schools, run now by Pinellas County.

"Our county school system is broken," Hibbard said. "We could have created a competitive advantage that would have bled out to the neighborhoods" and helped persuade business leaders to take root within city limits.

Council-manager systems are, Hibbard said, a bit less adventurous, likening them at one point to a "caretaker government" most interested in the status quo.

Geller said strong-mayor cities seemed to more regularly compare risk and reward: "Do we want to maintain a caretaker, boring, middle-of-the-road, no-risk type of life? Or do we want to take a shot?"

Manager-led governments, Hibbard said, are not without their benefits. Mayors are held to account for their decisions once every four years. Managers face scrutiny — the type that could lead to their terminations — almost every day.

Hibbard mentioned several cities that work without strong mayors — including Phoenix; Dallas; and San Jose, Calif., among the nation's largest — and added that some strong mayors "have had real problems."

(And that's not to mention the time commitment: Hibbard, a financial adviser with Morgan Stanley, said he spends 40 hours a week on mayoral work and appearances. The job pays $23,000 a year. The mayors of St. Petersburg and Tampa are paid significantly more because it's a full-time job.)

"When you have a strong mayor that can go to a CEO or address a problem directly … they are going to have a greater influence," Hibbard said. "At the same time, if they're sailing in the wrong direction, they also have a greater chance to sail you into oblivion."

The council-manager government arose in the early 20th century as a check against political graft. Municipal managers, professionally trained and paid, were considered more trustworthy than those whose elections were earned with the promise of returned favor.

Horne, who this summer could become the city's longest-serving manager with a 10-year tenure, told the committee that the system works best with constant calls for accountability.

"I have to understand the needs of all five (council members), and I think in a sense that keeps me highly accountable to the full range of needs in the community," Horne said. "Not all the needs are defined by one person."

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

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Want to have a say?

Clearwater's Charter Review Committee invites residents to provide input regarding the City Charter, which dictates the framework of the city's laws. The committee meets the second and fourth Tuesday of each month at 4:30 p.m. in Room 222 of City Hall, 112 S Osceola Ave. For more information, contact City Clerk Rosemarie Call at (727) 562-4092.

Clearwater panel debates a 'strong mayor' system 03/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 10, 2011 7:41pm]

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