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Criticism dooms bid to delay Clearwater election until November 2012

CLEARWATER — Fighting back a "firestorm," Mayor Frank Hibbard said Monday that his proposal to extend the City Council's time in office has been killed by public criticism.

Pitched last month, Hibbard's plan would have pushed the next city election back to November 2012, without voter approval. The longer term, he said, would keep members in office for important city pension talks.

But the idea backfired, leading critics to suspect Hibbard and a supporter of the idea, council member John Doran, only wanted to draw their terms out past next year's end date. Vice Mayor George Cretekos said the proposal was "just wrong."

The backlash, council members said, proved too significant to ignore. The council will take no action on an ordinance drafted to change the date, effectively quashing the plan.

"I still think it's the right thing to do," Hibbard said. "At some point, you just kind of get tired."

In 2007, the council voted to combine future city elections with the presidential primaries to cut costs, shifting the vote in some years from March to January.

Last year, Hibbard suggested another switch, from the primaries to the November general election, after a March election was decided by only 8 percent of voters. The shift from January to November, he said, would bring better turnouts and a voter pool less skewed along party lines.

The move also would have let members remain on the council as bargaining over employee pensions continues. Hibbard has called for reforms in pension costs, which have more than tripled in the past 10 years. Newly elected members, he said, would face a steep learning curve.

"At the pension negotiations," he said, "everybody's not going to sit around a table and sing Kumbaya."

The idea saw critical resistance from Cretekos, who said moving the vote would bury city issues beneath federal, state and county races. Candidates, he added, would have to pay more to advertise. He should know; he's running for mayor.

After Hibbard's proposal, residents wrote to the city questioning the move. Last week, the city's volunteer Charter Review Committee recommended the city leave the election alone. Members voted unanimously that any change be made by the voters.

Council members said they were open to a referendum, though it's too late now for one to affect next year's election. Doran was especially critical of keeping the city vote tied to the politicized presidential primary, calling it the "worst of both worlds."

Council member Paul Gibson, who joined Hibbard and Doran in voting last month to seek a draft ordinance changing the election, said Monday that the plan had been "unfairly characterized as self-interest" by critics, including in a St. Petersburg Times editorial.

But Cretekos cheered the decision to drop the idea of a November election, saying he would be "uncomfortable" voting to extend his own time in office.

"I was elected to a four-year term," Cretekos said. "I knew going in when that term was going to end."

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

Criticism dooms bid to delay Clearwater election until November 2012 07/19/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 7:47pm]
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