CLEARWATER — Voters will decide on Tuesday who should hold two City Council seats during what is thought to be a make-or-break era in Clearwater’s history.
Over the next four years, the city will be implementing its $55 million waterfront redesign Imagine Clearwater with hopes it will entice businesses and visitors to the struggling downtown. Officials will also have to navigate the unpredictably of the Church of Scientology, which has left the city in the dark about plans for its international spiritual headquarters downtown.
The two elected Tuesday will likely take part in hiring a new city manager and attorney, who help shape the direction of the city. And as the candidates heard at a forum in North Greenwood last week, residents in disadvantaged areas are demanding attention to their neighborhoods.
In 2020, the remaining three seats on the Council, including mayor, will be up for grabs. The Tampa Bay Times is summarizing our coverage of the campaigns with a final look at Seats 4 and 5, which are citywide, four-year terms.
David Allbritton, 67, a retired building contractor, and Tom Keller, 56, an advertising salesman, are vying to fill the seat being vacated by the term-limited Bill Jonson.
Voters will decide between two distinct candidates who actually disagree about very little. Both believe Imagine Clearwater should be implemented swiftly, both say safety of neighborhoods are priorities, and both want reliable traffic solutions for Clearwater Beach.
Their differences lie in their backgrounds: Allbritton retired from a 36-year building career and spent the last two decades on city boards like Code Enforcement, Downtown Development Board, Community Development Board and other groups like Clearwater Downtown Partnership and Clearwater Historical Society.
"I’ve been involved with everything Clearwater for 20 years," Allbritton said. "I feel comfortable if I got elected to Council that I could get up on the first day, the first meeting, and know what’s going on and I don’t have to go through a learning process."
Keller has been working with Metropolitan Media Company since 1987 and decided to run for office after watching incumbents go unchallenged. He’s helped organize charity events and volunteered for places like Oldsmar Cares but has mostly stayed out of civic life.
Keller said his inexperience in politics is actually his strength.
"I have no ties to the beach or downtown or anybody so I can look through clear eyes for what’s best for the whole city because I don’t have any special interest that’s going to call me and say ‘Tom, we did this and that for you,’" Keller said.
In fact, $10,000 of his $14,275 raised came from Keller’s own pockets. Only one Clearwater resident, James Shaw, contributed to Keller’s campaign, with the rest from businesses and people in Tampa and Dunedin, according to treasurer reports.
The campaign has also been a learning process. Keller said he didn’t know he still had to turn in a monthly treasurer report if he didn’t raise any money that period. So he was fined $1,184 by the City Clerk for not filing in January.
Keller did not send out mailers and has not received any formal endorsements but said he’s knocked on more than 2,000 doors.
"I’ve walked away with a complete understanding of how people think, who you don’t ever hear about," Keller said. "They want to know they are going to be safe, that traffic problems are going to be addressed and the basics of making the city better."
Allbritton handily out-fundraised Keller, bringing $41,972 in contributions. Most of the money has come from Clearwater residents and well known businesses like Sheraton Sand Key Resort, Barefoot Beach House, restaurateur Frank Chivas’s businesses and other regulars of the political brass.
He was endorsed by Pinellas Realtor Organization, Clearwater Regional Chamber’s political arm ClearPac, Fraternal Order of Police Clearwater Lodge 10 and Clearwater Fire Fighters Association. Allbritton was also endorsed by the Concerned Businessmen’s Association of Tampa Bay, whose primary focus is supporting Scientology’s anti-drug groups. But Allbritton said he has never met nor spoken to its founder, Consumer Energy Solutions CEO and prominent Scientologist Pat Clouden.
The race has been notably low-key and free from personal attacks.
"I told (Keller) when I first met him I’m really glad you’re offering your civic duty," Allbritton said. "I just think right now we need experienced people up there that can make decisions right out of the chute."
Voters will see more contrast in the race between incumbent Hoyt Hamilton, 59, co-owner of the Palm Pavilion restaurant and inn, and challenger John Funk, 71, a real estate broker.
This race has been marked by personal attacks between Hamilton and Funk in mailers and tension at debates.
The candidates diverge on several key issues: Hamilton endorses the Imagine Clearwater plan while Funk said it should be reconsidered. Funk is instead pushing his redevelopment idea for a 10-acre cluster of properties along Drew Street, which are almost entirely owned by the Church of Scientology and its parishioners.
Hamilton supports an expansion of bus rapid transit and promotion of water taxi and Jolley Trolley to alleviate traffic on Clearwater Beach. Funk is advocating for a local version of SkyTran, a magnetic levitation transportation design that does not exist anywhere in the world.
Funk has pledged to lower taxes if elected and criticized Hamilton’s record of voting to keep the tax rate the same. The city’s tax rate has remained unchanged for nine years, which has caused some residents’ tax bills to increase as property values also rose. Hamilton said it’s been necessary to maintain services.
The candidates also bring different experiences. Hamilton was born in Clearwater and has spent his career operating his family’s Palm Pavilion, a landmark on Clearwater Beach.
He was first elected to the Council in 2001 to fill a yearlong vacancy, re-elected in 2002 in a contested race and slid into a third term in 2005 unopposed. He resigned his seat in 2006 for a brief stint in Atlanta and was re-elected to in a 2014 contested race.
He holds his role in bringing "quality of life" efforts like new fire stations and park and recreation projects; the build-out of Clearwater Beach into an international destination; and maintenance of utilities as his greatest accomplishments in office.
Funk spent his career in residential and commercial real estate in California and Oregon before moving to Clearwater in 2003 for the good real estate prices and quality of life, he has said.
He filed for bankruptcy three times in Oregon between 1999 and 2003, which he said occurred when he diversified into the restaurant and horse business.
He also had four state tax liens totalling $9,139 placed against him in Oregon for failing to pay taxes between 2003 and 2004, records show. Funk was cited for running a stop sign in an accident on Aug. 28, 2011 in Clearwater that killed 53-year-old motorcyclist Eugene Harris. He was fined $1,000 and had his license revoked for one year.
He’s currently the chair of the Community Development Board and is advocating for evening meetings so more residents can attend.
Funk said he has knocked on 7,000 doors to send his message about changing "business as usual."
"Voters repeatedly tell me, after the city has spent millions on downtown, they have no reason to go downtown. And they are tired of their neighborhoods still remaining without sidewalks and having streets with potholes," Funk said in a statement to the Times after declining an interview request for this article.
Funk has raised $17,486, with $3,196 coming from his own pockets and most of the remaining $14,290 coming from prominent Scientology parishioners. He has been endorsed by The Suncoast Group of the Sierra Club and The Concerned Businessmen’s Association of Tampa Bay, whose primary focus is supporting Scientology’s anti-drug groups. Concerned Businessmen’s Founder Pat Clouden also donated to Funk.
Hamilton has raised $40,890, most coming from residents, political figures and businesses.
In a news release Saturday, Funk alleged Hamilton’s accepting contributions from board members and executives of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium was driving his priorities. Hamilton was one of four City Council members in December to vote on granting the aquarium $5 million toward its expansion.
Hamilton said he does not apologize for the relationships he has built during his tenure and votes in the best interest of the city.
Hamilton has been endorsed by Fraternal Order of Police Clearwater Lodge 10 , ClearPac, Clearwater Fire Fighters Association and Pinellas Realtors Organization.
"I’m very proud of what I’ve been able to do," he said. "I love this city, I love the people in this city and I have the sincere desire to ask you to give me the opportunity to do it for four more years."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.