CLEARWATER — The City Council has had $6.4 million of BP settlement money in its coffers since July, but it will be at least another four months until officials even talk about what to do with the windfall of cash.
The topic is off-limits until after the March election over fear that officials' ideas for the money could be misinterpreted as campaign promises for Mayor George Cretekos and City Council members Doreen Hock DiPolito and Jay Polglaze, who are running for re-election.
When council member Bill Jonson brought up possible uses for the money at a meeting Nov. 5, he was swiftly swatted down.
"If I were to say let's spend $6 million of the BP money on project X, somebody is going to say 'Mayor Cretekos is doing that because he's running for re-election,' " Cretekos said in response to Jonson's list.
Politics, however, did not stop the St. Petersburg City Council from discussing its $6.5 million settlement just weeks before the Nov. 3 election, when two incumbents were running campaigns.
The Tampa City Council has had a handful of brief discussions on how to use its $20 million settlement, although officials there learned about the settlement four months after the March elections this year and don't have another election until 2019.
And in September, the Dunedin City Commission discussed using a portion of its $3.9 million BP settlement to improve downtown parking.
So what's different about Clearwater?
DiPolito said because Clearwater operates as a city manager form of government and St. Petersburg has a strong mayor structure, the BP talks play out differently.
She said because Clearwater's officials are elected at large, it would be inappropriate to bring up an item that could sound like a stump speech.
"There are three of us right now that are in the process of being re-elected, and I don't think it's fair to all five of us for any part of the election process to be discussing what we should be doing right now with a bucket list as it relates to BP," DiPolito said at the Nov. 5 meeting.
City Manager Bill Horne originally asked in July for direction on how to use the city's settlement money, but the council agreed to table the issue for a later date.
Jonson said he added the agenda item again this month to get a better sense of his colleagues' priorities.
"I don't think we are going to stop the city for the election," Jonson said. "If you want to talk about this as part of your campaign, that's fine. I'm just not quite ready to stop the city for that."
Because Clearwater has several major projects still in the planning stages that do not require immediate funding, Horne said there is no real urgency to allocate the BP money while it sits in the bank accruing interest.
The money may come into play when the city is finalizing its master plan for development of the Bluff/Coachman Park area, but that could be another year in the works.
"On the eve of an upcoming election, it is not uncommon for elected officials to avoid any kind of public discussion on items that may likely be considered controversial," he said last week. "They're focused on getting their cards signed, they're focused on facing the prospect of an opponent. They're not concerned about giving public discussion on items not likely to be resolved before an election."
Cretekos also said the BP settlement is a unique case because there is no urgent project requiring a decision on the funds immediately. He said the campaign is not a factor in many other ongoing city issues.
Jonson said in a telephone interview last week he did not expect his colleagues to perceive his desire for a discussion as a "political ploy."
Some of the suggestions on his bucket list he presented were ideas like "be a community known as physically active and health-conscious" and "be known as a family-friendly community." Other items related to specific projects such as improving bike trails and expanding the Jolley Trolley transportation service.
"To not have a discussion on what's important as we move forward is, I think, unfortunate," he said.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.