On paper, the job of Clearwater mayor is not particularly powerful. The City Charter makes the mayor a member of the City Council with a few additional administrative duties. But Mayor Frank Hibbard, who leaves office today as the result of term limits, has made the office something much more for the past seven years. His skill at using the bully pulpit has proven an asset for Clearwater and the entire region.
Hibbard navigated both boom and bust in Clearwater. The mayor's job is officially nonpartisan, but Hibbard is a fiscally conservative Republican who also appreciates the role government can play in fostering a stronger community. His approachable but formidable personality played well in a variety of venues, from leading neighborhood meetings in this city of 108,000 to lobbying federal officials in Washington. And Hibbard proved a refreshing regional leader, playing key roles in transit planning and supporting Major League Baseball in the area.
A financial services professional who moved to Clearwater as a teenager, Hibbard was a member of the City Council in 2005 when he ran unopposed to finish out the term of former Mayor Brian Aungst. That first term was a heady time. Like many Florida cities, Clearwater enjoyed increased property tax revenues and launched long-term infrastructure improvements to help the city's tourist trade on the beach and rejuvenate downtown, including Hibbard's pet project to add downtown boat slips. Voters approved that idea in 2007, and in 2008 Hibbard sailed to re-election.
But Hibbard's second term has been more difficult, with property tax receipts dropping by a third since their peak. Proposed real estate developments, particularly downtown, largely evaporated amid the housing crisis — ultimately unraveling, for now, a plan that would have moderated the Church of Scientology's overwhelming presence there. While the previous mayor had sought a friendly relationship with the church, Hibbard did not, aggravated in part by the church's willful, yearslong delay in completing its Super Power building downtown.
Hibbard and the City Council have presided over progressively deeper budget cuts, slashing a total of 275 jobs and refusing to budge on raising the city's tax rate since 2009 (Hibbard voted against that increase). Hibbard championed Clearwater quality-of-life programs, but only to a point. He continued to back unpopular cost-cutting measures in lieu of tax rate increases, from dismantling playgrounds to consolidating recreation centers.
Yet Hibbard maintained an ability to look past short-term crises or political rhetoric to the long-term picture. One of his last accomplishments as mayor, for example, was winning pension changes with the city's unions, a measure that will save taxpayers millions. He also showed welcome leadership on building a countywide regional transit proposal, including light rail, and enthusiasm for keeping the Rays in Tampa Bay.
Hibbard says he will return to private life for now, though he expressed an interest in continuing to play a role in the region's discussion on transit. That would be helpful, because on transit Tampa Bay can use all the thoughtful voices and visionary minds it can find.