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City's new leaders size up agenda

The new and old members agree on many things and the mayor expects to make progress on several fronts.

The city's three new commissioners posed for photos Thursday at City Hall with the giddiness of newlyweds, ceremoniously cutting an election celebration cake with Clearwater's blue-and-yellow logo in the center.

Then newly elected Whitney Gray and Hoyt Hamilton took charge of handing out slices of the cake at their congratulatory reception in the commission's chambers, while Bill Jonson chatted with smiling city administrators, drinking fruit punch.

The atmosphere at City Hall couldn't have been more relaxed.

Mayor Brian Aungst said he views the election of Gray, Hamilton and Jonson as a sign that residents generally agree with the city's ongoing plans for redevelopment. And he thinks the new commission will be able to work together to get a lot done.

Aungst predicted the new commission will move forward with vacating parts of city roadways and taking other steps to allow a 250-room Marriott resort on S Gulfview Boulevard. He also expects the new commission would consider a few additional high-rises on the beach in selected areas defined by the city's new beach plan.

And, Aungst said, he is hopeful the new commission will make progress promoting the redevelopment of Clearwater Mall, approving a plan for the future of downtown, guiding construction of the new main library downtown and okaying modifications to improve the beach's roundabout.

Another project that seems fairly secure, based on interviews with the new commission, is the construction of a new spring-training stadium for the Philadelphia Phillies, a deal that already has been approved.

"I'd pride myself on being able to work with anyone," Aungst said. "But I think the new slate is pretty much philosophically in tune with how I felt and how the majority of the citizens felt. They want cautious, well-thought-out redevelopment."

Clearwater attorney Bill Kimpton, who put together the deal to build the Marriott resort on the beach, agreed that there will be a good environment for redevelopment projects like his to proceed under the new commission.

"Yes, I think this is an environment to do some careful redevelopment that the community can be proud of," Kimpton said. "It looks like the people who were elected are more pro-reasonable development than some of the other ones were."

Still, Jonson, who had the biggest margin of victory of all the winners last week, doesn't think that last week's message from voters was mainly about redevelopment.

Jonson said he thinks voters who supported him bought into his message that the city needs to prioritize neighborhood concerns and focus on improving basic city services, while also working on "responsible" redevelopment projects.

"I tend to think a moderate approach is what the community wants," Jonson said. "Whitney talked about glitz in her campaign. And I used the term "bells and whistles' to describe some of the projects that I'm not sure we need. (Residents) want us to work on infrastructure."

Jonson said he wants to delve into the city's budget for next year and spark discussion about how the city will keep up with new costs, such as an increasing number of city employees.

He said the new commission also should discuss the region's water supply, because residents asked him during the campaign how the city can keep approving new developments while the supply is so limited.

Jonson also wants to consider the results of an ongoing city traffic study of south Clearwater Beach before he approves giving away parts of beach streets for the development of Kimpton's proposed resort on the 200 and 300 blocks of S Gulfview Boulevard.

"My approach will be to say this is a traffic issue," Jonson said. "I haven't spent a whole lot of time yet looking at the numbers."

Commissioner Ed Hart, known for asking lots of questions at meetings and requesting lots of public records, said he's relieved that Jonson will be sitting on the commission with him.

"I'm glad someone else than me may be doing that, asking for more information and more answers to questions," Hart said.

Hart said he plans to ask whether the new commission can have at least one meeting this spring to discuss their priorities. Hart said the new commission should take a stronger leadership role, rather than constantly react to proposals from city administrators.

All the new commissioners anticipate having a healthy debate at their meetings.

"I honestly don't expect to see 5-0 votes all the time, but that's good, because everybody's issues will have to be discussed and points made," Hamilton said.

Hamilton said he wants to play catcher, rather than pitcher, for a while as he adjusts to serving on the commission. He doesn't have any proposals to put forward immediately.

Gray said she hopes she eventually can push the city to work on basic neighborhood concerns, such as improving drainage throughout the city.

But for now, she said, she'll be spending her free time brushing up on the thick binder of city codes and policies she received at a new commissioner orientation session Thursday.

"I see us having a nice diversity of styles," Gray said of her new colleagues. "You have to have people who are analytical and look at the details, and you have to have people who are bringing up the big picture."

The new commission is packed with "incrementalists" and "moderates," said Ed Armstrong, a Clearwater attorney who has been involved with city politics for two decades. His firm often represents developers before the commission and the Church of Scientology.

"I don't think you're going to see any real radical proposals coming out of this group," said Armstrong, who was involved in Gray's campaign. "I think you'll see generally small to moderate size movements that the community can be comfortable with."

But Armstrong still thinks politics are going to be interesting to watch.

He noted that next year three seats on the five-member commission will again be up for election: those held by Hamilton, Hart and Aungst. Decisions made during the next year could become political issues next spring.

"It's going to be a real interesting year," he said.