Clearwater strong mayor backers send misleading mailer, get jolt in cash from business interests

The PAC backing the strong mayor referendum sent a misleading mailer days before Election Day.
The PAC backing the strong mayor referendum sent a misleading mailer days before Election Day.
Published November 5 2018

In the final stretch before Election Day, the group backing the referendum to change Clearwater's government structure pushed a misleading mailer while getting a boost in contributions from business, real estate and development interests.

The Accountable Government political action committee, which is funding the effort to transform Clearwater's government led by an appointed city manager and give daily management authority to the mayor, sent a mailer last week claiming D.C. special interests are funding an effort "to put unelected bureaucrats with no term limits in charge of Clearwater."

However Clearwater's council-management government structure has been in place for nearly 100 years and would not change if Tuesday's referendum to implement a "strong" mayor-council form fails. As chief executive, the city manager does not have term limits because there is no term. The Council can fire the city manager at any time with two consecutive 3-2 votes or one 4-1 vote.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Pros and Cons of city manager/strong mayor governments

"A yes vote for the Clearwater referendum is a clear choice to move executive leadership of the city from an unelected bureaucrat and put it in the hands of an elected, term-limited full-time mayor," Accountable Government spokesperson Brigitta Shouppe said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. "We stand by our literature."

About 86 percent of the $66,066 raised by the No Boss Mayor PAC fighting the referendum has come from the International City/County Management Association, a nationwide trade group for local government professionals based in Washington D.C., according to treasurer reports. The organization promotes ethical tenets, ongoing education about administration and credentialing for government professionals.

"I'm proud that ICMA chose to support the grassroots organization that we built," against the referendum, said No Boss Mayor Chair Beth Rawlins, a Clearwater based government consultant who also donated about $7,000.

Most of the $163,232 raised by Accountable Government has come from business and development interests inside and outside of Clearwater, according to Department of State campaign filings. The largest donors have included Clearwater real estate investor Ben Mallah, Clearwater's Boos Development Group, Belleair developer Dan Doyle Jr., Clearwater-based Midatlantic Finance Company, and Greg Fancelli, a Lakeland real estate investor and grandson of Publix founder who financed the unsuccessful effort last year to change Lakeland's government into a strong mayor system.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Leader of Clearwater strong mayor initiative goes to work for prominent Scientologist

About a fifth of Accountable Government's contributions have come from other PACs, including Suncoast Better Government, a PAC run by state Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater; Restore Florida, funded by prominent Pinellas County Republicans; and Integrity in Leadership, a Tallahassee PAC funded by various business and corporate interests.

In the week before Election Day, Accountable Government brought in $17,500, most of which came from Mallah's business and two PACs while $1,000 came from a citizen. During that time period, the group paid for almost $7,000 in TV advertising.

Shouppe defended the contributions, stating they "have come almost exclusively from Clearwater residents and Clearwater business owners." But according to campaign finance filings, about 37 percent has come from individuals, businesses or PACs with addresses based outside of Clearwater.

The Clearwater initiative was prompted this year when a small group of businessmen associated with the Clearwater Downtown Partnership put the idea before the council. The 2015 charter review committee suggested the city form a task force be formed to explore the idea, but that never occurred.

Currently the city manager implements policy created by the council, which includes the mayor, and handles day to day administration. In "strong" mayor-council governments, the mayor works full time and has managerial power, the ability to negotiate deals on behalf of the city, veto power over council ordinances, and prepares the budget for council approval.

In a recent statement, Partnership Chair Matt Becker said the current form of government inhibits Clearwater from being represented regionally because neither the city manager nor the mayor can make statements on behalf of the city without council approval.

Rawlins said putting a concentration of power in the hands of an elected politician breeds corruption and takes professional management out of complex government decisions from water treatment to development.

Accountable Government's recent mailer also misrepresents some of the changes that a "strong" mayor government would bring. It states a yes vote would support a mayor "term-limited to two terms" and "elected by Clearwater citizens."

The mayor is already term limited to two terms and elected by citizens under the current system. The elected officials hire a city manager to operate daily management of the city and can fire the manager at any time.