Clearwater strong mayor referendum question
- Residents voted down changing the government into a strong mayor system like Tampa and St. Petersburg by 59 percent of 42,053 total votes.
A referendum spearheaded by business advocates to transform Clearwater's government was resoundingly rejected by residents on Tuesday, with nearly 60 percent voting down the change to the City Charter.
The vote provided an answer to a question floated for decades but never pursued until earlier this year when a group tied to the Clearwater Downtown Partnership proposed a strong mayor could awaken the city in ways a city manager cannot.
About 59 percent of the 42,053 total voters rejected the referendum, according to unofficial results, with all precincts counted. The change would have in 2020 eliminated the city manager, an appointed professional who implements policy of the five-member City Council, and given daily authority to the mayor, who would not have been a member of the council body.
"The proponents said they wanted to have a community conversation and they wanted to give voters an option of going to a strong mayor system," said Beth Rawlins, chair of the No Boss Mayor opposition group. "The margin is definitive. The voters of Clearwater have spoken."
The No Boss Mayor political action committee ran a largely grassroots opposition, with no TV advertising but a contingent of volunteers who waved signs, knocked on doors and helped spread the message against changing the government.
About 90 percent of the PAC's $92,096 raised came from the International City/County Management Association, a national trade group that supports professional local government.
Accountable Government, the PAC pushing the strong mayor referendum, raised $163,232, most of which came from real estate, business and development interests. The group, originally chaired by Clearwater Downtown Partnership Chair Matt Becker but later led by Zach Thorn, aired TV ads, mailers and had Vice Mayor Doreen Caudell and Council member David Allbritton as public advocates. Last week, the group sent misleading attack mailers claiming a no vote on the referendum would "put unelected bureaucrats with no term limits in charge.''
"While we believe an executive mayor form of government is a better option for the City, the voters have spoken and we look forward to continuing to work together with our friends, neighbors, and colleagues on both sides of this issue to build Clearwater's future," Becker said.
In forums and town halls leading up to Election Day, referendum supporters, including Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, said a strong mayor could have given Clearwater regional clout and vitality seen in Tampa and St. Petersburg.
"I think it was a healthy exercise to be talking about change," Allbritton said. "There was lots of discussion, even though it got nasty from some people on both sides. … People have spoken. They like what we have and we'll move forward."
Distrust from residents over changing the government structure in place for nearly 100 years appeared to have reigned.
Jimmy Walker, 57, a lifelong Clearwater resident, said the argument that a mayor with more power could have helped revitalize downtown Clearwater like Tampa and St. Petersburg is misplaced. Clearwater is working with a variable no other city has to: the Church of Scientology's international spiritual headquarters has a dominating footprint in downtown, making it hard for businesses to have the confidence to fill empty storefronts around it.
"I don't think the downtown is going to change at all because Scientology is here and they're not going anywhere," Walker said. "A strong mayor is not going to change that."
Mayor George Cretekos, a staunch opponent of the strong mayor system, said the results are "a grassroots victory."
"I hope all residents and others in the city will work together now within this preferred framework so we can continue to offer stable non-partisan and professional management," Cretekos said.
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