Less than one hour into the City Council’s budget workshop Monday morning, Mayor Frank Hibbard said he was concerned about the direction his colleagues were taking the city, packed his briefcase and resigned from the dais.
The council was discussing about 30 capital projects and a $250 million shortfall for how to pay for them. When his four colleagues agreed that spending $90 million on building a new City Hall and municipal services complex was their top budget priority, Hibbard was the only one to push back.
The mayor called a five-minute recess. When they reconvened, Hibbard explained what he described as one of the hardest decisions he’s ever had to make.
“I’m not a quitter, but I’m not the right leader for this council anymore and I’m concerned where the city is going,” Hibbard said, “because this is simple math and we’re not doing very well on the test.”
“I love Clearwater and I love some of the things that we’ve gotten done. I think (Imagine Clearwater) is going to be phenomenal. I think (Jennifer Poirrier) is going to do a great job as city manager, but in good conscience for my family, for my own health and other things, I can’t remain the mayor.”
The surprise on the dais was clear. Council member Kathleen Beckman’s mouth went agape. Council member Lina Teixeira put her face in her hands.
After a second brief recess, Beckman reconvened the budget workshop and urged her colleagues to carry on despite being “shell-shocked.”
“I don’t want anybody freaking out right now about this,” council member David Allbritton said. “We’ve got enough people up here to make the decisions and keep everything on track, and that’s what we plan to do today.”
In an interview after he left the council chambers, Hibbard confirmed he made the decision on the spot as the growing schisms on the council evolved into something untenable at the budget workshop.
He took the five-minute recess to call his wife, Teresa, who he said asked if he was going to be able to live with the decision. “I’m not going to have a choice,” he said when asked the same question in an interview.
“This is so out of character for me. ... I don’t do things lightly,” Hibbard said. “I don’t want to criticize the council, but it’s an overall vision for where the city is going and being fiscally responsible. We talk about affordability and everything else, but we’re not doing the things that continue to keep a cap on costs.”
Hibbard, a longtime civic leader who previously served as mayor from 2004 to 2012, was in the last 12 months of his four-year term. He already announced last year that he was not going to run again.
The mayor kept a digital clock in his downtown office where he works as a financial adviser that counted down the days, hours and minutes until his term was supposed to end in March 2024.
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In previous interviews, he said he ran in 2020 because he was concerned about some of the critical decisions facing the city: hiring a new city manager and city attorney for the first time in more than two decades; completing the $84 million renovation of the downtown waterfront, which is set to open in June; and prioritizing strategic planning.
But the last three years have been less than smooth, and Hibbard’s sudden departure caps what has been one of the most turbulent periods in recent Clearwater history. Hibbard took office in March 2020, the same month the coronavirus pandemic began ravaging the nation.
The council began a nationwide search in early 2021 to find a successor for then-City Manager Bill Horne, who led the administration for 20 years and cultivated the city’s reputation for stability.
That summer, on Aug. 14, 2021, Hibbard and Horne played golf at Belleair Country Club, their Saturday ritual for more than a decade.
When Horne did not return home, his wife of 51 years, Loretta, called police Chief Dan Slaughter. The mayor returned to the golf course and found his friend and colleague in his car. Horne had died from a suspected heart attack.
It took two national searches to hire Jon Jennings in September 2021 as the next city manager. But the council fired him in January, a little more than a year into the job, citing communication and transparency concerns.
Although Hibbard pushed for another national search, he joined his colleagues to hire Poirrier as city manager on March 2.
The backgrounds of each of the five council members are also the most divergent they’ve been in decades, and their unique priorities have created fault lines.
Hibbard often clashed with Beckman as they debated philosophies. The mayor challenged Beckman to prove returns on investment when discussing her sustainability and environmental priorities, such as proposed solar panels for government buildings.
Although Hibbard backed Teixeira and Allbritton in their campaigns last year, they have not supported all of the mayor’s priorities.
Hibbard was the lone vote in December 2021 against allocating the city’s state and federal housing dollars to an affordable housing project in the downtown core, stating the 81 units were not enough to merit the $2 million investment. The developer later backed out after Church of Scientology officials encouraged him to relocate his project.
In September, Hibbard again was alone in opposing design work for a $30 million City Hall project. He unsuccessfully urged council members to have an architect analyze the Main Library, where the City Council has had its temporary chambers since 2019, and determine whether the building could accommodate permanent government offices.
On Monday, his frustration grew as the City Hall proposal ballooned to $90 million with the addition of the municipal services departments, currently in a stand-alone building.
Hibbard also opposed an upcoming Florida Department of Transportation project to reshape much of Drew Street, including removing a travel lane and creating a center turn lane. Only Teixeira shared his concern about condensing the corridor that serves as one of the city’s main east-west arteries.
Before leaving the chambers Monday, Hibbard suggested the council appoint former City Council member Hoyt Hamilton to finish his term until the March 2024 election.
Hamilton said that before the resignation Monday, he and other residents and business leaders had been urging Hibbard to run for another term next year.
“Frank is very savvy, and as good and effective as he’s been and the great job he’s done, four more years of him as mayor would be great for the city of Clearwater,” Hamilton said.
At the end of the three-hour budget meeting, City Attorney David Margolis told the council he did not want to discuss next steps for the mayor’s seat until he had a chance to speak with Hibbard and confirm his intentions.
But by then, Hibbard had already cleaned out his mayor’s office on the sixth floor of One Clearwater Tower, where the city has leased temporary office space since 2019. He had a colleague from his financial office five floors up bring a cart to help carry away his things.
“I still love the city and I wish them all luck,” Hibbard said. “I hope they make great decisions.”