CLEARWATER — Bill Jonson, the former City Council member who was term limited out in 2018, cannot run again for the council in 2020, according to city rules.
But he can run for mayor — a position in Clearwater that occupies one of the five council seats.
Last week, Jonson, 75, a soft-spoken retired accountant who has served four terms on the council in total, announced he plans to do just that. He’ll face the imposing former two-term mayor Frank Hibbard, making the mayor’s race a clash of styles if not also substance.
“So many Clearwater residents tell me that they don’t think the city feels they are important,” Jonson said in a release announcing his run. “As mayor, I will change that.”
This week, Jonson sat down with the Times at a Clearwater Perkins restaurant over a cup of black decaf coffee for a wide-ranging interview about his vision for Pinellas’ second-largest city.
The always-meticulous Jonson brought with him a manila file folder dedicated to his campaign filled with records and other relevant files. He glanced periodically at an outline as he spoke — he never goes into a meeting without notes.
The March 2020 elections come at a pivotal time for the city, which is in the midst of Imagine Clearwater, a $60-plus million revitalization of the downtown waterfront. The city is also trying to lock down county and state taxpayer funding for a newly refurbished Clearwater Phillies stadium, and it’s contemplating the departure of longtime city manager Bill Horne and city attorney Pam Akin. George Cretekos, the current mayor, will be termed out of office next year.
Jonson said Clearwater government will need to present a more united, communicative front to residents if it is to navigate these challenges smoothly. He said residents have felt alienated by some of the recent decisions made by the city.
“(City staff is) letting the council make decisions that in past would have been made by the stakeholders group as a recommendation first to the council,” Jonson said.
A recent example of this, Jonson said, was the discussion about the $6.1 million Main Library renovation project that is part of Imagine Clearwater. Jonson said in particular, the planned $3.6 million makeover of the library’s rooftop came without proper consideration of the return on the investment for the city. The library project also came without needed buy-in from the city’s Library Advisory Board or downtown business owners, Jonson said.
Staff and council members have defended the city’s handling of the library, at 100 N Osceola Ave. They’ve argued the upgrades presented the best way to show the public progress on Imagine Clearwater, a project that has suffered major delays.
Related story: Officials come up with a cost for Imagine Clearwater
Jonson also questioned the city’s handling of the Coachman Park concert pavilion. The pavilion morphed from an uncovered bandshell in the 2018 early design plans to an amphitheater with a canopy for 4,000 seats in 2019. The pavilion’s costs expanded along with the city’s ambition to upwards of $14 million.
The pavilion, Jonson said, presents a key area of disagreement between Jonson and Hibbard, his opponent.
“I think the rest of the park is most important thing, and my perception is that he thinks (the venue is) the most important thing,” Jonson said. “The performance venue is most important for getting people from outside the city to come to the city. I think having the park for the residents is the most important element of Imagine Clearwater.”
Hibbard, the chair of the board of Ruth Eckerd Hall, which pushed for a 4,000-seat pavilion, said he personally did not argue for or against the current plans. (The redesign was approved unanimously by the City Council.)
“I’ve only spoken on behalf of Ruth Eckerd Hall, and the fact that we said that if you are going to do a music venue, do at least what the industry needs to make it successful,” Hibbard said.
Jonson and Hibbard have faced off before. In 2001, Jonson defeated Hibbard in a four-way race for a council seat. But that result, now old enough itself to vote, will likely have little bearing on the 2020 mayor’s race.
Jonson said he is running mostly to express his own positive vision for the city — not to rebut Hibbard’s.
And Hibbard said he never expected to run for mayor unopposed. Hibbard is “comfortable with having a debate of ideas,” he said.
In short, Jonson said he wants the city to strive for “municipal excellence.” He said he often hears from residents that there is a divide between the city’s downtown and its suburban neighborhoods. Jonson wants to help bridge that gap.
In a classic move, Jonson brought a document to support his assessment of a divided city. In 2014, the nonprofit Urban Land Institute wrote a report detailing how the city could improve its downtown.
“It seems to be a profoundly divided city,” the document said. “Clearwater must find one unified vision.”