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Three things to watch at Wednesday’s Clearwater mayor forum

We might learn a great deal about a key election in Tampa Bay.
The four candidates for Clearwater mayor in 2020. Clockwise from the top left: Frank Hibbard, Morton Myers, Bill Jonson and Elizabeth "Sea Turtle" Drayer. [[Frank Hibbard (Courtesy of Hibbard); Morton Myers [Douglas R. Clifford | Times]; Bill Jonson [Douglas R. Clifford | Times]; Elizabeth "Sea Turtle" Drayer; (Courtesy of Drayer)]
The four candidates for Clearwater mayor in 2020. Clockwise from the top left: Frank Hibbard, Morton Myers, Bill Jonson and Elizabeth "Sea Turtle" Drayer. [[Frank Hibbard (Courtesy of Hibbard); Morton Myers [Douglas R. Clifford | Times]; Bill Jonson [Douglas R. Clifford | Times]; Elizabeth "Sea Turtle" Drayer; (Courtesy of Drayer)]
Published Jan. 21
Updated Jan. 22

The biggest event to date in the Clearwater mayor’s race is set for Wednesday night.

For the first time, residents will get a chance to see all four candidates for mayor together in a major candidate forum. The event, hosted by the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition, will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church at 407 S Saturn Ave. in Clearwater.

Here are three things to look for.

1. How much will candidates go after former mayor Frank Hibbard?

As the former mayor, even in Clearwater’s “weak mayor” system, Hibbard has connections and name recognition that other candidates appear to be having a hard time matching — at least, if the fundraising numbers are any indication. Hibbard has already reported more than $110,000 in campaign contributions, more than four times his best funded competitor.

Related story: Here’s where the money in the Clearwater election is coming from

Related story: In Clearwater, a crowded field of council candidates zeroes in on the issues

Related story: How Scientology is playing in a critical Clearwater election

Hibbard’s opponents are environmental activist and lawyer Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer; former four-time City Council member Bill Jonson and small business owner Morton Myers.

Expect at least Jonson and Drayer to bring up the 4,000-seat amphitheater that’s set to be included as a part of the $64 million Imagine Clearwater downtown redevelopment project. Both Drayer and Jonson oppose the amphitheater, which was added to the Imagine Clearwater plans about a year after voters passed a 2017 referendum allowing the city to build on the downtown waterfront.

Coachman Park, the future site of a sparkling new park that will serve as the centerpiece of Imagine Clearwater, has always had a bandshell. In 2018, former Ruth Eckerd Hall president and chief executive officer Zev Buffman pushed the Clearwater City Council to turn the existing bandshell into a multi-thousand seat amphitheater. After months of debate, the city agreed to do just that.

Hibbard, who serves as the chairman of Ruth Eckerd Hall’s board of directors, wants the amphitheater in the park, although not in the exact spot planners have set aside for it. Expect his opponents to bring up this policy difference.

2. How will the (relative) political newcomers do against seasoned opponents?

Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer has never run for office. As a candidate running to support the “Rights of Nature” movement, Drayer believes that ecosystems and species should have political representation. Expect Drayer to have to answer questions about matters that may only tangentially relate to Clearwater’s natural environment.

Related story: A Florida woman wants a turtle to be mayor of Clearwater. She’s not kidding.

Myers, meanwhile, has limited political experience. He ran for a City Council seat in 2013, but he dropped out before the elections to turn his attention to his business ventures. Today he owns Tampa Bay Pawn and Dairy Kurl, both on Gulf to Bay Boulevard. He’s says he’s running for mayor because he believes Clearwater residents are not being heard by their government. He’s also against a key tenet of the Imagine Clearwater plan: the potential development of three city-owned parcels near the waterfront.

But Myers is perhaps best known for his family ties to the Church of Scientology ― his father and two brothers are members of the Sea Org, Scientology’s full-time workforce. Myers has said he is not a Scientologist.

Related story: A candidate with Scientology roots is running for Clearwater mayor

Myers and Drayer have little experience with events like Wednesday’s forum, where they’ll answer questions alongside Hibbard and Jonson, political veterans. (Jonson made a name for himself over several decades in Clearwater as an advocate for neighborhoods and the ordinary resident. He is famous for attending neighborhood meetings and traveling to Tallahassee to fight for city issues.)

3. Will anyone show up Wednesday?

This is the third candidate forum hosted by the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition. Because of scheduling issues, the last two, which were held last week, included candidates from both the Seat 2 and Seat 3 races — an arrangement that no one seemed to care for. Few neutral residents attended either forum, although campaign volunteers were easy to find.

Will Clearwater residents show up Wednesday to find out more about their mayor candidates?

Times staff writer Tracey McManus contributed to this report.

The next Clearwater mayor candidate forum will be hosted by the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas Branch of NAACP on Feb. 3 at 1201 Douglas Ave. Clearwater, Florida 33755. The event will take place from 7-9 p.m.

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