CLEARWATER — Four candidates. Four distinct styles. Four different visions of Clearwater’s future. Voters don’t lack choices in the 2020 mayor’s race, the most heavily contested race for the city’s top job in years.
Just don’t expect the candidates to fight over it.
In a race defined by its contrasts — two of the candidates are running on their extensive City Council experience; two have never held elected office — there has been surprisingly little interpersonal conflict in the mayor’s race. No raised voices at candidate forums. Not even an attack ad.
The candidates — environmental advocate Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer, former mayor Frank Hibbard, former council member Bill Jonson and small business owner Morton Myers — have made it a race about, believe it or not, policy.
The mayor’s race is really a race for Seat 1, one of five seats on Clearwater’s City Council. Under the city manager system, the mayor leads council meetings, but doesn’t have the same kind of executive powers as the so-called “strong mayors” in cities like St. Petersburg and Tampa.
Perhaps no issue better illustrates the subdued, yet substantive, nature of this race than the debate over the 4,000-seat covered amphitheater added to the Imagine Clearwater initiative by the council in 2019. The amphitheater, one of the most controversial parts of the $64 million project, was first pushed by former Ruth Eckerd Hall President and CEO Zev Buffman.
As Buffman made his pitch in meetings with individual council members in 2018, he was accompanied by two other Ruth Eckerd Hall officials. One of them was Hibbard, the current chair of the nonprofit’s board.
Hibbard says he still supports the amphitheater — but if elected mayor, he said he would wait to see the final plans and financial projections before giving it the go-ahead.
Drayer, Jonson and Myers have all countered that when voters in 2017 approved allowing the city to build on the charter-protected bluff, the early plans only included a simple, uncovered bandshell.
The mayor’s race is one of three council seats and six referendums on this year’s ballot. Election Day is March 17.
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Even the candidates’ disagreement over Imagine Clearwater has not inspired the kind of rancor and personal attacks that defined the last two major mayoral contests in the bay area: St. Petersburg’s closely-contested 2017 race between Rick Kriseman and Rick Baker, and Tampa’s bombastic — but not close — 2019 battle between former police chief Jane Castor and the late philanthropist David Straz.
Instead, Clearwater’s candidates have focused on their visions for the city.
Frank Hibbard, 52, a financial planner by trade, is running on what he describes as a long track record of community leadership. In addition to two terms as mayor, he has served on the boards of the Homeless Empowerment Program, Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
One of his first major initiatives as mayor would be to enact a long term strategic plan for Clearwater. His campaign has tried to get a head start: it spent about $13,000 mailing a lengthy survey to about 22,000 residents asking them about their experiences and opinions about the city. The questions included “Do you think the downtown gets too much attention?” and “Should City leadership in Clearwater attempt to work with Scientology on the city’s future plans?”
Hibbard says the next mayor needs to set Clearwater up for success by picking the right successor to longtime City Manager Bill Horne; make it a more attractive place to live for young families; and shore up its financial reserves.
A commanding presence at any gathering, Hibbard has not been shy about blasting his campaign message across Clearwater. He’s raised about $122,600 — about four times his next closest opponent — and his campaign is the only one to buy airtime on local television stations.
Jonson, 75, is the only other mayoral candidate with council experience. He served four terms from 2001 to 2018. But while Hibbard is a forceful protector of his vision, Jonson is a more subdued and meticulous advocate.
A retired Honeywell auditor, Jonson thinks the city has lost its attention to the details. Jonson has said he often hears from residents that Clearwater government isn’t listening to them. He wants to address that by instilling a system to make city staff and council members more accountable to the priorities they set.
In order for Clearwater to succeed, Jonson has said, it needs to come together. That’s often a challenge in a city where people can at times identify more closely with their neighborhood than Clearwater itself. Jonson says his analytical style of leadership is best suited to unite the city.
Jonson has reported $28,646 in campaign contributions for his run so far.
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Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer, 58, is running a campaign devoid of special interests — unless Clearwater’s ecosystem counts as a special interest.
The retired attorney has accepted no campaign contributions save for the $20,000 she donated to herself. She’s running to spread the message of the “Rights of Nature” movement, which espouses the belief that ecosystems and species need political representation to be protected. That’s why “Sea Turtle” will appear on the Clearwater ballot between Drayer’s first and last names.
Drayer has human priorities as well. She wants the city to review its emergency response procedures in the event of disaster, such as a mass shooting. And she thinks residents need to be more closely consulted on new development going up near their neighborhoods.
She is the only candidate who says one of her top priorities will be making developers pay an “impact fee” on new developments. That revenue stream, Drayer says, could be used to help the city to buy land it could convert back to its original, natural state.
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The only candidate born and bred in Clearwater is Morton Myers, 40. The owner of Dairy Kurl and Tampa Bay Pawn is an earnest advocate for his hometown and says he’s running to preserve Clearwater’s roots. In one aspect, he means that literally: Myers wants to see the city plant one million trees.
He says Clearwater isn’t doing enough to encourage small business owners such as himself to invest in the city. He would make improving Clearwater’s start-up climate a top priority.
Perhaps most notably, Myers is running on a platform of transparency when it comes to the city’s dealings with the Church of Scientology. While Myers says he is not a Scientologist, he was raised by parents who were dedicated parishioners; today his father and two brothers are members of the Sea Org, Scientology’s full-time workforce.
Myers says his proximity to such active members gives him insight into how to manage the oft-contentious relationship between the city and the church. He has reported raising $4,850, the smallest amount of the four campaigns.
2020 CLEARWATER CITY ELECTIONS
City voters will decide three City Council races and six ballot referendums. Here’s what voters need to know:
MAIL BALLOTS: To request one, send an email to email@example.com or call (727) 464-8683. The deadline to request a mail ballot is March 7 at 5 p.m.
EARLY VOTING: Runs from March 7-15. Weekday early voting is 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Weekend hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To find locations, go to votepinellas.com.
ELECTION DAY: March 17. Polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.