Clearwater mayoral election: Frank Hibbard gets his old job back

Frank Hibbard, who served as mayor from 2005 to 2012, will return to city hall after prevailing in a four-way race.
Clearwater's newly elected mayor, Frank Hibbard, right, takes a phone call as his wife Teresa looks on during a small gathering to watch polling results Tuesday, Hibbard returns to city hall after serving as mayor from 2005 to 2012.
Clearwater's newly elected mayor, Frank Hibbard, right, takes a phone call as his wife Teresa looks on during a small gathering to watch polling results Tuesday, Hibbard returns to city hall after serving as mayor from 2005 to 2012. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published March 17, 2020|Updated March 18, 2020

CLEARWATER — Frank Hibbard got his old job back.

The financial advisor and community stalwart won the Clearwater mayor’s race Tuesday night, defeating nature rights activist Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer, former City Council Member Bill Jonson and small business owner Morton Myers.

Hibbard took about 55 percent of the vote, according to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections. He previously served as mayor of Tampa Bay’s third-largest city from 2005 to 2012.

“I’m thrilled. I wish we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic,” Hibbard said. “But I have been through trying times in the past. And like those past times, we will get through this and we will be stronger and better as a community.”

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Hibbard was alluding to the outbreak of COVID-19, which interrupted — among many other things — one of the most intriguing elections in recent Clearwater history.

As mayor, Hibbard will take over Seat 1 on the five-person City Council, succeeding the term-limited George Cretekos. In Clearwater’s city manager system, he will be just one of five votes on the council. Hibbard took 13,184 out of 23,893 votes.

Hibbard has said one of his priorities will be to create a strategic plan for the city. He wants to enact policies that will encourage young families to move to Clearwater, shoring up the city’s housing stock. And he also has said the city must find the right city manager to replace Bill Horne, who’s expected to retire sometime this year.

Candidates were first able to register for the race last September. For months, the contest was largely free of negative campaigning. Candidates appeared at forums all over the city to share their visions for Clearwater.

From the early days of his race, Hibbard sought the input of Clearwater citizens. He sent a detailed survey to about 22,000 residents asking them about city government. Among the questions: “Should City leadership in Clearwater attempt to work with Scientology on the city’s future plans?”

Jonson ran a campaign which called for “municipal excellence” in the city, arguing Clearwater’s government had become unresponsive to its citizens. The conscientious Jonson became a fixture at City Council meetings during the campaign, often making his opinion known during public comment.

Related: Is the way Clearwater runs its City Council elections good for democracy?

It wasn’t until last week that the race got a little spicy. Jonson sent out a mailer to Clearwater residents chastising Hibbard for what Jonson characterized as Hibbard’s role in the city’s plans to build a 4,000 seat covered amphitheater on the downtown waterfront as a part of its Imagine Clearwater project.

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“Frank is trying to overrule the will of the voters,” the mailer read, alluding to a 2017 city referendum to allow construction on the charter-protected bluff that passed eighteen months before the council added plans for the amphitheater.

Hibbard is the chair of the board of Ruth Eckerd Hall, the concert nonprofit whose former CEO and President pushed hard for the amphitheater. He has said he will give up that post once he assumes the mayor’s office.

The married father of two reportedly raised $150,079 in contributions — 2½ times raised by his closest fundraising competitor, Jonson. That is believe to be the most raised by any candidate in recent city history, and is more than all of Hibbard’s opponents combined.

The three candidates elected on Tuesday will be sworn in to office the business day after election results are certified, which is expected no sooner than March 27, according to City Clerk Rosemarie Call. The mayor earns $27,546 annually and serves a four-year term.

The strong showing of Drayer, the lawyer-turned-activist, may have been the surprise of the night in the mayor’s race. Drayer got almost 24 percent of the vote, beating out even the seasoned Jonson, who got just 16 percent.

Drayer made national news when she announced her run on behalf of the loggerhead sea turtle species. From the start, her campaign set out to further the cause of the “rights of nature” movement, which says ecosystems and animal species deserve political representation.

Myers finished a distant fourth. He faced long odds running against Hibbard and Jonson, who each had years of experience on the council — and Drayer, whose campaign had an eye-catching message.

Still, during the campaign, Myers became a central figure in one of the most controversial city issues during the campaign: the potential renaming of Coachman Park.

But on Tuesday, it was Hibbard who carried the day.

As coincidence would have it, he was mayor the last time Clearwater faced a major financial crisis, leading the city through the worst of the Great Recession. Even before COVID-19 essentially shut down American life, the finance-minded Hibbard was arguing Clearwater needs to be saving more for a rainy day.

“It looks like it’s about to rain,” Hibbard said last week.

Related: Policy, not rancor, drives race for Clearwater mayor

What effect did COVID-19 have on turnout in this election? Election data shows that across Pinellas County, turnout was 36 percent. That is down from the 50 percent turnout level from the March 2016 election. Clearwater’s turnout in this election was not available late Tuesday.