CLEARWATER — It’s been two years since City Manager Bill Horne began publicly speculating about his eventual retirement.
On Friday Horne, 71, who has led Tampa Bay’s third largest city for 20 years, announced to employees he will now begin the process of hiring an executive search firm to find his replacement.
He said the goal is to have his successor hired by June, the most specific timeline given to date.
“It’s the end of an era,” said Mayor Frank Hibbard. “Bill’s left a tremendous legacy. His fingerprints are all over the progress that we’ve made over the last 20 years, and he will be difficult to replace.”
Horne, a retired Air Force colonel, became Clearwater’s general support services administrator in 1998 and assistant city manager the next year. When former city manager Mike Roberto resigned in July 2000, days after voters rejected a $300 million downtown waterfront redevelopment plan, Horne served as interim manager.
After a nationwide search that brought finalists from Oregon, Virginia, South Carolina and Collier County, city commissioners hired Horne for the permanent job in August 2001.
Since then, he’s steered Clearwater through a transformation of its beach into one of the nation’s top tourist destinations. He’s navigated the at-times contentious relationship with the Church of Scientology, downtown’s largest property owner that arrived in 1975.
He also lead the modernization of the city’s recreation centers, libraries and formalized infrastructure to make “certain that we’re keeping up with the stuff that nobody talks about until it breaks,” Hibbard said.
In 2018, Horne said he expected to retire sometime in 2020. He later said he would set a date after the March 2020 election, when three newly elected council members would be settling in.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and Horne remained on to help navigate the city through a public health crisis.
“It’s not going to feel completely comfortable doing it, but it’s time,” Horne said in an interview. “I love what I’m doing.” Horne said he will spend retirement continuing to work with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, where he is the highest ranking layman. But his wife, Loretta, has asked him “not to start a third career.”
While there are exceptions, a city retaining a city manager for 20 years is not the norm, according to Robert E. Lee, assistant professor of public affairs at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Administrators have bosses change every few years amid city council elections and must oversee everything from utility projects to employee conduct.
“Bill is one of the deans of the profession,” Lee said. “If you’ve been able to stay in one city for 20 years, you absolutely have to be where the service you’re providing is recognized and they want to retain you. On the same token, someone like Bill Horne could have gone on to a bigger city, made more money, but he stayed.”