CLEARWATER — To win a seat on the Clearwater City Council, candidates have to earn more votes than their opponents, but not a majority.
Historically, that hasn’t been complicated, since city elections drew only a few candidates in each race.
But after the unprecedented field of 13 candidates for three seats in 2020 and a crowded ballot expected again in 2022, Council member Hoyt Hamilton says it’s time for the city to elect its leaders with at least a 50 percent majority.
“The only places where the elected officials get elected without 50 percent majority are your smaller towns,” Hamilton said. “The people of Clearwater deserve to have people sitting here that ultimately can get the vote of confidence from 50 percent plus one vote of the electorate.”
In raising the idea this week, Hamilton said his proposal is not personal.
But he noted that council member Mark Bunker won his five-way race last year with 27 percent of the vote and wondered whether Bunker would have won the seat in a runoff. Council member Kathleen Beckman won her four-way race with 48 percent, and Hamilton said there was “not a doubt in my mind” her margin would have carried her in a runoff.
Only Mayor Frank Hibbard won a majority last year, with 55 percent against his three opponents.
Any change to the electoral structure would require a voter referendum, which Hamilton said the council could place on the March 2022 ballot. If passed it would take effect in 2024 when Beckman, Bunker and Hibbard face re-election.
The council voted 3-2 Thursday to have a local government expert make a presentation to them about the various electoral systems that would result in a majority winner. Beckman and Bunker voted no.
Two seats will be up in March 2022: Hamilton will be term-limited and David Allbritton is expected to draw a series of opponents in his campaign for a second term.
Beckman said just the exercise of having an expert explain voting systems essentially advances this referendum, which she does not support. Beckman said the city should leave the exploration of charter changes to the citizen-led charter review committee, which meets every four years and did not raise this issue at its last meeting in 2019.
City attorney Pam Akin said the council can put a referendum on a ballot without the charter review committee, which is advisory.
But Beckman wondered why the council isn’t giving equal consideration to the creation of districts to improve the electoral process. All five council seats are at-large. She also noted they are also not considering the $22,955 council salary, which prevents many working people and those who are not independently wealthy from serving.
“It’s respectful to have full citizen engagement and feedback and deliberation for these things especially if we’re going to bypass any talk of districting or better representation because if you go to a runoff, it’s about money and (political action committees),” Beckman said. “And if I’m an advocate for diversity and representation up here, that is not going to happen.”
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Bunker also cautioned against the money barrier that runoffs could create for candidates. Because he ran largely on the platform of standing up to what he called fraud and abuse in the Church of Scientology, he said some supporters were reluctant to donate and have their names and addresses appear on publicly available campaign finance reports.
“If I had to do a runoff, people who had raised multiple times what I raised would have had an advantage,” Bunker said. “It’s one year later. I just paid off all of my credit card debt from the campaign.”
Hibbard said he saw no harm in having an expert come and educate the council about their options. He said he had no current preference but pointed to Clearwater’s outlier status.
“Other than small cities, everywhere else we elect a president by majority, our congressmen, our senators, our state representatives, our state senators our county commissioners all by majority,” Hibbard said. “There must be a reason the country does it at all levels of government.”
Even if the council members vote to put a change to the city’s electoral system on the ballot, Hibbard said it’s not their decision whether it passes.
“Ultimately if it goes on the ballot, the citizens get to decide what they want to do, and isn’t that who we work for?” Hibbard said. “I think it is.”