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Clearwater council member can’t engage advisory boards solo, colleagues say

Kathleen Beckman’s friendly updates to advisory boards could give the impression she’s giving direction without consent of the council, officials say
Clearwater City Council member Kathleen Beckman  (right) and Mayor Frank Hibbard (left) during a break in a Clearwater City Council meeting Monday, April 12, 2021 at the Clearwater Main Library.
Clearwater City Council member Kathleen Beckman (right) and Mayor Frank Hibbard (left) during a break in a Clearwater City Council meeting Monday, April 12, 2021 at the Clearwater Main Library. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published May 18
Updated May 18

CLEARWATER — In January, council member Kathleen Beckman stood at the podium before the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board like any resident can do and shared a series of thoughts.

Then at the meeting on April 27, parks and recreation advisory board member Patrick Raftery asked his colleagues how they could follow up on some of Beckman’s suggestions, like her idea that recreation centers across the city should have uniform operating hours. Chair Bruce Rector said he would add her items to May’s agenda.

Beckman’s practice of engaging with advisory boards in a government system that is required to act as a unified body prompted Mayor Frank Hibbard to bring up the issue at Monday’s work session. City attorney Pam Akin noted the boards have liaisons appointed by the city manager who are supposed to be the go-between for the bodies.

“It’s pretty clear that this is not a place where individual council members have the authority to give direction,” Akin said.

Hibbard said although all residents have the right to address advisory boards, it’s impossible for Beckman to detach her status as a council member, and the influence that conveys, when she addresses them.

“I hate using this word. It’s inappropriate, that’s really what it really comes down to,” Hibbard said. “We have to know our roles.”

Beckman agreed to stop addressing the boards but said she’ll continue to attend the meetings as she tries to stay engaged on critical issues from parks and recreation, to affordable housing and the environment. Since her election in March 2020, Beckman, a retired teacher, has advocated for more regular communication between the council and boards, beyond a one-page memo shared annually.

“I really respect the advisory board idea and think we have great talent on our advisory boards and people that are very passionate and wanting to contribute,” Beckman said in an interview on Tuesday. “I just want to see it more front and center. I ran on engaging with residents, of course I’m going to continue with that.”

Hibbard first raised concerns about Beckman’s interactions with the advisory boards at a February council meeting, following her comments to the parks and recreation board the month before.

Beckman said over the past few months, she tried to be more careful to share updates on what she’s working on and to not give the impression she’s instructing the boards to act.

At a Neighborhood and Affordable Housing Advisory Board meeting on May 11, Beckman spoke during the public comment portion about federal guidance on how municipalities can spend their allocations of the American Rescue Plan. She turned to Economic Development & Housing Assistant Director Chuck Lane and asked what kind of impact he saw coming from Clearwater’s $22 million share.

Akin noted on Monday that the city charter prohibits individual council members from giving staff policy direction. Hibbard said questions of staff should also be routed through the city manager.

“Anything said to a board or staff needs to be said as a unified voice of the council,” Hibbard said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s not a single voice. From somebody who’s an English teacher, she should know words matter.”

Bruce Rector, who chairs the parks and recreation advisory board, said on Tuesday he initially didn’t think Beckman’s engagement was a problem. But after hearing council members and the city attorney discuss the topic, he said he can see how “it could give the appearance that a council member is trying to go around the city manager to communicate directly with staff.”

Parks and Recreation Board member Scott Thomas also said that he initially saw Beckman’s comments as helpful, including the time in January when she brought an enlarged map showing the city’s various park sites.

“Other times, it did seem like she was lecturing us,” said Thomas, who lost the four-way council race to Beckman last year

Environmental Advisory Board chair Jared Leone said he did not perceive Beckman’s comments at the April 28 meeting as giving direction. Beckman provided updates about the city preparing to reevaluate the greenprint, strategic and comprehensive plans. She also shared that she learned during her first year in office that there are opportunities at every council meeting to help the environment.

Leone said advisory boards should have more opportunities to give guidance on policy before decisions are made. Last year, the city council began discussions to place a referendum on the November ballot regarding redevelopment of the Landings Golf Club before the environmental advisory board could provide in-depth analysis. The referendum failed.

Beckman said she was trying to fill this communication gap by addressing the boards. Although she will no longer speak at board meetings, she’ll continue to listen.

“There’s still that judgement of what is direction versus informative,” Beckman said. “I don’t consider sharing ideas as giving direction if I say we should be hearing more about what citizens care about.”