CLEARWATER — In 2001, Tampa Bay’s third-largest city was in desperate need of a steady leader.
City commissioners at the time were implementing a grand vision to turn sleepy Clearwater Beach into a tourist destination. Neighborhoods needed libraries and recreation centers. Basic infrastructure was due for replacement, from stormwater pipes to fire stations.
Voters had just rejected a $300 million redevelopment plan to bring a movie theater, shops, a hotel and apartments to the downtown bluff, meaning the city had to figure out something else to revive its dying downtown.
To carry Clearwater into the 21st century, commissioners chose Bill Horne, a retired senior Air Force colonel known for his calm demeanor and unquestionable ethics.
Mr. Horne, who went on to lead Clearwater as city manager for 20 years, died Saturday of a suspected heart attack, the city’s communications director Joelle Castelli confirmed. Mr. Horne was 72 and three weeks away from his planned retirement.
“Yesterday we lost a patriot, mentor, leader, public servant, veteran and role model. I lost my friend,” Mayor Frank Hibbard said in a statement early Sunday. “Our community was richer for having Bill Horne, and today we are poorer for having lost him. His impact in Clearwater and beyond will live on tangibly and in our hearts.”
In those two decades, Mr. Horne had helped turn Clearwater Beach into one of the largest economic engines in Tampa Bay, molded the city of 115,000 into a safe oasis known for quality of life, and navigated the many personalities of elected officials who cycled through the city commission, which later became a city council.
His unexpected death shook colleagues and friends, who were already adjusting to Mr. Horne’s upcoming retirement. The City Council began a search for Mr. Horne’s successor earlier this year and is scheduled to hold interviews with four finalists Sept. 1.
Assistant City Manager Michael Delk will be acting city manager until the council can take action Monday, according to Castelli.
“It’s just tragic that he’s 20 days away from retirement and having the time to do all the things that he’d been talking about,” Hibbard said in an interview. “Thursday when I met with him, I said, ‘Are you okay? I mean (retirement) is going to be strange.’ He said no, he was great, it was time, he was ready.”
Hibbard played golf with Mr. Horne at Belleair Country Club on Saturday morning, their weekend tradition for more than a decade.
When he did not return home, his wife of 51 years, Loretta, called Police Chief Dan Slaughter, Hibbard said. The mayor returned to the golf course to look for him and found Mr. Horne in his car.
In a series of interviews before his death, Mr. Horne said he was looking forward to investing more time in his role as vice president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the highest position a layman can hold, and traveling the world with his wife.
“What I want people to say is that ‘I remember when Bill Horne came in and how the city was running and operating, and while I was satisfied for the most part with that city performance, I believe he has left it better than he found it,’” Mr. Horne said in an interview in June. “If that’s the kind of assessment I receive after 20 years here, I am ecstatic. Because this is a very, very complicated and a difficult job to do. I have been fortunate to be here 20 years to do what I felt has been the right things to do. I am ethically driven. It’s do the right thing and do things right. That’s been my mantra.”
Mr. Horne was seen as an icon in public administration, in part for his longevity with one city, which is rare in the profession. Before he took over, Clearwater had five city managers in the span of 13 years.
“He’s probably one of the finest individuals I’ve ever had the privilege to work for,” Delk said in an interview Thursday. “I could never have asked to have been supported more strongly or more resolutely than Bill has supported us over the years in terms of making the tough decisions. The personal ethics, integrity Bill maintains, he expects to maintain in his staff.”
Mr. Horne grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with two sisters. They were raised in a Baptist household by his grandfather, who worked in a steel mill, and his grandmother, who worked as a housekeeper. Having grown up during segregation, Mr. Horne, who was African American, said he most felt inequality when he’d go to work with his grandmother and see the way her employer’s white family lived. Their children’s schools had better books, their neighborhoods had better infrastructure and he realized, “We had two Tulsas here.”
While studying at The University of Tulsa, he was active in the civil rights movement, once picketing the football game against Brigham Young University because the school’s Mormon faith at the time did not allow African Americans in the priesthood.
“Despite this push towards racial integration and non-discrimination, we were still having whites say, ‘Yeah, but they’re not qualified,’” Mr. Horne said. “It was this not-qualified narrative we were dealing with in this conversation around racial integration. I knew I had to overcome that uneven playing field.”
He married his wife, Loretta, in 1970 and graduated from college with a degree in chemistry the next year. As the Vietnam War was raging, he decided to join the Air Force as he saw no way to avoid military service at the time.
After several years as an air traffic controller, including in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, the military selected him to teach race relations to fellow service members. He was at work one day in 1975 while stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, when he got a phone call that changed his life.
His two sisters, his mother and 2-year-old nephew were in a head-on car crash in Missouri. Both of his sisters died, his mother was devastated and his nephew needed care. Mr. Horne and his wife adopted his nephew, and he began to navigate grief that never really left him.
“I’d be working and then all of a sudden I’d have these grief pains, and it would just hit me,” Mr. Horne said. “But faith provides you with an understanding of how to reconcile death.”
Mr. Horne spent 26 years in the Air Force, including deployments in England, Germany and Washington, D.C. He worked as group commander at Yokota Air Force Base in Japan from 1993 to 1995, leading 2,300 employees and overseeing everything from the police to the communications squadron.
“Essentially being a city manager,” Mr. Horne said.
While working as director of manpower personnel and administration at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa in 1998, Mr. Horne came up for promotion to brigadier general. He didn’t get it. Mr. Horne saw it as a sign to move on to a new career while he was still young.
Across the bay, then-Clearwater City Manager Mike Roberto was looking to bring in more strategic-minded professionals into the administration. He found that in Mr. Horne and offered him the job as general support services administrator 20 minutes into their interview.
After Roberto resigned in 2000, weeks after the failed downtown referendum, Horne acted as interim city manager. The then-City Commission hired him as city manager the next year after a nationwide search.
“When I voted to hire him back in 2001, I was confident he could do a good job, but I had no idea how good he was going to be over the next 20 years,” City Council member Hoyt Hamilton said Sunday. “Other than my father, I’ve never had more respect for anybody I’ve worked for. And I felt I was working for Bill most of the time, not Bill working for me.”
Mr. Horne was charged with implementing a vision for redevelopment set in motion by Roberto. While Roberto was known for the at-times chaotic energy that came with his knack for getting things done, Mr. Horne picked up with a calm and even-keeled style.
Between 1999 and 2005, the city invested nearly $750 million in redevelopment, such as the Beach Walk promenade on Clearwater Beach, new recreation centers, libraries, stormwater upgrades and Spectrum Field.
Then-Mayor Brian Aungst said hiring Mr. Horne was “the single most important action the commission took” in those six years.
Throughout those investments, the city has stayed financially sound, with a healthy reserve fund, a bond rating that increased even during the 2008 recession, a sound pension fund and no general obligation debt, according to Hibbard.
Mr. Horne’s calming tone no matter the crisis influenced the employees he led, solid waste director Earl Gloster said.
There was the day in 2003 when firefighters were picketing outside of City Hall amid a period of tense contract negotiations between the city and the union. One of the firefighters made an effigy of Horne that had a black pumpkin as its head and red, wooden horns. A monkey and a skunk were tied to one arm and a baby wearing a diaper hung from the other.
The effigy carried a sign that read “City Manager? Chief Puppeteer? Or Beelzebub?”
On reflection during an interview last month, 18 years later, Mr. Horne said he thought the incident was racist and intended to stir a reaction. His response at the time, a simple email asking all employees to act respectfully, reflected his philosophy.
“My reaction came from the way I internalize what my role is in this position and in the community,” Mr. Horne said. “It’s not Bill Horne, it’s the city manager.”
Gloster, who at the time was a senior human resources analyst, said the incident, and Mr. Horne’s handling of it, has stayed with him.
“That just left a deep impression on me, that he could do that, let it lay and kept his cool and went on with his work,” Gloster said.
Mr. Horne said one of his proudest moments came this year, when the city broke ground on Imagine Clearwater, an $84 million redevelopment of the downtown waterfront to build an amphitheater, a garden, a bluff walk and a gateway plaza. The goal is to help bring life to the depressed blocks surrounding the waterfront, a puzzle that has gone unsolved for decades.
Mr. Horne said downtown redevelopment had been one of the great challenges of his career, and tricky to solve. It has been complicated by the presence of the Church of Scientology since 1975 and recent land purchases by companies controlled by parishioners.
Mr. Horne had been responsible for managing the city’s relationship with Scientology for 20 years, which he said was difficult because it is “an authoritarian organization, and it is run by the chairman of the board, and unless you can influence the chairman of the board, there really isn’t much that you can do in trying to influence the institutional church to do something.”
To many residents, Mr. Horne was seen as an approachable confidant. He didn’t lead the city from behind a desk but showed up to neighborhood meetings, the July 4 fireworks show, concerts, ribbon cuttings. During nationwide protests for racial justice last year, Mr. Horne was there talking to residents at two peaceful protests in Clearwater with Police Chief Dan Slaughter.
“I always said he gave me direction when I needed it and he gave me freedom when I wanted it and he gave me correction when appropriate but he always trusted me,” Slaughter said on Friday. “It’s been one of the best lessons in leadership from watching him. He’s the best boss I’ve ever had.”
He was chosen as one of 50 members of the Tampa Bay Times Community Reader Panel, which is scheduled to meet for the first time later this month to gather resident insight on local journalism. In his application, he said he wanted to “make the paper better for readers and journalists” and that he would bring “a diverse perspective based on a life as a veteran, racial minority, local government administrator, faith-based community leader and 26 years living in Tampa Bay.”
Clearwater resident Muhammad Abdur-Rahim said as the city enters this period of transition and continues its search for a new manager, Mr. Horne has created a standard that can’t be compromised.
“Not only someone who has his community engagement, but Mr. Horne had an example of integrity,” Abdur-Rahim said. “So the top-level position such as a city manager must exemplify that.”