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Clearwater art exhibit used trash to make a point, then questions arose

It was funded with $6,000 from a downtown board, and its organizer is running for City Council. Officials feared a conflict.
Sea of Shame by artist Judy Ginader, a piece from Clearwater's The Big Clean Up art exhibit, features a mermaid made from plastic water bottles, floating styrofoam, driftwood, beach toys, newspaper and plastic bags.
Sea of Shame by artist Judy Ginader, a piece from Clearwater's The Big Clean Up art exhibit, features a mermaid made from plastic water bottles, floating styrofoam, driftwood, beach toys, newspaper and plastic bags. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 4|Updated Jan. 4

From now until June, citizens can visit nine locations throughout the city to see garbage transformed into art.

Clearwater artist Lina Teixeira organized the exhibit, in which she and eight others created artwork using cigarette butts, plastic bottles and other trash that had been collected during a community-wide cleanup in October.

Teixeira said her goal was to find a creative way “to keep the conversation going” about environmental stewardship after the cleanup, the largest in city history, during which 1,297 volunteers collected 6,588 pounds of litter across Clearwater.

But the project also created its own mess, an ethical one that required a different kind of cleanup at City Hall.

Lina Teixeira [Courtesy of Lina Teixeira]
Lina Teixeira [Courtesy of Lina Teixeira]

According to emails and an interview with City Manager Jon Jennings, the involvement by Teixeira — also a candidate in the March 15 City Council election — raised serious concerns from city staff about a conflict of interest.

To make the exhibit possible, Teixeira received a $6,000 grant from the Downtown Development Board, with $4,000 going to the eight artists and the remaining $2,000 going to her. She said her portion covered a fraction of her costs to install and market the exhibit.

The board, which oversees downtown’s special taxing district, voted 4-2 on Nov. 3 to approve the grant, but at the time, the list of exhibit sites was not yet finalized.

Community Redevelopment Agency director Amanda Thompson told the board the final locations would have to be confirmed within the Downtown Development Board’s boundaries before receiving the funding.

Oceans 8, an octopus made out of recycled beach garbage created by artist Terri Gray, is displayed on Monday, Jan 3, 2022, in the lobby of One Clearwater Tower, 600 Cleveland St., in downtown Clearwater. The piece is part of Clearwater’s The Big Clean Up Art Exhibit.
Oceans 8, an octopus made out of recycled beach garbage created by artist Terri Gray, is displayed on Monday, Jan 3, 2022, in the lobby of One Clearwater Tower, 600 Cleveland St., in downtown Clearwater. The piece is part of Clearwater’s The Big Clean Up Art Exhibit. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Five days after the board approved the grant, Clearwater cultural affairs coordinator Chris Hubbard asked the city attorney’s office for advice because Teixeira had requested to use eight city-owned facilities across Clearwater to display the art. Six of the eight sites were not located downtown.

“As a City Council candidate, does her request to use city facilities as display sites represent a conflict of interest?” Hubbard asked City Attorney David Margolis in an email.

City Clerk Rosemarie Call responded in the email chain and copied senior assistant city attorney Michael Fuino, expressing concern.

“Concerned — request has the appearance of an in-kind contribution on the City’s behalf,” Call stated.

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Margolis responded that he and Fuino were “confident that this is neither an in-kind contribution nor a conflict in the legal sense.”

He explained that the the Downtown Development Board is an independent special entity and that there would be no sharing of campaign materials or soliciting votes at the city-owned properties.

Margolis noted, however, that the city had the right to deny the request “if the City feels that any negative perception outweighs the public benefit from viewing the art display.”

Assistant City Manager Michael Delk responded in the email chain that he understood the legal rationale but worried that the city involvement could lead to “negative discourse among candidates leading up to the March election.”

“This is not requested in a vacuum,” Delk wrote. “I don’t recall a (pattern) of exhibiting artworks in multiple city facilities historically by one individual … that to me gives the impression of venturing down this path with a person who just happens to be a council candidate.”

Teixeira is running for at-large Seat 5, which will be vacated by council member Hoyt Hamilton due to term limits. Her opponents include Aaron Smith-Levin, vice president of the Aftermath Foundation, which helps people adjust after leaving the Church of Scientology, and Jonathan Wade, pastor of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Jennings, the city manager, said he spoke with Teixeira in early November, after the Downtown Development Board vote, and said he was not comfortable with her using any city facility for her exhibit “in the heat of a political campaign.”

And although most of the exhibit’s locations were changed to non-government buildings, Jennings said he still disagrees with a grant going to a City Council candidate during an election. The $6,000 came from the Downtown Development Board’s special tax revenue collected from downtown property owners, not the city’s general fund, but Jennings said there could still be a perception of overlap.

“Whether it’s a city entity or not, it creates a question of neutrality,” Jennings said. “From the public’s perspective, it’s still part of the city. Trust in government is at an all-time low and those of us in positions of responsibility have to do everything we can to restore that trust.”

In an interview, Teixeira said she understood city staff’s concerns and agreed to change the locations “to avoid any appearance of any conflict.” She said she initially proposed using all city buildings so that she could coordinate with one property owner instead of multiple. Teixeira said the art exhibit was always intended to be displayed citywide, not just downtown, and there had been a miscommunication before the initial board vote.

On Dec. 1, Thompson presented an amended agreement to the board outlining that six of the nine final sites were not in the downtown boundaries. One, the Capitol Theater, is a city-owned building. Considering most are outside of downtown, the board required Teixeira to complete extra marketing efforts to promote the downtown development board’s brand. The board voted 5-0 to approve the agreement.

Teixeira said she hopes the exhibit encourages residents to think about environmentalism long-term and support the art community now that the logistics of the project have been sorted out.

“I didn’t want the cleanup to be over and say ‘Oh we cleaned up for four hours, we are great people,’” Teixeira said. “I wanted to do more.”

IF YOU GO:

The Big Clean Up Art Exhibit can be seen at the following locations:

Sandpearl Resort, 500 Mandalay Ave.

Wyndham Grand, 100 Coronado Drive

600 Cleveland St.

Clearwater High School, 540 Hercules Ave.

Pour Yours, 522 Cleveland St.

DeLukas Restaurant and Bar, 1343 Cleveland St.

Capitol Theater, 405 Cleveland St.

Countryside Mall, 27001 U.S. 19

Nash Keys, 520 Cleveland St. (opening soon)

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