In Clearwater, emotions flare over election decorum

By rule and tradition, City Council members are discouraged from taking sides in city elections, but they often do.
Clearwater City Council member Hoyt Hamilton talks about election decorum during Tuesday's work session.
Clearwater City Council member Hoyt Hamilton talks about election decorum during Tuesday's work session. [ City of Clearwater ]
Published Jan. 19, 2022|Updated Jan. 19, 2022

CLEARWATER — City Council member Mark Bunker has not been shy about his support for Aaron Smith-Levin, a fellow Church of Scientology critic who is running for Seat 5 on the council.

Bunker has posted about it on social media, made YouTube videos and appeared at Smith-Levin’s campaign events.

During a work session Tuesday that featured a testy debate on election decorum, council member Hoyt Hamilton said Bunker went too far in a recent tweet about one of Smith-Levin’s opponents, artist Lina Teixeira. Bunker had shared a Tampa Bay Times article that reported how locations for a trash-themed art exhibit Teixeira curated had to be changed because city staff raised ethical concerns about a candidate using city property for a project.

“(Smith-Levin) will take out the trash,” Bunker tweeted on Jan. 5 while sharing the story.

Hamilton, who will vacate Seat 5 after the March 15 election due to term limits, called the tweet “unbecoming” and “totally, totally uncalled for.” He also admonished Bunker for his activism, saying up until this election cycle, the city has never seen “a sitting council person actively participating in a campaign for someone who is running for a seat or even publicly endorsing any candidate.”

City Council member Mark Bunker [Courtesy of Mark Bunker]
City Council member Mark Bunker [Courtesy of Mark Bunker]

While Bunker has been campaigning more actively than past council members, support for candidates from elected officials is not unheard of. This election cycle, Mayor Frank Hibbard has attended a Teixeira campaign event and sat on the host committee for the campaign kickoff of council member David Allbritton, who is running for re-election to Seat 4 against retiree Gerry Lee and community activist Maranda Douglas. Hibbard also appeared in a video supporting Allbritton’s campaign.

Hamilton acknowledged he also sat on Teixeira’s host committee this election, but said it’s different because he is leaving office in March and won’t have to work with whoever wins the election. Bunker, who has two years left in his term, will.

“I have never endorsed or gotten involved in an election while I was sitting here and I was going to have to work with whoever wins the seat and that’s how it’s always been,” Hamilton said.

In fact, Hamilton sat on Hibbard’s host committee during the 2020 mayoral race when Hamilton had two years left in his term.

During his remarks on Tuesday, Hamilton went on to publicly make endorsements in both races: Allbritton for Seat 4 and Teixeira for Seat 5.

Bunker turned to City Attorney David Margolis and asked if he’s done anything improper. Margolis confirmed all council members have the First Amendment right to be involved in campaigns in their private capacity. But he said Clearwater has a rule against making political endorsements from the dais.

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Council member Kathleen Beckman said she agreed that Bunker’s tweet about Teixeira was inappropriate, but she said Hamilton went to another level with his endorsements from council chambers.

City Council member Kathleen Beckman [Courtesy of Kathleen Beckman]
City Council member Kathleen Beckman [Courtesy of Kathleen Beckman]

“I am just shocked that that conversation just took place,” Beckman told her colleagues. “To further the discussion and campaign for a candidate from the dais is, I feel, unethical, and as Mr. Margolis said, against our policy.”

On Wednesday, Hamilton said he “let my emotions get the better part of me” by endorsing from the dais.

“Yes I probably should not have done the endorsement portion but calling out (Bunker) for what he posted and basically calling (Teixeira) trash, I stand behind that portion of what I said 100 percent,” Hamilton said.

On Wednesday, Hibbard made his support of Teixeira official with a press release endorsing her, stating “character matters.”

“Lina’s passion for Clearwater is evident through her dedication the last eight years in extensive volunteer service to our city that has well acquainted her with the needs of our neighborhoods,” Hibbard stated. “She has woven herself into the city fabric through her involvement on both civic and community boards, serving with 11 different organizations.”

During the meeting on Tuesday, the mayor also noted that beginning with the 2020 council races, Clearwater elections have taken on a tone that “I hadn’t seen in the past 20 years.”

In 2020, a Republican-backed political committee sent misleading robocalls about Beckman, giving the false impression she was involved with the Church of Scientology. Scott Thomas, who lost the race for Seat 3 against Beckman, also sent out a mailer attempting to tie her to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Thomas now serves as Smith-Levin’s campaign manager.

The tactics were unusual for the nonpartisan city races, which have traditionally been low on drama.

This election, Smith-Levin, a Scientology defector, has publicly criticized Teixeira for being “the lady who works with Scientology,” as he put it in a recent tweet. He has referenced her role as vice chairperson of the Clearwater Downtown Partnership, a group of business owners and downtown boosters, which includes one member of Scientology’s Sea Org workforce.

Teixeira says that characterization is inaccurate. She said as a downtown advocate she works with all individuals but has never partnered with the Church of Scientology.

Of the negative campaigning he saw begin last election, Hibbard predicted: “I think it’s unfortunately probably going to continue this campaign.”