CLEARWATER— In 2020, so many critical decisions hung over city government that Frank Hibbard decided to run for mayor again after being out of office for nearly a decade.
The City Council was preparing to search for a new city manager and city attorney for the first time in more than 20 years. Hibbard supported the now $84 million plan to renovate the downtown waterfront, but not without a few design tweaks he thought were critical to get through.
With those issues settled, Hibbard announced this week he will not run for reelection when his term is up in 2024.
He had declined to publicly confirm his intentions until the midpoint of his first term, not wanting to put a damper on his time in office. His plan had circulated among some City Hall watchers, though.
“I had always planned on only running for one term but it also doesn’t really behoove you to announce that to the world,” Hibbard, 54, told the Tampa Bay Times. “You don’t want to become a lame duck right off the bat.”
Hibbard’s plan to step down leaves the 2024 mayoral race wide open. It will follow the 2020 and 2022 City Council races, which have drawn more candidates and acrimony than previous elections.
In Clearwater’s council-manager form of government, the so-called “weak mayor” is somewhat ceremonial. The city manager runs day-to-day operations at the direction of the five council members. But Hibbard, a well-connected figure in Clearwater’s political and civic circles, has long been seen as a voice for a city often overshadowed by St. Petersburg and Tampa.
“The title still carries a certain amount of cachet and Frank does a very good job with it, he is a very strong personality,” said council member Hoyt Hamilton, who will leave office next month due to term limits.
As far as the bench of candidates who might succeed him, Hibbard said he hasn’t talked to any prospects about making a commitment.
Hamilton said he knew Hibbard intended to serve just one term but that he has no interest in running for the office in 2024.
Councilmember Kathleen Beckman, who has emerged as a forceful voice in her first term, said “I haven’t even considered” running for mayor. She said Hibbard’s plans were news to her.
Hibbard, a wealth manager in his day job, served as a council member from 2002 to 2005 and was elected to two terms as mayor before being term-limited in 2012.
He said it’s been somewhat liberating to govern knowing there is no campaign ahead.
“I think a lot of times you can be more aggressive and visionary because you don’t have to worry about making people mad,” he said.
Earlier this year, the mayor proposed a building moratorium for U.S. 19 until the city could figure out policies to attract high-wage employers and mixed-use development as opposed to the stand-alone apartment complexes going up instead.
The idea drew some panicked phone calls and emails from developers and died without support from the rest of the council. But Hibbard stands by his statement, insisisting the city must act urgently to recruit bigger employers that can pay residents higher wages.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“You have to make a commitment to bringing new businesses in, you have to, and U.S. 19 is our low-hanging fruit,” Hibbard said. “If all those properties on U.S. 19 become apartment complexes and storage units, you have lost the opportunity forever.”
Hibbard said his priorities for the second half of his term include reconnecting with residents in ways that weren’t possible during the constraints of the coronavirus pandemic that dominated his first two years.
He wants to correct narratives that have been discussed by some council candidates and residents alleging that city officials don’t care about neighborhoods.
“That’s just ludicrous,” Hibbard said.
“We have a library system that is second to none, we have a parks and recreation system that is second to none, we have a fire department that is in the top percentile, we’ve got a wonderful police department. Those are the things that make neighborhoods.”
As 2023 budget talks begin, Hibbard said he wants to reinstitute the neighborhood services department, which used to be a team that worked as liaisons for residents before being cut during budget constraints of the Great Recession.
Hibbard said creating new jobs and strengthening the current workforce must be a priority of the city over his final two years. There are neighborhoods with aging housing stock, and people struggling to pay rent or buy homes. If Clearwater wants people to invest in neighborhoods, Hibbard said the city must do more to create the strong employment base to make that possible.
Hibbard has ideas for the city to create two mentoring programs in that vein. One would bring business and nonprofit leaders into schools to talk to children about life and careers. Another would connect entrepreneurs and business owners with retired CEOs living in the city who have the time to share advice and expertise.
He’s also looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Teresa, their two adult children and three grandchildren. Hibbard has taken pride in never missing a meeting in his 14 years in office — until he tested positive for COVID-19 in September and had to skip a special budget meeting while in quarantine.
He said he has no interest in running for county, state or federal office. Although Hibbard said his mind was made up to serve only one term before he ran in 2020, the loss of one of his closest friends last year all but solidified it.
Former City Manager Bill Horne died in August of a suspected heart attack after a round of Saturday morning golf with Hibbard. Horne never returned home, and Hibbard found his friend in his car after returning to the golf course later that day to look for him.
Horne, who served for two decades, had postponed his retirement for several years before officially confirming his plans in January 2021.
“Bill’s a cautionary tale,” Hibbard said. “Don’t start enjoying things too late, which really cemented it for me.”