Clearwater council moves to oust City Manager Jon Jennings after 1 year

If finalized in January, the action would trigger the city’s third city manager search in less than two years.
The Clearwater City Council voted to terminate City Manager Jon Jennings on Thursday, just over one year after they hired him unanimously to lead city administration.
The Clearwater City Council voted to terminate City Manager Jon Jennings on Thursday, just over one year after they hired him unanimously to lead city administration. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 16, 2022|Updated Dec. 16, 2022

CLEARWATER — City Council members voted 3-2 on Thursday to begin the process of firing City Manager Jon Jennings a little more than a year after they hired him.

The action came on a night when the council had been poised to discuss giving Jennings a raise despite a tenure that included some rough patches, mainly over his communication style. The tide turned quickly this week after some council members said Jennings was slow to prepare them for a major vote Thursday on a contract for Ruth Eckerd Hall to manage the 4,000-seat amphitheater under construction in Coachman Park.

Mayor Frank Hibbard broached the issue by addressing Jennings’ absence from the council dais. He said he had informed Jennings at their regular 2 p.m. meeting that he felt he was the wrong fit for the city.

Hibbard said Jennings arrived in November 2021 under difficult circumstances, including having to follow the 20-year tenure of former City Manager Bill Horne. The mayor declined to divulge the list of concerns he said he provided to Jennings about his performance.

“It has been difficult because I care about people, and decisions like this affect people and their families and everything else,” Hibbard said. “But I am of the opinion that we need to move on.”

The mayor noted he is not allowed to make a motion under city rules, so council member Lina Teixeira moved to terminate Jennings, with Hibbard and council member Kathleen Beckman voting in favor. Council members David Allbritton and Mark Bunker voted no.

Because the vote was 3-2 and not a supermajority, a second vote would be required for the termination to be final. The council agreed to schedule a special meeting on Jan. 5 for the discussion.

Jennings did not respond to a phone call or text message requesting comment Thursday evening.

Teixeira and Beckman expressed concerns about Jennings’ inability to keep them informed on important issues.

“It’s put me in a position where I feel that my voice is not heard, that I’m not fully aware of all the information,” Teixeira said. “And that feeling has only increased and I have lost confidence, and hearing how you feel with the way I feel, I’m concerned that we can’t continue to run this city with this lack of confidence in our city manager.”

Before joining Clearwater, Jennings worked as city manager of South Portland and Portland, Maine, and has a background in professional sports and business.

During his tenure in Clearwater, Jennings has made significant personnel and organizational changes by restructuring departments and addressing human resource problems.

He added 27 new positions to help fill staffing shortages and ushered in a deeper focus on neighborhoods and environmental sustainability.

With City Attorney David Margolis, who the council also hired last year, Jennings helped finalize an agreement with developers building a $400 million retail, hotel and residential project on the downtown bluff, which voters approved last month.

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But throughout the year, council members repeatedly raised concerns.

In February, Jennings began facilitating discussions between the Church of Scientology and affordable housing developer Shawn Wilson as the church attempted to get him to relocate the project off of a city-owned downtown property. Most council members said Jennings never informed them that a relocation was being discussed before the developer abandoned the project in June.

Jennings also told Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller that a downtown property the city had committed for a new transit center was off the table. But council members said they never authorized him to do so. It created confusion when the transit agency received a $20 million federal grant for the project in August and council members had to publicly reaffirm their commitment to the site.

Jennings earns $230,000 as city manager. According to his contract, he is entitled to a cash payout of 20 weeks salary if he is terminated without cause.

Thursday’s action was another twist in a series of unusual events regarding the city manager job. In June 2021, amid a national search to replace the retiring Horne, four of the five finalists dropped out. That August, Horne died of a suspected heart attack just three weeks before his planned departure. Then Jennings emerged during the second search and started work that November.

Bunker pressed Hibbard to explain more of his concerns about Jennings, but the mayor said he preferred not to go through “a laundry list” publicly and wished Jennings well. Bunker said he wanted to give Jennings more time to respond to concerns and “right that ship.”

Allbritton said, while he was disappointed in the handling of the transit authority property, he likes Jennings’ entrepreneurial spirit and how he has advanced projects in his first year. Allbritton said he believes many of Jennings’ shortcomings were due to long-term effects of coronavirus, which he contracted in January.

“I’m not ready to fire him and I’m certainly not ready to fire him a week before Christmas,” Allbritton said. “That’s a terrible thing to do.”

But Beckman said she was also contemplating the idea of termination since the council conducted Jennings’ evaluation on Nov. 17. She said she didn’t feel Jennings always gave her the information she needed before making decisions or kept her up to date on initiatives. She said she didn’t see an improvement in the weeks since his evaluation.

“It’s really a communication style and making us, helping us, be the best elected officials,” Beckman said. “To make the best decisions that are really crucial, we need the best information.”