Frank Hibbard sat in the waiting room of his doctor’s office on Monday afternoon while a breaking local news story looped on the TV.
The mayor of Clearwater had resigned hours earlier in the middle of a budget workshop as the differences between him and his four City Council colleagues reached a tipping point.
“That guy looks a lot like you,” a patient told Hibbard.
“That is me.”
“So why’d you do it?”
Hibbard’s spontaneous resignation as mayor seemed so drastic for someone known for his deliberate manner that friends asked if he had cancer or a brain tumor. (He said he doesn’t and the doctor’s visit was a pre-planned appointment unrelated to his decision).
The move to quit with one year left in his last term shook Hibbard a bit too. He had trouble sleeping in the nights following his colossal mic drop. Still, he said he believes he did what was right.
“I’m pretty at peace with it,” Hibbard, 55, said in an interview Wednesday. “It doesn’t mean I haven’t stopped mulling it over. I can’t not do that for a while.”
While he didn’t walk into the meeting planning to resign, Hibbard’s frustration had been building into what he called “a lightbulb moment.” The mayor, a financial adviser in his day job, was the only council member during Monday’s budget workshop to push back on the idea of a $90 million City Hall and municipal complex. That single but monumental disagreement crystallized for him that trying to bend the council toward his vision for governing had become futile.
“I think we’re going to make quite a few decisions probably in the near future that I think are going to have negative ramifications to the city for a very long time, and I clearly am not making headway with folks,” Hibbard said. “So it really wasn’t as impulsive as it looks like on paper.”
With national news outlets spreading the details of Hibbard’s resignation, council members were left to defend their handling of city finances.
Council member Kathleen Beckman said that Monday’s workshop was a chance to discuss a list of 30 capital projects and understand each official’s priorities for the upcoming budget process. There was a $250 million shortfall for funding the wish list, but Beckman said the point was to identify which projects should take precedence, not to make commitments.
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“What happened at Monday’s meeting was simply giving direction to help shape the budget. We were not allocating funds,” Beckman said. “We did not make any financial decisions and I don’t want this spin to be about finances because I’m committed to being a good steward of the taxpayers’ money.”
The council will hold a special meeting at 1:30 p.m. Monday to discuss next steps for filling the vacancy. It’s one more trouble spot in what has been a tumultuous period for Tampa Bay’s third-largest city, with three city managers in two years, the discovery of a yearslong recycling failure that has attracted FBI involvement, multiple department director vacancies and a relatively inexperienced council. Three of the four remaining elected officials are in their first terms in office.
During his first two terms as mayor from 2004 to 2012, Hibbard earned a reputation as a leader who could share a stage with the mayors of Tampa and St. Petersburg, even as he wielded less power in Clearwater’s city manager form of government.
He was in charge while the city built quality-of-life projects like a senior center and the downtown marina, attracted private investment that turned Clearwater Beach into an international destination, and increased the government’s bond rating during the Great Recession.
This time he wasn’t able to sway his four colleagues, two of whom he helped get elected, to share his philosophy for how the city should prioritize its spending.
But what about sticking around to advocate for what he believed was right?
Hibbard thought about his own criticism of former City Manager Jon Jennings. The mayor initiated the discussion that led to the council’s firing of Jennings in January amid communication and transparency concerns. After one year on the job, Hibbard said Jennings had not been introspective about the troubles he was having with the council.
“I talked a lot about reflection when talking about Jennings … and I had to reflect on the fact that I’m on a different sheet of music than the council,” he said. “I have a different perspective from the rest.”
The council voted 4-1 in September to begin design work for a $30 million City Hall, with Hibbard voting no. The government had vacated the old City Hall on Osceola Avenue in 2019 to make way for redevelopment of the bluff and has since been renting office space in One Clearwater Tower downtown. It built council chambers in the Main Library, and Hibbard wanted to hire an architect to see if the building could accommodate government offices to save on constructing a City Hall. His idea got no support.
Council members, including Hibbard, had one-on-one discussions with City Manager Jennifer Poirrier in recent weeks about the idea to expand the project to include the municipal services departments, currently housed in a separate building. But elected officials can’t discuss city business with each other outside of public meetings, and Monday’s workshop was the first time the council members heard their colleagues’ views.
Hibbard said the consensus to replace the 26-year-old municipal building to make a $90 million project had taken the conversation from “crazy to absurd.”
Poirrier said the $90 million municipal complex was a rough estimate and Monday’s meeting was just a first step so staff could begin vetting firm costs and logistics. There was room to debate and no decision was in stone. But Hibbard said the direction the council was going was untenable.
“He’s somebody I respect and he’s always been honest, brutally honest actually, so it’s hard to make sense of this, especially with how committed to the city he was,” Poirrier said.
Hibbard recognizes that his legacy will likely be overshadowed by his jaw-dropping exit, when he’d rather be remembered for a thoughtful and analytical governing style across 13 years in office.
He wasn’t often on the losing end of a debate, but when he was, the issues were significant. Along with the City Hall issue, he was in the minority against a proposed lane elimination for Drew Street and the only one to propose a building moratorium on U.S. 19. to address development concerns.
Some thought he was so “stuck on being mayor,” he said. But after leaving office the first time in 2012, Hibbard learned that life goes on afterward.
He said he appreciated the friends who reached out to check on him when they heard the news of his resignation. And he noticed the ones who didn’t: “Because now that I’m out, I’m of no use.”
Hibbard said he has thought a lot about what he’ll miss out on. Had he toughed it out for three more months, he would have presided over grand opening festivities for the $84 million renovation of the downtown waterfront. It’s the issue that inspired his first campaign two decades ago after the city’s last attempt to transform the waterfront failed.
The design for Imagine Clearwater — with a music venue, green space, garden, gateway plaza and more — was already underway when Hibbard ran for mayor again in 2020. One motivation for running was so he could push critical tweaks.
Three months after the election, Hibbard convinced his colleagues to move the amphitheater from the western edge of the park to the north side so the green space was no longer bifurcated by the venue, and so the sound projects eastward.
It would have been a full-circle moment had he been mayor, cutting the ribbon on his decadeslong vision.
“That shows you how strongly I felt about what I did,” Hibbard said.