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A persistent voice at City Hall, Bill Jonson ends fourth term on the Clearwater council

 
Clearwater City Council member Bill Jonson shows a packed audience a collection of letters and emails both supporting and opposing the purchase of the Pierce Street property during a council meeting in April 2017. Jonson is leaving the council Monday because of term limits. He has served a total of four terms over the years. [Times (2017)]
Clearwater City Council member Bill Jonson shows a packed audience a collection of letters and emails both supporting and opposing the purchase of the Pierce Street property during a council meeting in April 2017. Jonson is leaving the council Monday because of term limits. He has served a total of four terms over the years. [Times (2017)]
Published March 14, 2018

CLEARWATER —The visitor showed up out of the blue.

Shortly after Bill Jonson was first elected to the City Council in 2001, he walked unexpectedly into the Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Services office and introduced himself to its president, Isay Gulley.

In his cheery, hushed voice, which barely ever hits above a whisper, the retired accountant asked about the nonprofit that provides affordable housing and wondered how he could help. Years later, when Gulley had a problem with people dumping trash in a lot outside her office, Jonson was her first call.

"I watched this man in his nice shoes walk through debris and dig through trash to find names on letters of whoever was dumping this," Gulley said. "I felt I had an ally."

RELATED: Clearwater opens final segment of Courtney Campbell Trail

Jonson's consistent presence in neighborhoods across the city, being the guaranteed RSVP at ribbon cuttings and fish fries, has come to define him for better or worse as he leaves the council Monday due to term limits. Over four total terms in office, Jonson, 73, has earned a reputation for being unwaveringly devoted to residents and neighborhoods, and attentive to the smallest details of local government, right down to issues like sidewalks, signage and landscaping. His weekly, annotated list of questions became a City Hall routine that regularly sent staff off to chase details about streetlight fixtures, budget reports and other matters.

Jonson's habit of prolonging discussions in City Council meetings earned him regular chastising by colleagues, especially by Mayor George Cretekos.

Once, when Jonson brought photos on the dais to compliment staff on how well he thought a downtown winter celebration went, Cretekos responded with a scolding.

"I would hope that in the future that you realize that staff has other things to do as opposed to listening to what our personal feelings are on one event over another," Cretekos said at the 2015 meeting.

Even as Jonson leaves office, it's unlikely he will turn away from city business. Some of his most tangible accomplishments came while he was a citizen activist anyway.

"I'm very detail-oriented as most people say," Jonson said. "I do my homework more than really anyone else. I think I drive some people crazy, but it's where I'm comfortable."

Born and raised in Wisconsin, Jonson served in the Army from 1967 to 1969 and was trained as a military police officer. But once his commanders found out about his background in accounting, he ended up crunching numbers for officer clubs while deployed in Thailand.

He began an accounting career at Honeywell in Minnesota in 1971, finding that numbers and data and following policy suited him well.

In 1984, when Jonson transferred to Clearwater's Honeywell office, his new boss asked him what he thought of the area.

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"Tacky," Jonson said, thinking of his first drive along Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, which then was plastered with gaudy billboards.

So in 1988, Jonson led a citizens group that collected enough signatures to force the city to consider a proposed law banning billboards on Gulf-to-Bay. It was the first time the obscure tool in the City Charter was used successfully by a citizen.

Over the next decade, Jonson was the face of the billboard battle that went through bureaucratic back-and-forth and legal challenges until the final billboard on Gulf-to-Bay came down.

He said he decided to run for office in 2001, then retired, partially to see the billboard issue through. But that year he showed a knack for politics, winning a four-way race with 45 percent of the vote.

He's never lost an election since. Jonson was re-elected in 2004 without an opponent and left office in 2007 due to term limits. When he ran again in 2010, he won 55 percent of the vote in a four-way-race. He won his 2014 election with 43 percent, beating David Allbritton by 312 votes and Konrad McCree by a longshot.

RELATED: Billboard dispute refuses to go quietly

In a second bid for office, Allbritton, a retired contractor, was elected to fill Jonson's seat Tuesday, defeating advertising salesman Tom Keller.

Jonson has left his mark on some of the city's largest projects, like the Courtney Campbell Causeway trail, completed in 2015 for bikers and pedestrians. The project had its roots a decade earlier when Jonson pushed for the causeway to be designated a scenic highway.

But residents say they also see his legacy in the small things: the way he'd ride his bike through neighborhoods looking for busted streetlights, his push to get Code Enforcement to crack down on trash dumpers in North Greenwood, or his near-perfect attendance at neighborhood meetings with his suit, tie, polite smile and ever-present note pad.

"The thing about Bill Jonson is he's everywhere. No matter what event, he's there, he talks to the people, he listens," said former Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition president Shelley Kuroghlian "The majority of (politicians), they show up right before an election. The rest of the time they are not there."

Before the City Council voted in 2013 to demolish restrooms in Crest Lake Park that had become a magnet for crime, Jonson showed up with his notepad and pen, walked the perimeter and interviewed parkgoers, former Neighborhoods Coalition president Carl Schrader said. It would be one of the many votes where Jonson found himself in the minority.

"I can remember meeting with him and he'd say 'I've got to go, I have to go ride bus routes because I need to talk to people who are using the buses," Schrader said. "He wanted to see personally how everything would impact people."

Unfailingly, Jonson would take concerns he heard from residents to the city manager and staff, no matter how frivolous or complex.

He would belabor pet issues, like his attempt to hone the city's strategic planning process, even when his fellow council members outnumbered him in opposition.

The deluge of questions sometimes crossed the line from thoroughness to "demoralizing" the staff with tasks and research that "at the end of the day, didn't make a material difference" to policy, said City Manager Bill Horne.

"He's killed an awful lot of trees, a lot of trees," with his paperwork, Horne said.

Looking back, Jonson said he wouldn't do anything differently. He regrets only slightly that his persistent questioning didn't push some ongoing projects along faster.

With five grown children and six grandchildren, he said he won't be putting in the 60 hours a week he does now on city issues.

But as a citizen, he plans to request one-on-one meetings every month with his elected officials, something he couldn't do in office because of the open meetings law.

"I'm still going to try to make Clearwater better," he said, not exactly ruling out yet another run for office.

With three council seats open in 2020, he said he hasn't entirely made up his mind.

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.