CLEARWATER — Over the past two decades, Clearwater has molded its beach into an international destination, among the top-rated beaches in the country. Its government has been relatively free from scandal. Neighborhoods are clean and safe. City services and recreation centers are aplenty.
But there's a rut Tampa Bay's third largest city can't escape:
It's defined by its underwhelming downtown dominated by the Church of Scientology and not much else. It idles while the urban cores of Tampa and St. Petersburg boom. The beach, the suburbs and the neighborhoods can feel like different cities.
With 2020 approaching, when three City Council seats including the mayor are up for grabs, and longtime City Manager Bill Horne plans to retire, a group of business advocates wonder if a more drastic shakeup in leadership is in order. The group is pushing to get a question on the November ballot asking whether voters want a change to a strong mayor system, something that's been floated for decades but never pursued.
The city is about to drop $55 million on a waterfront redevelopment attempt to revive downtown and Matt Becker, owner of staffing agency PrideStaff, says it's time for a reckoning.
"It's about vision," said Becker, who also chairs the nonprofit Clearwater Downtown Partnership. "Do we want to stay as a sleepy town that competes with Largo and Safety Harbor or do we want to become a solid metropolitan area that competes with St. Petersburg and Tampa?"
Council-manager governments are designed to keep politics out of city business, with a professional administrator appointed by elected officials. About 67 percent of Florida's 412 municipalities operate this way, according to the Florida League of Cities.
Council-strong mayor forms, with an elected official as chief executive able to hire, fire, control the budget and make deals, operate in 48 cities, including six of Florida's largest.
Recently elected Miami Mayor Francis Suarez launched an effort this year to turn the government into a strong mayor system. In November, Lakeland voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum that would have instituted a strong mayor in the city comparable to Clearwater's 110,000 population.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he considers the strong mayor system, in place there since 1949, one of the primary reasons his city has exploded in recent years, including landing the $3 billion Water Street Tampa investment around the downtown waterfront.
"There's a clear agenda, generally, and a clear plan, if you will, that voters can either support or not," Buckhorn said. "When you're talking to a potential investor or potential corporate relocation or to the secretary of state of Mexico, they are going to respond far better if they know you are the leader of that community versus a city manager who can't speak for all the members."
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, the city's fourth strong mayor since it switched in 1993, said weak mayors can be a point person for the public, but they don't have authority to make promises or follow through on deals without council consensus.
Buckhorn and Kriseman have traveled to Canada and Chile to talk trade, tourism and sign agreements, deals Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos can't do on his own.
It's why Becker and his group think a strong mayor could unify fragmented areas of the city and get Clearwater on the map for more than just its beach and label as international home to Scientology.
"The city manager is not equipped, and I mean the position not the person ... to implement a vision," Becker said. "It's there to implement direction from Council. Council is supposed to give you the vision and I would say the vision for what Clearwater wants to become in the next 5 to 10 years has been less than aggressive."
Organizers began building their effort last year and include Zach Thorn, former Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce vice president and now project manager for downtown real estate investor Daniels Ikajevs; Bud Elias, who owns a human resources consulting firm; and Grant Wood, a real estate developer and Clearwater Downtown Partnership Vice Chair.
The City Council is scheduled to discuss the topic at its work session today after Elias requested it be added. Becker said the goal is to see if there's political will for the council to explore putting the question on November's ballot.
"If Council doesn't allow for the citizens to have the ability to vote on it, it's no longer relevant," he said.
City Council members David Allbritton, Doreen Caudell, Bob Cundiff and Hoyt Hamilton said with specifics of the position sorted out, they would be willing to let voters decide if they want a change. Cretekos said there's no compelling need.
Cretekos, mayor since 2012, said the level of services and health of the government shows a city manager government has worked. He said downtown redevelopment will not happen overnight no matter who is in power.
"We keep hearing 'why aren't we more like Tampa or St. Petersburg?'" Cretekos said. "I keep going back to 'where have we dropped the ball for the citizens of Clearwater?' I don't think there's an answer to that because I don't think we have."
The prospect of a strong mayor has been studied by all four charter review committees formed during Horne's 18-year tenure. Former mayor Frank Hibbard pushed the idea while in office in 2007. The most recent charter review committee in 2015 suggested a task force gauge interest in a referendum in 2018, but it never moved forward.
Horne said more visibility from elected officials would still be possible under a city manager system, while keeping a professional administrator. He said the private sector's reluctance to invest in downtown and the city's continued tension with Scientology are the biggest barriers to growth that he's not convinced one politician can solve.
"Some of the people arguing for a change in a form of government believe if there was a single leader, meaning a strong mayor, they may have a better chance of turning this relationship around with the church," Horne said. "There is no evidence that would be the case. I've heard people who shudder at the idea that it could hasten something that everybody fears and that is it could lead to greater influence the church could have on downtown."
Brian Aungst Jr., a lawyer who chaired the 2015 charter review committee, said what has stalled the effort in the past was circumstance. For 18 years, the government had "the most successful city manager in the city's history."
But young professionals and other working leaders have been blocked from elected office because of the full-time commitments for the part-time job. Clearwater's part-time mayor is paid $24,755 while the full-time job in Tampa has a $156,062 salary. The mayor's salary in St. Petersburg is $188,130.
Some have shied from public office because Clearwater's weak mayor lacks authority, making the position more ceremonial than a vessel for change, he said.
With Horne's retirement in 2020, three Council seats coming open, and a chance to revive the downtown with the Imagine Clearwater redevelopment, Aungst said the stars are aligning to find a visionary with pull to elevate the city.
"If the question is ever going to be put up to the voters, this is the time to do it," Aungst said.
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.