CLEARWATER — It started as a standard evaluation. Just like the ones City Manager Bill Horne has received every year over the past two decades.
But the impending ballot initiative on whether to eliminate the council-manager form of government and give daily management power to the mayor hung heavy over Horne's evaluation on Thursday.
Three City Council members gave Horne glowing reviews, praising the way he has handled cases of employee misconduct over the past year in Fire & Rescue and Parks and Recreation, including one former recreation employee's alleged theft of $148,000. But Vice Mayor Doreen Caudell and council member David Allbritton pressed for more answers. If the Nov. 6 referendum fails, Allbritton said the council should "start taking steps at some point in the near future for your successor in 2020," when Horne has said he plans to retire after 20 years as city manager.
Caudell said Thursday that she wanted to postpone Horne's evaluation until Nov. 15, although she spent about four minutes describing her dissatisfaction with "finding out things in news articles" before Horne told her they occurred.
"As leaders we should make sure that our leadership is held accountable," Caudell said. "I want to see an action sheet of what we are going to do going forward with the things that have been in the paper in the last six months."
Council members Hoyt Hamilton and Bob Cundiff disagreed, saying they are never left in the dark because they have weekly meetings with Horne. They noted he has issued discipline and put safeguards in place to prevent further misconduct.
Caudell on Friday said her request to postpone the evaluation to Nov. 15 "has absolutely nothing to do with the Nov. 6 referendum." She wants "time to gather more information on the issues," Caudell said in a text message, declining a phone interview.
The evaluation came a week after Horne fired two Parks and Recreation employees for failures related to former supervisor Bob Carpenter's alleged theft of cash from vendors and ticket sales over the past five years. He gave letters of admonishment to Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunbar and Assistant Director Mike Lockwood and determined they, along with Deputy City Manager Jill Silverboard and himself will be unable for pay raises in 2019.
Earlier this year, Human Resources determined the city paid $93,816 in unearned or unauthorized sick time, benefits and incentives over the past five years to Fire & Rescue employees. It included a lieutenant who began a job in Colorado yet remained on the city's payroll. A deputy chief and administrative manager resigned over the failures.
"You can go back 20 years and not see the unlawful actions of a few that we've seen this year," Cundiff said. "It's not Mr. Horne's fault. It's the fault of bad actors who work for us. ... The manager has acted promptly, decisively and fairly when these crimes have been discovered."
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Allbritton was the only council member to put his review in writing and gave Horne an overall four out of five rating. But he wrote that Horne's "follow through on issues is lacking," noting how the roughly $50 million Imagine Clearwater waterfront redevelopment project has moved along slowly as it is still in the design stage.
He urged Horne to continue to improve the city's permitting process, which has been discussed for decades.
The last to speak, Mayor George Cretekos said it was "too bad that we're using this platform today to politicize what is an annual review." He urged his colleagues to "not let titles go to your head" after Caudell introduced her remarks "as the vice mayor."
Cretekos said Horne has served citizens well and urged patience on the massive Imagine Clearwater undertaking. He noted Tampa's Riverwalk, a stretch of shops and businesses along the Hillsborough River that has been nominated for a national planning award, took more than 30 years and six mayors to complete.
"We're getting criticized for not completing Imagine Clearwater and we're on the first mayor," Cretekos said. "God help the next mayor if it's not completed during his term."
Horne said he felt comfortable following the evaluation, especially because he's had few public criticisms over his tenure. He said Allbritton gave specific concerns to address, but he needs further clarification from Caudell on the action plan she requested since he has already disciplined problem employees and reinforced various department policies.
"I don't think anything that she said as it relates to a deficiency on my part had any kind of accuracy whatsoever," Horne said. "She's never in the dark. I just categorically reject that."
Horne said he is still planning to retire "sometime in 2020."
If the Nov. 6 referendum fails and a council-manager structure remains in place, Horne stressed it is the council's role, not his, to start the search for his successor.
"I've not given a date, and I still stand by not giving a date," Horne said.
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.