CLEARWATER — Wealthy business executives, a financial company, and political action committees.
Those are some of the top donors to the PAC advocating for the Nov. 6 referendum that would eliminate the city manager form of government in place for nearly 100 years and give day-to-day authority to an elected strong mayor.
More than half of the $33,350 raised by individuals, rather than businesses or PACs, has come from residents of Belleair, the affluent community to the south of Clearwater, as of Aug. 31, the most recent available report.
Belleair resident Dan Doyle Jr., CEO of Tampa copier and printer leasing company DEX Imaging and owner of the Pelican Golf Course, formerly Belleview Biltmore Golf Club, is the PAC’s top individual donor, giving $10,000 to the effort. Doyle did not respond to requests for comment.
Insurance executive John Connelly, a Belleair resident, has given $5,000 to the cause. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Overall, the Accountable Government committee has raised $80,755 as of Aug. 31 in its first month of fundraising, according to Florida Department of State records.
If passed, the strong mayor system would take effect in 2020, when longtime City Manager Bill Horne plans to retire and Mayor George Cretekos’ term is up.
A handful of local businessmen approached Horne and Cretekos in April, prompting the council’s vote last month to put the question on the ballot. Clearwater Downtown Partnership Chair Matt Becker formed the Accountable Government PAC in July but the group’s spokesman, Zach Thorn, a project manager for downtown investor Daniels Ikajevs, now chairs the committee. Thorn did not respond to requests for comment.
Frank Crum Jr. of Clearwater said his business, Frank Crum Corporate Inc., contributed $5,000 to the PAC because of the benefits he thinks a strong mayor could bring to the business community, helping the city compete on the level of Tampa and St. Petersburg.
While city manager governments have a professional, appointed manager running day-to-day operations and implementing policy that the council votes on as a body, strong mayors have authority to negotiate deals without council consensus. Thorn has previously said this makes the elected mayor accountable to voters every four years, while a city manager is hired and fired by the council.
"If I really felt strongly that something was wrong with the city, I could go to one person and probably express my frustration and that person may or may not do something," said Crum, whose national human resources and insurance firm sits on 15 acres east of downtown. "But if they did decide to do something they would have power to influence it, whereas a city council, I would have to convince all of them to do that."
That concentration of power is one of the concerns driving the movement against the referendum. Clearwater based political consultant Beth Rawlins formed the No Boss Mayor PAC Aug. 20, since raising $350 from five Clearwater residents on top of the $1,000 she contributed, according to the most recent available filing.
But Rawlins, who works for International City/County Management Association, said the whirlwind process that drove the question to the ballot three months after being publicly discussed has given the group less time to get the word out and fundraise.
"We are currently using grassroots organizing to spread the word by word of mouth," Rawlins said. "I think it’s very telling that the city of Belleair has such a keen interest in the way the citizens of Clearwater are governed. This is pretty simple. There’s a bunch of rich guys on one side."
Other top gifts to Accountable Government include $5,000 from the Suncoast Better Government Political Committee, run by state Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater; and $13,155 from Restore Florida Inc., which is funded by prominent Pinellas County Republicans.
Bill LaGamba, majority owner of three restaurants in Clearwater, including the soon-to-open Black Brick Tavern and Kitchen on Cleveland Street, gave $5,000 to the PAC in part because "we don’t seem to be taking that next step as far as downtown Clearwater is concerned."
LaGamba said he believes some of the confusion and difficulty in getting businesses open downtown could be eliminated if entrepreneurs had one point-person to talk through issues with or seek out for direction.
After city officials approved building plans for Black Brick, LaGamba said an inspector later raised concern over a vent for a hood in the kitchen, setting him back three months.
"I think the city could use additional direction," LaGamba said. "My experience, as a business owner, it’s been difficult to get projects across the finish line."
2018 CLEARWATER STRONG MAYOR COVERAGE
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.