CLEARWATER —The debate leading up to Tuesday's ballot initiative to change the city's form of government has crescendoed the way most political discourse does these days: on Facebook and with blows from each side.
It prompted Mayor George Cretekos to call for an end to rhetoric about City Hall that seemed to compete "with that found on the partisan national level."
"Residents who are friends, neighbors and colleagues have turned what should be a discussion on the merits of the council-manager form of government vs. the 'strong mayor' into a war of personal or unsubstantiated attacks," Cretekos wrote in a post. "In the last week of this campaign, let us step back and reconsider the importance of service, friendship and community."
In fact, what has consumed much of the debate about the initiative on social media and public forums has been the process that brought it to voter's ballots this year. If approved, the change would take effect in 2020.
The idea of whether the city should keep its government run by a professional, appointed manager who carries out policy of the City Council or give daily management power to the elected mayor has been raised on and off since the 1990s without ever gaining momentum. In 2015, the Charter Review Committee recommended the city "appoint a task force to engage the community and advise Council whether or not to pursue strong mayor for the 2018 election," but that task force was never formed.
In April of this year, Clearwater Downtown Partnership Chair Matt Becker and Vice Chair Grant Wood met with City Manager Bill Horne and Mayor George Cretekos to discuss the concept. On April 20, Clearwater Downtown Partnership board member Bud Elias requested in writing the council explore and vet the idea given the fact Horne planned to retire after two decades in 2020.
The council in May formed a task force of about a dozen former charter review members to work with the council to write an ordinance detailing what powers and authority a strong mayor should have. After the task force met seven times over seven weeks, the council voted 3-2 to place the referendum on the ballot with Cretekos and council member Hoyt Hamilton voting no, citing unease with the task force's final product.
The political action committee backing the change, Accountable Government, began raising money before the council's final vote to put it on the ballot. As of Oct. 29, it had raised $155,755, mostly from business executives from inside and outside of Clearwater, according to the most recent available Department of State filing.
Some of its top donors include Belleair developer Dan Doyle Jr., Clearwater real estate investor Ben Mallah, Clearwater's Boos Development firm, and Gregory Fancelli, a Lakeland real estate developer and grandson of the Publix Super Markets founder, who bankrolled 99 percent of the total $952,275 raised by the political action committee that backed the unsuccessful strong mayor initiative in Lakeland last year.
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Council member David Allbritton and Vice Mayor Doreen Caudell also contributed. The PAC got a last minute boost from Tallahassee PAC Integrity in Leadership, which donated $6,500 on Wednesday, according to campaign finance records.
The No Boss Mayor political action committee has raised $66,066, about 86 percent of which has come from the International City/County Management Association, a trade organization representing professional management in local government.
Cretekos has been a vocal advocate of the No Boss Mayor movement, along with Hamilton, former Council member John Doran and former Mayor Rita Garvey. The movement has been led by Beth Rawlins, a Clearwater based political consultant who has fought nearly a dozen strong mayor movements across the state before it came to her hometown.
At issue is whether a government led by a full-time mayor, with authority to speak for the city on a regional scale, negotiate deals with businesses, prepare the budget, create and dismantle departments, hire and fire most employees, all while sitting off the council and unrestricted by the open meetings law, could be the catalyst to awaken Clearwater in ways seen in Tampa and St. Petersburg.
The mayor currently is a member of the council, unable to talk privately to fellow elected officials because of the open meetings law, and serves a primarily ceremonial role. The city manager, whom the council hires and fires, carries out council policy and runs day to day operations of the city.
But at an Island Estates forum Monday led by Allbritton to promote the strong mayor change, he said one thing will be clear Tuesday. If the referendum passes, the process will have worked because it will prove "the public asked for it." If it fails, the question floated for decades but never answered will be settled for good.
"At least now most of the public knows we have a council-manager form of government and we had a choice to do this," Allbritton said. "It's going to go to the people."
CLEARWATER STRONG MAYOR COVERAGE
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.