CLEARWATER — Money is already flowing into the campaign to change Clearwater's government run by a professional city manager into a strong mayor system like Tampa and St. Petersburg.
The Accountable Government political committee, chaired by Clearwater Downtown Partnership Chair Matt Becker, has raised $13,155 from a single source: another PAC called Restore Florida, according to its first financial filing available this week.
The donation came even before the City Council gave final approval by a 3-2 vote Tuesday to place the referendum question on the Nov. 6 ballot. Mayor George Cretekos and Council member Hoyt Hamilton voted no, both citing unease with proposed City Charter changes detailing how a strong mayor would operate, which were written by a task force in just seven weeks.
While the idea of a strong mayor has been floated at four charter review committees over the past 20 years, talks consistently fizzled. It didn't get significant traction until April, when a group of four downtown business advocates approached the Council with the initiative.
Accountable Government's first donor, Restore Florida, has raised about half of its $37,961 since 2014 from a dozen prominent Republicans like former Redington Shores Mayor Jay Beyrouti; Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority Chair James Holton; and philanthropist Joseph C. White, according to state filings. The rest has come from the now disbanded Leadership for Pinellas committee.
Beyrouti said Wednesday the group is supporting the strong mayor change for the impact it could have on Pinellas County.
"The strong mayor is accountable to the people compared to a professional staffer that you don't elect every four years," said Beyrouti, who was appointed in July to finish the term of Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni, who died in May. "It's time for the people to decide."
In voting to put the referendum on the ballot, Council member Bob Cundiff said Clearwater's council-manager form of government has been in place for nearly 100 years without input from the public.
"It's an exciting time to be able to ask our people 'Do you like the kind of government we have now or would you prefer a change?'" Cundiff said. "All we're doing is allowing our residents to vote for the kind of government it would like to have. For me, that's the American way."
Cretekos noted that when Clearwater Downtown Partnership board member Bud Elias requested in April for the Council to consider a strong mayor referendum, Cretekos suggested a straw poll be put on the ballot asking if citizens supported the current form of government to determine whether changes should be pursued.
Instead, the Council convened the task force to rewrite Charter. The 3-2 Council vote Tuesday also approved the 16-page ordinance detailing the powers and authority of a strong mayor, which would take effect if voters pass the 75-word referendum Nov. 6.
"We will find out in a couple of months but we're going to find out because the people will vote," Cretekos said. "Hopefully they're not going to be influenced by Tallahassee funds, secret bank accounts. They will be influenced by the facts that this form of government is not perfect but it has served the best interests of the citizens of Clearwater."
Most municipalities in Florida have a council-manager form of government, where a professional, appointed manager handles day-to-day operations, proposes a budget and implements council policies. Strong mayor systems give significant authority for negotiating deals, hiring and firing, and veto power to one elected politician.
NAACP Clearwater/Upper Pinellas Branch President Marva McWhite also questioned the process of rewriting the charter in seven weeks and worried "there will be too many places for small-print kind of things and loopholes we won't be able to fix later."
But others were not as worried about the process, where 13 citizens who had formerly served on charter review committees worked jointly with the Council to rewrite the Charter over seven weekly meetings.
"Let the people vote," said resident Joseph Corvino. "If the passion is this high, and it's so wonderful to think about, let the people express their opinion ... You can't get to any other basic truth than the people deciding the form of government."
2018 CLEARWATER STRONG MAYOR COVERAGE
Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.