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  1. Clearwater

Strong mayor in Clearwater or not? Backers, opponents take their cases to residents

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times USF political science professor J. Edwin Benton, Pinellas County commissioner Karen Seel, and former St. Petersburg Council member Karl Nurse, talk at left, before the start of a forum to discuss the Clearwater's strong mayor referendum. Clearwater based political consultant Beth Rawlins, right, stands next to former city of Clearwater council member Bill Jonson, at right, before speaking against the change after Seel spoke in favor.
Published Oct. 2, 2018

CLEARWATER — Leaders for and against a strong mayor form of government in the city stood before residents on Monday to make their case. Voters on Nov. 6 will decide one of the most consequential questions ever posed on a ballot in Clearwater: whether city government should keep its council-manager structure or put the daily management of the city in the mayor's hands.

Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel argued in favor of the strong mayor change and Clearwater based political consultant Beth Rawlins spoke against at a forum hosted by the Clearwater Neighborhoods Association and League of Women Voters,. The Tampa Bay Times is giving a rundown of the arguments:

The differences in governance:

J. Edwin Benton, professor of political science at University of South Florida, likened the strong mayor-council form to the federal government, where the mayor is the president with executive power and the council is the legislative Congress that makes the laws. A council-manager form, like what exists in Clearwater today, keeps the mayor part of that legislative branch. Council members hire a professional city manager, who is not an elected politician, to execute their policy.

The proposed ordinance would require that the mayor be elected with more than 50 percent of votes cast, as opposed to just having the most votes in a field of candidates. The strong mayor would not be a voting member of the City Council, enabling them to talk privately with council members outside of the public meetings law.

The mayor would be responsible for day-to-day operations, preparing the budget and hiring and firing most city employees — powers of the current city manager. The mayor would only need council approval to hire five positions: the police and fire chiefs, city clerk, city attorney, and the new city administrator, who would operate like a chief of staff. The mayor could fire any employee without council approval except for the new internal auditor, city attorney and the council's three staff members.

The council would still have to approve ordinances, purchases, leases and the budget. But the mayor would have veto power that the council can override only with a 4 to 1 vote.

The change would take effect in 2020, when City Manager Bill Horne said he plans to retire and Mayor George Cretekos' term is up.

Argument for change:

Seel, who grew up in Clearwater and served on the City Council for three years before joining the County Commission in 1999, evoked past mistakes to underscore the need for dynamic leadership.

While her father, the late Don Williams, served on the council from 1967 to 1975, he pushed for city-owned land in Countryside be used for a University of South Florida campus, but it failed a voter referendum. He also was an advocate for the failed idea to locate Ruth Eckerd Hall on the downtown waterfront.

"Out of these two lessons, I learned that everything, once I was in public office, is a 50-year decision or longer," Seel said. "Whatever we do is creating the future for tomorrow's citizens and businesses."

Seel noted how Tampa and St. Petersburg have thrived under strong mayor-council governments, which have been friendly to business and innovative in their visions.

"During the last 10 to 15 years, I've watched both of those cities do a 180-degree turnaround," Seel said. "They have vibrant downtowns, they have made great progress towards bettering their cities. If you remember, St. Petersburg used to be, you know, the green benches and 'who's going to die here next?'"

Seel said the proposed charter revisions that would detail how a strong mayor-council government would operate provide appropriate checks and balances. It also supplies the council with staff like a budget analyst for expertise.

"You will have a strategic plan that will be looked at on a yearly basis," she said. "You will have a vision, you will have communication, you will have competition for a mayoral race. There really hasn't been a competitive race since 1999 in Clearwater. ... It's (now) considered a part-time job so there's many with professional backgrounds ... who can't have the ability to work as mayor as well as hold down a fulltime job."

Argument against strong mayor

Rawlins, who works for the International City/County Management Association, suggests three main points against a strong mayor: it makes a politician chief executive rather than a professional, it concentrates too much power in the hands of one person and there's less accountability.

A professional manager is educated on governance and trained on changing regulations like water systems and how to work with the federal government to prepare for hurricanes.

"On the flip side of that, a professional city manager does not solicit campaign contributions, they don't make campaign promises and they are not beholden to the people who have funded their efforts to gain the job," Rawlins said.

She fears special interests prefer mayors with power of negotiating contracts, creating and disbanding departments, and preparing the budget so "they can fund that person's campaign to add a little leverage."
Rawlins noted a city manager can be fired by the council "any day for any reason" with one 4-1 vote or two consecutive 3-2 votes. In contrast, strong mayors are elected to four-year terms, accountable to voters on Election Day.

"I would prefer the accountability of a day-to-day manager who can be fired at any given time over one day of accountability in eight years," Rawlins said, referencing limits of two consecutive four-year terms. "What eventually happens is the charismatic politician who doesn't have the skills to do the job gets elected. And a lot of damage can be done in four years."

Pros/Cons on the issues:

Karl Nurse, a Clearwater native and former St. Petersburg City Council member from 2008 to 2018 served with three strong mayors: Rick Baker, Bill Foster and Rick Kriseman. He understands this desire for change "because Clearwater really struggled for a long, long time."

What's at play is "the tussle between speed and checks and balances."

He said a city manager offers professionalism and an education in governance but offers "clearly a slower process to get things done. Strong mayor-council forms can be more responsive for economic development and business because "it's clear who has the power."

"When the stars line up as they have in St. Petersburg and Tampa, you can see dramatic results," Nurse said.

Nurse said the mayor being removed from the council, not subject to the public meetings law, "is the single most powerful difference" because it allows the mayor to gain consensus and develop ideas.

"When Rick Baker was (St. Petersburg) mayor, he never brought an item to a vote for City Council that he didn't have the votes on. ... What he did is he shopped things around," Nurse said. "Now the public didn't see any of that. In fact, the press used to complain we were rubber stamps. The irony was that we had plenty of input, it was just frankly all behind the curtain, one at a time."

But he warned giving staffing authority to a strong mayor can politicize the office.

Since St. Petersburg changed from a council-manager to strong mayor in 1993, Nurse said staffing has become increasingly political. He estimated nine of 11 staffers in Mayor Rick Kriseman's office are political appointments who "in a job search interview would not get that job."

"Running somebody's campaign is probably not qualifications to be the chief of policy and public education," he said, with the reminder he supported Kriseman's re-election.

He also noted campaign spending drastically increases in strong mayor governments. In the 2017 St. Petersburg mayoral race, Kriseman, the incumbent, and Baker, the former mayor, each raised more than $1 million, and "more than half of those contributions were the kinds of contributions that ought to make you uncomfortable."

He gave the example of owners of a baseball team giving "$100,000, some in checks to the campaign, some to the dark money side ... while they were negotiating a contract with the city," referencing Tampa Bay Rays executives donating to Kriseman's campaign.

His summary: strong mayors bring speed to economic development by nature and can be more responsive to business. But that comes with the downsides of influence and politics.

"By the way, we have only had smart, educated intelligent mayors,'' Nurse said. "At some point we won't."


2018 CLEARWATER STRONG MAYOR COVERAGE


A strong mayor for Clearwater? Some think it's time.

Clearwater mayor warns against being 'bamboozled' by pitch to change government

Here's what a strong mayor would look like in Clearwater

Clearwater voters: a strong mayor question is official on the Nov. 6 ballot

Strong mayor question has top Clearwater officials mulling options

Clearwater's strong mayor question draws dollars from Belleair neighbors

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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