CLEARWATER — Voters next month have the chance to choose two City Council members who will serve during what's expected to be a make-or-break four years of city redevelopment.
But will anybody show up?
Barely 22 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in November's referendum, deciding by an overwhelming margin to allow construction on the downtown waterfront, effectively greenlighting the city's $55 million Imagine Clearwater redevelopment plan.
The two City Council seats will be the only races on the March 13 ballot for Clearwater voters. The last time the city went to the polls for a March election was in 2016. But that ballot also had the presidential primary, which brought a 40 percent local turnout. About 30 percent voted in the March 2014 election, which had two contested City Council seats and a congressional race.
Low voter participation is by no means a local phenomenon, with turnout in 10 of America's 30 largest cities typically less than 15 percent, according to a recent Portland State University study. But the stakes in Clearwater's upcoming election are elevated with several last-hope initiatives converging in a decades-long quest to revitalize the downtown and compete on par with St. Petersburg and Tampa.
Retired building contractor David Allbritton and advertising salesman Tom Keller are running for Seat 4, which is being vacated by the term-limited Bill Jonson. Real estate broker John Funk is challenging incumbent Hoyt Hamilton for Seat 5.
"Clearwater has significant issues that are facing the city over the next three to five years," said Brian Aungst Jr., former vice president of government affairs for the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and volunteer on Allbritton's and Hamilton's campaigns. "Whoever wins these two seats on the council will be directly involved and responsible for making crucially important decisions."
Some of the key policies include implementation of the waterfront redevelopment plan, which officials hope will motivate businesses to fill vacant downtown storefronts; replacing long-time City Manager Bill Horne and City Attorney Pam Akin, who help shape policy and are expected to retire in 2020; addressing traffic congestion; and balancing city revitalization efforts amid the Church of Scientology's acquisition of property downtown, where it has its international spiritual headquarters.
Preparing for the election, Doug Kelly, a security consultant and freelance writer, ran an unscientific poll last summer and asked a sample of visitors at local libraries if they'd ever been to a City Council meeting or knew their elected officials.
"Of the 100 or so people I talked to, I think one or two even knew who the mayor is," Kelly said.
Kelly is now a volunteer advisor for Funk and Keller, hoping to get new candidates running for office. If the November referendum is any measure, Kelly predicts this consequential election could be determined by 9,000 voters, not even a sixth of the electorate.
"What you're looking at and targeting is super voters," he said. "These are people that, come hell or high water, turn out and vote."
Justin Levitt, associate dean for research at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, said one of the driving forces behind low turnout is not apathy but voters not always making a connection between issues they care about and local policy.
"We are drawn to races like president and races like U.S. Senate and we forget about, to our detriment, an awful lot of the elected offices that really drive how we live and the kind of society we want to create together," Levitt said. "The city council, county commission, offices like county prosecutor, are tremendously important for the day-to-day kitchen table issues."
Contributing to that disengagement, he said, are the steady cutbacks to newsrooms with fewer journalists reporting on city halls and less coverage of hyper-local issues. This disconnect is widening as national coverage saturates social media and attention on presidential races dominates headlines.
After being held up as a primary source for the spread of misinformation and hoaxes that impacted the 2016 presidential election, Facebook on Monday announced plans to prioritize local news articles from legitimate outlets in users' news feeds.
"The single biggest barrier to participation is the quality of information people are receiving about choices they have," Levitt said. "In an information-rich environment, people have lots of information, even if it's at a very shallow level, about the president and presidential candidates but they don't always have a lot of information about local candidates."
A result of low voter turnout can be that a small number of people, not always representative of diverse interests, can determine outcomes, said Jan Leighley, professor of political science at American University.
"There are policy consequences to that with the general premise that public officials know who got them in office," Leighley said.
Portland State University's study found the abysmal number of people who vote in mayoral elections — making decisions about police and fire, transportation, housing, and drinking water — tend to be older and more affluent than the population at large and less likely to be people of color.
But regarding Clearwater's recent voter turnout statistics, Levitt said the city has a slight upside compared to national averages:
"Sadly that is comparatively robust, and that is a horrible state of affairs," he said.
Want to get involved?
You can start by attending two public forums featuring the four candidates running for two City Council seats in the March 13 election
•The Clearwater Downtown Partnership will host a debate from 5:30-7 p.m. Monday at the Capitol Theatre, 405 Cleveland St. Doors open at 5 p.m.
•The city will host a candidate forum at 7 p.m. Thursday on the third floor of City Hall, 112 S Osceola Ave.
> Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus. >