1. Opinion

Editorials: Clearwater should slow effort to switch to strong mayor

A handful of downtown Clearwater business leaders should be careful what they wish for in pushing for the city to switch to a strong mayor form of government. A strong mayor offers no guarantee a city will prosper, and it can bring new challenges. The City Council will continue to discuss the issue today, and it should slow down and define a clear plan for a public discussion rather than rush to put the question on the November ballot.

Clearwater has had a stable city manager form of government for 95 years, and it is in good company. About two-thirds of Florida's municipalities have an elected city council and an appointed city manager who runs the city on a daily basis. The idea is to keep partisan politics out of routine operations such as paving the streets, operating parks and hiring city staff. It's not glamorous, but it's generally pretty efficient.

Switching to a strong mayor has come up in Clearwater from time to time, but it has never gotten significant traction. Now a small group of business officials tied to the Clearwater Downtown Partnership are abruptly pushing the City Council to put the issue on the November ballot, and they are looking for supporters to show up in force at today's council meeting. There is no reason for such urgency, yet only Mayor George Cretekos urges caution.

At a council work session Monday, Cretekos said there is no big public demand for a strong mayor in Clearwater and suggested several of the supporters of making the change might run for the new position. He also reasonably pointed out that there are standard methods for changing the city charter to provide for a strong mayor by either gathering signatures to get the issue on the ballot or waiting for next year's charter review commission to take up the issue. But the other City Council members sounded determined to take action today.

The reality is that creating a thoughtful proposal for a strong mayor is not that easy. There are plenty of issues to consider, including defining the powers of a strong mayor, specifying the city council's role and creating the position of a city administrator. Clearwater also would have to consider expanding the council, which would be reduced to just four members. The options for discussion today, which include oddly reconvening the 2015 charter review committee to work on city charter changes and ballot language, are hurried and ill-conceived.

What is the rush? Supporters of switching to a strong mayor apparently are impatient with the progress of Imagine Clearwater, the $55 million waterfront redevelopment plan. But that plan is progressing, and it likely will stall if there is uncertainty about the city's form of government. And if voters decided this year to elect a strong mayor in 2020, that would further place everything in limbo until then. Cretekos will be leaving office in 2020 and long-time City Manager Bill Horne is expected to retire then, but their futures should not dictate the timing of such a fundamental change in government structure.

St. Petersburg switched from the city manager form of government to a strong mayor system 25 years ago, and the results have been mixed. Last year's mayoral election was the most expensive and most partisan, another disturbing trend. Establishing a strong mayor government in Clearwater would offer no guarantee of better government or of faster progress on Imagine Clearwater. The real issue about rejuvenating downtown is not whether there is a strong mayor — it's the long shadow of the Church of Scientology, downtown's largest property owner.

Conceptually, it would be fine to ask Clearwater voters if they want to fundamentally change city government and elect a strong mayor. Pragmatically, this push feels self-motivated by a few business officials, poorly timed and ridiculously vague. Rather than cave in to pressure today, City Council members should seek broader community input and hit the brakes.