A handful of influential business leaders are understandably frustrated with Clearwater’s failure to rejuvenate its downtown and eager to duplicate the rebirth of downtowns in Tampa and St. Petersburg. But they have focused on the wrong solution in seeking a new form of government. There is no compelling reason for Clearwater voters to switch to a strong mayor form of government, which is no magic fix and carries its own significant risks.
Clearwater has had a stable city manager form of government for nearly a century, and that is the rule rather than the exception in Florida. About two-thirds of the state’s municipalities have an elected city council and an appointed city manager who hires staff, presents a budget and runs the government on a daily basis. There should be nothing political about paving streets, operating parks or issuing building permits. It may not be headline-grabbing or glamorous, but it’s usually pretty efficient and effective.
While switching to a strong mayor has been discussed in Clearwater over the years, the idea hasn’t gotten real traction until this summer. A small group of business officials tied to the Clearwater Downtown Partnership prodded the City Council to put the issue on the November ballot. There was no groundswell of public support, and the council chose this route by just a 3-2 vote. In less than two summer months when many residents were pre-occupied with more leisurely pursuits, a task force worked with the city attorney to write a 14-page amendment to the city charter.
There are plenty of reasons for Clearwater voters to be skeptical about this sudden rush to transform city government. The process has moved too quickly, and the self-interest of several supporters who might be interested in being elected as a strong mayor is evident — including Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel and Brian Aungst Jr., a lawyer and community activist. Then there are the details in the proposed changes to ponder, such as adding a council member to replace the weak mayor and several new positions such as a budget analyst for the council.
Some proposed changes mirror the strong-mayor system in other cities, such as putting the city administrator in charge in situations where the mayor is disabled, absent or resigns. But other provisions are curious. Why is the description of the qualifications to be appointed city administrator so vague? Why is the minimum salary for the strong mayor set at $120,000 in the charter rather than allowing the City Council to decide?
Clearwater also has a unique concern: The Church of Scientology, the largest downtown property owner and a key impediment to attracting business and new investment. It’s not inconceivable that Scientology could find it easier to manipulate a strong mayor than a city manager and an entire city council. Supporters of the charter change say city voters would never stand for it, but Scientology could find a way to influence elections with lots of campaign cash that could be difficult to trace.
Having a strong mayor rather than a competent city manager and engaged city council does not guarantee a revitalized downtown or more efficient permitting. Results have been mixed in St. Petersburg since that city switched from the city manager form of government to a strong mayor 25 years ago. Elections have gotten more expensive, and last year’s nonpartisan mayoral election was particularly partisan.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum is the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor, and he has succeeded in the city manager form of government. So has former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who also ran for governor. Clearwater will elect a new mayor and appoint a new city manager in 2020, and that is the moment for voters to decide what sort of leadership they want.
Clearwater voters should not be fooled by the misleading yard signs distributed by the political committee supporting the charter change. The signs urge support for term limits, but the city already has term limits. On the city charter amendment creating a strong mayor form of government, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voters in Clearwater vote no.