CLEARWATER — Longtime City Council member Hoyt Hamilton said the city is changing and its election process needs to change with it.
In particular, he believes the March 2020 elections that included 13 candidates facing off for three seats was a trend that will continue. That large field of candidates also meant two of the winners — council members Kathleen Beckman and Mark Bunker — won their seats with less than 50% of the vote.
Hamilton said on March 18 that it shouldn’t happen again, and the residents of Clearwater should have the option of voting to amend the city charter so that a winner needs a majority.
“I think Clearwater deserves and the people of Clearwater deserve to have people sitting here that ultimately can get the vote of confidence from 50% plus one vote of the electorate,” he said. “I believe that very strongly.”
If none of the candidates receive more than 50%, he said the top two should head to a runoff election.
While Hamilton was the only council member to officially take the position, three of the five agreed to hear more about it, voting to invite Scott Paine, director of Leadership Development and Education at the Florida League of Cities, to educate the council about the various options. Bunker and Beckman voted against offering the invite, claiming it was leading the city down a path it wasn’t ready to take.
Hamilton prefaced the conversation by stating it wasn’t an attack on Bunker or Beckman, but rather his feelings about the nature of future campaigns.
“Mr. Bunker, it’s not personal toward you, but it is what it is,” he said. “Having four people, five people run for one seat and having the person who garners the most votes only get less than 30% of the vote, that means 70% of the people thought someone else was better.”
Bunker ran against four other candidates and received 27.10% of the vote. Beckman defeated three other challengers to receive 48.90% of the vote. Mayor Frank Hibbard also won his post by fending off three other candidates, but he received 55.17% of the vote — a fact he pointed out March 16 during the council’s work session.
When asked by Beckman why he thought this couldn’t wait for the next charter review committee to convene in 2024, Hamilton said he thinks the crowded fields are a trend, hearing rumors that as many as 12 people are seriously considering running for two seats in November.
“And you may have 10 of those people decide to run for my seat because it’s open and people don’t want to run against an incumbent so they all run for the open seat,” he said.
He said the winner could end up with 15% of the vote.
“I mean, it just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Beckman said it doesn’t make sense for the issue not to be vetted by the charter review committee, which last met at the end of 2019.
“My biggest problem is we’re not honoring the process of the charter review,” she said. “I don’t see a knee-jerk reaction to one election as putting this out on a referendum to have people vote for it right now.”
Beckman called the council skipping the committee a paternalistic way to govern and an insult to the whole charter review process.
She also said runoffs are an added expense that many people can’t afford, putting certain groups of people at a disadvantage.
“It costs a whole bunch now and it will cost even more when you have a turnaround and you’ve got to run a general after a primary,” she said.
If they were going to change the elections process, she said that adding districts should also be discussed.
“I think we need something to help people, normal everyday people, compete and have a voice,” she said.
Bunker agreed that the added expense of campaigning a second time would be difficult for some people.
“It’s one year later, I just paid off all my credit card debt from the campaign,” he said.
He added that larger fields of candidates can lead to a more diverse council and members who bring a different perspective, such as himself, who campaigned on taking on the Church of Scientology.
“You’d rather not have me here talking about Scientology. I understand that,” he said. “But 27% of the people at least said, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s tackle that subject from time to time.’ Out of those 10 people, there may be an important issue that gets ignored because it’s businesspeople who are running the council.”
Hibbard said he hasn’t made a decision yet, but he didn’t see any harm in having Paine make a presentation to the council.
“I don’t understand the opposition to having a professor of government come and educate all five of us and any citizen that wants to watch about the pros and cons of different forms of elections,” he said.
He noted only smaller municipalities allow elected officials to serve who don’t capture a majority.
“We elect a president by majority, our congressman, our senators, our state representatives, our state senators, our county commissioners, all by a majority,” he said. “There must be a reason the country does it at all levels of government.”