CLEARWATER – Leave it alone.
That’s how the vast majority of Clearwater residents responded at the polls Nov. 6 to a special referendum question that asked if they wanted to switch to a “strong mayor” form of government. The results showed that 58.51 percent of those voting said no, by a 25,229 to 17,887 margin.
The city’s existing council-manager system has been in place for 95 years.
“It just reaffirms the support of our residents for our form of government. It provides stable, non-partisan leadership combined with professional management,” said Mayor George Cretekos, who staunchly opposed any change.
Had the vote been in favor, a transition would have taken place in 2020 with the elimination of the city manager position and the removal of the mayor from the council, instead creating a scenario where the mayor became the city’s lead administrator.
Now, the mayor will remain a voting council member in a job that’s considered part time and pays less than $25,000 annually.
Jay Polglaze, executive director of the Downtown Clearwater Partnership group that played a large role in encouraging the City Council to put the issue on the ballot, was not entirely disappointed with the result.
“I hope this is a wake-up call – to see that this many citizens are not happy,” said Polglaze, a former council member who was unseated in 2016. “This result is not a stamp of approval. If we don’t see our city reach some real performance benchmarks in the next four years, you’ll probably see this come up again.”
The decision to draft the language for a potential change was made with a 3-2 council vote in May, with Cretekos and council member Bob Cundiff dissenting.
It then took just seven weeks for a task force to draft the proposed strong-mayor proposal that appeared on the ballot. In August, City Council members voted 3-2 (Cretekos, Hoyt Hamilton opposing) to send the issue to voters.
“We got a late start on this, so early voting hurt us,” Polglaze said. “But I know we were a strong force at the polls.”
Cretekos who spent election night as a poll worker in Dunedin, said he hoped all residents, business leaders and government officials could come together and work “within this preferred framework” going forward.
Cundiff, who eventually voted to put the issue on the ballot, was pleased with the process.
“Tonight we know what the people want,” he said after the results came in. “I’m happy for that. We needed to put it out to the people.”
Did he expect the result, or was he surprised?
“Neither. Nobody knew,” Cundiff said. “I was going to be happy with either.”
Council member David Allbritton, who served on city’s Charter Review Committee in 2015 when the topic was discussed but never materialized, also didn’t know what to expect.
“It was a real toss-up. I know people were very passionate on both sides,” he said. “It’s healthy to discuss a new form of government at least once every 100 years.
“I know this process satisfied a lot of people and it was very educational to talk about it and learn about our form of government. And maybe this could be a good message to City Hall, that we need to buckle down and handle some issues better. It’s time to buckle down and get moving.”
Had the change been supported by voters, here are key components to the strong-mayor framework:
• The mayor shall serve as the chief administrative and executive officer for the city and will conduct affairs of the city. He will be recognized as official head of the city and will maintain an office at a city facility.
• The mayor will be elected at large and will serve a four-year term. The mayor must be a qualified voter of the city and must reside in Clearwater a full year prior to submitting a petition to run for the office. The mayor will be limited to two-consecutive terms.
• The mayor will be paid no less than $120,000.
• The mayor shall have the power to appoint, promote, suspend, demote or remove any city employee and create or dissolve any city department or board.
• The mayor will prepare and present to the council an annual budget, capital improvement budget and a projected capital improvement program, all of which will be tied to mayor’s strategic goals and priorities.
• The mayor will have extensive veto power, and may veto any ordinance passed by council, except for emergency ordinances, and any line item veto in a budget or appropriation ordinance.
• The mayor is also responsible for the appointment of a city manager, subject to approval from council members, and will have authority to terminate the city manager without consent of the council. The mayor also will have the authority to hire and fire the police and fire chiefs.
• The mayor may not be fired by the council and will serve at the pleasure of the voters.
• All ordinances must be approved by the mayor before becoming law or earn a super majority (majority plus one) of the council to pass.