CLEARWATER — The city should appoint an individual to help neighborhoods fight development. The City Council should have seven members instead of five.
Those are just two of the recommendations from the city’s Charter Review Committee, the all-volunteer citizen board that meets every five years to revisit the city’s governing document.
Changes to the Legislative Power section of the Clearwater City Charter that would increase the size of council must be approved by the City Council, then put to referendum; other changes — such as requiring the city manager to present a report on the city’s financial condition in November instead of September — can be approved by a simple majority of the city council, said Charter Review Committee Chairman Michael Mannino.
Official to help fight development
According to Mannino, the ombudsman would educate residents and neighborhood associations on their options when opposing residential and commercial projects. He or she would “evaluate a disputed proposed development and educate the residents on process and issues and potentially represent the residents where appropriate,” the committee wrote.
The creation of a planning ombudsman position has been percolating for some time, Mannino said.
“That discussion has come up numerous times around the city,” he said, ticking off the Clearwater Point neighborhood’s unsuccessful battle to stop the Chart House expansion, the failure of residents to halt a self-storage building on Gulf to Bay Boulevard, and most recently, an appeal by the Edgewater Drive Neighborhood Association to halt an unwanted condominium project.
“The committee is being responsive to the community with this recommendation,” he said. “Developers have an unfair advantage in legal representation, in knowledge, in financial ability to win these fights.”
Though the charter committee recommends the city pay the salary of an individual who is knowledgeable about the planning and development process, it also recommends the ombudsman be “completely neutral” in development fights. The official — perhaps a planning or development professional — would have the experience and knowledge to help residents with red tape by helping them with the documents they need and provide other guidance when residents appear before boards.
No to changing voting districts
The 13-member board has met every second and fourth Wednesday since Feb. 11, reviewing every section of the current charter. The board heard from governing experts, city department heads, and members of the public during public meetings, the last of which was Oct. 23.
“Our job is to discuss the issues and come to a majority consensus during our eight months of existence,” he said. “After we recommend items to the City Council, it’s then on the council’s plate to decide yes, no, or if they want more research, they can hand it off for more study.”
At a July 10 meeting about possibly redistricting the city’s voting wards, Dr. Scott Paine of the Florida League of Cities educated the committee about municipal election processes as city staff presented data on the city’s demographics. The Charter Review Committee concluded that more council members translated into more representation for city residents, Mannino said.
“There were a lot of voices feeling that because our city is so spread out, some neighborhoods were feeling underrepresented,” he said. “They wanted to identify a face or a name they could call or knew on the council.”
In addition to preparing for and attending four council meetings each month and attending public events, each councilmember serves on a county or regional governing board, such as Hoyt Hamilton, who is on the executive budget committee of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.
“Councilmembers’ responsibilities have increased greatly over the years,” Mannino said. “There’s still only 24 hours a day, and it’s still a part-time job. Supporting an increase to seven councilmembers would take some of the weight off.”
The question of whether to increasing seats will be before the City Council in November.
Other recommendations include:
• City councilmembers must wait two years after their term ends before being hired for a city position of any kind.
• The city manager must present an annual comprehensive report on the city’s financial condition and administration activities in November instead of September.
• The City Council must establish annual goals and priorities for the city manager and the council should evaluate the city manager based on the specific criteria.
• Increase the amount of property to five acres that can be donated or sold for less-than-fair-market value for workforce or affordable housing without a bid requirement. The previous threshold was a half acre. The amount includes uneconomic remainders of land to be sold to an abutting property owner.
• Removing language pertaining to negotiating a property lease with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium as it is no longer pertinent.
The committee debated whether to draw election districts in the city, but could not agree on a form or where district lines would be drawn. Incidentally, the committee now recommends increasing the time between when the charter is reviewed to eight years.
“It’s been an amazing committee, each of the committee members took it very seriously,” Mannino said. “It was made up of passionate citizens, the members being from all sections of the city. It was made up of people who run nonprofits, business owners, regular people from neighborhoods, and people who sit on other city boards. But we did switch the timetable for reviewing the charter to every eight years, because every five years was too frequent.”