Clearwater’s new city manager off to fast start

Clearwater's newly appointed City Manager Jon Jennings speaks during his first City Council meeting on Nov. 18.

CLEARWATER — City Manager Jon Jennings has been on the job less than three weeks, but he’s already moving on some priorities.

Jennings said he intends to create two new positions to strengthen the city’s environmental efforts: an “innovation and energy manager” to track and reduce energy use in municipal buildings and an additional position to support the sustainability coordinator hired in 2019.

With a backlog of 200 sidewalk issues, some dating to 2016, he wants to add more contractors and funding so those repairs are made more quickly.

And as the city enters the fourth year of leasing temporary space in a downtown office tower, Jennings said his goal is to accelerate the process of finalizing plans for a new City Hall.

“I’m here to get a lot of things done,” Jennings said. “I want to understand how the city operates and whether there are opportunities for operating with better efficiency and effectiveness.”

Jennings began on Nov. 8 and succeeds former City Manager Bill Horne, who led the city for 20 years and died of a suspected heart attack in August, three weeks before his planned retirement.

Jennings spent the last six years as city manager of Portland, Maine, and has a background in professional sports and the federal government. He worked as an assistant coach and scout for the Boston Celtics beginning in the 1980s and then served in the Clinton administration as acting assistant attorney general for legislative affairs and in the office of cabinet affairs under Thurgood Marshall Jr.

During his time in Portland, Jennings increased the city’s focus on sustainability. He helped launch a solar array on an old landfill and added electric vehicles to the city’s fleet.

He said his focus will be the same in Clearwater, especially as the city implements its newly adopted Greenprint 2.0 plan.

The plan, approved in August, aims to reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 2007 levels by 2035 and 80 percent by 2050. It outlines strategies for everything from water conservation to expanding electric vehicles.

Jennings wants to do more, saying, “I tend to think (the plan) is not as ambitious as what it could be.”

“You can always amend a plan, but we need to get started,” he said.

Another priority is to sit down with Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige to discuss the impacts of recent church-connected real estate acquisitions, Jennings said. Since 2017, limited liability companies managed or operated by members of Scientology have bought at least 145 properties in downtown and the North Marina Area district and have left most of them vacant.

Miscavige went years without talking to city officials. His minimal communication with the city over the past two years was through Horne, Mayor Frank Hibbard and former City Attorney Pam Akin, who retired last month after 27 years with the city.

With the shift in city leadership, including the hiring of City Attorney David Margolis on Oct. 25, Jennings said he asked Hibbard to arrange an introductory meeting to include himself, Miscavige, Hibbard and Margolis.

Hibbard said he has reached out to Scientology’s communications office to set up a meeting but, as of Thursday, has not heard back.

Jennings said he wants to see “if there is a partnership or a path forward” with the church.

“If they’re not interested in a partnership, we’re going to have to really look at what the future holds for the downtown,” Jennings said. “It’s not as if the city is toothless.”

There are also two major negotiations out there that Jennings will oversee. Administration is still negotiating a new contract with the fire union. And the city is still negotiating terms for a renovation of the BayCare Ballpark and training complex as part of a renewed contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. The current agreement expires in 2023.

But Jennings said one of his top priorities is to get to know the community. He is planning to have lunch or dinner at all the fire stations to introduce himself to Fire & Rescue employees. He intends to sit in on neighborhood association and advisory board meetings. And his calendar for his first month is filled with tours of the city and one-on-one meetings with department heads.

“I love his focus,” City Council member Hoyt Hamilton said. “He’s definitely been able to, in a very short time, grasp a lot of information and he’s met with a lot of people. He’s doing his due diligence.”