CLEARWATER — One week after Frank Hibbard resigned as mayor during a dramatic disagreement about budget priorities, the Clearwater City Council voted unanimously on March 27 to appoint former mayor Brian Aungst Sr. to complete the last 11 months of Hibbard’s term.
“We need stability,” council member Lina Teixeira said. “Clearwater at this juncture needs someone with previous mayoral experience to seamlessly step in and steer this ship with a steady hand and stay on course.”
The move followed extensive lobbying of council members by business owners and community leaders who said it was critical to appoint a mayor with experience in the role as the city navigates a tumultuous period. Elected officials also heard from a contingent of residents who pushed for Vice Mayor Kathleen Beckman to be mayor, and for an appointment to be made instead to her council seat.
But the city has an unofficial tradition that no person appointed to fill a vacancy can run for the seat in the next election, and Beckman declined to forfeit her right to run for mayor when her council term expires in March 2024.
Aungst, 69, served as mayor from 1999 through 2004 and retired in 2018 as director of state government affairs for Charter Communications.
Aungst’s appointment came with complications that will be handled with considerable restrictions on his year as mayor. Aungst’s son, Brian Aungst Jr., is a prominent attorney who regularly represents clients in front of city staff and elected officials for various land use and development issues.
City Attorney David Margolis said that as Aungst’s name was floated as a candidate the prior week, he spoke with the father and son to get commitments on terms for the dynamic. Brian Aungst Sr. agreed to recuse himself from any issue that comes before the council for a vote involving his son’s firm, Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen P.A, according to an email he submitted to Margolis on March 26.
Aungst also will refrain from “any private directives or private instruction” to the city manager, city attorney, or other staff regarding any matters involving Macfarlane Ferguson or their clients, according to the agreement.
Though Margolis suggested Aungst refrain from political fundraising or endorsement regarding any council seat in the next election, the newly appointed mayor said he “would like to reserve my ability to express my opinion” on the 2024 election.
“My role is to provide stability to the council, to the staff and to the citizens,” Aungst said in a phone interview after the vote. “I have no agenda, I didn’t run for the office, I didn’t promise anybody anything, I didn’t take money from anybody and I don’t owe anybody anything. My only agenda is moving the city forward.”
The younger Aungst has been active for years in supporting political candidates and issues in Clearwater and Pinellas County. Last month he was one of five people appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to a new board overseeing Disney’s special taxing district. In an email to Margolis, Brian Aungst Jr., agreed to refrain from endorsing or fundraising for any candidate in the 2024 Clearwater election.
The son also agreed to not represent any client before city elected officials during his father’s service as mayor, according to his email. If Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen has a matter before council, a different lawyer from the firm, where Brian Aungst Jr. is partner, will represent them. He also agreed to not privately lobby his father for text amendments to the development code or any other legislative action, according to his email.
Hibbard resigned on March 20 during a budget workshop, stating he was worried about the direction the council was taking the city after his colleagues said a potentially $90 million City Hall and municipal complex was their top budget priority. His dramatic exit, and stated worries, made national headlines.
City staff and council members also used the meeting clear up what they described as unfair characterizations of their governance. They noted that no money has been allocated to the municipal center project, and the discussion that took place before Hibbard’s resignation was about priorities, not making commitments.
“I wholeheartedly expect that the city and this council will continue to be focused on costs, efficiencies, and saving initiatives that will provide even more opportunities to lower costs to residents and enable excellence in city services,” Beckman said.