CLEARWATER — When Clearwater City Council members evaluated City Manager Jon Jennings on Nov. 17, they gave no indication of the shake-up that would occur just four weeks later.
All five elected officials praised Jennings’ accomplishments in his first year on the job and detailed what they wanted to see from him going forward.
”I think it’s been a reasonable first year,” Mayor Frank Hibbard said.
But their public evaluation process failed to reflect the growing discomfort some council members had been feeling about Jennings for months. Records and interviews shed more light on their concerns, which resulted in last week’s surprising push — led by Hibbard — to begin the process of ousting Jennings.
The council voted 3-2 on Dec. 15 to fire Jennings, but the City Charter requires a second vote to make it final because it was not a supermajority. That discussion is scheduled for Jan. 5. Hibbard and council members Kathleen Beckman and Lina Teixiera, who voted to terminate, all said they will not change their minds.
Jennings did not respond to a text message or phone call for this story.
Hibbard has declined to detail the concerns he shared privately with Jennings that led him to push for termination. The mayor’s written evaluation in November ranked Jennings an overall 4.34 out of 5 points. On the question of how the manager could improve, Hibbard wrote: “will be discussed.”
But the mayor also kept a running list of problems he saw with Jennings since April that illuminate communication issues. On May 16, Hibbard wrote that Jennings’ published uses for the city’s federal COVID-19 relief funds were “significantly revised from what was given to council.”
Hibbard wrote on Aug. 18 that $2.1 million was spent on the waterfront amphitheater for sound and lights without being approved by the council. “How did this happen, who authorized?” Hibbard wrote.
The mayor wrote that in a pre-evaluation meeting on Oct. 26, he told Jennings that his communication has suffered, internal relationships needed to be improved and his pace of getting initiatives completed was extremely slow.
“(Jennings) stated that the review would not be a one-way conversation, ‘that he would push back,’” Hibbard wrote. “I explained that this was not a peer review but his five bosses giving him feedback good and bad.”
Following the Nov. 17 public evaluation, Hibbard also noted concern about Jennings’ handling of a discussion on the city’s carbon-reduction effort.
The first time the resolution was discussed, in a work session on Nov. 28, Hibbard said it lacked supporting data and asked Jennings for more information. City staff added the resolution to that week’s council agenda without additional detail, then pulled it hours before the meeting. Citizens had shown up to the meeting to speak on the item. Hibbard wrote in his notes that the item being pulled at the last minute “angers citizens in support and baffles council.”
In her public evaluation on Nov. 17, Teixeira praised Jennings for addressing a backlog of sidewalk and street repairs and improving city departments. But she asked for Jennings’ communication to improve because at times he kept her “out of the loop,” which made her uncomfortable.
Then, during the Dec. 12 work session, the council discussed the contract for Ruth Eckerd Hall to manage the waterfront amphitheater, a vote they were scheduled to take later that week. Teixeria said she felt “pressure to rubber-stamp” a contract that Jennings only provided three days earlier and without any financial data or supporting documentation.
In an interview this week, Teixeira recounted Jennings’ failure to sufficiently prepare the council for the Ruth Eckerd Hall vote after she already warned him to improve communication, saying it was “the straw that broke my camel’s back.”
“I expected that my concerns I expressed were going to be addressed and they were not,” Teixeira said. “I felt dismissed, and I lost confidence.”
Teixeira pointed to two other incidents where Jennings did not inform her about changes he was making behind the scenes to council initiatives.
In December 2021, Jennings told Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller that a downtown property the council had committed for a new transit center was off the table. But council members never authorized him to do so. It created confusion when the transit agency received a $20 million federal grant for the project in August, and council members had to publicly reaffirm their commitment to the site.
And in February, Jennings began facilitating discussions between the Church of Scientology and affordable housing developer Shawn Wilson regarding a city-owned property. The council had approved Wilson’s affordable housing development for the site, but Scientology wanted the property, too, and was trying to get Wilson to relocate. Most council members said Jennings never informed them about the situation before the developer abandoned the project in June.
“It was just a pattern of information being given out after the fact,” Teixeira said.
During their regular 2 p.m. meeting on Dec. 15, Hibbard told Jennings he was going to propose his termination at the council meeting that night. Jennings informed Beckman of the mayor’s intentions during a meeting they had at 3 p.m.
In an interview this week, Beckman said she told Jennings: “Truthfully, I was considering bringing this up tonight, too.”
Beckman said the lack of information Jennings provided before the council’s vote on the Ruth Eckerd Hall contract was also the last straw for her.
During the work session on the contract, Beckman called it “wholly unacceptable” and asked for Jennings to provide financial projections before the vote that week.
She said she did not raise the idea of termination during the Nov. 17 evaluation because she wanted to give Jennings a chance to change. That didn’t happen, she said.
“I did not see any improvement in his communication with me in transparency and communication,” Beckman said. “Then with the Ruth Eckerd Hall contract coming before us, we did not have all the necessary documentation in a timely manner, period.”
“I don’t feel it’s fair to council members, as well as to the public.”