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Clearwater at a key moment in the push for a strong mayor

CLEARWATER — The first step in potentially changing the city’s entire government structure has passed its first milestone.

The joint task force, made up of 14 citizens and the five City Council members, finished writing proposed changes to the City Charter last week that would eliminate the city manager and define the powers and structure of a strong mayor system.

The proposed charter changes, and a 75-word ballot question that summarizes the sweeping overhaul, will be reviewed by the City Council at its regular meeting July 19. The council would have to approve the changes and the ballot question at its two meetings in August in order for it to be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot.

If approved by voters, the strong mayor system would take effect in 2020, when three council seats, including the mayor, are up for election and longtime City Manager Bill Horne plans to retire.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: A strong mayor for Clearwater? Some think it’s time

The task force completed its seven-week meeting schedule without major conflict, but the exercise shed light on the debate that lies ahead: Would a strong mayor system be a good fit for Clearwater?

The council voted to form the task force in May, after a handful of downtown business advocates met with Mayor George Cretekos and Horne and encouraged the city to explore the concept. It left the task force only seven weeks to revise the 100-year-old charter and present changes to the council for approval in order to make the Supervisor of Elections deadline for the ballot.

Referendum questions are normally prepared over the course of about nine months, according to Florida League of Cities University Director Lynn Tipton.

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Council-manager governments are designed to keep politics out of city business, with a professional, appointed administrator who runs day-to-day operations and an elected body that votes on policies. About 67 percent of Florida’s 412 municipalities operate this way, according to the league.

Council-strong mayor governments, with an elected official as chief executive able to hire, fire, control the budget and make deals, operate in 48 cities, including Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Bud Elias, owner of the human resources firm Advantage Group, said a strong mayor system is needed to give Clearwater the regional presence it has lacked for decades. Elias is part of a group that began building the effort this year along with Matt Becker, owner of a staffing agency and chair of the Clearwater Downtown Partnership; Grant Wood, a real estate developer and CDP vice chair; and Zach Thorn, project manager for downtown real estate investor Daniels Ikajevs.

"There is a vision for St. Petersburg, there’s a strong vision for Tampa," said Elias, who chaired the task force. "How about Clearwater? Why aren’t we involved in the regional issues of transportation and affordable housing, as an example? We need someone who’s strong enough to insert themselves."

Beth Rawlins, a Clearwater-based political consultant who has worked for the Florida City and County Management Association, said she fears the task force’s timeline to rewrite the charter leaves the city vulnerable to mistakes.

She said giving one elected politician the power to hire and fire, veto budget items, negotiate contracts and other actions is "too much to be in one person’s hands." She worries the process was a result of "a handful of well-connected people getting unfettered access to the government."

"They threw out the rule book and created this bastard of a process that, again, has been so fast and so non-deliberative that there very well may be problems in this charter we might not find until after November," she said.

City Attorney Pam Akin said even before she began compiling all of the task force’s proposed changes into one ordinance, she already found one oversight.

During one of its meetings, the task force had agreed to give a strong mayor veto power, with the City Council able to override the veto at its next regular meeting. While reviewing the language later, Akin realized the phrasing should have included "or at a special meeting called for that purpose" to address issues that couldn’t wait for a regularly scheduled meeting.

She was able to present that oversight and have the wording changed before the task force’s meetings concluded.

As of this week, Akin said she was still preparing the wording of the proposed ordinance for the council’s July 19 review.

Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition President Karen Cunningham, who also served on the task force, said membership is so split on the strong mayor concept that the organization will not be endorsing either side. The coalition plans to host an educational meeting for the public in September and distribute information to its more than 30 neighborhood organizations, Cunningham said.

She said the next several months will be key to educating the community about the concept, given all that is at stake.

"It’s going to shape our city for a long time either way," Cunningham said. "It’s going to be a critical vote for the people of the city."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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