By JACK REED
St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2000
I once called the Clearwater City Commission a "Stealth Commission." By that I meant it tried to remain invisible on the political radar screen while City Manager Mike Roberto went about the city's business.
In September 1997, I speculated that by avoiding debate on the important issues of the day, the commission thought it could avoid the pain of dissension. And I had two concerns: that policy decisions would be made in private by Roberto, and that the commission might not be there for Roberto when controversial decisions backfired.
I was half-right.
Yes, for the most part Roberto has been a one-man band, driving important issues in the direction he wanted. But most of the commissioners have followed dutifully behind, even when embarrassed by Roberto.
That could be changing.
When two new commissioners were elected in March 1999, they adopted the stealth behavior. While Mayor Brian Aungst ran on a promise of more commission oversight of Roberto, in practice it turned into a Mike and Brian buddy movie, almost literally. Its title: Take Two. That cable show, starring Aungst and Roberto, replaced the city manager's solo gig, Open Mike, as the happy-talk show on city issues. (Although, Aungst has started showing signs of more independence.)
During one self-inflicted crisis after another, Roberto has been picked up by the commission, dusted off and given the key to the city one more time. Until now.
It was a poorly kept secret that Commissioner Ed Hart was growing dissatisfied with Roberto. Recently, Hart went public with his reasons.
Hart told Times staff writer Christina Headrick that he is tired of Roberto and his staff making decisions that should have come before the commission. And he bemoaned the city's lack of truthfulness, which has damaged its credibility with an increasing number of residents.
If Hart was wondering how his candor would be accepted, he should look at the three letters on this page (and one yesterday) thanking him for stepping up to his responsibility.
Even Roberto's supporters should admit that the city is so far out of balance that it risks a fall. When a city manager, any city manager, gets too headstrong, the necessary checks and balances of government are ignored.
Take the roundabout.
It was probably the issue that sparked Hart into action. (After all, he is the only commissioner who must drive through it every day.) Once again Roberto had moved too quickly and was loose with the truth. The result was a public relations nightmare. Worse, Roberto was denying anything was wrong with his creation, saying it had to be the drivers' fault.
The commission finally did agreed to find fixes for the roundabout, but Hart may have a point when he warns that the fix is being rushed, just as the original project was.
Clearwater residents should thank Hart for saying something that needed to be said. Even Roberto should thank him, because the city manager has stepped so far outside the bounds of his profession that he puts his own future at risk.
To a certain segment of the community, especially those who will profit from Roberto's aggressive redevelopment plans, the city manager is more popular (and more important) than the commissioners. That's not healthy.
A Roberto appreciation dinner has already been held and a friendly Roberto roast is in the works. I don't remember any dinners in honor of commissioners (who were, remember, elected by Clearwater residents).
The power has obviously gone to Roberto's head. In answering a recent e-mail question from Hart, Roberto responded: "Ed, what in the world is the purpose of this e-mail?"
If we answered our boss' questions in that tone, we'd probably be looking for another job. Yet Roberto feels that confident.
Maybe that's changing. It better, for everyone's good.