A lawyer suggests Clearwater look into changing the city charter so it can incorporate the full-time position.
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
St. Petersburg Times
August 1, 2000
CLEARWATER -- The trial balloon popped.
After about 30 seconds of discussion, City Commissioners decided Monday to do nothing with a local lawyer's proposal that they consider replacing the city manager with a full-time elected mayor.
Timothy A. Johnson Jr., a prominent and politically active lawyer from a local pioneer family, suggested in a letter last week that now is the time to consider such a change in the city charter -- before commissioners select a replacement for City Manager Mike Roberto, who resigned last month under pressure.
He urged commissioners to appoint a panel of residents to study the idea.
But his suggestion was quickly dismissed at a City Commission workshop after Commissioner Ed Hart asked his four peers what they thought about it. His colleagues said the issue could best be dealt with when the city's Charter Review Committee convenes again in 2003.
Hart said later he wasn't pushing the issue but thought it needed to be debated. He said he had problems with the way city government functioned under Roberto but also has misgivings about a "strong-mayor" system.
One problem: When the full-time mayor hires a top administrator to help run the city, "Are you then paying for two people rather than just one?" Hart asked.
"What I'm looking for is competency at the top rather than just some type of figurehead," Hart said, whether it's a full-time mayor or a city manager.
Mayor Brian Aungst was one of those who dismissed Johnson's proposal at Monday's meeting, but said later, "We probably need to discuss it more than that."
He added it would appear self-serving for the mayor to push such an issue. He also expressed discomfort that such an initiative would affect interim city manager Bill Horne, who, Aungst said, deserves a chance to show how he would perform as a permanent replacement.
"It's kind of a delicate issue," the mayor said.
"That's incredible," Johnson said Monday from his vacation home in North Carolina. "I regret that they so summarily dismissed it . . . I guess we're in for a time of timid politics in Clearwater, and I guess this is a manifestation of that."
Johnson said he did not set out to lead a campaign for a strong mayor government in Clearwater but could change his mind when he returns home and has time to assess public support for the idea.
Under the city charter, which acts as a constitution for city government, the commission may place a charter change on the ballot at any time.
But the charter also allows citizens to lead a charter change. They must form a committee, write a petition and collect signatures from at least 10 percent of the city's 71,700 voters.
In a letter to the commission last week, Johnson argued that the city's current government -- led by a city manager who serves at the pleasure of a part-time mayor and commission -- is "not a picture of success."
He said the city has been chronically divided and alluded to recent troubles, including Roberto's resignation and last month's contentious referendum over the future of downtown.
Clearwater has had four city managers since 1988, each lasting about three years.