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    Will commission live happily ever after?

    Some in Clearwater worry commissioners will agree with one another too readily without Ed Hart in the mix to raise questions.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 15, 2002

    CLEARWATER -- Now that the City Commission has lost its resident contrarian, Ed Hart, some local political watchers expect even more agreement among commissioners -- who already vote unanimously most of the time.

    That concerns them.

    "It's a shame that independent thinkers are not welcome on the commission," said former Commissioner Art Deegan. "Now the way things are stacked, I think we're going to see more unanimous, lock-step decisions, and they'll all march to the same tune. But the people have spoken; and if that's what they want, that's what they're going to get."

    Both Deegan and Bill Schwob, a Countryside resident who has sat on numerous city boards, say they see the new commission as being more developer-oriented and chummy with the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce.

    Schwob said the new commission has great people on it with solid backgrounds and educations, but he will miss Hart.

    "I liked the fact that he questioned," Schwob said. "I didn't see it as disruptive. I saw it as democratic to get to the bottom of things."

    Members of the commission that will govern the city for the next two years say that residents should expect them to ask questions and continue disagreeing occasionally.

    Frank Hibbard, the newly elected commissioner who will replace Hart, said he will have "an independent voice."

    "I think in some ways we have similar philosophies; but everybody has different interests and concerns, so I think everybody will champion different issues," Hibbard said. "I'm not going to go ahead with projects that don't make fiscal sense in the long run. I don't think we'll be in lock-step. I think people will be surprised.

    Commissioner Whitney Gray said she hopes the new commission becomes more open with concerns and feelings, and has more spirited debates.

    "If we share anything, it's our vision," Gray said, which she described as "careful progress."

    This is the same Gray who was seen giving a high-five to Hibbard at his victory party at the Island Way Grill. Mayor Brian Aungst and his family also attended the celebration. Commissioner Hoyt Hamilton, who won re-election on Tuesday, even stopped by the party later in the evening to congratulate Hibbard.

    Aungst said he considered the election results to be a validation of the city's existing leadership.

    Aungst added that he doesn't mind if there are some disagreements among the new commissioners at times. Alluding to past confrontations with Hart, Aungst said, "It's never been about disagreeing. It's been about the way you disagree."

    Commissioner Bill Jonson, who sometimes sided with Hart against the rest of the commission, was the most circumspect about the new commission. Jonson said he couldn't predict what the new dynamic will be.

    "I guess we will see what happens," Jonson said. "I'm very happen to serve with whomever the city voters select."

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