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City's reversal on boat slip vote raises questions

A Times Editorial
Published August 24, 2006

How odd that there was such unanimity on the Clearwater City Council last week when the board suddenly decided to delay a November referendum on construction of downtown boat slips.

On Aug. 3, the council was unanimously delighted to approve a Nov. 7 referendum on a city charter change that would allow construction of up to 140 public boat slips along the downtown waterfront.

Then last week, they unanimously reversed themselves, deciding to pull the question off the November ballot and put it on the March 2007 city election ballot instead.

What happened in the intervening two weeks to change their minds?

Mayor Frank Hibbard said he looked at the Nov. 7 ballot and noticed how jammed it was with other items, including races for governor, Congress, state Legislature, County Commission, School Board and several questions about proposed changes to the Pinellas County charter.

"The more I pondered that, the more I thought we might be better off pushing the boat slips to March," Hibbard said.

Council members Carlen Petersen and John Doran quickly agreed, with virtually no discussion. Council member Hoyt Hamilton did too, pointing out he had previously expressed concern about having the county charter amendment questions, which the city hopes voters will reject, on the ballot alongside the city charter amendment question, which they hope voters will approve.

Council member Bill Jonson made the decision to delay unanimous, saying, "There's a few things that are, in my mind, not quite settled. ... I'd like to have that resolved."

Not quite settled? That is a more plausible explanation than a crowded ballot, which these elected officials presumably knew about before now, their being politicians and being swamped, like everyone else, in a tidal wave of electioneering by candidates for the Sept. 5 primary and Nov. 7 election.

The question is, Why weren't things settled? Clearwater officials have known since 2004 that they would be asking voters again for permission to build boat slips downtown. In 2004, city voters rejected a more elaborate city plan for a waterfront marina, parking garage, new amphitheater and greatly expanded Coachman Park. It was a good plan derailed in part by inaccurate fliers distributed by an opposition group.

City officials also have talked since 2004 about how the next time they approached voters, it should be with a less elaborate plan and with a carefully crafted program to educate voters before Election Day.

Yet it was immediately apparent after the Aug. 3 vote that the city was not ready to launch that education campaign. The city staff did not have good pictures of the project to show the public - those were still being worked up. Officials couldn't answer some questions about the project, or they gave inconsistent answers. Some details about the project weren't pinned down.

Putting boat slips on the bayfront is still a great idea that will bring more people and more interest to downtown. But Clearwater fumbled the launch by not having its plans ready, and now the city must add a new item to its to-do list: convincing voters between now and March that it knows what it is doing.

[Last modified August 23, 2006, 20:11:58]

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