Election shift will save money, maybe boost turnout

While more voters may show up at the polls, a critic worries that the move may give incumbents in Clearwater an unfair advantage.

By MIKE DONILA, Times Staff Writer
Published September 25, 2007

Clearwater will move its city elections from March to Jan. 29 to coincide with the presidential primary, the City Council agreed Thursday night.

The switch would save Clearwater taxpayers as much as $70,000, since they wouldn't have to foot the bill for an independent election, city leaders said.

The move is also geared to lure voters who are more likely to cast a ballot for a presidential candidate than they are for a City Council member.

However, the change means candidates wishing to run for the two open City Council seats or the mayoral post will have about a month less to campaign. That could give an advantage to the incumbents because of their name recognition.

Also included on the Jan. 29 ballot will be the statewide super homestead exemption plan and, possibly, some proposals to change Clearwater's charter.

"There's pros and cons to moving it," said Mayor Frank Hibbard, who will seek re-election. "We can save money and generally we don't have a great turnout in March so maybe we'll see more voters if we move it. The greatest detriment is the shorter time frame to campaign, but I still think there's plenty of time."

Anne Garris, who has butted heads with the council in the past, called the move " a blow to the Democratic process in Clearwater."

"It's already difficult for someone to run for (the council) in Clearwater because of the perception that the money is only there for certain people," said Garris, a longtime beach resident. "Shortening the time people have to campaign puts the incumbents in a very favorable position and the disadvantage to everyone who wants to run against them."

About 18 percent of the city's registered voters turned out in March to vote in Clearwater's election that included a boat slip proposal and one contested City Council seat.

When state lawmakers this year moved the presidential primary from March to January, they also approved measures allowing municipalities to move their elections to coincide with the primary without having to amend their charters.

The ordinance Clearwater leaders approved Thursday night not only moves the March election this year, but any election that coincides with the primary.

To make the changes, though, the city needs to send ballot language to the county's election supervisor by Nov. 20. And the council must approve the proposal twice. The next reading will be during its Oct. 4 meeting.

The qualifying period for the three city seats will now run two weeks, beginning Nov. 2. It had been scheduled for Dec. 3 through Dec. 14.

Council member George Cretekos and Vice Mayor John Doran, both up for re-election, said they supported the plan because it would save money. Neither believes the shorter time frame gives them an advantage.

"In my opinion there's plenty of time for anyone who has considered it to jump into the race," Doran said. "But it you haven't already thought about (campaigning), you need to be thinking about it now."