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    Brevity not on commission's final agenda

    The last meeting before several new city commissioners are elected is loaded with votes on major issues.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Thinking about attending the final Clearwater City Commission meeting before the March election?

    Bring a sleeping bag. Thursday night's meeting promises to be a long one.

    Two weeks before voters will place three new commissioners on the five-member board, the City Commission is slated to approve plans for a $65-million, 250-room Marriott resort that requires reconfiguring roads and public parking on south Clearwater Beach.

    Also on the agenda is finalizing the agreement to develop a new $23-million-plus spring training complex for the Philadelphia Phillies on the site of an old landfill on the 2400 block of Drew Street.

    And commissioners will consider hiring an architect for a $20-million main library downtown, signing a long-term funding and lease agreement for Ruth Eckerd Hall and taking a final vote on raising water and sewer rates by 40 percent through 2004 to afford $113-million in sewer and water repairs.

    "We may have another marathon meeting," said Mayor Brian Aungst, admitting he sounded tired as he spoke the words last week.

    So is this any way for a lame-duck commission to act?

    City officials say the big agenda is the result of a desire to finish major approvals needed for projects that were begun under their watch. They said they wouldn't want the new commission to take on all the issues in its first few meetings.

    "There's no reason to stop the momentum," said interim City Manager Bill Horne. "I made it pretty clear to the commission what was on their plate. And I must tell you, they've been pretty consistent with me, saying "Bill, keep things moving.' "

    But two commissioners, Bob Clark and Ed Hart, said that they have told Horne the city may have to wait on some projects if all the details aren't available in time for the final meetings before the March 13 election.

    That's one reason Clark said he voted against the water and sewer rate increase earlier this month and will likely oppose it again this week: lack of information about a proposed water treatment plant that the increase will finance.

    "It wasn't fair in my second or third year in office to do stuff without enough information, and it isn't fair in the last meeting of my checkered political career," Clark said.

    Both Hart and Clark also said they were worried because by Thursday morning, they had not yet reviewed a final draft of an agreement to build the Phillies' stadium. City officials were negotiating how some costs would be split between the city and the team and finalizing the terms. But a new draft of the deal was sent to the commissioners later Thursday.

    "After five years on the commission, I can tell you this: If we act on these projects, we'll be criticized," Clark said. "If we don't act on them, we'll be criticized."

    Hart suggested that if the commission needs it, a special meeting could be called to finish considering the issues, or some may have to wait for the new commission.

    "It's not my agenda to push," Hart said.

    But Aungst said he was pretty comfortable last week about moving forward with the agenda. He noted that all the projects have been debated for months at public meetings.

    "I don't think there's going to be any major surprises from what we've talked about for a while," Aungst said.

    Some of the candidates running for commission seats have noted the outgoing commission's long, historymaking last agenda.

    "I'm a little concerned it's all getting done under the wire," said candidate Frank Hibbard, a bank investment officer who is running for Seat 5. "It's a little like President Clinton's pardons."

    One of Hibbard's opponents, former School Board member and real estate agent Lucile Casey, agreed.

    "It boggles my mind we sit on consultant's plans for years and then they're in a rush to vote on all this now," Casey said. "If there are any unanswered questions out there, then it's best leave them unanswered for the new commission."

    Former Mayor Rita Garvey, who is running for Seat 3, said that typically, city staff members try to limit the number of big projects on any meeting agenda to make sure the commission isn't overloaded and the public has ample time to comment. She thinks Thursday's agenda is too full of big decisions.

    But her opponent, Hoyt Hamilton, didn't have a problem with it.

    "I don't think there's a rush to get anything done," Hamilton said. "Four (commissioners) are well-versed in all these issues for months. It's probably not fair to have some of these on the first agenda of the new commission. We have not been privy to all of that up to now. It would slow the process."

    Still, most candidates say they would be unlikely to reverse decisions made this week by the commission.

    "Once decisions are made, we have to respect those decisions," Garvey said.

    Hamilton said, "I'm not going in there with some cavalier attitude and saying, "Whoa, stop the presses.' "

    Only Lee Regulski, a former commissioner running against local civic volunteer Whitney Gray for Seat 4, proposed turning back the clock if he's elected.

    Regulski said he would try to amend the city's plans for beach redevelopment: He would keep public parking lots that now front the beach and not tear them up to create a beach promenade and new S Gulfview Boulevard, as city officials propose. And that would throw a wrench in the deal to build the Marriott resort in the area.

    City Attorney Pam Akin said that the new commission will be able to halt some of the projects if it wants to. For instance, commissioners could vote against vacating part of Third Street and giving it to developers to build the proposed 150-foot-tall Marriott resort across the 200 and 300 blocks of S Gulfview.

    "We can't contract away those kinds of legislative duties," Akin said.

    But Akin predicted the Phillies project could be more difficult to get out of, and breaking the agreement could result in "cost issues" for the city.

    Drafts of agreements to be approved this week have been around for more than a month. Akin blamed delays in finalizing the deals on the fact that "these are long and complex documents. You just have to be very careful with long-term documents."

    This week's meeting, she said, is "bound to be a long one."

    Commissioners will hold a 9 a.m. workshop Monday at City Hall at 112 S. Osceola Ave. to talk about their agenda and the projects on it. Their meeting on Thursday begins at 6 p.m.

    -- Information from Times files was used in this report.

    On the agenda

    Some of the items on Thursday's Clearwater City Commission agenda:

    PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES SPRING TRAINING COMPLEX: Commissioners will consider a development agreement, the last big vote on the deal. City will spend $5-million for construction; $250,000 to prepare an old landfill at 2465 Drew St. for the stadium; $300,000 to improve nearby roads and infrastructure; and $115,000 for insurance. The Phillies will spend at least $3-million and oversee design and construction. State and county funds total $14-million. The deal dies if it costs more than $500,000 to prepare the landfill for a stadium, if the Phillies' future environmental tests show the stadium site is not appropriate or if the city does not issue bonds for the facility by Oct. 1.

    BEACH RESORT: A vote is scheduled on Clearwater attorney Bill Kimpton's deal to build a 250-room, 150-foot-tall resort on the 200 and 300 blocks of S Gulfview Boulevard with at least 750 parking spaces in a garage, 400 of them public. City will remove parking along S Gulfview that produces about $700,000 in revenue annually, move Gulfview west and give part of Third Street to the developers. The developers will help finance a $3.5-million beautification project for the street, a pedestrian overpass above Gulfview from the hotel to the beach and a new pedestrian path along the beachfront. They will chip in about $700,000 to the street project and get back impact fee credits from the city. They get to build about 180 more hotel rooms than now allowed in exchange for putting the Marriott brand or another major brand on their hotel.

    SEWER AND WATER RATES: Commissioners will take a final vote on five rate increases of 7 percent every nine months beginning in July and ending 2004 -- a cumulative increase of 40 percent. The work will pay for an estimated $113-million in water and sewer projects during the next five years. Commissioners also will vote whether to start spending that money Thursday, with $2-million for a new laboratory to improve testing of sewer water discharges to Clearwater Harbor and reclaimed water. Additionally, they will vote on a $9.4-million overhaul of the city's northeast sewer plant.

    LIBRARY: Commission decides whether to hire Harvard Jolly Clees Toppe Architects of St. Petersburg as the master architect for the main city library. Sets project budget at $15-million in city funds plus an estimated $5-million of public donations. If the donations don't come through, architect will be told to leave part of the 90,000-square-foot facility as empty, unfinished space for later work. Commissioners will hear a report on fundraising status before going forward.

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