Five Council Members Could Vote to Sell the Public Beach
It could happen! Five members of Clearwater's City Council could legally sell the public beach, and much more, if a proposed change to the city charter moves forward. A change to Clearwater City's Charter has been proposed which, if approved by a referendum in November, will make it possible for any land zoned recreation/open space to be sold without a referendum of the people. As the Charter is currently written, "no city-owned land which is zoned recreation/open space may be sold, donated, leased for a new use, or otherwise transferred without approval at referendum."
The current Charter Review Committee has voted to change that by inserting the words, "the unanimous vote of council or" referendum, etc. The fact that this would allow five people to sell the public beach, the recreation land from the swimming pool to the recreation center, the Marina property, Memorial Causeway (a sizeable plot of which is located beside the new bridge in the area where the old bridge used to be), McKay Field, Mandalay Park and Pier 60 Park, as well as numerous areas on the mainland, was not discussed by the Committee before voting to change the charter.
"It was more philosophical," said one committee member. Most of the conversation was about "streamlining the charter" and "leaving the Council more free to act." One committee member said it would "take decisions out of the hands of special interest groups that have too much influence with the people." While the public beach was not brought into the discussion, much was said about Coachman Park and the Clearwater bayfront where two proposals for commercial development have been defeated by referendum.
On September 11, the Charter Review Committee held a public hearing so that the public could have input on these and other proposals for changes to the charter. Over 20 people were on hand to protest three of the changes; the removal of a referendum before selling recreation/open space land, the removal of all restrictions to developing Coachman Park and the removal of a referendum requirement for all projects that require bonds worth over $1 million.
Among those at the public hearing were five former City Commissioners, all of whom opposed the proposed removal of referendum requirements.
"For 50 years, many progressive leaders and the people of Clearwater have accumulated these open space lands," said former Commissioner Lee Regulski. "The people have the right to decide on the use of them. People who have come from Metropolitan Areas see the difference this makes in the quality of life in Clearwater and realize the treasure of open space. All of us wish to see it left for our children."
"I don't know why the Council would be afraid of referendums," said Suzanne Boschen, a native of Clearwater. "If they came up with some awesome thing that was worth the sacrifice of our public lands, I have faith the voters would approve it. You can trust the voters. If it's good, they'll approve it. But if the deal stinks we're going to 'tank it'."
Joe Evich, president of the Coalition of Clearwater Neighborhood Associations, recommended that they "keep the referendums. It's our only check and balance on elected officials. To remove the referendum would weaken our voice, not strengthen it," he said.
When asked, Howard Warshauer, vice chairman of the committee who was conducting the meeting, told the meeting that West Palm Beach had a less restrictive charter and contained no referendums. Warshauer is a former Council Member of West Palm, and moved to Clearwater in 2004. He felt that the elected officials "should be able to perform their duties not restricted by referendums."
Frank Dame, a committee member who lives on Island Estates, pointed out the committee would hold more meetings before their report would be presented to the City Council for approval and that issues would be reviewed again with public comment in mind. None of the officials present, however, could tell the members of the public when these meetings would be.
Committee member, Elizabeth Drayer, who had voted against all three of the referendum changes, thanked the people for coming and urged them to continue to oppose it.
After review at more Charter Review Committee meetings, the report will go to the Clearwater City Council. The Council members will make any changes they see fit and place the issues on a ballot to be considered by the voters in November.
At the meeting of the Charter Review Committee when the vote to remove the referendums was taken, one committee member stated, "Citizens have the right to open debate. A referendum may slow the process but affords the public time to research the issue." But the vote against referendums was 5 to 3 and it was listed as a recommendation.
"And," said longtime Beach resident Charles Shank, "we need to remember, too much power becomes abusive power."
Letters and e-mails on this subject should be addressed to members of the Charter Review Committee at Clearwater City Hall.
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