The Clearwater City Council had 30 days to fill Frank Hibbard’s vacated mayoral seat before the decision went to voters in a November special election; it only took a week.
After about an hour of public feedback and 35 minutes of internal debate, the council decided former Mayor Brian Aungst Sr. was the best person for the job. The move necessitates several conditions as his son, Brian Aungst Jr., is a prominent local attorney who frequently represents clients on city development initiatives.
However, council members felt the elder Aungst’s experience and pledge not to run for the permanent position made him the best candidate not already sitting on the dais. He will now complete the last 11 months of Hibbard’s term.
“I think its important to have someone who is collaborative with the community and the council,” said Vice Mayor Kathleen Beckmen. “Someone who views their position as an equal to other council members, and not as superior.
“Someone who is up to speed on city issues – not just businesses and buildings – but in tune with residents across the entire city. Someone who will respect decisions made by the council.”
Aungst, 69, served as Clearwater’s mayor from 1999 until 2004. Following Hibbard’s abrupt departure, he volunteered for the position and spoke to council members and the city attorney about a potential appointment.
Aungst will fill two roles, as Clearwater’s mayor also votes on city issues as the council chairperson. That underscored the need for City Attorney David Margolis to issue some ground rules.
Margolis said he spoke with Aungst and his son about navigating potential conflicts of interest last week as he emerged as a frontrunner to replace Hibbard. He noted Aungst Jr. “represents a wide array of property owners and developers” on “various real estate deals in the city.”
State statute stipulates that Aungst must recuse himself from any matters involving his son or his son’s firm, Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen, that come before the council. In addition, the interim mayor and Aungst Jr. must not discuss city issues “behind the scenes.”
“Mr. Aungst gave me his commitment in writing that he would not, in fact, have any sort of involvement relating to that,” Margolis relayed. “He would not give direction to the city manager or city staff regarding any of his son’s real estate involvement.”
Aungst also pledged not to seek reelection in 2024. However, Margolis noted that it is legal to do so, “and there is no assurance beyond someone’s integrity and their word.”
Hibbard unexpectedly packed his things and left the dais March 20 during a budget workshop discussion. He was the sole council member to push back against a $90 million appropriation, with a $60 million funding deficit, for a new City Hall and municipal services complex.
“This is simple math,” Hibbard said at the time. “And we’re not doing very well on the test.”
Councilmember David Albritton kicked off Monday’s discussion. He called it unfortunate that Hibbard alluded to fiscal irresponsibility by city officials and said the claim was unfounded.
Like many public speakers, he advocated for Beckman or Aungst to assume the interim position.
Councilmember Mark Bunker said he thought Beckman should serve as mayor by the time Hibbard walked out the door. He said that could begin now or following the 2024 general election.
Bunker also noted that several “movers and shakers” contacted him about the vacancy, and many expressed their support for Aungst. However, he said average residents raised concerns about potential ethics issues.
“Clearwater, at this juncture, needs someone with previous mayor experience,” said Councilmember Lina Teixeira. “To seamlessly step in to steer this ship with a steady hand and stay on course.”
Beckman wanted to see a council member fill Hibbard’s seat and noted Albritton had the most seniority. He expressed his desire to complete the three years remaining on his term before retirement.
Despite support from the public and her colleagues, Beckman also declined to volunteer for the interim role. She cited city issues she would like to focus on for several years rather than the remaining 11 months of Hibbard’s term.
“I do plan to run again for another four years,” Beckman added. “And I have not made up my mind yet on whether or not a mayor’s position or a council position.”
The council agreed that the interim mayor should not seek reelection, something Hibbard noted before leaving the dais. Teixeira called it an unfair advantage.
City council members unanimously selected Aungst as their chairperson and Clearwater’s mayor for the next 11 months. Beckman suggested a swearing-in ceremony after the April 4 meeting, and Margolis recommended coordinating with Aungst to accommodate family, friends and “dignitaries that may be interested in attending.”