As leaders of the region’s two biggest cities, Bob Buckhorn and Rick Kriseman dominate headlines in Tampa Bay politics.
But it was Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos who became the breakout speaker at Tuesday’s meeting of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.
All three mayors were on stage at the St. Petersburg Marriott Clearwater on Roosevelt Boulevard.
Only recently has Cretekos emerged as a leader in his own right, coming into the spotlight after 36 years serving as an aide to the late C.W. Bill Young before he was elected to the Clearwater City Council in 2007, then mayor in 2012.
Clearwater is the third major city in the greater Tampa Bay area, which has now developed into the 11th biggest media market in the U.S.
Currently, city leaders are discussing the Imagine Clearwater master plan, which seeks to establish a framework for the future of the downtown Clearwater waterfront area. Cretekos’ biggest concern these days, he said, is that the city will still be discussing Imagine Clearwater five years now, vowing “that cannot happen.”
“We need the private sector to step up and take a role in reclaiming our downtown in investing in what we’re trying to do to imagine Clearwater that not only draws tourists but also has a high-tech center in downtown,” Cretekos said.
The mayor added that a redeveloped U.S. 19 corridor is also part of the plan.
Being an elected official in Clearwater can be challenging, particularly when dealing with the fact that the city is the “spiritual home” for the Church of Scientology, the incredibly controversial organization which owns more than half a billion dollars of property in the city.
Cretekos was asked to comment on actress Leah Remini‘s popular A&E docuseries “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath.” The show featured former Scientologists sharing stories of their involvement with the church: being abused, stripped of money or separated from families.
Cretekos praised Clearwater citizens who are members of the COS, saying they cared about the community as much as everybody else.
Then he went further.
“What we’ve seen in the Leah Remini story is one — the Church of Scientology has a terrible PR department. They are just awful. And they also need to understand that … churches support families. They shouldn’t divide them,” Cretekos said, adding the Church “ought to think twice about its policies on families.”
Cretekos lashed out at the editorial direction of the Tampa Bay Times, blasting the paper for concentrating resources far too much into St. Petersburg and Tampa, while forgetting “the rest of the communities.”
“They think that what goes on (in Clearwater) should only be in a weekly section. Well, it’s embarrassing when you read the Sunday paper, and there are four pages of obituaries in the local section, and two pages of news,” he said indignantly.
“That’s not Pinellas County. That’s not Tampa Bay,” he said, generating a large round of applause.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman just held his campaign kickoff fundraising event for his re-election effort last week. The year 2016 was rough the mayor, ostensibly because of how he handled the city’s problems with wastewater management, which has led to several harsh editorials in the Times.
“Mayor Cretekos was saying that he’d like to get some more ink from the Times versus St. Pete and Tampa,” Kriseman cracked after his introduction. “I’d be OK with it,” which elicited perhaps the largest collective laugh of the afternoon.
During the Q&A portion of the luncheon, Matt Lettelleir, director of party development for the Pinellas County Republican Party, asked Kriseman directly if last summer’s sewage dumps negatively affected Tampa Bay,
Lettelleir wished to know whether it ultimately did “no damage,” as Kriseman told the Times last month.
“Anytime that you’re discharging into the Bay, it’s not a good thing,” Kriseman admitted. “Fortunately for us, what we did discharge into the Bay was partially treated wastewater, it wasn’t raw sewage. And fortunately for us, what we did discharge into the Bay had low fecal coliform levels, instead of high ones, which are what causes health issues.”
“Any discharge is not a good discharge,” he added.
Kriseman said his administration intended on doing everything possible to avoid that from happening again but added that he can’t control the weather.
Although the mayors deliberately downplayed partisan politics when talking about how they go about doing their jobs, the facts are that Buckhorn and Kriseman are Democrats, Cretekos is a Republican.
When the Clearwater Mayor somewhat spontaneously delivered a tribute (of sorts) to President Donald Trump, the crowd went strangely silent.
“I know that many of you are frustrated that Donald Trump is our president, but I’ve got to tell you, and you’ve got to admit that Donald Trump was saying things that many of us were too embarrassed to admit.”
It should be noted more than a few people were shaking their heads quietly as Cretekos went on.
“I’m not saying that he’s right. I’m saying that some of the things that he was saying is that we all believe, and that’s how he got elected.”
Former Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner indirectly asked the mayors if their cities were sanctuary cities, classified as communities opting not to cooperate with the federal government in identifying undocumented immigrants.
Cretekos used the occasion to mention how Clearwater is the home to many Mexican-Americans.
“Those who are legal in the United States, we will protect and we will work with them. Those who are illegal are an important part of our economy,” he said before being literally cut off by a bell.
Cretekos chose not to speak over the sound.
Buckhorn said Trump’s emergency order, issued Friday night setting up a temporary ban on refugees, “was inherently wrong.”
“I think it was a religious litmus test,” he said. “I think it goes against the values of who we are as Americans and what we stand for as Americans,” generating a healthy cheer. He went on to say that the country needed to improve the immigration system which included tough vetting of anybody legally entering the country, but noted that “you do not put a religious test on the ability to come to America. That’s not who we are.”
And Buckhorn repeated that, while Tampa is not a sanctuary city, his officers are “not the immigration police;” they won’t be chasing after the undocumented.
Kriseman said, philosophically, the city will embrace everyone but then pointed out it was Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri who is the law enforcement official in charge of that effort.
Naturally, the issue of a Tampa Bay Rays baseball stadium came up.
The saga — now more than eight-year-old — is currently at the stage where, within the next few months, the Rays are expected to announce where they intend to play in the Tampa Bay area.
Buckhorn was asked if he knew for certain that the team would draw more fans in Tampa than they currently do in St. Petersburg, where the Rays languished on the bottom with the worst home attendance for several years in a row.
“I can’t tell you that I can assure you that would be the case,” Buckhorn acknowledged. Nor did he say he had any idea how the city could pay for a ballpark estimated to cost at least $600 million.
All three mayors also discussed transportation.
Cretekos called the lack of a mass transit system in the area “an embarrassment.”
Buckhorn, blasting Tea Party activists, said “some people think rail is a U.N. plot. That’s how patently absurd some of the arguments I heard during the course of this.”
Kriseman once again called for the state Legislature to allow cities like Tampa and St. Petersburg to hold their own transit referendums. But, despite pleas to do so, the Legislature has shown zero inclination to support such a proposal.