Give Longboat Key Town Attorney David Persson credit. He submitted and announced his resignation Monday honorably, with dignity and integrity and as a gentleman. Frankly, we would not have expected otherwise.
For 22-plus years, that is how Persson conducted himself from the dais in the Longboat Key Town Commission Chambers. We cannot recall one time when the bow-tied barrister ever lost his composure in public — although he had many, many, many opportunities to do so dealing with some of the characters that have confronted him in the more than 3,500 town meetings he served as town counsel.
Although Persson was becoming an increasing target of criticism in the wake of two court decisions that thwarted the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s expansion plans, Longboat Key residents must not overlook that the body of Persson’s legal counsel over 22 years was that of an effective influence for good for Longboat Key.
Sure, the town paid him a lot of money, a subject that periodically irked some taxpayers. But it wasn’t as if Persson was milking the town. Think about it: You might say over the past 22 years it has been in the town and Town Commission’s DNA to be constantly enmeshed in legal controversies. So if you’re a lawyer, and your livelihood is based on the legal work your clients create, Persson knew Longboat Key was the place to be. Just think of some of the legal controversies:
• The formation of beach-renourishment taxing districts in the early 1990s.
• Numerous “encounters” with Murf Klauber and the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort;
• The sign ordinance;
• The Einisman property behind Publix;
• Jet skis and Casa del Mar;
• Outdoor dining;
• The restaurant at Cedars East;
• The Lynch sisters and Lynches Landing;
• Dogs on the beach;
• Turtle light ordinance;
• Parking in the Village;
• Mar Vista and Moore’s Stone Crab;
• Harry’s Continental Kitchens parking;
• Town Hall labor disputes and firings;
• Dozens and dozens and dozens of property owners and developers battling the town about zoning variances;
• The resignation of Bruce St. Denis and securing his replacement;
• And, of course, the two-year legal saga with the Longboat Key Club and Resort.
These just scratch the surface of Persson’s tenure. And knowing what you know about Longboat Key Town Commission meetings, can you imagine enduring what Persson did — sitting through more than 500 of those three- to four-hour sessions of often mind-numbing chatter? The money couldn’t have been that good.
To be sure, Persson was politically smart. When you spend 22 years counseling politicians and bureaucrats, you can’t help but become adept, winning over some, alienating others. Persson did that.
Nonetheless, he will and should be remembered for his good humor. No matter what the situation, you could count on him to lighten the atmosphere with a witty comment. And this is important: Until now, he was never the center of the controversy, an indication of how he carefully operated by the legal book. Indeed, in our experience with Persson as a news source, Persson was always careful about the comments he made.
We said “until now.” Persson was not the controversy until now. In the weeks leading up to his resignation, and in the wake of the two court rulings that quashed the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s expansion plans, there was a growing drum beat around town that the town and Key Club’s defeats resulted from poor advice from the town counsel.
In fact, criticism of Persson was rising from both sides — proponents and opponents to the project.
Former Longboat Key Planning and Zoning Board member Brad Saivetz, a staunch opponent to the Key Club’s plans, last week requested documentation on how much money the town has spent on Persson’s services. Saivetz thinks Persson’s advice cost taxpayers.
On the other side, some proponents of the Key Club plans contend Persson’s advice should have led commissioners down a victorious path, not a legal drubbing. They wanted him out.
But as Persson reminded Longboat Observer Managing Editor Kurt Schultheis Tuesday, when the Key Club process began, he recommended amending the town codes and comprehensive plan before the approval process began. The club and commission took a different tack.
We also recall that Persson gave commissioners this warning: Even if the commissioners believe they made sound decisions, how a judge or jury sees those decisions is always a gamble.
Judging from last week’s “drum beat” around the Key about Persson, you can surmise that he saw trouble rising on the horizon and concluded that it would be best to step aside before the storm unfurls. Persson told us the Key Club defeats weren’t his motivation; he said his resignation has been in the works for nearly two years, delayed mostly by the turmoil of replacing former Town Manager Bruce St. Denis.
Given his record over the past 22 years, believe him. And give him credit. For all these years, Persson knew one of his jobs as town counsel was not to become the story, the center of the controversy. If you go out, take the high road, go gracefully, with integrity in tact. What you would expect from the barrister with the bow tie?
+ Longboaters need a sign
Longboat Key Mayor Jim Brown has had quite a term:
• The seemingly never-ending saga at the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort;
• The redevelopment of Publix;
• The resignation and replacement of longtime Town Manager Bruce St. Denis;
• The death of popular Police Chief Al Hogle;
• The legal defeats of the Longboat Key Club’s expansion plans;
• The sale of the Key Club to Ocean Properties Ltd.;
• And now the resignation of Town Attorney David Persson.
It’s enough to make you not run for re-election.
Sorry, mayor, no doubt you know this is no time to think about coasting to the end of your mayoral term. There’s an urgency for strong leadership.
In the wake of 12th Circuit Court Judge Lee Haworth’s recent court ruling — requiring substantial rewriting of the town’s zoning codes and comprehensive plan and effectively placing a moratorium on large-scale development projects on Longboat Key — there’s a palpable feeling of worry among many residents about the future of Longboat Key.
This is what they see: They see a new Publix and CVS. But those two positive projects don’t outweigh what they also see: the Key Club thwarted; the Colony tangled and stuck; the Longboat Key Hilton Beachfront Resort redevelopment on hold indefinitely; Whitney Beach — more of its struggling past.
Longboaters can’t help but worry about the future. They know too well what happens in communities that sit stagnant. They know what happens in communities where “the law” obstructs capital and intervenes excessively in property ownership. None of the outcomes is good.
While Mayor Brown, his fellow town commissioners and Town Manager David Bullock know the process of rewriting town zoning codes and comprehensive plan are likely long and arduous, they need to send signals to Longboat residents and the development community at large that the town and Town Commission are moving forward, in the words of late Longboater Jim Durante, with “deliberate haste.”
Here’s one suggestion: Look for a short-term legal remedy to allow Ocean Properties to proceed now with its redevelopment of the Hilton. This could be Town Attorney David Persson’s opportunity to go out a hero.
Longboaters need some reassurance.