He thought the job would last an hour-and-a-half.
David Persson’s first day as the town attorney for Longboat Key was Oct. 8, 1990. He was 36 years old, had just opened his own law practice and had plans with his wife to celebrate his son’s first birthday that evening in their Longboat Key Estates homes.
Not more than two hours into his first day on the job, Persson thought for sure he was going to resign as the town attorney before his son blew out his birthday cake candles that evening.
“On my first day, I thought the town would only be my client for about an hour-and-a-half,” Persson said.
The town attorney completely underestimated himself.
More than 22 years later, Persson estimates he’s sat through more than 3,500 town meetings during his tenure with the town. During that timeframe, he has worked with 23 different commissions, four town managers, four town clerks, five police chiefs, four fire chiefs, two finance directors and six planning directors.
On Monday, Dec. 3, Persson decided his meeting attendance record at Town Hall, which likely will never be matched, was enough. He submitted his resignation letter to Town Clerk Trish Granger just before 5 p.m. and had informed the Longboat Key Town Commission of his decision that morning.
“Thank you for the privilege of allowing me to serve as your town attorney,” Persson wrote in his brief resignation letter. “It has been an honor to serve the town of Longboat Key in that capacity for the past 22 years. The time has come, however, for me to chart a different course with my practice of law.”
Persson will stay on in his capacity as town attorney no later than June 30, giving Town Manager Dave Bullock and the commission time to interview replacement candidates.
Persson formally made the announcement at the beginning of the commission’s regular meeting Monday night. He explained his resignation was two years in the making.
“It’s been an absolute honor and a privilege to work with you,” Persson said. “Two years ago I was thinking about having a conversation with you, but I decided not to because it was becoming increasingly more apparent you were having troubles with your administration.”
Sitting in his Sarasota office Tuesday morning, Persson, 58, told the Longboat Observer he’s not saying goodbye to Longboat Key. He will just be serving in a different capacity.
“You may see me more at the podium now than you see me at the dais,” said Persson, alluding to the fact his knowledge of the Key and its codes could be beneficial for Key property owners in need of representation.
The town of Longboat Key will also still likely be a client for Persson on certain issues, including the overhaul of the Comprehensive Plan that’s coming with the help of a future planning consultant and community meetings.
“I may be actively participating in the process of arriving at a community consensus for a new community long-range plan,” Persson said.
Persson has always had a balance of private and public sector clients, noting he also represents Sarasota County, the city of Sarasota and the city of Palmetto, in various capacities.
But Longboat Key took up the majority of Persson’s time until Bullock arrived a year ago.
“Although the last few years became much more heavily weighted toward Longboat with everything going on, that workload has dropped about 40% since Mr. Bullock arrived,” said Persson, who explained Bullock is working with his department heads and letting them handle issues that used to fall on his shoulders.
“It’s allowed me to rebalance things and reach this decision,” Persson said. “Representation from Longboat Key has prevented me from working with other governmental entities in the past, and that’s no longer the case.”
Persson lived on the Key from 1986 to 1996. He said it was hard to go shopping without being asked about town affairs.
“We loved living on Longboat Key and only left because it was too difficult shuttling the kids to school each morning,” Persson said.
Persson agreed to submit an application and accept the town attorney job after being approached by Commissioner Ray Metz and, then, by Commissioner Al Green.
“I had just gone out on my own, started my own practice and was representing private property owners,” said Persson, who said he thought he took on more than he could handle on his first day.
That’s because Person said his first three years were spent going through a myriad of 21 lawsuits that had been filed in response to a period of sweeping development Key-wide.
“I was putting fires out about which lawsuits had merit, which could be tried and which ones weren’t worth fighting,” Persson said. “It was a time in the Key’s history when we had to figure out if lots could be divided up and how we should develop.”
Persson declined to comment or discuss past cases in which he gave former commissions legal advice, although the Dr. Murray “Murf” Klauber case, in which Klauber sued the town after it pulled his building permit for a luxury condominium project on the former Far Horizons property, was brought up briefly. In March 1997, the town settled with Klauber for $6.5 million in cash after years of legal wrangling.
“That was an exclamation case and one you had to try,” said Persson, who wasn’t the town attorney when the lawsuit was originally filed.
That case and the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s Islandside renovation-and-expansion hearings are the only ones he agreed to discuss.
Persson calls the Islandside hearings and subsequent approval (before the project approval was overturned) “a fascinating process.”
Persson refers to 2005 to 2009 as a time of inactivity for Longboat Key. Then came the Islandside application.
“I suggested the applicant consider changing the Comp Plan before filing an application,” Persson said. “That wasn’t the path the applicant was interested in taking.”
Persson calls the process fascinating, though, because the Key Club project ended up gaining approval and forcing the community to realize it needed a Comp Plan that dealt with redevelopment.
“The code was never designed for what the Islandside project called upon it to do,” Persson said. “The problem is everything needs to be readjusted, and it’s going to be a long and painful process that will eventually produce what the community wants for the next 20 years.”
Persson said the commissioners and residents he has met throughout the years stand out.
He is anxious to begin a new chapter in his practice that doesn’t revolve around a calendar filled with mornings and evenings blocked off for Town Hall meetings.
“This is all about going forward, not backward,” Persson said. “I will continue to be building personal and professional relationships with both people on the Key and off it.”
His advice for a future town attorney?
Persson is quick to give a couple of down-to-earth musings that commissioners and board members have grown to expect from the dais.
“The role of the town attorney is to determine what horse will run under the track conditions,” Persson said. “Your job is to give advice during a game, but never to give your opinion on the play that’s called. If the town wants to punt when everyone else is screaming for them to go for it, it’s not the town attorney’s job to call an audible.”
Update: The Longboat Key Town Commission will discuss the process of hiring a new town attorney this month.