Jim Brown prepares to strike the gavel on his final days as mayor.
Jim Brown remembers a tradition from his days as a photographer in the Navy when he contemplates his final days as Longboat Key mayor.
Navy guys who were nearing their discharge date would cut the beads off their dog tags so they had one bead for each day that was left.
“They’d call themselves short-timers,” Brown said. “I’m a short-timer now.”
Brown would have had 14 beads left on Monday night, when he led his final regular commission meeting. During that meeting, his fellow commissioners and elected officials praised his leadership during his six years on the commission, which included four as mayor and one as vice mayor.
“You’ve been a really, really good mayor and a friend to all of us,” Vice Mayor Jack Duncan said at the meeting. “A friend doesn’t have any problems telling you when you’re right or wrong.”
Brown would have six beads left on March 10, when the town’s voters elect Brown’s successor to his District 4 seat — either Jack Daly or Larry Grossman — as well as whether incumbent Commissioner Phill Younger or Gene Jaleski will serve the next two years in an at-large seat.
And, on March 16, no beads would remain. That’s when Brown will call the meeting to order as usual and remind the audience that the town has a civility policy and that anyone who wishes to speak must fill out a card.
When the meeting ends, there will be at least one new commissioner, and for the first time since April 2011, Brown will not be in the mayor’s seat.
Brown isn’t the first commissioner to serve as mayor for four consecutive years. The late Sam Gibbon, who was mayor from 1969 to 1974, holds the record, with five years.
He isn’t even the first Mayor Jim Brown. Jim P. Brown, who died in 2011, was mayor from 1990 to 1993.
But Brown could hold the unquantifiable record having the most eventful tenure as mayor.
When he first joined the commission, Brown’s now ex-wife used to ask him on commission meeting nights what time he would be home. He soon learned not to bother predicting.
“You never know what’s going to come up,” Brown said. “You never know when the argument is going off the track.”
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Brown, 69, wasn’t on the political track when he moved to Longboat Key. The retired architect who spent his career in Virginia, got his start in town politics when he made a presentation to the commission opposing the rezoning of a parcel to residential because it seemed clear that it was meant to be part of the Publix shopping center. The town has since acquired the property as part of a town center concept.
He was later appointed to the town’s Community Center Advisory Committee, and then, the Planning and Zoning Board before he ran unopposed for the commission in 2009.
When Brown’s fellow commissioners chose him as mayor two years later, the town appeared poised to go on the same track it had been on under the direction of Bruce St. Denis, who had been town manager since 1997.
But several months into his first year as mayor, Brown began to sense tension between commissioners and the town manager. Commissioners were increasingly critical of St. Denis’ handling of the town’s budget and beach management plan, as well as its pension plans, which ranked among the worst in Florida. Brown perceived St. Denis as unresponsive.
Commissioners meet individually with the town manager, but Sunshine Laws require discussions between two or more commissioners to take place in public under most circumstances.
“It had reached the point where a lot of commissioners would not meet with the town manager,” Brown said.
Town Attorney Dave Persson began calling commissioners about St. Denis’ performance after meeting with Brown and relayed feedback to St. Denis, who resigned in September 2011.
Brown and Persson interviewed town manager candidates by phone, most of whom balked when they learned about the issues the town faced, including pension problems and upcoming firefighter contract negotiations.
After about three or four candidates, Persson suggested Dave Bullock, who was then deputy administrator of Sarasota County. They met with Bullock on a Sunday, and by the next day, he agreed to consider the position. The commission entered into a one-year contract with Bullock in October 2011, which commissioners later extended in 2012.
Commissioners later opted to give Brown another year as mayor to “give him another year without all these problems,” as Brown recalls it. They chose him again in 2013 and 2014.
“I believe there was a feeling that we all got along pretty well with each other,” said former Vice Mayor Dave Brenner, who served with Brown for years. “That’s hard to quantify.”
The lead-up to St. Denis’ resignation forced Brown to make his toughest decisions as mayor; next was the decision to freeze the town’s pension plans.
“It’s always difficult to mess with someone’s income, but it’s always coming out of someone’s pocket,” Brown said.
After four years, the public has gotten to know Brown — to the extent that a 5:30 p.m. trip to Publix can easily turn into a two-hour trip as residents approach him with their thoughts about town affairs.
As Brown prepares to leave office, the commission faces a number of key decisions about issues including the town’s codes and comprehensive plan, 911 dispatch, underground utilities and Bayfront Park.
“There’s a lot of stuff I wish could have been wrapped up,” Brown said. “Then again, I remind myself, this is government, not business.”
For the first time in six years, Brown will have the first Monday night of each month — commission meeting night — free. Where you’ll find him on those Mondays?
“Someplace else,” he said.
Still, he hasn’t ruled out coming back to Town Hall for meetings. He says it’s likely that he’ll submit his name for consideration for the planning board. He still does some contract architectural work, which he will continue to pursue.
Brown is required by the town’s charter to spend two years off the dais due to term limits, but he could run again in 2017.
Asked about the possibility, Brown pretends to choke himself in mock horror.
“Right now, I’d say ‘no,’” he said. “It’s not in my future plans. There are plenty of great people on the Key.”
Brown would like to see Duncan take the mayor’s seat on March 16, after four years on the commission and a year as vice mayor. But regardless of who succeeds him, he offers this advice to the next mayor:
“It takes a certain amount of patience, and as much as anything, you need to observe what everybody’s doing and saying and try to pull some consensus out of it,” Brown said.
“Right now, I’d say 'no.' It’s not in my future plans. There are plenty of great people on the Key.” — Jim Brown on whether he would consider another run for commission in two years.