“I’d put him in the Longboat Hall of Fame … He is an extremely strong and wise person who only spoke when he had something to say.”
— Jim Brown
Longboat Key mayor
When you reflect on the 12 and a half years that Hal Lenobel served as a Longboat Key mayor and commissioner, you can see there were two distinct phases of his tenure — the mayoral phase and the statesman phase. Each serves as a great lesson for all current and future Longboat Key town commissioners.
Separating these two phases was the blood-system illness that caused Lenobel, 88, to resign last week, four months into his final two-year term. It had been in remission since it occurred in 2003. But it was always life threatening; it required Lenobel to undergo dialysis treatments three days a week for the past nine years in Sarasota.
A week after he suffered a relapse about three weeks ago, Lenobel told us, “I didn’t think I was ever going home again.”
As he stated in his resignation letter, that and the December death of his wife, Hazel, after 62 years of marriage, have taken their toll. You can see it. He walks slower than before; he doesn’t beam as much as before. And the man who has 13 holes-in-one to his name, hasn’t hit a golf ball in two years.
Despite the physical and emotional tolls, Lenobel hasn’t lost a step mentally. Talk to him, and you know it. While he may have looked like he was napping with his eyes open at Town Commission meetings, don’t kid yourself. He knew exactly what was going on, ever observant of the dynamics among the commissioners, just as he was when he was first elected in 1997 (elected without an opponent, as he was for five of his six terms).
Lenobel’s keen sense of observation was one of the characteristics that made him one of Longboat Key’s most effective mayors in its 57-year history. But he combined that with two other characteristics — an uncanny ability to build consensus and a great sense of humor, which he often used as a weapon for good.
Former Longboat Key Mayors Ron Johnson and Jeremy Whatmough, who served on the commission with Lenobel, in separate interviews said the same thing: In Lenobel’s three terms as mayor, “Everyone got along with everyone,” Johnson said, even if commissioners disagreed on issues. Johnson called it a “collegial experience.”
Johnson remembered when commissioners attended League of Cities meetings, Lenobel was the organizer of having all of the commissioners and their wives get to know one another. “He’d say, ‘Let’s all meet.’ That added to the congeniality,” he said.
“He had that follow-me ability,” Whatmough said. “He had the ability to put forth his ideas and build consensus and get people to agree with it.”
Whatmough remembered that Lenobel and former Mayor John Redgrave seldom agreed. “But I could never detect that he and Redgrave could never see eye to eye. They got along and were friendly.”
Johnson said Lenobel used his humor to break tensions at the right moment and maintain control of commission meetings. “He always teased Ray Metz,” Johnson said. Whatmough remembered Lenobel turning to the late Gen. Jim Patterson at one commission meeting and saying in a good-natured tone, “Are you a little testy tonight?”
And what a lesson. It took little time for Lenobel, a novice at politics in 1997, to learn what the job of the mayor was: It was not to grandstand and bully. It was to bring the commissioners to common ground — in a collegial, congenial way.
When Lenobel returned to the commission after a three-year hiatus, you could see his illness had slowed him physically. He was not as energetic, and the dynamics of the commission had changed. Tensions among some of the commissioners were palpable, and Lenobel often found himself a minority of one.
This is when he adopted the persona and entered the phase of the quiet statesman. Whatmough characterized it perfectly: “If you have something to say, say it. But don’t just talk.”
In all of the hours and hours of commission meetings over the past four years, Lenobel is likely to have the fewest comments in the minutes. He has commented outside of the commission that his most recent, former colleagues have had the tendency to belabor matters more than necessary. Take more action, talk less.
That is the other Lenobel lesson.
There is a corollary to that one. In all of his years on the commission, Lenobel was prepared. He read the reams of information that came out of Town Hall, and he knew thoroughly the town’s codes and comprehensive plan. This armed him with the knowledge to ask, sparingly, smart questions that cut to the core of an issue — a trait that would be worthwhile for all commissioners, present and future, to emulate.
It’s a loss for Longboaters that Lenobel will no longer be on the commission. In his dozen and a half years, he never waivered in his votes. He was principled: He voted for what he believed best for the people of Longboat Key.
Former Longboat Key Mayor Jeremy Whatmough is right. “He will really be missed,” Whatmough said.
And Mayor Brown was right. If one existed, Hal Lenobel indeed deserves a place in the Longboat Hall of Fame. He set the standard for for all those who shared and will share the Town Commission dais.
+ The right woman for the job
The jockeying for Commissioner Hal Lenobel’s vacated seat sounds as if it’s like a tight pack of thoroughbreds rounding the turn for the home stretch and prize.
Winning that prize isn’t determined by ability, though. It’s in the hands of the sitting Town Commission members, who have 30 days to appoint Lenobel’s replacement. Either that or conduct an election.
You can bet the commissioners want to control who lands in Lenobel’s seat.
There are plenty of candidates: Ray Rajewski, who lost to Vice Mayor David Brenner in March’s election, is interested. Longboat Key Planning and Zoning Board members B.J. Webb and Len Garner are interested, as is Republican Club stalwart Phyllis Black. Former Mayor George Spoll is on some lists. And longtime Longboater and former Commissioner Woody Wolverton has expressed interest.
Other former commissioners’ names come to mind as well — Randy Clair, Ron Johnson, Peter O’Connor, Lee Rothenberg, Joan Webster, Jeremy Whatmough.
All of the former commissioners can do the job. Of them, Wolverton would be the one who would be most likely to tell it like it is. But the prospect of having a past commissioner reminds us of the advice of the editor of a business magazine. Faced with filling a key position on his staff, one of his colleagues suggested trying to bring back a former staffer who had performed well but moved on to another job. The editor didn’t hesitate: “Don’t go backward. It’s always better to keep moving forward.”
In that vein, the best candidate for Lenobel’s seat is B.J. Webb. She is well versed on the issues, thanks to her service on the planning board, but more importantly because of her previous service as mayor of Leesburg, Va. At that time, she presided over one of the fastest-growing communities in America and confronted everything and more that Longboat commissioners address.
We’ve heard old chauvinists might not like three women on the commission, but what does gender have to do with anything? A similarly bad reason for opting not to appoint Webb would be a political one. We heard this gossip: Two commissioners might opt for bringing back Spoll to keep him from opposing them in the next elections. Goofy, ridiculous things sometimes happen in Longboat Key politics. That shouldn’t be one of them. Select the best person for the job: Webb.