Civility and the Commission

Contributing Columnist

Longboat isn’t Longboat anymore;

It’s not the place it used to be of yore.

It really seems quite strange

To see the island change,

Becoming more close minded than before.


For more than two decades, the Longboat Key Town Commission has prefaced its meeting agendas with the stricture that “we will be respectful of one another,” and that “we will avoid personal attacks.”

It has also adopted the rule that citizens addressing a meeting are limited to three minutes, although the commissioners themselves are free to exercise logorrhea to their hearts’ content (and some of them are quite good at it.)

Last Monday’s meeting was a classic example of the old maxim that “rules are made to be broken.”

First, a little history:

Bruce St. Denis was Longboat’s Town Manager for 14 years, until a year and a half ago when he resigned after it became clear that some of the newer members of the Commission were unhappy with him.  His statement at the time was “if I have lost the confidence of the Commission, I should not continue to serve.”

Longboat Key’s governmental set-up is a seven member Commission of citizens who establish laws and set policy, and a manager to implement the policy with authority to hire and fire all town employees, except the Town Attorney.

Town Managers, like Superintendants of Schools, have a short shelf life, and the fact that Mr. St. Denis held the position for so long says something about his ability in managing what is, after all, a $30 million dollar a year corporation.

During his tenure he oversaw and completed the renovation and construction of what amounted to a new Town Hall, brought the fire engine and ambulance apparatus up to full strength, and resisted efforts to “micro-manage” issues such as the Key Club’s attempt  to overturn established planning and zoning restrictions.

For fourteen years, he operated under an “open door” policy, making himself available to any citizen with a question or a problem.  He also devoted himself 24/7 to the town, coming to the island nights and weekends to address groups and explain the efforts of government on such things as beach renourishment and code enforcement.

Did St. Denis make enemies?  Of course he made enemies.  It goes with the territory, but that is not reason to treat him with disrespect and not grant him the same courtesy that any town employee should be accorded.

As of the end of this month, under the so-called “Cobra” law, the former town manager can no longer carry health insurance for himself, his wife and his young daughter, under the town’s group rate.  He can still continue the coverage, but at a vastly increased rate.

If he had “retired,” which he was eligible to do, rather than “resigned,” he could have continued to pay at the lower rate for the rest of his life.

Checking with the insurance company, St. Denis was informed that the problem was more than a semantic difference, but that if the town were willing to change the designation to “retired” ex post facto, the company would recognize it and continue to permit him to pay at the same old rate.

Mayor Jim Brown has proven himself to be a competent, even-tempered executive, which was clearly evidenced by his recent re-election and continuation in the Mayoral position for a third consecutive year.

Sympathetic to the request, he informed the former Town Manager that it would not be necessary for him to come to Monday night’s meeting, that Mayor Brown would merely bring it up as a new agenda item to be referred to the next meeting on April 15, at which time action, one way or the other, would be taken.

Unfortunately, as soon the subject was introduced, Commissioner Lynn Larson erupted, screeching like a wounded banshee.

Violating the rule against personal attacks (and with St. Denis conveniently not there to explain or defend himself), she loudly accused him of enriching himself at the expense of taxpayers and of being paid far more than he was worth.

Never mind that his yearly salary was modest when compared with chief executives of $30 million dollar corporations and is not too different from compensation paid to the present town manager.

Never mind also, that Longboat’s policy is to pay top dollar to all its employees, from rookie firefighter to top department heads, so as to attract and retain the best for everyone in the community.

Commissioner Larson continued her attack without regard to the three minute rule, interrupting other speakers and threatening that at election time she would expose any Commissioners who voted to support the St. Denis request and urge voters to vote against them.

She then moved to table the matter, which ended all discussion and for practical purposes killed the request because the 18 month calendar would have run out before the question could be brought up again.

In the end, only Mayor Brown and Commissioner Younger remained unintimidated and voted against Larson’s motion.

Disclosure:  As a citizen, I spoke at the meeting, urging the Commission to do the right thing and afford the former Town Manager an opportunity to defend himself at the next April meeting.

Commissioner Larson approached me after the meeting ended and assured me that she had “nothing personal” against me, but she resented St. Denis’ attitude towards her when she was first elected to the Commission.

What that was all about I cannot say, but St. Denis could have shed light on the subject had he been present.

Connecticut lawyer and novelist who writes an occasional column of interest to Floridians. He can be reached at Banyan502@AOL. 








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8 Responses for “Civility and the Commission”

  1. spencer ross says:

    Dick, I respect your point of view, however, to describe Larson as “screeching like a banchee” is an unfair and disrespectful depiction of Ms. Larson, particularly when her only motive was to look out for the taxpayers. Looking out for the public is what she was elected to do and more of these commisioners should adopt this same mindset. Remember Dick, we are not a $30 million dollar for profit corporation; we are a small town that depends on taxpayer dollars to function. Hopefully, Mr. Denis will move on with his life and find suitable employment elsewhere.

  2. Tom Burgum says:

    Mr. McFarland. Since I’m no longer a resident of LBK, I take no position on the matter at hand. However, I can attest that Mr. Hershatter is a loyal American and has never supplied toilet paper or other necessities of life to any dictatorship whether or not communist.

  3. Dick Hershatter says:

    To Georgie McFarland:

    Georgie, if you are really using my column for toilet paper, I will be happy to arrange for the next
    issue to be printed on sandpaper, so you can feel right at home.

  4. Dick Hershatter says:

    To spencer ross: I respect differences of opinion, but please go back and read my column again.
    Larson voted to give the new town manager essentially the same salary as that of the old
    manager. As for the latter not showing up “with hat in hand,” he was told by the Mayor
    it was not necessary — that the item would merely be brought up for inclusion at a
    subsequent meeting.

  5. spencer ross says:

    William, it makes a difference in that he wants to come back a year later a renegotiate an already over the top lucrative deal. He walked away with more money than anyone in the history of LBK. He did not even have enough respect to show up at the meeting in person with hat in hand to make this extraordinary request. Maybe he was too embarassed.
    BTW The commissioners are suppossed to be the stewards of tax payer dollars. If Larson is confused, what does that say for the rest of them?

  6. William Kary says:

    If Bruce is willing to pay what difference does it make? Keep the attitudes out of the equation.. Larson is obviously “confused” as to what her role actually is with the Town.

  7. Georgie McFarland says:

    As usual this column is used for toilet paper in Russia. What St. Denis was looking for was free health care for life without making any payments for his wife or child under the age of 23. Ms. Larson was smart enough to see thru the forest and count the trees(money).

  8. spencer ross says:

    Richard, let me shed some light: Ms. Larson is the only commision member with enough intergrity and financial sense to look out for the taxpayers. If you call $268K per year a modest salary for a municipal employee please resume taking your meds.

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