It’s Friday the 13th, perhaps not the most auspicious day for newly elected member Kelly Kirschner, 32, to get sworn in as a Sarasota City Commissioner. The ceremony is at noon, but first he has other business to attend to. He has an appointment with the city attorney, and there are various stops to be made at different city offices—the chores and errands any new city employee must run.
But first on the list is an 8 a.m. breakfast meeting with the City Legislative Issues Subcommittee of the Government Issues Council of The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, which is a long way of saying “the business and development community.” These particular nine men follow the city’s relationship with a host of factors that affect them, and the densely packed agenda gives an idea of the complexity of what’s involved.
There are affordable housing, transit concurrency, the Engineering Design Criteria manual, Cultural District financing, TIF district designation for neighborhoods not in the downtown core, parking, county impact fees, zoning text amendments about docks and yacht clubs, drugs and prostitution on the North Trail, the noise ordinance, the Fruitville/Third Street initiative, and of course, “the latest on baseball.”
The nine men meeting with Kelly are, first of all, men. If any women are on the committee, they didn’t make the meeting. Perhaps this sort of thing—an almost obsessive delight in how all the intricacies of rules and regulations interact, and how they can possibly be improved, stretched, taken advantage of— is a particularly masculine pursuit, like football. With one or two exceptions, these men are surprisingly young and rather informally dressed.
But not Kelly. He is wearing a suit and tie—although the suit was purchased several years ago, secondhand, at the Woman’s Exchange.
Coffee is served and breakfast ordered. The atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable, but there’s an underlying tension. It’s the first meeting of two potentially opposing political forces, and both sides know that who has the real power has not yet been established. Tony Souza, head of the Downtown Partnership, keeps the tone light. “Today you get sworn in,” he tells Kelly. “Then you get sworn at.”
Kelly laughs. “A couple of people have already called City Hall to complain about what a bad job I’m doing,” he says.
What happens next might best be described as Kelly getting a little lecture on the way the City of Sarasota really works. It’s like a very complicated and intricate machine, with all sorts of checks and balances, some official, some not, with planning studies galore, state laws to consider, budgetary constraints, review boards, public meetings, federal funding, and myriad special interest groups lobbying, bullying, blackmailing, threatening, etc. To have it all laid out before you is a little intimidating. I can’t say I saw Kelly’s eyes glaze over, but I do think I detected a flicker of, “Oh, my God, I’m going to have to learn all this.”
About half an hour into the meeting Tony points out the obvious: “We’re so enthused we’re not letting you talk much. We asked you your priorities and we launched into ours.”
Everybody laughs, and then Kelly tells them where he stands. “I made as few campaign promises as possible,” he says. “But the citizens must have a place at the table. People have a palpable frustration with the way things are going. They want a human-scale downtown. They want a more thoughtful and thorough debate at the commission. It’s been a scary couple of years. The divisiveness has to change.”
The committee agrees that things are far from perfect. They are as frustrated as everyone else. All the checks and balances have created an atmosphere of constant crisis. “We have to create dialogue on projects before things get too far down the road,” one of them says. “And we have to reduce the cost of the dialogue process. All the concepts have to be locked down to an insane degree. It breaks down to interest groups arguing.”
But it’s still better than up in Manatee, they all agree. There it’s impossible to get anything done. “The officials will not meet with you. Sarasota is much more open,” one of the men says. “Here the commission and staff will listen to everybody.”
The possibility of collusion between politicians and developers is taken very seriously in Florida. It is, after all, a story that has occurred over and over. You constantly hear the word “transparency” down at City Hall. A 380-page book details, in very fine print, the state’s Sunshine Law. The commissioners may not discuss a project with each other while it is pending. Not even the slightest little detail. I saw City Clerk Billy Robinson yell at Lou Ann Palmer when she stuck her head in another commissioner’s office to ask when a meeting was. And he was only half joking.
At the moment, though, Kelly has his own ethical problem. Who pays for breakfast? His hosts have not raised the issue. They are all tossing money onto the table, on top of the bill the waitress has left. One can clearly see Kelly’s thought process at the moment. Of course he wants to pay for himself, but just as important, he wants everybody to see him pay for himself. Unfortunately, all the others have broken down into little conversational groups and no one is looking at him.
He tosses some dollar bills down on the table. “Kelly,” I hiss. “Can you pay for me? I forgot my money. I’ll pay you back, I promise.” He tosses down some more dollar bills. Thank God no one saw that, either.
The swearing-in ceremony at City Hall is scheduled for noon. At a quarter to, the place is already packed. The atmosphere is festive and celebratory. Lots of family members are present, plus just about anyone who has an interest in City Hall—police chief Peter Abbott, community activists and artists Virginia Hoffman and Diana Hamilton, County Commissioner Joe Barbetta, power broker and former state Sen. Bob Johnson, ex-Van Wezel executive director John Wilkes, Pelican Press reporter Bob Ardren, writer Stan Zimmerman, former city commissioner Carolyn Mason, and, of course, Kelly’s proud father, Kerry, executive director of The Argus Foundation.
Kerry’s face is beaming and there’s a swagger in his walk as he comes up to me to say hello. “Did you help in the campaign?” I ask him.
“I sure did,” he replies. “I helped by staying away.”
It must have been tough for him, because Kerry Kirschner is right at home in city politics. He’s served as mayor, vice mayor and commissioner. In his heyday—the late ’80s and early ’90s—he was highly visible. This was largely due to his TV show, a local access interview format that managed, through his sly wit and endless curiosity, to be a cut above similar offerings. There was nothing timid about it. One night he brought on some prostitutes from the North Trail.
But there are vast differences between father and son. Kerry might best be described as a bohemian Republican. Dogma does not interest him, and he views the whole process with a certain bemused detachment. Kelly is much more the serious Democrat. He has a pronounced and often remarked-on “wonkish” side. Details and policy fascinate him. He is the only person I know who was seriously following the French election.
At noon the buzz of the crowd dies down and the meeting begins. This is a special meeting, rather like the opening of Parliament, with a sense of ending and beginning. Feeling the ending part are the two commissioners who were voted out of office. They sit at the commission table for the last time, and they don’t look happy about it.
Outgoing mayor Fredd Atkins opens the meeting. He introduces the “State of the City” video, presented once a year rather like the President’s State of the Union address. The video outlines Sarasota’s progress over the past year: 14 new city police officers, cleaning up the bayfront, the new skate park, the search for the new city manager. As it concludes, he announces, “That voice is for hire,” referring to his flawless voice-over narration. Fredd is in a very good, almost ebullient mood today, no doubt because he alone of the three commissioners up for re-election retained his seat.
Mary Anne Servian is the first outgoing commissioner to speak. Her remarks are polite, succinct and a little bit frosty. Mary Anne, a local businesswoman who was thought to have higher political ambitions, was ousted by neighborhood activist Dick Clapp.
After Mary Anne, Danny Bilyeu speaks. He was also ousted by a neighborhood activist (Kelly), and if you’re starting to see a pattern, so is the commission. They have received a vote of no confidence from the voters in general, and they seem a little worried. Lou Ann Palmer remarks on it more than once.
Danny’s farewell speech is much different from Mary Anne’s. It’s long, emotional, hilarious and cathartic. It begins with a cell phone call. It’s supervisor of elections Kathy Dent, he tells the crowd, and she’s telling him that try as she might, she just can’t find any extra votes.
Danny Bilyeu has always been hard to categorize. He’s been around forever. I first met him when he was a realtor for Michael Saunders. People who don’t like him refer to him as a “handyman” who pals around with the developers. At any rate, it appears that his pro-development votes have cost him the election. His words are unapologetic, though. He says he wants to thank the developers. “I have never been bought,” he states. Then he addresses the commissioners. “I hope you have better luck with the neighborhoods. I’ll be praying for you.”
He and Kelly hug as they pass in the aisle, then Kelly takes his seat. Next to the other commissioners, he looks shockingly young. The first order of business is to elect a new mayor. Lou Ann Palmer wins. This is what Kelly has been hoping for. Her work in Tallahassee on the city’s behalf will be bolstered if she has the title of Mayor. The second order of business is to elect a vice mayor. Kelly Kirschner wins. Kelly then makes the remarks he’s been working on all morning in his head. He thanks his wife, Tracy, and his campaign workers, then says he will “strive to bring you the utmost in customer service.”
New mayor Palmer then sums things up. Actually, first she introduces her aunt in the audience, then she sums things up. “We have to restore confidence in the commission,” she tells everyone. “The election indicated it’s not there.”
“Not my election,” says Fredd Atkins with his trademark chuckle. Mayor Palmer tactfully refrains from pointing out that he won by only 200-plus votes over a little-known opponent.
The story of Kelly Kirschner is one of becoming. After all, what has he done but get elected to the city commission? But his story is emblematic of Sarasota. It does much to explain the soul of the town, its worries, its conflicts and its values.
Like most of us, he was born “up North” (a phrase constantly used in Sarasota and usually referring to a terrible place we emigrated from) in Stamford, Conn., in 1975, but moved here at the age of nine months. His parents, Kerry and Jane, decided to leave the corporate lifestyle and start anew in the sunshine. They bought a business, Blue Heron Fruit Shippers, complete with a roadside stand near the airport, and a big old Spanish house right on the bay. The house sat on an acre of land and cost a then-staggering sum of $150,000.
I didn’t grow up in Sarasota, but listening to those who did, I get jealous. The small-town atmosphere, the swimming, the fishing, the bay as their playground. Kelly played football with the Ringling Redskins and went to Cardinal Mooney High School, along with his older brothers, Kent and Sean, and his younger sister, Katie. His grades were good and he dutifully took piano lessons. He went on to get a degree in foreign service studies from Georgetown University on a full scholarship. There was a catch, though. He had to manage the basketball team. “I was basically the water boy,” he remembers. One of his duties was to “baby-sit the jocks” and keep them out of trouble, though sometimes he got in trouble with them.
His political life began after college, when he served with the Peace Corps in Guatemala. His specialty was community development, and discovering the ways things are done politically in a small village was eye-opening. They had a “strong mayor,” and the disadvantages to this system—the corruption and lack of “transparency”—robbed the citizens of any real power. It was a lesson he remembers well.
Just before he went off to Guatemala he began dating Tracy Topjun, another Sarasota native and daughter of Randy and Bonnie Topjun. Their long-distance relationship survived both the separation and Tracy’s father’s death, and in 2005, they were married. With his Peace Corps stint behind him, Kelly and Tracy settled into the life of a young couple with slightly counterculture values. Tracy began working as a nurse/midwife, and Kelly became product manager at Bio-Pro Research, a local company which manufactured a stain remover for pet urine called Urinoff. It was a “green” product based on biodegradable enzymes. Along with their three dogs and one cat, they moved into Tracy’s 50-year-old Florida ranch house in a neighborhood just east of downtown, behind Sarasota Ford and very close to Sarasota High, called Alta Vista. It has some young professionals at the lower end of the pay scale, but it is basically working class and not in the least fashionable. The downtown high-rises are plainly visible from its sidewalks and back yards.
It was a threat to the peace and stability of this not-very-distinguished old Sarasota neighborhood that changed the direction of Kelly’s life. Something known as “the School Avenue project” was being proposed, a high-density development of 400 condominiums. Many residents were uneasy. Just how big would it be? Just how would it affect their lives? Shouldn’t they have some input?
The issue revitalized a dormant neighborhood association and led to what was to become the famous sit-in at City Hall. As Napoleon had his Battle of Toulon and Giuliani his 9/11, Kelly had his demonstration in which 200 residents of the Alta Vista neighborhood filled the chamber and sat there through the entire meeting with black tape over their mouths.
But even this act of political theater didn’t change things. Trips to Tallahassee to plead with the powers that be only proved one thing—that he and his neighbors had very little say in the matter. The only real power to question development lay in the city commission. And Kelly and his supporters (and Dick Clapp and his supporters) felt the commission was giving away the store.
Kelly’s campaign was the meeting point of many elements: an ambitious young man looking for a cause, a wife with superb organizational skills (and no kids as of yet), a political heritage to look back and learn from, Peace Corps techniques honed in Guatemalan villages, and a group of community activists who, stumbling over the years, had finally found their footing. This was “retail politics” at its most basic. Virtually every voter was approached in person—many more than once—and in the battle of the lawn and the endorsements, Kelly made sure he had the edge. In March, Kelly Kirschner beat Danny Bilyeu by a 73 percent majority, and in a run-off a month later, Dick Clapp beat Mary Anne Servian by 63 percent.
As Friday the 13th winds down, Kelly and Tracy have a party at their home to thank the volunteers. The Kirschners are there, of course. Kerry, bottle of beer in hand, is sounding off on the finances of the hospital. Kelly’s mother, Jane, is there with her husband, John Tuccillo—he’s the former chief economist for the National Association of Realtors and currently teaches at American University in D.C. Brother Kent, a slightly taller version of Kelly, is up from Naples, where he runs a software company.
The guests are an eclectic lot. They’ve brought potato salad and casseroles and brownies and such; hot dogs and burgers are grilling out in the back yard. I recognize Mollie Cardamone, a former mayor and former Republican, now a Democrat and a player in just about every political drama in town; Billy Kline, another former mayor; Gretchen Serrie, who used to be executive director of the Florida West Coast Symphony and is now a community activist; cultural reporter Charlie Huisking and his partner, Jeff Sebeika, who was treasurer of Kelly’s campaign. Kelly himself wanders around in a yellow guayabera and khaki shorts, accepting congratulations and looking a little dazed by his day.
I settle down with a plate of food and look around the living room. It’s comfortable and a bit worn-looking—shabby chic with an emphasis on the shabby. I’m next to the food table (naturally), and I notice that someone has brought some pamphlets on saving Darfur and several other causes. These are spread out near the desserts.
As parties go, it’s very old-fashioned and neighborhood-y, with its potluck and kids underfoot and no air conditioning. Everywhere are reminders of Sarasota’s past—the people, the atmosphere, even the architecture. But I wonder: Am I also looking at Sarasota’s future?
Senior editor Robert Plunket is the author of My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie and an occasional contributor to The New York Times.