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David Smith: City Advocate (Tampa edition)

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David Smith: City Advocate (Tampa edition)

As Tampa's newly appointed city attorney, David L. Smith wants to focus on proactive legal strategies and improved communications.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

The conversation seemed rather ordinary enough to David L. Smith. He and fellow lawyer Frank Fleischer were en route to a GrayRobinson shareholders meeting earlier this year in Orlando. Smith says Fleischer asked him if he ever thought about working as a city attorney.

"I'd never thought about it," says Smith, 54, who recalls the conversation quickly switched to another subject. "I don't know if it was a trial balloon, but it seemed very innocent to me at the time."

That's not exactly how Fleischer recalls the conversation: "I think I asked, 'What would you think of government service?' "

Notwithstanding their subtle differences in recollections, Fleischer acknowledges the ulterior reason for the inquiry. He is an ardent supporter of Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, having personally contributed $1,000 to her mayoral campaign.

Fleischer also knew Iorio needed a permanent replacement for Fred Karl, the former state Supreme Court justice who took the city attorney's job on an interim basis. Although he has known Smith only a year or so, Fleischer considered Smith an ideal replacement. Iorio recently agreed.

It was about four to six weeks after the conversation with Fleischer when Iorio special assistant Fran Davin called Smith for a meeting. "We had a cup of coffee," he says. "She said, 'We need someone on board to be the city attorney.' She asked if I was interested. She quickly surmised that I would be willing to talk."

But then Smith expressed a concern. In the mid-1980s, physicians diagnosed his wife, Ann, with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - a degenerative condition also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Smith's devotion to her has long exceeded physician predictions for her life expectancy. He crafted his career around her needs.

"I talked with Ann after Fran," Smith says. "I needed to know that Ann was happy with this. I had talked to her only a little bit, when she started crying. I was immediately concerned about one of two things: One, that I would not be as available; two, just the recognition of the opportunities she had missed. What she said, the reason she was really crying: 'I'm really happy for you.' "

A good pick

Those who know the GrayRobinson real estate lawyer say Iorio couldn't have picked a better person for the job.

"He's a very thoughtful person," Fleischer says. "He reasons through situations, isn't afraid to ask questions and thoroughly researches issues before he makes a statement. He commands respect."

Then there are Smith's experiences representing commercial property owners before city councils and county commissions in Hillsborough County and elsewhere. Adding to that, he says, Smith managed his own law firm for years. "But I had a great deal of conflict in my own mind, because I didn't want to lose him as a partner," he says.

Tampa land use attorney Ronald L. Weaver has known Smith since he worked with Weaver at the predecessor of what now is Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson PA. In fact, Smith and his wife learned about her condition while working at the Stearns Weaver predecessor. It was the reason he decided to leave the firm after only a short while in 1985, join with Gregory Williams and spend the next 12 years as a partner at Smith & Williams PA.

"He was not only a great real estate lawyer but a renaissance lawyer," Weaver says. "He was good at virtually every related field of law. He handled many sophisticated transactions. He was excellent with people, especially with complicated matters."

Since they both practice land-use law, Weaver occasionally witnessed Smith in action over the years. "We have the good fortune of running into David maybe a dozen times a year either before us or after us on the agenda at some local government meeting," he says. "I've observed him in action many times before we hired him."

Because of Smith's devotion to his wife, Weaver's respect for him extends far beyond the law office. "He and his wife, Ann, are just great people," he says. "He's not only a great lawyer but a great human being."

Ann's influence

To an extent, Ann's influence on her husband directly affected his career path. A gifted athlete from St. Petersburg, Smith earned a football scholarship to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. But the separation from his beloved proved too much. "I was up there all the time; she was down here," he recalls. "We were drifting apart."

Instead, Smith enrolled at the University of Florida to study political science. It was during Vietnam War era, and he had no intention of studying law. "It was something that I wanted to avoid," he recalls. "I considered it too intellectually formulaic. I was wrong. I was looking to change the world by the way it was looking at itself."

Upon graduation in 1972, the Smiths traveled to Chicago. There he earned a master's degree in political science from the University of Chicago. While there, he became a free-market proponent - with a caveat. "Balance is the key," he says. "Ideologues of either ilk tend to scare me. Even a true laissez faire proponent realizes there are needs for market mechanisms."

The couple returned to Gainesville, where he earned a law degree in 1980. He then joined the Tampa law firm of Shackleford Farrior Stallings & Evans PA. Over the next five years, he worked closely with one of the attorneys who had a profound impact on him - Tom Evans, who headed the firm's real estate department.

Smith worked with Evans on one of South Florida's biggest lease deals during the '80s. The two represented the late Charles Alberding - onetime owner of St. Petersburg's Renaissance Vinoy Resort - on a ground-lease deal valued at $1.2 million a year for a Marriott convention center in Fort Lauderdale. "There were escalators and a 99-year lease, probably a couple hundred million dollar deal over the course of the lease," he says.

In 1997, the partnership between Smith and Williams merged to become Mechanik Nuccio Smith & Williams PA. Two years later, Smith left to rejoin Shackleford Farrior, which merged in 2001 with the predecessor to GrayRobinson.

Behind the scenes

Much of Smith's work over the years took place far from the public view.

The very nature of a real estate attorney requires essential title work to ensure no encumbrances on property. Over the course of his career, he estimates he has secured title insurance on about $500 million on real estate loans and refinancings, acquisitions and developments.

While still at Shackleford Farrior and afterward, Smith handled the legal work that created the condominiums and timeshares at The Galleon Resort in Key West. It was his most complicated deal.

"What made that complicated was the variety of uses we had to blend together as a unified development," he says. "Condominiums are all about disclosure. The problem is how to disclose the limitations and other uses. It was a project that took several years to complete."

In the mid-'90s, Smith handled a large Wells Fargo refinancing deal that involved the Texas Hunt brothers. It was his largest deal. He handled the Florida portion of a $200 million to $300 million refinancing deal on numerous apartment and mixed-use properties. "The Florida portion was maybe 30% to 40% based on documentary stamps," he says.

On the other hand, Smith emerged center stage during the 1980s when the Sierra Club challenged the Hillsborough County comprehensive land use plan over development along the I-75 corridor in southeastern part of the county. Smith represented the Big Bend Area Group, a group of property owners controlling thousands of acres in that part of the county.

"The plan was to increase the densities along the corridor, but the Sierra Club challenged it on the grounds it didn't protect agricultural and allowed too much development," he says.

Because of the competing interests at stake, the dispute ended up in a five-day trial before a state administrative hearing judge. "Ultimately, it was settled with an agreement approved by the governor and the cabinet," he says. "Some of the density and intensity was reduced. Our development potential, though reduced, was reasonable. Development has followed fairly consistently with that agreement, which I think reinforces the reasonableness of the settlement."

Although the deal restricted development on some of his clients' property, Smith says the reasonableness of the settlement focused on the clear need for infrastructure. "It's all driven by availability of infrastructure, which was what the comprehensive planning process was all about," he says.

While that settlement set the boundaries for future growth in southeast Hillsborough, Smith early on in his legal career worked on another dispute that, perhaps, had an indirect effect on development throughout the state. He represented a development in northwest Hillsborough that reserved sewage treatment capacity at the River Oaks wastewater treatment facility.

"Our client's predecessor had donated land for the plant and an effluent disposal field," he says. "When it came time to develop, the 10 (million gallons a day) plant was processing 13 MGD."

That discrepancy resulted in a federal Environmental Protection Agency enforcement action, which temporarily shut down development in that part of Hillsborough.

"I learned very early on there was this problem (in Hillsborough)," he says. "The county didn't have a system for keeping track of utilization at the time. Counties and other jurisdictions were not doing this as well."

Two-hour interview

It's such experience that convinces Smith he can do a good job as city attorney. Apparently, Iorio thinks so, too, considering she met him only briefly years ago as a county commissioner and decided to hire him after about a two-hour interview.

"I got a call within a couple of days (of meeting with Davin) to come by and meet with the mayor," he says. "Now you have to understand I'm not exactly in (Iorio's) camp. I've had maybe one conversation with her outside county commission meetings, maybe a couple.

"We talked pretty intensely for a while," he says about the recent meeting with Iorio. "She must have liked what she heard. We both left the meeting thinking this would be a good idea. Integrity is extremely important to her, so she must have been comfortable with my competency."

The decision to hire Smith as city attorney stirred some passions among members of the Tampa City Council, which for a short time considered the option of hiring their own legal counsel.

Part of the council's concern centered on a client that Smith had represented before the city council. The client wanted to build a competing pharmacy near another owned by the family of Councilwoman Rose Ferlita. Smith suggested Ferlita should abstain from any vote on his client's development application.

While local media reported on the conflict, Smith recently met with Ferlita. He says they quickly came to an understanding. "Rose is a very magnanimous and very bright person," he says. "She said, 'Look David, that's behind us.' "

Smith says he thinks he has successfully convinced the council he intends to fulfill the duties of city attorney as it's declared.

"The city attorney is not the mayor's attorney," he says. "He represents the mayor, the council, the department heads and all the employees. It's in the city charter. That's why I keep reiterating that.

"I'm not politically tight with the mayor," he adds. "They all are going to get my honest, candid objective opinion. I think they recognize that, and they're getting comfortable with that. You see, under the professional code that regulates us as attorneys, we're required to be zealous advocates for our clients. The city council is one of our clients."

Already Smith has met with the 30-member city attorney's staff, even though his appointment at an annual salary of $133,286 doesn't take effect until April 5. He laments, though, the decision by Assistant City Attorney Gina Grimes to resign. "Gina is a loss, because she's such a good attorney," he says. "But I'm impressed with attorneys on the city's staff.

Meanwhile, strategic planning is one goal he has on his mind.

"I'm trying to understand the nature of the challenges we're going to be facing," he says. "I want to try to get where we're proactive and not reactive. We've got to review some of the ordinances, tighten them up and make them as defensible as possible."


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