CLEARWATER — Max Battle, the longtime city engineer and public works director who shaped the city's foundation even while coming under fire for private dealings, died this week due to complications from a car accident. He was 85.
Mr. Battle's headstrong direction during decades of rapid growth cemented him as one of the city's most powerful leaders, responsible for lucrative contracts and city construction. Many of the streets, sewers and subdivisions built under his watch, including Countryside, remain in place today.
During his 23-year tenure, he worked with four city managers and about two dozen city commissioners, many of whom accepted his advice without question. He was for years the city's highest-paid official, earning $58,000 a year before he resigned in 1985.
But it was the money he made outside his city office, moonlighting as a consultant, engineer and real estate broker, that garnered criticism. Officials questioned his connections to businesses holding city contracts and fired him in 1975 during a scandal that shook City Hall.
He was reinstated the same year after a civil service board and a circuit judge ruled that the city's evidence was lacking. He left on his own terms 10 years later.
A car crash early last month caused Mr. Battle to suffer broken ribs and a blood clot in his lung, his friend Betty Jo Mayo said. He died Monday, the day before his 59th anniversary with his wife, Jo.
Born in St. Petersburg, Mr. Battle was groomed as an engineer working for private firms and the city of Tampa. He was hired as a Clearwater city engineer in 1962 and was later named the director of public works.
Mr. Battle's was a generation of handshakes. Talkative and determined, he excelled among the eager developers who crowded the city's formative years.
"Max had the ability to cut through a lot of red tape and get projects done just by knowing certain people," said Gardner Smith, a former city director who worked with Mr. Battle for decades. "We talk about multitasking now, but Max was ahead of his time. He could carry on five conversations at one time."
Not all of them were nice. Mr. Battle, former commissioners said, could be unapologetically gruff and authoritative. He was not afraid, former employee Andy Nicholson said, to bite back at angry residents who threatened to sue, and even told some to "go get your attorney."
"He had a rough manner," said Karleen DeBlaker, a longtime clerk of the circuit court who served on the Clearwater commission during Mr. Battle's time. "He wasn't one of these people who tried to be very careful of what he said."
Yet his rockiest period came due to his friendliness with business leaders. He joined in lucrative land deals with companies that held city construction contracts. He was paid for design work by the developers of Countryside mall. And in 1975, auditors accused Mr. Battle and others of mishandling a waterline installation contract, pointing to sloppy work, lax supervision and thousands of dollars in overpayment.
Mr. Battle's reinstatement was vindication, and he made moves to prove his good intentions by cutting off work with clients and dissolving his consulting firm.
"He was never bitter about that, even though he was falsely accused," said John Battle, his son. "He never looked back."
But years later, while moonlighting as a real estate broker, his ethics were again called into question. His office on N Hercules Avenue was paid for by Campbell Paving Co. and used as headquarters by Big K Construction, both of which worked with the city. Officials ultimately ruled Mr. Battle had done nothing wrong.
For all his urban prowess, Mr. Battle made his second home in the country, building a cottage with his bare hands along the Suwannee River. He liked mountain camping, fishing, and hunting turkey and deer.
In 1985, he resigned, doing some consulting work with Safety Harbor before retiring to spend time with his wife, sons John and Max Jr., and five grandchildren.
His resignation letter was short, one line long.
"I was following my master plan," he wrote. "Why make a master plan if you don't follow it?"
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.