Monday, May 21, 2018
News Roundup

Former city manager John Lawrence left lasting legacy in Dunedin

DUNEDIN — Take a walk through Dunedin and it's nearly impossible to escape former City Manager John Lawrence's legacy.

It's in the renovated baseball stadium. It's in the Pinellas sheriff's vehicles patrolling city streets. It's especially in the landscaped sidewalks and shops that line the city's bustling downtown, which was almost deserted in the 1980s.

Mr. Lawrence, the longest-serving city manager in Dunedin's 113-year history, died Sunday in Georgia following a three-year battle with liver disease. He was 66.

"He was an example of city management with a heart, city management with a caring and good way with people," said former City Attorney John Hubbard, who worked with Mr. Lawrence for more than 20 years.

Added former Dunedin Mayor Tom Anderson: "Almost everywhere you look in the city today, his leadership was involved in making that happen."

Born April 11, 1946, in Hartford, Conn., Mr. Lawrence earned degrees from Yale, Cornell and the University of New Haven before embarking on a career in city planning.

"Cities were one of his passions," said his son, Matt Lawrence, 36. "He loved to travel and he loved to see how different cities did things. And even on pleasure trips, he'd mentally be writing down ideas that he'd bring back to Dunedin."

He worked in Connecticut and Pennsylvania before joining Dunedin's planning department in 1980. He ascended to the position of planning director, then city manager — a post he held for 21 years in a profession where the national average is five to seven.

Under Mr. Lawrence's watch, the city built or renovated a slew of recreation buildings and infrastructure facilities, consolidated trash services and replaced the Dunedin Police Department with service from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, saving the city millions.

He enjoyed working alongside city employees, especially in the Fire Department. For example, it wasn't unusual to find him at fire scenes, day or night, getting a firsthand look at the city's emergency response.

Fire Chief Bud Meyer recalls how dispatch outfitted Mr. Lawrence with a pager and a reflective safety vest after the city manager inquired about Meyer's own. Mr. Lawrence would often work out in the fire station gym and throw on gear to participate in live fire training.

"I think he wanted to be a firefighter but never got a chance," Meyer said.

Mr. Lawrence was known as a health nut, often spotted jogging along city roads. Relatives and colleagues say he was also an intellectual who loved philosophy, poetry, architecture, classical music and Thomas Jefferson, who was a master in all those disciplines.

"We would give each other ideas on the greatest new books to read," said former City Commissioner Deborah Kynes.

Most of all, though, Mr. Lawrence was known for his push to model downtown after the walkable towns he'd admired in Europe.

Observers say the reserved Mr. Lawrence was a manager who cared deeply about employees, respected their expertise and largely left them alone to do their work. That management style sometimes drew criticism from commissioners who wanted him to be more vocal with his own opinions.

Former Dunedin Mayor and Commissioner Bob Hackworth said Mr. Lawrence didn't micromanage, but appeared to draw productivity out of employees. That earned him respect both in Dunedin and within the profession.

"He was one of those guys who managed quietly without a lot of fanfare," Hackworth said. "But the job of manager is to manage and he was good at that, no question."

Greg Brady, who co-founded the Downtown Dunedin Merchants Association in the early 1990s, called Mr. Lawrence a "big picture thinker" and "visionary" who often acted as "peacemaker," backing the group during contentious City Hall debates on items like downtown land use and urging commissioners to look beyond the costs to the city.

According to Anderson, 50 percent of the buildings downtown were vacant in those early days, "and today you can't rent a place down there. It's been growing ever since. I would say the success of the city, today's environment, had a lot to do with his leadership."

Added Brady: "He saw the need to embrace the business community because he knew we were going to be the key catalysts to growth in the downtown beyond what it was."

In 2005, Mr. Lawrence and his wife, Jo Pamela, left their quaint downtown townhome for Powder Springs, Ga., to be closer to Matt, his wife, Milota, and potential grandchildren. There, relatives said, Lawrence worked for the city as a special projects coordinator and taught urban design at a local university.

In recent years, Matt had noticed his dad starting to slow down and reduce his running, but Matt attributed it to age. By the time Mr. Lawrence was diagnosed, his liver disease was already at an advanced stage.

He'd been working to get on the waiting list for a liver transplant, but he went into cardiac arrest Saturday night and died Sunday afternoon after he was taken off life support.

It was his granddaughter Emma's fourth birthday. Matt and his wife are expecting a son in November.

"He was a natural teacher. He taught me everything and I really counted on him to have that same kind of relationship with his grandchildren," Matt said. "It's destroying me," he added, that it won't happen.

But echoing another colleague of Mr. Lawrence's, Matt said it's comforting to know that his father touched so many lives while he could.

"John's handprints are all over the city of Dunedin," said Assistant Pinellas County Administrator Maureen Freaney, who served as Dunedin's assistant city manager during Lawrence's tenure. "He will be missed."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.

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