CLEARWATER — Jim Berfield, a city commissioner through most of the 1980s, former judge and the patriarch of a political family, died Friday of an apparent heart attack. He was 76.
A lawyer, Mr. Berfield served on the Clearwater City Commission from 1982 to 1989, where he ran on overhauling city departments, limiting growth and fighting the Church of Scientology.
After leaving the commission, he ran for judgeships, winning a county judge seat on his third try in 1996. After a month in office, he was charged with lying on financial disclosure forms.
A jury convicted him of perjury.
He stepped down from office in 1997 and devoted his remaining years to family and Baptist church activities.
His family followed Mr. Berfield into public life. Sue Berfield took over her husband's old City Commission seat. Kim Berfield, their daughter, is a former state legislator.
In campaigns, Mr. Berfield portrayed himself as a brash force of nature, a boat-rocking Irishman.
Sometimes he quoted his parents: "Compromise usually means you can't make a decision."
But other commissioners remember Mr. Berfield as an evenhanded mediator.
"I always look for team players," said former Clearwater Mayor Rita Garvey. "His goal was to do the best he could for this community. And he did so with a sense of humor and of being part of the team."
"There were two parts to him," said Lee Regulski, a commissioner from 1985 to 1992. "He liked to think of himself (a confrontational) type of person. But when it came down to actually clearing it out, he wasn't that rough and tough. He didn't like to be fighting and have people fighting over issues."
He grew up in Olean, N.Y., a small town named for a creek.
He moved to Tampa at 17 and graduated from the University of Tampa. He went to work for Occidental Petroleum, but left to go to law school. He returned to the company, where he was vice president of international sales.
He moved to Clearwater in 1973 and set up his law practice. He ran for the City Commission in 1980 and 1981, prompted in part by alarm over the growing influence of Scientology — which Mr. Berfield, a staunch Baptist, considered a cult.
"Jim was a man of deep convictions and was willing to be clear about those and to take stands in regard to his faith," said the Rev. Bob Adams, his former pastor at Skycrest Baptist Church, where Mr. Berfield was a deacon and taught Sunday school. "When there were things that opposed that, Jim would not have wanted to accommodate those things because his convictions were clear."
On the commission, Mr. Berfield took on a city manager and the city's building and public works departments, which he said needed an overhaul. He sided with Save the Bayfront, a citizens group that successfully drew the line on development around Coachman Park.
Mr. Berfield did not to seek re-election in 1989. His wife, Sue, ran instead and won the seat.
Mr. Berfield ran for judge three times, finally defeating Charles Carrere, a 16-year incumbent, for a county judgeship in 1996.
He had barely taken office when he was charged with perjury. Prosecutors said that Mr. Berfield's financial disclosure forms omitted a $1 million judgment against him in federal court, which made him look like a more attractive candidate.
Bruce Young, Mr. Berfield's lawyer, called the arrest payback for defeating a sitting judge. A jury disagreed, finding Mr. Berfield guilty of perjury.
Mr. Berfield's friends still say he was railroaded. Heyward Mathews, a St. Petersburg College professor who taught Sunday school with Mr. Berfield, said he thought the court excluded evidence favorable to him.
"All we really had in his defense was a bunch of us church members saying, 'We've known Jim his whole life.' It was a really rotten way for him to end his legal career."
Mr. Berfield's family could not be reached for this story.
Sarah Bascom, a family spokeswoman who once worked with Kim Berfield's legislative campaign, called Mr. Berfield a pillar of the community with a quiet sense of humor.
Friends say Mr. Berfield maintained a chipper attitude throughout his legal ordeal, and never sounded bitter about it.
"I know it's hard to think of an honest lawyer," Mathews said, "but Jim would be the prototype of that."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]