Do things seem to be going to heck in a handbasket around here lately?
Over at Hillsborough's County Center, everyone's lawyered up, from high-ranking officials in the thick of an e-mail scandal to county commissioners hoping to figure a way out of this mess. There's that looming legal bill for a commissioner who lost a lawsuit accusing him of attempted bad behavior with a young employee, and for comic relief, a county administrator waving around her own lie detector results to prove her pureness of heart.
Anyone seen Fred Karl?
"An unhappy mess," Karl says when I call to talk about the crisis du jour.
At 85, he has himself been county administrator (the job to which the current occupant hangs by a thread) and county attorney (see: thread-hanging.) When Tampa General Hospital was in trouble, Karl came aboard to helped right the ship. When Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio took office, she promptly asked him to be her city attorney. For this he came out of retirement — his third.
Even before that, he was kinda busy. He was a tank platoon leader, wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, a lawyer, state representative, state senator, and the last justice to be elected rather than appointed to the Florida Supreme Court.
Now there's a resume.
And, as it turns out, a book.
The 57 Club, My Four Decades in Florida Politics hits bookstores next week. It promises to be rich in Florida stories, like how Tallahassee's rolling hills and the graceful azaleas of spring helped it beat out contenders to be our state capital, or tales of the Florida characters who make up our history. Karl's own photo on the cover is priceless, a grumpy Walter Matthau gone to Tallahassee, taken the day he glumly quit the Supreme Court for, in part, financial reasons.
When I ask about his health, he wants people to know the truth: that he has progressive Parkinson's disease, heart trouble and diabetes. His brain is fine, his body "gone to hell," as he puts it.
All of which means he cannot come out of retirement yet again to be the Official Voice of Reason around here.
"I've had some calls about that, but I've had to say it's just not possible," Karl says. "I'd love to be in the thick of what's going on."
Still, they call for his counsel, the mayor among them. This, I figure, is a chance for me to prod him about her future political plans — Iorio has been determinedly mum on this — but he says she hasn't specifically said.
Though as far as he's concerned, she would make a fine county mayor, should Hillsborough have that position in its future. (The current dysfunction being a heck of a motivator to get one.)
But Iorio wouldn't commit, says she's thinking about lots of things. "She's too smart to tell me what she wants to do," he says. "I'm very transparent." Transparent. Huh. Now there's a word you used to hear associated with public officials back in the day.
So the drama continues inside that tall downtown high-rise for which Karl once negotiated us a bargain. When they officially named it the Frederick B. Karl County Center at a ceremony nearly a decade ago, he said something about walking off into the sunset.
Good to know he's still keeping an eye on those meetings, though, and still taking calls from those smart enough to ask his advice.