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Deep roots, deep convictions

A fifth-generation east Pasco resident, Robert Sumner has become the most influential county attorney in years.

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


To hear Pasco County attorney Robert Sumner tell it, his legal career was built on a series of flukes.

Dodging the Baptist ministry and a post-high school job as a grocery produce manager, Sumner attended college in the 1950s on what amounted to a dare from his brother.

And he applied for the job of county attorney in 1999 on the fly, hearing about the vacancy while representing a client at a County Commission meeting.

"I said, "Well, hell, I'd do it,' " Sumner said.

Of such happy coincidences are happy partnerships made.

A fifth-generation east Pasco resident whose father reputedly grew rich from bootlegging during prohibition, "Bobby" Sumner has become the most influential county attorney since the resignation of Ben "The Sixth Commissioner" Harrill in 1991.

As developers and environmentalists and others have learned over the past two years -- sometimes to their chagrin -- Sumner doesn't limit himself to points of law.

He's more of an adviser, confidant and chief of staff to the county administrator and elected officials by whose grace he serves.

At county commission meetings, where Sumner often serves as an informal arbiter of disputes, audience members have been heard to murmur, "Bob Sumner runs the county."

"Bob is very smooth, very sophisticated and very articulate in all arenas of law," said commissioner Ann Hildebrand, under whose chairmanship Sumner was hired in June 1999. "He's very sure of his convictions."

His convictions shape his approach to the biggest issue confronting his home of 66 years: growth and development.

Sumner's views sometimes antagonize the powers that be, whether it's threatening builders with a construction freeze last year or knocking some heads to smooth passage of a $1,694-per-home school impact fee this year.

"I think we've got to do proper planning for our county. If we don't we could lose the quality of life that's been here forever," Sumner said.

Bootlegger's boy

Studying the branches of Sumner's family tree, it's not hard to believe that the Sumner clan has been rooted in Pasco forever.

The family settled in the small rural community of Enterprise near Dade City at the end of the Civil War, fleeing Georgia amid the destruction wrought by General Sherman's Union troops.

Sumner's father, Robert L. Sumner, allegedly made a small fortune distilling illegal moonshine whiskey during the 1920s.

Bobby Sumner recites family legend about his father liberating his whiskey jugs confiscated by the sheriff and stored in the old county jail in Dade City.

"It was always kind of like a joking type of thing," Sumner said of the bootlegging. "It was never viewed as criminal."

When booze went legal again with the repeal of prohibition in 1933, Sumner Sr. opened the first watering hole in Pasco, the Quaker Bar in downtown Dade City. The family still owns the property.

During World War II, when Bobby was 6, his parents divorced. He and his brother went to live with their paternal grandmother, a Baptist teetotaller who disapproved of her family's trade in hooch.

When the Sumner boys were teenagers, an older couple who rented property from the family, a blind former cowboy named Billy Byrd and his wife Edith, looked after the boys.

Bob Sumner graduated from Pasco High School, married Marlene Storch (his wife of 47 years), and dabbled in several different jobs.

He stacked cans at the American Can Co. factory in Dade City, ran the produce department at his uncle's grocery in Zephyrhills and operated Mack's Pool Room in Dade City.

When Sumner's brother, James, got out of the service in the early 1950s, he decided to go to college. But only if Bobby went with him.

The pair enrolled in Florida Southern College in Lakeland. Bobby graduated with a bachelor's degree in accounting. His brother dropped out after two years.

Mack's pool room would no longer do for the newly minted graduate.

"I was respectable. I had a couple of children, so I couldn't go back to running a pool room," Sumner said.

What's a man to do? Go to Stetson University Law School.

After graduation, Sumner tried for an internship with straight-arrow Pasco Judge W. Kenneth Barnes. At first Barnes wouldn't hire him and Bobby didn't know why. His father soon filled him in.

Seems that during prohibition, the elder Sumner was delivering a 5-gallon jug of moonshine to a customer on River Road.

A sheriff's ambush was waiting for him at a railroad crossing, so Sumner rolled the jug out the car door and smashed it on the tracks.

The evidence evaporated, and the sheriff couldn't make the charge stick. The young prosecutor on the losing end of the case: W. Kenneth Barnes.

After Bobby agreed to work for Barnes for free, the judge relented and hired his former adversary's son.

A devastating crash

Sumner built his law practice over several decades, including a part-time stint as county attorney from 1967 to 1972. He specialized in real estate closings, land use, and wills and guardianship.

In the 1980s, Sumner brought his daughter Donna, fresh out of law school, aboard his Dade City practice. Father and daughter shared an office for seven years.

But 11 years ago this month, Donna, one of four Sumner children, died when her speeding car hit an oak tree on Wire Road.

Bobby Sumner was devastated. He lost his heart for his occupation. In his mid 50s, he mulled retiring to the North Carolina mountains.

"Every file I touched would bring back memories," Sumner said through tears last week on the exact anniversary of the accident, his daughter's smiling face in a photo beside his desk in his New Port Richey office. "It was bad for me emotionally."

Although he scaled back his practice, retirement didn't appeal to Sumner. When former county attorney Karla Owens resigned in May 1999, Sumner happened upon the meeting where commissioners discussed an interim replacement attorney.

After watching Sumner in action as interim attorney for two months, the choice was easy for commissioners.

"We were supposed to rate and rank candidates. But Bob had taken over and was doing such a great job as interim attorney, it was an exercise in futility," Hildebrand said. "We said, "Here's the man.' "

Sumner took over in August 1999. His three-year contract pays him $131,000 per year. He was 65, an age by which most men have retired.

So Bob could be closer to work, the Sumners bought a third house, on the Pithlachascotee River, joining their other homes in San Antonio and North Carolina. He tools around the county in a Jaguar.

Marlene Sumner said her husband hasn't been so professionally satisfied in a decade.

"It's been good for him," she said. "He's been happier doing this than anything he's done since his daughter died."

Sumner agreed.

"I am 66 but I don't feel like I'm 66," he said while leaning back in his office chair twirling a paper clip. "I feel like I want to do something productive before I die."

'Let Pasco be Pasco'

And productive he has been.

Sumner has reorganized an office that had been reeling from high turnover. His employees appreciate his management skills, his ability to delegate instead of micromanage.

Pasco's legal department was once considered a stepping stone to the private sector or a higher-paying county.

"Now it's the complete opposite. We have private sector attorneys wanting to work for us," said Barb Wilhite, the attorney who serves as Sumner's chief assistant. "He's really a wonderful man."

Sumner has made it his mission to overhaul the rules by which developers have customarily dealt with the county.

His philosophy is broadly "Let Pasco be Pasco." Not a giant Sun City retirement community. Not a low-income trailer park preserve, nor endless suburbia. But a healthy mix of all kinds of development.

Environmentalists who challenged Pasco's blueprint for growth, its comprehensive land-use plan, found Sumner surprisingly sympathetic.

"I thought I was getting a fair shot at certain issues. He wasn't taking the line of some of the developers," said Tom Reese, an environmental lawyer who haggled with Sumner about suburban sprawl last year. "Bob's got a better idea about what is good for the county."

Sumner said he feels torn by the developer/environmentalist conflict.

"I get myself in a damned bind. I feel like both sides do, but I can't embrace either side," he said.

Ben Harrill was county attorney from 1984 to 1991. He was known as county administrator John Gallagher's right-hand man. Now he represents private clients, mostly developers.

Harrill concedes Sumner has done an "excellent job" as county attorney, but said he dips more deeply into non-legal arenas than his predecessor.

"Karla saw her role strictly as a legal adviser while Bobby sees himself as an adviser both on legal and practical issues," Harrill said.

Sumner's propensity for dispensing practical advice came back to bite Harrill a few weeks back.

Harrill was pushing a proposed shopping center/apartment complex at State Road 54 and Collier Parkway. Sumner pointed out that roads proposed by Harrill's clients would encourage traffic congestion.

Harrill rose from his seat in protest: Wait just a darned minute. You're the county attorney. You're no road engineer.

But Sumner insisted he could speak on the matter.

"I couldn't just sit there and keep my mouth shut about statements I knew weren't completely accurate," he said after the meeting.

Sumner is mostly courteous, but his words can bite if the need arises.

Sumner admits the public sees only flashes of the anger he dishes out in discussions behind closed doors.

"You have to understand I've never worked for anybody before. I've always been responsible only to myself," he said. "In dealing with other people I never had to worry if what I was saying was politically correct."

Many of the arguments are with Gallagher, the county's administrator of 20 years. But Gallagher said Sunmer, whom he calls a Southern gentleman, is never obnoxious.

"I think it's healthy," Gallagher said. "That's what I want in a county attorney -- someone who can give me advice and get me thinking."

You get the feeling talking to Sumner that heritage and family are all. He proudly takes his 10 grandchildren on tours of the four east Pasco cemeteries where Sumner ancestors rest in peace.

So if as county attorney he can preserve that intangible "quality of life" for his grandchildren, that is what he plans to do.

"I think I can be effective for three to five years more," Sumner said as he swiveled his chair beside a photo gallery of grandkids on his office shelf. "I don't even like talking about retirement."

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