Hurricane Election: A Conversation With Sanibel Council Candidate Richard Johnson

by Steve Lundin

Vice Mayor Richard Johnson. SC file photo

In the midst Sanibel’s maelstrom of destruction and reconstruction, two of the five seats in the island’s City Council are open for challenge in the upcoming March 7th City elections. These seats are currently held by Holly Smith, the council appointed Mayor of Sanibel, and Richard Johnson, Vice Mayor.

Mr. Johnson is co-owner of Bailey’s General Store, and one of the many in local government who has been working through the aftermath of Ian since he set foot back on the island the day after the storm. In terms of county affairs, he is liaison on Lee County Causeway matters and was appointed to the Florida League of Cities (FLC) Transportation and Intergovernmental Relations Legislative Committee. Additionally, Mr. Johnson serves as the City’s liaison to the Florida Municipal Insurance Trust. Sanibel elections are non-partisan and Mr. Johnson declares himself a member of the “Water Party.” We spoke with Mr. Johnson on the night of the opening of Doc Ford’s, just across the street from the site of his devastated landmark store.

What made you decide to settle in Sanibel?

I had a great career in insurance in the northern part of the state. In 2004 I called my father-in-law from my office in Jacksonville, Florida, to tell him to batten down the hatches because Charley was coming to Sanibel, and it was going to be a bad one. The next day I was crossing the Causeway to help Francis and his brother Sam put the store back together and back in operation. It was at this time that I really grew to appreciate the people of this island and fell in love with the community.”

When did you become civically involved?

It happened quickly because Sam and Francis were naturally involved and lead me into many opportunities for engagement. My first gig was with community housing and resources. Later this evolved into social organizations and the community association. Within a few years I was able to join the planning commission, which afforded me insights into the inner workings of Sanibel. A little over four years ago, Chauncey Goss came to me and said, ‘hey you need to step up to Council. ‘His dad Porter Goss his dad who was our first mayor. It’s been a whirlwind four years of activity with some exceptional people, many with deep knowledge of the system and this community.

Let’s fast forward to now. Ian’s on the horizon. Was there an emergency plan and how do you feel it was executed?

This wasn’t our first rodeo with a hurricane. Our plan called for a mandatory evacuation which means that we’re in a flood zone with a natural disaster coming and it’s time leave.

I wasn’t around in 1926 but my father-in-law Francis Bailey was, and he recalled how there was water across the island and that’s what brought the end to our agrarian society. The salt water came in washed over the island and poisoned the crops. We transitioned into a destination as word got around that this was a place to visit with a truly unique character. Nature forced us to make decisions as it’s doing now.

But not everyone left, and four people paid with their lives for their decisions. Could we have done anything about that situation given the resources that we put in the post hurricane rescue effort?

We did go door to door, but some people are very protective of their feelings of individuality. When you violate a mandatory evacuation, you put others at risk. You put first responders at risk because we must allocate services to helicopter people out of danger and send SAR teams into unsteady structures. This begs the question of balancing the rights of the individual with the benefit to the community.

Can you explain that viewpoint and put it in the context of an island with a massive hurricane bearing down?

I’ll take you back to hurricane Irma, which was coming ashore and was forecast to be a category five with a 12-to-15-foot storm surge which didn’t materialize. This time we got our clock cleaned. I’ve spoken to many folks that stayed on the island and wish they hadn’t and just as many who would stay through it again.

So how do we protect our citizens from their own hubris?

We already have a law in place, and it worked pretty well. Most people left home and all of our guest and visitors that we know of left the island. The folks that live in affordable housing have it written into their lease they must leave the island or risk losing their housing allowance. I think the answer is education. We need to use the example of what happened on September 28th as a lesson in how bad it can be, and by the way it can get worse. You’re looking at a guy who lost everything. Just look across the street at the store, and I’m far from alone.

So let’s bring this full circle, what did we learn and what are we going to do differently?

We’ve got a council of five that works together very well, with an excellent City Manager, Deputy City Manager and City Attorney and that team can certainly take a look at this and I guarantee you there’s going to be some evolutionary things that take place in our community. Sanibel has a history of evolving and this is the catalyst for the next step. You’ll see it in how things are rebuilt and how it’s all managed. I cried when they reopened the Sanibel School and never saw kids so happy in my life. We made an effort to get that school open as quickly as we could because it’s a unifying place in the community and those kids need to feel that things are back to normal. The causeway, clearing the mountains of debris, we are pushing to get back on track. One thing we learned is to get things moving again as quickly and safely as possible.

Why do you want to continue in your position and how will you help with the island’s evolution?

The primary reason is that we need some consistency of leadership. I’ve been with this community through Covid, and I’ve been with this community through horrendous multiple red tides events. I’ve been through the water quality issues that I have taken me to Tallahassee and South Florida Water Management District in some very uncomfortable times. And I think that that consistent team of leaders in the Council and in those people at the directorate level of city Council need to be in place to carry us through. Now why do I need to be one of those people? Sanibel is my home and I’ve been entrenched in this community, and I see what this community is for real. It’s not what you might see in Naples or Marco Island or somewhere else. This is a special community and I think I am uniquely qualified to carry-on as one of the two candidates.

Does your interest in politics only go as far as the barriers of this island?

Let me answer that question with two responses. Number one, I don’t consider myself a politician, I consider myself a public servant and I and I receive no compensation and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Number two, this is my home and where my interests lie and where I choose to serve, nowhere else.

City of Sanibel Elections will be held Tuesday, March 7, 2023.
Temporary Voting / Polling Location: Sanibel Recreation Center 3880 Sanibel Captiva Rd, Sanibel, FL 33957 from 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

Steve Lundin is a former Chicago reporter and a transplant to Sanibel Island.

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