by Steve Lundin
This is the second interview conducted with candidates for the Sanibel City Council elections, scheduled for March 7. There are five seats on the city council and two are being challenged. These seats are currently held by Holly Smith, the council appointed Mayor of Sanibel, and Richard Johnson, Vice Mayor.
Holly Smith has been involved with Sanibel since the early 1990s and has an extensive history of community service. Smith hails from a coastal seafaring family and is an avid boater who has literally been engaged with virtually every aspect of the gears that keep the island moving forward. She previously served as the liaison to the Contractor Review Board, the Sanibel Bike Club, Community Housing Resources, Inc. (CHR) and the (CHR) Coast & Island Community Land Trust. She served three terms as a member of the F.I.S.H. (Food Programs, Island Based, Social Services and Helping Hands) of SanCap Board of Directors.
She also served as Vice Chairwoman of the Sanibel Planning Commission for two years and was a member of the Commission from 2009 to 2017. Prior to being selected by the Sanibel City Council as Mayor she served as the City’s Vice Mayor from Dec. 1, 2020 to March 15, 2021. Smith has served as the Mayor of Sanibel since March 16, 2021. As Mayor she is a member of the United States Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities Voting Delegate for Sanibel. Smith is very active with the Florida League of Cities, a united voice for Florida Municipalities. Smith was awarded the esteemed Florida League of Cities Home Rule Hero Award for the past five consecutive years.
A professional hotelier, she is also a member of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association of Southwest Florida.
What motivated you to get into public service?
I fell in love with Sanibel in 1990 and have a unique perspective on the nuances of the island through my professional career in real estate. I don’t think there’s an organization that I haven’t raised my hand to help in some way or another and I just say that not as a badge of honor but because that’s what I feel people who live in communities should do. We were living on this island, raising our children and I found the City Council had an opening on the planning commission. I interviewed with all of the council members. It was incredibly disruptive because no one knew who I was. I was appointed based on what I knew and, on my qualifications, and what I could bring to the table. Now I’m entering my bid for a second term as a council member holding the office of Mayor in a contested election.
You mentioned the Sanibel Plan during your appearance at the recent candidate’s forum. Can you please explain this plan and its implications for our citizens?
The Plan was initially adopted in 1976 as a way of ensuring that Sanibel did not become highly commercialized at the cost of the natural beauty of our environment. If you like Marco Island or Naples, for example, that’s fantastic, however our founders didn’t want that kind of density at the expense of nature. They drafted the plan and worked hard to maintain the spirit of conservation, allowing our inhabitants to live in harmony with our natural surroundings. The foresight contained within that document is amazing.
Editor’s note: Here is an excerpt from preamble of the Sanibel Plan:
“… planning for the orderly future development of an Island community known far and wide for its unique atmosphere and unusual natural environment and to ensure compliance with such planning so that these unique and natural characteristics of the Island shall be preserved …” The plan can be downloaded here as a PDF: https://tinyurl.com/2p99ks2j
Let’s talk about the emergency plan for hurricanes. Is there a publicly available copy and how do you feel it was executed during Ian?
There is most definitely a plan, and it is not available for review because it contains some very sensitive information that could compromise our security if it was made available. We learn more from every hurricane that we deal with. We have had annual hurricane preparation seminars as far back as I can remember. We have stakeholder meetings coming as we get closer to hurricane season again, in just a few months. We are going to be prepared in a different way next time, because serious things happened, like the damage to the Causeway bridge severing our physical connection with the mainland. That put us in a whole different category, what we have learned is incredible.
Many citizens chose to stay during the storm, and some paid with their lives for that decision. How do we protect the iconoclastic from themselves?
Communication is critical and we made a great effort to make sure that we kept our citizens apprised of the situation before, during and after the storm. As a city we are watching every storm that comes through. Lee County’s mandatory evacuation didn’t force residents to leave the island, but we made sure that we got the word out. Once the storm was on us there weren’t any resources to help those who chose to stay. I gave my phone number out and it gives me chills thinking about the number of calls, emails and texts that I received from people I thought might be making the last communications of their lives, after it was too late to leave.
What did we learn as a result of Ian and do you think laissez faire Island attitudes will change?
Ian was unfortunately the best worst lesson that we could have had. We looked at every storm previously and always prepare for the worst and hope for the best. We never wanted to see the perfect storm, which is what we got. That’s the lesson: prepare, listen and respond to what we advise.
I think they’re going to be a lot less people staying the next time around. Sadly, complacency can take place pretty quickly and our job will be to continue to give the best information we can arm you with to get operational procedures in place that can help you find a safe place. We have opportunities everywhere to take shelter people. When we had to make the call that ‘it’s too late, hunker down,’ we knew that we had people desperate to get off island who had waited too long. That was the scariest day of my life.
We came back Friday morning with the waves of first responders who had been staging to help with hurricane relief and found probably 1200 people who had stayed, many of whom were desperate to get off island. Some chose to stay, and that’s their right, but I think people are going to be thinking differently moving forward. And that’s a lesson we can share with the rest of the state. Now we’re in a club that we never wanted to join, and we can share what we learned with other communities. There’s a lot of PTSD as a result of this event.
Tell us why you want to continue in your current position and what your plans will be for the next four years.
When I raise my hand for something it doesn’t go down. I have the energy, the experience, the understanding and the relationships around the state and nation. Those relationships are critically important for what we’re going through in rebuilding this island. I understand the code and how to speak for the citizens and the island. We have a Sanibellian-focused council that works together incredibly well together. I’m concerned when I see the vultures circling and I want to make sure that we maintain the Sanibel Plan as it was established. I’m going to work to make sure that we protect what we’ve made and rebuild as it was designed. What we do on our city council is much different that what it used to be. Our job is important, and we want to make to make sure that we receive State and federal money to help this city and our citizens and our businesses.
Do you have any aspirations for public service beyond Sanibel?
I’m already working beyond our borders; I have to be. I have relationships with the Governor’s office, with the Biden administration and with agencies across the state. Every day I am working for the city of Sanibel, but that work doesn’t stop at our borders or the Causeway. We’ve got to be in DC, we’ve got to be at the state, I’m active at the Florida League of Cities. All those connections are invaluable. Right now, I’m focusing on Sanibel, that’s all I want to think about. My goal is to get through this election successfully, help rebuild what this island needs, reconnect this community and make it the best it can be. My vision isn’t any farther than the four years ahead of me.