Sanibold - Small island’s national rise credited to Mayor Kevin Ruane
Jan 02, 2016 09:12AM
By Cory Batelaan
By Craig Garrett
For generations, Sanibel’s leadership was deliberately off Lee County’s political and social radar. As long as tourists and snowbirds stormed the island’s beaches, resorts and shops―and washed back out with the tide―islanders were jolly in their isolation.
But Lee County’s most remote town is amending its foreign policy. A community relishing its detachment―Fort Myers, for example, is regarded as “overseas”―is grabbing leadership roles in new directions on ocean quality, home rule, flood insurance, pedestrian and bicycle safety, the vitality of beaches, tourism, community planning and other matters in the Sunshine State. The city’s elected corps has spent compounded weeks in Tallahassee and Washington, cajoling and prodding, while staffers back home advise other communities on natural resources or urban planning. The Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce is even busy regionally: gulf water quality is a central theme in the push to get involved. Locals say murky water and beach closings place Sanibel in an unfavorable light. There are also tens of millions of dollars at stake in drawing tourists to Sanibel and Captiva; the two islands account for a sizable percentage of visitor taxes in Lee County.
For a small town of fewer than 7,000 year-rounders, Sanibel is packing a big punch in statewide issues. Many point to Sanibel’s mayor for the push to get involved. Kevin Ruane has signed on with state tourism boards, the Florida League of Mayors, committees on investing tax revenue and managing worker pensions. He has appeared before federal lawmakers to hold flood insurance rates down, for example. His private success furthers his credibility―many agree that Governor Rick Scott listens to what Sanibel is saying, for example.
The mayor’s high visibility, oddly, almost cost Sanibel. He was a candidate for the Lee County Board of Commissioners, but pulled from the race suddenly on September 1. He was expected to poll well in the First District race. “I did not come to this decision lightly,” Ruane wrote in a letter suspending his candidacy, “but as many of you know, my family is always my primary responsibility and will continue to be. Also, please know that I will be returning all of my campaign contributions.”
Despite pulling out of the commissioners’ race, Ruane is moving ahead full steam on affecting his adopted hometown. “I think [our] vision has made and will make Lee County a better place to live and do business,” the mayor says. “At the end of the day, it’s all about leveraging relationships.”
Sanibel’s new voice isn’t a fluke, but it did take time. Ruane became active in local issues as a Hurricane Charley clean-up volunteer in 2004. He moved to Sanibel weeks before Charley’s arrival, having sold a small business and landing in soft retirement at age 44. Ruane later repurchased the business that is run today by his daughter. He joined the city council in 2007 and has become Sanibel’s second-longest-serving mayor.
Others are involved in advancing the city, of course, including the city’s vice mayor, Mick Denham, as well as dozens in private and public jobs. But the mayor is the island’s figurehead. City politics in the past, Sanibel Councilman Jim Jennings says, “were pretty divided [before Ruane], almost bitterly. We are highly thought of now, and Kevin has had a lot to do with that. He’s very likable and he knows his stuff.”
Larry Schopp, a board member of Committee of the Islands, a Sanibel organization formed to limit commercial and housing development and to direct Sanibel toward incorporation in 1974, recalls Ruane as soft-spoken, almost shy, in his early term. That changed as the mayor became comfortable in his new role. “Kevin has come a long way and is a great spokesman for Sanibel,” says Schopp.
A drawback to Sanibel’s heightened influence is scheduling time with Ruane—and when that is arranged, keeping him from checking text messages or his huge wristwatch and directing him toward self-evaluation instead. The mayor is not comfortable with talking about Kevin Ruane—until the topics of his wife and two kids, his father or his integrity surface. These are his hot buttons.
The mayor, for example, had proposed that Sanibel City Council members receive salaries. He dropped the idea when complaints surfaced. Ruane was especially angered by anonymous social media postings about pay/travel issues. Questioning the mayor’s character is an unwarranted attack on what he was taught and observed as a child, he says. “There will never be [business] relationships like my father had with his clients,” Ruane says of his father, John. “It was a handshake, clients were friends and friends were clients. It’s how I learned.”
Craig Garrett is editor in chief for TOTI Media.