Donna Fiala, Collier's longest-serving commissioner in modern history, steps down
Before she became the longest-serving county commissioner in modern Collier County history. Before she was hailed as a champion for East Naples, a “People’s Commissioner” as one book chronicling her anecdotes put it. And long before a new community park bore her name.
Donna Fiala looked down from the dais, into the audience, petrified.
It was late November 2000 when reality started to set in for the newly minted commissioner, tasked with conducting the business of a growing county for the first time.
“There's all these people in the audience looking at you like you know what you're doing and looking at you with hope that you're going to support whatever they have,” Fiala recalled, sitting in her office on a recent November morning, brown cardboard boxes stacked in the corner, anticipating a nearing move.
“It scared me to death,” she continued. “I don't even know what I'm doing here. I didn't even know where the bathroom was yet. And here I am in this position where people are counting on me to rescue them.”
From Brent Batten:Fiala now a bookish commissioner
The next few years were a learning journey for her, she said. Fiala, 82, soon discovered that what she aimed to do would take more than four years. She ran again. And again. And again. And again.
Five terms. The most in a row by a Collier commissioner since at least 1950.
Her colleague on the dais, Commission Chairman Burt Saunders, acknowledged at her last board meeting last week that she would’ve likely won again had she chosen to run.
But for Fiala, after spending a quarter of her life on the Collier dais, it was time for someone new to take over. She didn’t want to be known as a “career politician.”
“I didn't want anybody to say that about me because it was never a career, it was always about the people,” she said.
Earlier this month, Rick LoCastro, a retired Air Force Colonel and fellow Republican, won the seat for District 1, which spans East Naples, Marco Island, the Isles of Capri, Goodland and surrounding communities.
He was among the dozens of residents, county staffers and local officials who attended a recent dedication ceremony for the Donna Fiala Eagle Lakes Community Park nestled between Naples Manor and Lely Resort in East Naples.
There, on a windy November morning, at an event in her honor, Fiala, who doesn’t like to say the full name of her own park because “that's embarrassing,” did what she often does: deflect praise.
“It’s never you alone that does it,” she told the audience as she gave shout-outs to the assembled. “It’s always a group that’s working together for the betterment of the community.”
The setting for one of her final public appearances as a commissioner was fitting because to tell the story of Fiala, a woman small in stature holding a larger-than-life place in her constituents’ minds and hearts, is to tell the story of East Naples. And of parks.
Community activist turned commissioner
When Fiala and her family moved to Collier in June 1974, the Cleveland native found herself in a sleepy town where her son could pet cows on his way to school and wetlands were still plentiful near her East Naples home, the same one she lives in today.
“I live in Lakewood, and we were the second ones to buy, but there were no homes, there were just model homes in one little area,” she recalled. “So we had to pick out a model home and your piece of sand. Everything was just sand then. And the street only went part of the way down and the rest of it was all wetlands. You couldn't even drive back there.”
She worked for Provincetown-Boston Airlines, which used to fly into Naples, for 13 years, rising into its public relations department, and later Naples Community Hospital, now NCH Healthcare System, for another 13 years, working in community relations.
Meanwhile, East Naples, she said, was “deteriorating.”
“The only commissioners we ever had lived on Marco Island,” Fiala said. “So it was a handy place where everybody could dispose of all of the things that they didn't want in their community. There was never anybody there to protect us.”
She became involved in the East Naples Civic Association, eventually leading the organization as its president. As a community activist, she started to tackle the issues she saw in her back yard, from a dilapidated park to medians in need of sprucing up.
Fiala grew popular in the community and people would call her to give speeches. She remembers being asked to speak at Veterans Community Park in North Naples, awed by the park’s size and beauty. Later she was invited to the Golden Gate Community Center, once again struck by the amenities there.
Then came a trip to East Naples Community Park.
“I drove into this desolate dustbin and I looked around, there wasn't even any landscaping,” Fiala said. “I mean they had, whatever trees were there were there, you know, and they had a postage stamp-size community center, which they built, and they had a couple of handball courts. They had no lights. So at night it was a handy dandy place to exchange drugs and so forth.”
All the money, Fiala felt, was going to other parks to make them “grandiose.”
“That really bothered me a lot,” she said.
Fiala and the civic group fought hard for two years. “But we finally got that park at least fixed up somewhat so that kids can go in there and play,” she said.
The civic engagement gave Fiala the courage to run for the county commission. Her bid came during a tumultuous time for the board.
Earlier that year, the governor had removed John Norris, then the District 1 commissioner, from office one day after his arrest on an influence-peddling charge connected to the failed Stadium Naples golf arena project.
“They arrested him and I thought: You know what? I could do better than that,” Fiala recalled. “I mean I don't get in trouble with anybody. I don't even do anything illegal or anything.”
Fiala’s outsized role in the community also gave her name recognition, propelling her to her first election win, emerging victorious from a crowded field of candidates.
She knew little about a commissioner’s role or governing when she had started to campaign.
Fiala said she had lived in Collier 15 years before she knew the community even had anything called commissioners.
“I mean, I was really green,” she said. “But I did have it in my heart that I wanted to help the East Naples people overcome all of the junk that had been foisted upon them all of those many years.”
The initial butterflies eventually began to subside. Fiala said she became more comfortable and less intimidated by the job once she understood what all is involved, what people expect and what one can accomplish.
Thorough preparation, too, has helped her feel more confident.
Fiala told the Daily News in 2000 that to prepare for her first meeting, she began reading her packet of agenda items Friday morning and finished just before 1 a.m. on the day of the meeting.
People kid her because she has her “books all marked up,” Fiala said recently.
“Every page has highlighters on it,” said Michael Brownlee, her aide since 2015. “She goes through a box of highlighters about every couple months.”
'A wonderful public servant'
Those who know Fiala and have worked with her are quick to sing her praises.
Commissioner Penny Taylor, said during a brief speech at the dedication ceremony that Fiala has left “very big footsteps” to fill.
“What Donna Fiala has touched in this community has benefited all of us, the whole community,” she said.
Commissioner Bill McDaniel told the audience that Fiala has embodied “representation of the people.”
Phil Brougham, vice chairman of the county’s parks and recreation advisory board and a longtime friend of Fiala, called her “our champion of East Naples and Marco Island.”
Commissioner Andy Solis, near the end of her last meeting, told her she has been “a wonderful public servant” for the county.
“You’ve done so much for your community and your district, but the county as a whole, that you really should feel proud,” he said.
When asked what she will miss most about her longtime post, Fiala, sitting behind a bulky wooden desk, a wall of framed memories behind her, started to talk about the residents who stop her at grocery stores, restaurants and anyplace else, thanking her.
But then she caught herself.
“I don't want to ever seem like I'm, like, too proud of myself,” Fiala said. “That isn't it because it takes a whole team to get it done. You know, you can't just do it by yourself.”
Those who know Fiala best know that stepping away from the dais does not equal retirement.
There are small things, like continuing to bake Christmas cookies for county staff, and more far-reaching endeavors, like a desire to work with Lely High School, continuing her longtime mission to help children in the community.
She also plans to be involved with the arts committee of the Bayshore Gateway Triangle Community Redevelopment Agency and the board of directors for the Friends of Rookery Bay.
If her post-politics life is anything like her time as a commissioner, Fiala is poised to keep busy.
“She's got more energy than the Energizer Bunny,” said Brownlee, tasked for years with juggling the appointments of a commissioner who doesn’t like to turn people down.
“Because keeping her calendar and knowing, you know, the personal engagements that are not on her calendar. She goes from early morning to late at night.”