Southwest Florida newly elected officials faced challenge of pandemic in first days

Brittany Carloni
Naples Daily News
The Naples Daily News spoke with eight people who were elected for the first time about their experience in government during the coronavirus pandemic.

Paul Perry stood on the plaza outside Naples City Hall in March 2020 as then-Mayor Bill Barnett declared a state of emergency due to the spread of the coronavirus.

The following day, Perry was one of three new faces elected to the Naples City Council in an election that swept out Barnett and three incumbent city councilors.

The retired lawyer and resident of the Aqualane Shores neighborhood had never held elected office but now was tasked with learning how to do the job during a public health crisis. 

“I think it’s probably fair to say that I had no idea what I was walking into at that point,” he said. 

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Perry is one of a handful of people across Lee and Collier counties who were elected for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The Naples Daily News spoke with eight freshmen elected officials in Southwest Florida who took office in the past year.

Many of those who were elected in the past year are white men like many of their colleagues already in city council and county commission roles. 

All eight experienced learning how to lead during a time when government and daily life saw significant changes. 

It’s a significant learning curve, said Sandra Pavelka, a political science professor at Florida Gulf Coast University. 

“We’re all having to learn in a different way,” Pavelka said. “They definitely have challenges and they have learning curves. They have to learn the process and stay connected, but the new legislators…they have to build that trust with their constituents and others.”

When meetings went virtual in Naples

Paul Perry is running for Naples City Council. The election is March 17.

Perry was sworn into office on April 1, 2020, alongside two other City Council members who had yet to hold elected office. 

Within the first month in office, as coronavirus cases increased, the City Council went to virtual meetings. It was a challenge, Perry said, both technologically and on the number of topics the council wanted to take on. 

“There seemed like dozens and dozens of things we wanted to address sooner rather than later,” Perry said. 

In virtual meetings, the city received public comments by email and in person. The city clerk’s office often took hours to read hundreds of comments into the record. 

“We just felt it was really important in a time of crisis and uncertainty that people felt like they could still participate in their government, and have a voice, and people would listen to that voice,” said City Councilman Ted Blankenship, who was also elected for the first time last year. 

Ted Blankenship is running for Naples City Council. The election is March 17.

Blankenship, a former chief financial officer, said the last year has required extra measures to receive input from the community. 

“I spend a lot of time emailing people,” Blankenship said. “I have one-on-one meetings where they feel more comfortable to share information with them and get their input, their feedback.” 

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Perry said in making some of the city’s major decisions over the past year, such as the openings and closings of beaches or the city’s mask mandate, he relied on scientific research from sources like Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic, NCH Healthcare System and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Perry voted in favor of the city establishing a mask mandate both in July and in December. 

“If people want to vote me out of office the next time around because I didn’t do what they wanted, well, the important thing was to do the right thing, and that’s why I decided to do what I did,” Perry said. 

Drawing on past experience in Collier

Collier County Commissioner Rick LoCastro said he started training for his role the day he decided to run for office in August 2019. 

The head start gave LoCastro about six months to make connections in the community before the coronavirus pandemic.

Rick LoCastro

LoCastro was elected to the Collier County District 1 commission seat in November 2020. 

Despite not holding elected office before, LoCastro said he has drawn on his experience in the military and as a hospital executive at Physicians Regional to work through the pandemic.

“I dealt with major fuel spills on our military bases, so, even though this is a pandemic, that’s experience over decades of service,” LoCastro said. “You can come into the seat and try to learn things quickly, but you can’t replace 25 years of experience in the various areas you need as a county commissioner.” 

LoCastro has seen the pandemic’s impact on how he interacts with the public. There are fewer people at Collier Commission meetings to speak on certain items, he said. 

Still, LoCastro said he uses a newsletter to communicate with county residents and makes himself available for in-person speaking engagements when he can. 

“You’ve got to be able to pivot in communication, but then I still offer my availability for any type of Zoom town hall and in-person social distancing town halls,” he said. 

The distribution of COVID-19 vaccines has been another part of LoCastro’s first months as a commissioner. 

“When people are screaming for appointments, the correction I make is, you don’t want more appointments, you want more dosages,” he said. “I wish I had a lab in here and I could create 100,000 doses and give them to people who wanted it.” 

Rent forgiveness in Bonita Springs

Voters elected Jesse Purdon and Chris Corrie to the Bonita Springs City Council not once, but twice in 2020: in a March special election and again in November. 

The two city councilmen have yet to sit behind the dais at Bonita Springs City Hall, which is undergoing renovations.

Jesse Purdon, Bonita Springs City Council candidate for District 2.

For a year they’ve been part of socially distanced City Council meetings at different venues in the community, such as the Bonita Springs Recreation Center, they said. 

“It’s very unconventional times, but due to technology and a great staff, we’ve been able to keep the business of the city of Bonita Springs moving forward,” Purdon said.

Regular city issues, such as zoning and permitting decisions, still come before the Bonita Springs City Council, even during the coronavirus pandemic, but Corrie said he has seen community input at meetings change. 

“It seems like it’s always best for people to show up at City Council meetings and make their statements, but people who have been nervous about doing it send emails,” he said. 

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Chris Corrie, Bonita Springs City Council candidate for District 4.

Throughout the past year, Purdon and Corrie have taken actions in the city related to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Purdon in his first meeting proposed rent forgiveness for the artist cottages at Riverside Park in downtown Bonita Springs, he said.

“When we decided to close the park, it made sense to me that we weren’t going to be charging these folks rent because of the economic uncertainty they were under,” Purdon said. 

Corrie in July attempted to enact a mask mandate for Bonita Springs, but the decision did not have full City Council support. It was a disappointment, he said. 

“There were a lot of people I saw who were very uncomfortable about leaving their home, even going to the grocery store, who could have been positively impacted through a mandate of masks,” he said. 

A learning process in Cape Coral

Just one week in November separated Tom Hayden from Election Day and his swearing in as a Cape Coral city councilman

The former reporter and editor at The News-Press said nerves hit him when he officially took his seat beside his colleagues. 

“Things were happening quicker than I thought they would, so you learned that you needed to take notes, you needed to pay attention during every phase of the meeting so that you didn’t get lost on what was happening through different parts of the agenda,” Hayden said. 

Tom Hayden, District 3, Cape Coral City Council

It’s still a learning process, Hayden said, but he now understands he has to be himself in the role of city councilor. 

“You realize the massiveness of the responsibility and how important it is for you to be dedicated to that mission of responsibility, integrity and character,” he said. 

Just as the coronavirus impacted his campaign, it has also affected what he does on City Council. Fewer people show up to City Council meetings in person, but he said he works to involve the public in decisions as much as he can. 

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“This is how I’m going to finish my career, so I’m in the office every day, I keep regular hours, just like I would as if I was a journalist,” Hayden said. “I just discipline myself to go in and respond to residents if they had questions or make sure there was somebody that was available on staff and might be able to answer their questions. I’m going to stay relevant to my voters, not only during the election cycle, but now also as an elected official.” 

Zoom swearing in on Fort Myers Beach

When Dan Allers was first sworn in as a Fort Myers Beach town council member in April 2020, it was over Zoom. 

“From the beginning, it was much different than I was used to,” Allers, who has a background in construction, said. 

Allers was elected in March 2020 as the pandemic began to take its toll on people and businesses across Southwest Florida. Large gatherings and face-to-face meetings were no longer normal. 

Getting his feet on the ground in a role he had never held, and at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, was a challenge, he said. 

Fort Myers Beach town council member Dan Allers speaks during the dedication of a new community outreach center for the Lee County Sheriff's Office in Fort Myers Beach on Wednesday, September 9, 2020.

“I like to be in front of people. I like to see their faces when you interact with them,” he said. “Not being able to shake someone’s hand and introduce yourself was very difficult. To do everything by phone call, or by Zoom meeting or by email was challenging. It was difficult to get out of the box running.” 

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Allers saw the coronavirus effect policy decisions on Fort Myers Beach, such as the initial beach closures and a mask mandate in the town. 

The Town Council in July voted no to the mask mandate on Fort Myers Beach. 

“A majority of our council felt that it was in the best interest of the community to not follow the lead of the county, which I completely understand,” he said. 

Allers said has learned over the past year that he can’t please everyone. 

“You do the best you can with the information that you have and the questions you can ask,” he said. “And you just have to make a decision believing that you're doing the right thing for the community.”

Adapting in Fort Myers

Darla Bonk says she is a people person. 

When she was elected to the Fort Myers City Council in November during the coronavirus pandemic, she had to learn how to adapt. 

“It is really being mindful of people who still have grave concerns about being out in public, and so, wanting to be a visible representative for them, and not being able to get access to them certainly has its challenges, no question,” she said. “But as everybody else is having to do, you realize that it just looks different. It doesn’t mean you can’t still have a face-to-face and be over a computer experience with that constituent.” 

Darla Bonk is a candidate in the race for Fort Myers city council Ward 6.

Bonk said she makes decisions related to the pandemic or daily government business based on what makes her who she is. 

“I had to just kind of go back to what makes me, me, which is my faith and what are the facts, and to just kind of put some people at arm’s length and say, ‘I’m gonna have to get my own handle on this before I can keep kind of taking people’s opinions,’” she said. 

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As the pandemic continues and as Bonk continues in office in Fort Myers, she said she hopes the City Council can listen to one another. 

“I believe that there are people in public office, not only in Fort Myers, but across Southwest Florida, that really wants to do the right thing,” she said. “They want to make good choices. They want people to have a better way of life and we're all just navigating through that on the daily trying to figure out the best way to do that.”

Brittany Carloni is the city of Naples reporter at the Naples Daily News. Support her work by subscribing to our local news organization. Find her on Twitter as @CarloniBrittany.