Small is­land’s na­tional rise cred­ited to Mayor Kevin Ruane

RSWLiving - - Departments - 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 Florida Gov. Rick Scott lis­tens to what Sani­bel is say­ing, for ex­am­ple.

For a small town of fewer than 7,000 year-rounders, Sani­bel is pack­ing a big punch in statewide is­sues.

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 Sept. 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 cleanup 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-longest­serv­ing 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 is a board mem­ber of Sani­bel’s Com­mit­tee of the Is­lands, which formed in 1975 and “func­tioned as both an ad­vo­cate for is­land preser­va­tion and a po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tee, right from the start.” Schopp re­calls Ruane as soft spo­ken, al­most shy, in Ruane’s early term.

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 com- fort­able 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 Group Edi­tor-in-Chief for TOTI Me­dia.

Mayor Kevin Ruane

Mayor Kevin Ruane

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