Checking All The Boxes
If Roger Hernstadt, the new Fort Myers Beach Town Manager, had any hint of a Brooklyn accent left, decades of Florida living have obliterated it.
“I am a native of Brooklyn, and lived there until graduating from Brooklyn College,” says the affable Hernstadt. “That is where I get my love of the ocean, as only a four-lane highway separated us from the beach. I spent my formative years at Coney Island and another nearby coaster park in Sheepshead Bay.” He attained his Health Science degree from Brooklyn College that he describes as “a great school. Unfortunately, I worked while attending classes so I did not get to fully appreciate campus life, but I received a terrific education from a great institution.”
Then fate intervened: “My sister was a teacher in Miami and her husband was in medical school, and my oldest nephew was born,” he recollects a lifetime later. “They needed help with the baby so I came down and was the full-time sitter for several months. Once they figured everything out, I was getting ready to go back home when I saw a newspaper ad that Metro Dade County needed what was basically an ombudsman for 6 months, while the person in that position was on maternity leave. I found myself answering questions from the public that in those days was all snail mail, by writing back the responses. When the fulltime woman returned, they asked me to stay on, and I worked for them for 30 years, spending 20 in Public Works and the last 10 in charge of capital improvements.”
Following this, Roger worked for the City of Miami as Assistant City Manager and Chief of Staff for two years, served as City Manager for Marathon for four years, then City Manager for Marco Island for three years. “Between Metro Dade, Miami, Marathon and Marco, it’s a good thing there is an ‘M’ in Fort Myers Beach,” laughs Roger. “There seems to be an ‘M’-theme to my professional life!”
In a career of government service, one chapter stands out: when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida just south of Miami on August 24, 1992. “Before Andrew, it had been many years since a major hurricane struck Florida,” Roger reminds. “We would host these hurricane drills every year, and once-in-a-while would get nicked by a Category 1 or 2 that didn’t seem any worse than a major thunderstorm, then all of a sudden the real one crushes you!” The Category 5 storm, with winds over 165 miles-per-hour, obliterated entire blocks, in many cases leaving only concrete foundations. It destroyed more than 25,000 houses, severely damaged 100,000 more, killed 65 people, and caused over $26 billion in damages.
One of those 25,000 houses devastated down to its foundation was Roger’s. “I was the Assistant Director of Public Works and was named the County’s Hurricane Coordinator, to help all other departments to complete their projects and get reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). My house was close to the water in an evacuation zone, so I stayed with family the day and night of the storm, and went back to the check on it the next day, and all that was left was the foundation. From there, I got a ride back to the County and worked non-stop for the next 18 straight days; no one ever went home – we just stayed! But then, several others like me had no home to go home to, so it really didn’t matter.”
Reflecting on that loss, Roger relates that “it makes you appreciate things you did not appreciate enough, like family photographs and the kid’s drawings from kindergarten and things like that. You replace all the clothes and furniture and everything else but those things are lost forever. Insurance was easier back then, but you struggled to find a place to rent for a year while you rebuilt, while everyone else was looking for a place to rent while they rebuilt, and there just weren’t that many places! Then you had to find a reliable contractor, and a place where the commute wasn’t overwhelming because the kids still attended the neighborhood school. Life was pretty chaotic!”
A Kind of Street Credibility
It is Andrew, combined lessons learned in his first six months as the ombudsman, that frames Roger’s compulsion to serve and inform the public. “In Andrew, when I would help those who lost all their material possessions, it helped them to know I was going through the exact same things; it gave me a kind of street credibility. When I first started out, and would read those letters from people who had nowhere to turn to fix a pothole or learn a permit status, I experienced their frustrations, and learned that successful communication is the key. I spent a lot of time in Public Works that was 80% engineering, and I was the person who went out and worked with the neighbors, as you just can’t always follow the manual. The plan might indicate the new sidewalk goes right through someone’s beloved tree they planted 20 years ago, and I would be the intermediary to say, ‘can’t we run the sidewalk safely around the tree?’ It was the best of all worlds, as I learned equally engineering and people skills.”
Town Council selected Roger to be the 11th Town Manager in Fort Myers Beach’s 21-year history from 77 candidates, and a final list of 4 applicants who council met with in person. During his telephone interview, then face-to-face session, Hernstadt seemed very passionate about receiving this offer.
“One of the things about the City or Town Manager field is you not only want a place that fits you professionally, with elected officials with who you can develop a partnership, but you want to be a part of a town and community that is interesting and fun, and that would benefit from my moving here to live, not only as a professional but a neighbor. So, while I was under consideration for five jobs at the time of my interview, this was the one that checked all the boxes personally and professionally. Fort Myers Beach has all the attributes and challenges and factors and lifestyle that is important to me and my family.”
Roger’s wife, Jessica, and stepson, Aidan, who will soon attend class at an area college, will join him here, while oldest son, Matthew, 28, is a Florida State University graduate. “I met my wife on a blind date set up by my sister,” he says with a gleam in his eye! “She would not let either of us say ‘No’ until we went out, then I asked for the second date on my own pretty quick, as we had a great time, and have had nothing but great times ever since!”
The New Kid on The Block
As for impressions so far, good or bad, Roger says that “I am delighted by how hard working is the Town staff, and how well-intentioned they are to service our taxpayers. I try to remember I am the new kid on the block, and clearly every manager has a different style, so it is an adjustment for the staff and myself. Sometimes you go into a new place and discover something works better than it did for you someplace else, and you have to resist the temptation to say, ‘this is how we did it before,’ or rely on a tweak rather than an entire overhaul. When everyone moves along on the same page, at the same pace, we all make progress together on the goals and priorities as set forward by Town Council.”
As Roger speaks, working not 10 feet away is former Interim Town Manager James Steele, as they share the office space until Jim, in a transitionary consulting role, retires on May 25. “The Town was extraordinarily fortunate to have Jim Steele available to be its Interim Town Manager for the past year, one of the most crucial in its history. I have seen many City and Town Managers and can honestly say not one of them left their community as well positioned as Jim has with Fort Myers Beach.”
Roger looks forward to the upcoming Town Council strategic visioning sessions on June 5 and 20, saying that “hopefully we can tie the budget to that vision, along with successfully concluding the Estero Boulevard projects, both those of the Town and in partnership with Lee County. Also, because the Town has a Community Agency Board structure, we need to find a way to use all the talents these volunteers bring to the table – and I commend them for the time they commit to the Town – in a collaborative way, to bring their ideas to Town Council for possible approval and implementation. Between our major projects and our goal to make our day-to-day operations more efficient and effective, this is an excellent time to be here on Fort Myers Beach!”