The Florida League of Mayors (FLM) swore in Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane as its new President on Thursday, August 15, at the annual League of Cities Conference in Orlando. As he begins his one-year term overseeing the 412-member organization, composed exclusively of Mayors of Florida’s cities and towns, Ruane stated his primary priority is water quality.
“I actually knew last year I would be FLM President this year,” Mayor Ruane explained, “because they elected me President-Elect and that person automatically moves up the next year. What is interesting, however, is when I ran last year, no one opposed me, and in the history of the FLM, that had never previously happened, so I view the trust and confidence my colleagues placed in me as a great honor! I have been active in the FLM for the previous 7 or 8 years, so everyone knows that water quality is my Number One objective.”
Mayor Ruane described the FLM as “elected officials who come together to find common ground, then determine what actions to take to provide education and advocacy to solve them, not only by speaking with one voice in Tallahassee and Washington, DC, but by taking those messages back to our own individual communities, to make a difference right in our own backyards. This is similar, on a much larger scale, to something we organized about ten years ago in Lee County, when former Fort Myers Beach Mayor Larry Kiker, God rest his soul, worked with former Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson, Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson, and I to form a group to work on local issues, but we just represented several small communities. Through the 412-member FLM, we engage so many more people, resulting in a much more powerful message. As this pertains to water quality, we can speak to our State and Federal Legislators and explain the direct impacts bad water has on our communities, as obviously our high quality of life is why we are all here.”
Although born in New York, Mayor Ruane spent most of his adult life in New Jersey before relocating to Southwest Florida in 2004. “My family and I moved here two weeks before Hurricane Charley struck on Friday the 13th of August! We didn’t know anyone in Sanibel yet, so I asked my realtor where we should evacuate, and he said the City of Sanibel had its makeshift headquarters at Bell Tower, so I attended an open meeting, raised my hand, and asked how I could help. For the next five days, until officials reopened Sanibel, I inspected buildings to assess damages.”
Two years later, there was an opening on Sanibel City Council, but only for 60 days, and Council asked him to fill it. This corresponded with a massive Red Drift Algae outbreak “that was three feet high, up to my waist,” Mayor Ruane reflected. “We moved to the beach to forget snow drifts and ended up with Red Drift Algae instead, but that engaged the Sanibel community and that was great to see!” He found politics to his liking, ran to complete the final two years of the unexpired term, and won. “That was almost 13 years ago, and I have yet to lose an election. My City Council colleagues a few years later voted me to be Mayor and have done so every year since, so I have been Sanibel Mayor now for 10 years, longer than any other person. People ask if I would prefer to run exclusively for Mayor rather than having Council vote for Mayor, but I favor this format because if you don’t like the job I do, you can fire me the next year, but if elected to a term specifically as Mayor and you don’t like my performance, you must wait four years to fire me!”
His decade-long journey as Sanibel Mayor will end, however, roughly around the same time as his FLM Presidency, as he will resign before the end of this current term to run in the November 2020 election for the Lee County Commissioner’s District 1 Seat being vacated by John Manning.
“Music To My Ears”
As FLM President, Mayor Ruane will work closely with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on water quality. “Governor DeSantis has done a wonderful job so far with water,” he stated. “I am proud to say I was an early supporter of his, as we discussed water issues a lot, so I felt he would keep his campaign promise, but I never thought he would come out for clean water so aggressively, literally on his administration’s second day. When he made his $2.5 billion budget request over the next four years for water, including $625 million for this year, and then the Florida Legislature approved even more than that, it was hard for me to even imagine that success! Remember, I have been going to Tallahassee for over a decade asking for money for water quality, with little success, so that was music to my ears! This is just the start, though, as we must finish 67 different projects to correct our water issues that will cost a collective $20 billion, and we need the Federal Government to step up and pay their half, so there is no overnight cure.”
Mayor Ruane said that he felt that water quality support initially turned even before the 2017 water crisis or 2018 Statewide elections: “The first positive moment was in 2016, when we assembled the compact of our 16 surrounding counties, with 163 different cities, to work together to advocate for water. There may be 67 Florida counties, but these 16 combine for 57% of the State’s total property value, or roughly $1.3 trillion, with an economic tourism impact of an additional $700 billion, totaling $2 trillion, so we advocated that if water quality causes us to lose just 1% of our value, that is $20 billion, or exactly what we need to finish all 67 water projects, and that message began to resonate!”
Lake Okeechobee Releases
Southwest Florida water quality in 2019 is far superior to 2018, so are we just lucky or is there an actual reason? “I believe it is because the United States Army Corps of Engineers implemented a much better Lake Okeechobee management plan,” Mayor Ruane offered. “In the past, they would not release water in the dry season, when we here in Southwest Florida really need it, so when wet season hit with a high lake, they had nothing else to do but to release water down the Caloosahatchee River, to avoid potentially flooding the communities around the lake. As a result, with Tropical Storm Dorian potentially on our horizon for this weekend, Lake Okeechobee is still a foot-and-a-half lower than last year, so if a storm comes, it can hold a lot more water before massive releases are necessary.”
A lower lake offers added benefits. “There are more natural grasses to help clean the water, so even the Lake is healthier, while we do not suffer from Blue-Green Algae or Red Tide. Not even US Sugar lawyers can argue that this plan adversely affected their industry, unlike what happened under the old Lake release schedule to us last year. As FLM President, I work with my counterparts around Lake Okeechobee to convince them we will do everything we can to ensure their communities are safe from flooding, but they must do everything they can so our communities enjoy clean water. These priorities are not mutually exclusive, as water affects us all! I must brag on my own city here, as Sanibel has an incredible Florida water quality projects website, so go to www.mysanibel.com and see the ‘Sanibel H2O Matters’ link.”
Mayor Ruane said he believes water quality will significantly improve over the next five years, “if everybody stays focused. The restoration of the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee will be done, as will the C-43 and C-44 Reservoirs, and the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir work will be well underway. More communities will take action on stormwater runoff and septic tanks, and less people will use fertilizers with Nitrogen and Phosphorous. There are good things on the horizon, but we can’t let up just because we are having a good year.”
He reflected on his 12-year-long clean water campaign, saying, “I don’t want to go backwards; back then I was a lonely player on a lonely team, and people would see me and say, ‘Here he comes again, still complaining – won’t he ever be happy?’ That is why my FLM Presidency means so much – I am now on a big team that works together to benefit us all! I am really excited about the FLM Presidency; not to just have the title, but for the advocacy and impact we will achieve, to give back to not only our residents today but to our children, including mine, to let them know I actively did something to turn this whole situation around.”
By Gary Mooney