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With three new members of Naples City Council being sworn in this week, the dynamic of the local board is bound to change.

Berne Barton, Bill Kramer and Linda Penniman will be sworn in April 3 with re-elected Mayor Teresa Heitmann to join Ray Christman, Terry Hutchison and Beth Petrunoff, who are in the middle of four-year terms on the seven-member council.

The three newcomers will replace the three Council members—Ted Blankenship, Mike McCabe and Paul Perry—who unseated incumbents in 2020 when they were swept into office with Mayor Heitmann. This year, Blankenship gave up his seat to run for mayor in a three-way race with Heitmann and Gary Price; former Vice Mayor McCabe resigned Dec. 31 because of stricter financial disclosure requirements of Florida’s Form 6; and Perry chose not to seek another term because he and his wife are planning to retire and travel.

While Heitmann led a majority vote on the board many times during the last four years, she is not expected to necessarily have that advantage during her second term as mayor. While Penniman’s campaign was aligned with Heitmann’s, newcomers Barton and Kramer were handpicked by Price to run with him, but Heitmann defeated Price by a slim margin in the March 19 election.

City Council member Perry thought the race for mayor would be close, but not as close as it turned out. Blankenship didn’t intentionally play the role of a spoiler, but he did affect the outcome of the three-way race, Perry said.

“My very unscientific thinking is that he and Gary split the anti-Heitmann vote,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one that close.”

If Blankenship had not made it a three-way race, Council member Christman thought it still would have been a close race between Heitmann and Price. “It’s all speculation, but I think what you have here, the way it turned out, is an election where, because of three candidates in the race and Ted having gotten a quarter of the vote, nobody got a mandate,” he said. “So, it’s all the more reason that we all need to come into this next Council session recognizing that there were a lot of different points of view both at the mayor and Council race as to who people voted for, and nobody got voted in unanimously, either in this election or previous elections. We need to work collaboratively for the better, for the good of the city.”

Christman thought the dynamic on Council is going to be quite different, but Perry didn’t expect the new body’s votes will be easily predictable.

“It’s kind of interesting,” Perry said. “Even with the makeup we had before, Terry Hutchison kind of went his own direction and we had everything from 4-3, 3-4 all the way to 7-0 votes. I would say on two-thirds of them I would have probably predicted the exact numbers wrong. People I thought would be taking one position took it the other direction and vice versa.”

Because of city issues faced, Petrunoff predicted a continuation of her first two years on Council.

“I don’t see it changing a whole lot,” she said.

A new board makeup doesn’t change the fact that residents’ concerns make development the city’s top issue, Petrunoff said.

“The No. 1 issue is the fear of overdevelopment and what they are seeing when they come back season after season after season or what they’re experiencing year-round, which is more traffic—which is partially county growth, but it’s partially self-inflicted from what we’ve done that’s coming out of the ground that was approved back in 2019. It’s a more crowded place and noisier,” she said. “I think we’re having to add more police resources and things because it is more heavily used— more people at the beach, more people at our restaurants. So, that is the No. 1 issue in town when you talk to people.”

Christman said Council needs to stay focused on the broad strokes and the broad direction of the city. He views the new makeup optimistically because he noticed that the major themes and issues of the campaigns were similar, and he saw a lot of agreement from residents on the direction of the city.

Theresa Heitmann after Naples mayoral election“Everybody was saying public safety is a first priority. Everybody was saying that we need to pay and retain employees because they’re so valuable. Everybody was saying that they’re concerned about overdevelopment and maintaining the character of Naples. Everybody was saying we need to protect the environment and worried about water issues,” Christman said.

“You go down the line and the issues were identified and sort of agreed to, in effect. There were no outliers. It wasn’t like one candidate or another candidate was saying something materially different. What that said to me is that we have a pretty broad consensus in this town among the residents and who’s going to be on Council next as to what we need to do and what we need to work on, what we need to prioritize.

“So, I’m going to be going into the next session really trying to emphasize these points that I think are the most important ones I’ve just named, and say we’ve got to get the beach outfalls project done; we’ve got to make sure as we negotiate these next three union contracts with our employees that we make sure we get to a point that we’re paying them well and fairly and in a position where we’re retaining not just police and fire but our employees as a whole, our general employees; that we’re making some hard decisions in terms of development projects and making sure they don’t unduly contribute to congestion and the kind of development that’s not in character with the traditions of Naples—these kinds of things.”

Linda Penniman

Kramer and Barton, the two Council newcomers without experience in politics or homeowners’ association leadership, are going to have a steep learning curve to understand what’s going on, Perry said, noting that he had a steep learning curve on Council even though he had been president of the city’s Aqualane Shores HOA for three years.

“When an agenda lands and particularly the first time you see something, it’s just like drinking out of a fire hose. You’re trying to get up to speed, you really don’t know what the background is on it and all that kind of thing. At least once you’ve been though it a couple of times, you pretty much know what you’re looking for,” Perry said. “But, to begin with, you don’t even know what you’re looking for, and that makes it difficult.”

Perry said he will miss the opportunity of serving on Council, but he doesn’t regret not seeking another four-year term. “I’m happy I did it and I’m perfectly content to be stepping down,” he said.

“My wife and I are both failing miserably at retirement. She’s the chairman of the board of an insurance company, which is kind of a full-time job, and with me on Council and doing some other things with some other organizations and her doing the same thing, we want to get some traveling in again now that COVID has passed us—and, frankly, we couldn’t find a two-week period where we could just go to Europe or whatever we wanted to do.”

This story was published March 29 in The Naples Press.

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