Two longtime leaders of Apalachicola city government were surprised by honors at the regular city commission meeting Dec. 3.
Mayor Van Johnson was speechless after his colleagues voted unanimously to rename the former Apalachicola High School campus, now operating as a center for community services, after him. At the conclusion of the meeting, longtime city commissioner Jimmy Elliott received a framed resolution by the Florida League of Cities in recognition of his 30 years of service as an elected official.
At the outset of the meeting, City Administrator Betty Taylor Webb addressed the commissioners as a private citizen, requesting the community service center be renamed the Mayor Van W. Johnson, Sr., Recreation and Community Service Complex.
“A youth center was a campaign promise of the mayor and we now have that out there and the mayor also has an office out there,” she said. “We’re setting a trend in that area. It’s the first time I know of that a mayor has had an office.”
The request met with unanimous approval by the commissioners. “You kept that from me,” Johnson told Webb.
In an interview Tuesday at his office at the community services building, the mayor said he was virtually speechless at the time. “I’m still trying to grasp it all,” he said. “I was surprised, honored and definitely surprised.”
Portions of the former high school campus deeded five years ago by the school board to the city include the school building, field house and gymnasium. Leased to the city were the football field, and softball and baseball diamonds.
Since that time the campus has been used as a one-stop shop for community services provided by non-profit organizations and city youth recreation activities.
Current occupants include the Franklin's Promise Coalition, food pantry, Gulf Coast Workforce Board, the Capital Area Community Action Agency, the Franklin County Public Library Tigers Program, BP Claims office, the city's Project Impact afterschool and summer enrichment programs, the city’s KUT (Kids United Together) youth program, and several other non-profit community organizations.
“I don’t want it to be about me,” Johnson said. “Let the name of it be secondary to the services provided out here. I’m more proud of what we have to offer here than anything.”
Johnson said he plans to establish regular part-time office hours after the first of the year.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Sharon Berrian, associate director for membership development for Florida League of Cities, Inc. (FLC) read a special proclamation approved in August at the FLC annual meeting and signed by FLC President P.C. Wu and attested to by FLC Executive Director Michael Sittig.
The resolution of the FLC board of directors honors Elliott for 30 years of elected service, and commends him “for his unselfish commitment to municipal leadership and governance.”
It notes that several terms in office “is a high compliment voters give to an official, and with these years of experience comes a strengthening of wisdom, discernment and strong leadership skills that brings tremendous value to the municipal governments of Florida.”
Following the reading of the resolution, Elliott said it has been “a privilege and an honor to serve. My ancestors go back a ways in this town.”
The longtime city commissioner, whose tenure was interrupted several times over the years by service aboard with the Army National Guard, said “the group I have right now is one of the best I’ve ever had. Everybody is just a good team.”
Elliott’s colleague on the city commission, Mitchell Bartley, said “I’ve enjoyed the three terms, going on four, I’ve been with you. I hope you serve another 30 years.”
Elliott reflected that “I think I’ve been through about every situation.” He recalled that after his first election, he was asked on his mail route why it was he had won, and he replied that “it was God’s will and the voice of the people.
“I’ve always said that, as to what my decisions were, I’ve always considered what God would want me to do,” he said. “I’ve had relatives mad at me and friends mad at me. I always do what I think is right for everybody. That’s the way I’ve always been and I hope that’s the way I’ve always stayed.’
He said that as members of the city commission “we don’t always agree on stuff. That’s what government is all about. I think this commission has done pretty well. It is a great small town to live in and I’ve always been proud of it.”
Elliott reflected on a recent three-week trip he has taken to the Philippines, during which time he had met city commissioners, a vice mayor, and police and fire chiefs.
“I have to admire the Filipino people, how hard they work and strive,” he said. “They can take anything that we would throw away and make something out of it.”
Elliott joked that he had shared several glasses of tea with the Filipino police chief, recalling that when he served in Operation Desert Strom in Saudi Arabia, he had been invited to a home and was poured a glass of tea by a child there.
“I didn’t want to insult him, so I drank it and it was horrible,” he said. “I drank it fast so he poured me another one.”
Elliott, whose military service stretches back to the tail end of Vietnam, said “God’s been good to me. I’ve seen a lot of things, good and bad, and met a lot of different people. America is the best place for an opportunity to succeed if you try hard enough.”
Elliott said he first arrived in the Philippines just days before the typhoon struck one of the islands.
“It was like a nuclear bomb. It just stripped the leaves off all the trees and turned it into a barren wasteland,” he said. “They didn’t have chainsaws, they had axes for chopping trees to clear roads and all. You come back and realize how good we do have it.”