From the day the year started, it was clear it was going to be a monumental one for political change.
Carrabelle moved to early on to realign their election calendar to even-numbered years, with that of the county’ and while Apalachicola toyed with the idea, the city commission eventually decided not to move forward, at least not in 2019.
So the stage was set for complete attention on the city election, with the three longest-serving city commissioners, Mitchell Bartley and Jimmy Elliott, as well as three-term mayor Van Johnson, all deciding to retire from politics. Before the year was out, Johnson would meet President Trump on the tarmac at Tyndall Air Force Base, a high point of his political career as he entered into lame duck status IN his last year in office.
In addition to the retirements of these elected officials, City Attorney Pat Floyd announced he would not seek reappointment under a new administration, adding one more twist to the story.
Because state representative Halsey Beshears had opted for a cabinet appointment under new governor Ron DeSantis, a special election had to be held, and in that one, after he defeated Republican challenger Mike Watkins, Port St. Joe gas company executive Jason Shoaf coasted to victory over Democratic challenger Ryan Terrell.
But in Apalachicola, all eyes were on the local election and it was a doozy.
Political newcomer Kevin Begos took on local civic activist Amy Hersey and former city commissioner Valentina Webb in a three-way contest for mayor. Accountant Despina George faced off in a larger field for Bartley’s seat, which included businessman George Mahr, pastor Barry Hand and tradesman Ramon Lopez. For Elliott’s seat, the contest boiled down to his granddaughter Adriane, a restaurant worker, squaring off against attorney Torben Madson.
The election was heated from the beginning, much more tart than the typical contests, including allegations, not quite grounded in the law, that Webb had misused the city’s seal. The contest became a referendum on the Johnson administration, with a debate over the future of city manager Ron Nalley, the role of Main Street and what would become of the Community Redevelopment Authority, which had been put on hold in the waning months before the election.
Elliott won a tight race against Madson, while George and Hand emerged from the first round of balloting to a run-off. Webb outpolled Begos in the first round, but with Hersey’s endorsement, he was the victor in the run-off, which had to be delayed a few weeks after the community voiced concern that voters would be disenfranchised due to the absence of both absentee and early voting.
One of the first orders of business of the new administration was to approve the new city attorney, which itself had been a process full of some conflict. In the end local attorney and native daughter Kristy Branch Banks was hired as Floyd’s successor.
The opening months of the Begos administration have been eventful, with an expanding of the number of meetings and a widening of opportunities for citizens to speak, moving forward to rejuvenate the CRA under volunteer leadership, embarking on a targeted audit and a distancing of the city from Main Street, which no longer shares in covering the salary of a full-time director.