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Island mayors gather for film about Sanibel’s incorporation

By Staff | Mar 24, 2010

Surrounded by 13 mayors who served the City of Sanibel, filmmaker Rusty Farst, front center, stands on the steps in front of the Sanibel Community House. Also pictured is, top row from left, Jerry Muench, Mick Denham, Porter Goss and Mark Westall. Middle row, Bob Davidson, Louise Johnson, Steve Brown and Carla Brooks Johnston. Front row, Nola Theiss, Francis Bailey, Mike Klein, Wally Kain and Marty Harrity.

This past Monday morning, an event the likes of which had never been witnessed before took place at the Sanibel Community House, when a dozen former mayors of the city – as well as the current leader – got together to discuss the history of the island since its citizens voted in favor of incorporation more than 35 years ago.

However, the historic summit wasn’t open to public participation. It was held specifically as part of the production of a film entitled “Sanibel Inc.: The Birth Of A City,” brainchild of longtime island resident and award-winning filmmaker Rusty Farst.

“I wanted to do something that paralleled the importance of this project. So I began the challenging feat of getting all the mayors together,” said Farst, who last year directed and produced the popular island fact-based fable, “Sandbars To Sanibel.”

“Little did I know that this many mayors have never been together before,” he added. “I think it says a lot about how important they feel it is to tell the story… especially on the big screen.”

Moderated by Kristie Anders, longtime education director at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, the informal-style discussion among the 13 mayors on the island’s incorporation effort as well as their individual stories of triumphs and tribulations provided further inspiration to this exclusive gathering.

Jerry Muench, second from left, makes a point as Steve Brown, Porter Goss and Carla Brooks Johnston listen.

“We each had a role in preserving what had been established before us and improving things for those who were going to follow us,” said Nola Theiss as cameras rolled, with the guests of honor seated in a semicircle.

From Sanibel’s first mayor, Porter Goss, to its current leader, Mick Denham, the passions and emotions regarding Sanibel’s quest for cityhood were alive and well at the Community House, where the historic vote was cast on Nov. 5, 1974. With a turnout of 1,083 islanders, 63.6 percent (or 689 people) voted in favor of incorporation and a total of 36.4 percent (or 394 people) voted against it.

“As you can imagine, these mayors – who went on to lead this island and keep it special – they have a lot to say about the importance of incorporation,” said Farst. “And they are all charged about this project.”

Also attending the March 22 taping of “Sanibel Inc.” was Francis Bailey, Mike Klein, Louise Johnson, Mark “Bird” Westall, Jerry Muench, Wally Kain, Bob Davidson, Steve Brown, Marty Harrity and Carla Brooks Johnston.

“One thing that happens when you become mayor… you become even more proud of this city,” explained Denham. “We as mayors have the responsibility to keep Sanibel in the same condition as it was when it was passed on to us.”

Rusty Farst's camera focuses on Nola Theiss during Monday's videotaped discussion.

“I came to appreciate Sanibel so much more,” added Johnson. “That’s why I still come to bug Mick and Marty and stay interested in what’s going on in the city.”

Anders also asked the mayors what were some of the greatest challenges they faces during their tenures. Harrity was quick to point out what he endured in the days following Hurricane Charley in 2004.

“Without a doubt, the biggest challenge was hurricane recovery,” he said. “It was the largest natural disaster Sanibel had ever seen.”

Harrity went on to praise the collaborative efforts of his fellow council members at the time, the staff from J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Lee County officials and local citizens for “working together to bring this community back on its feet.”

Bailey noted that his greatest challenge was “taking care of the environment while remembering that people live here, too” while Muench recalled “the pressures to resist development and resist change.”

From left, Bob Davidson, Mick Denham and Marty Harrity share a laugh.

The events of Monday morning were captured on high definition video, which will be used to create public attention and financial support for the production of the film.

“(This city) started out with the idea of creating a small community, a small city, building a city staff and then building a comprehensive plan,” said Goss. “That community spirit, and the trust we had to work together, is truly a unique story about democracy. It’s a remarkable story.”

Davidson added, “I think that’s what Sanibel is all about – developing character. We just tried to carry out what the Sanibel Plan told us.”

“Sanibel Inc.” is being produced by Farst to capture the emotional and dramatic story behind the historic home rule effort. He is requesting personal stories from those Islanders who actually lived it and hopes to attract archival photographs and video from the public to enhance the integrity of the production.

Islanders wishing to contribute material for the film should contact Farst by sending an e-mail to jawsproductions@comcast.net or may visit www.sanibelinc.com for additional details.

Seated in a semicircle, the former and current Sanibel mayors chat informally prior to filming.

“I love this group getting together and hearing the commonality of what we have to say,” said Johnston. “I think a lot of other communities wished they were like us.”