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Johnston, former mayor and environmental leader, passes

By Staff | May 4, 2011

Carla Johnston offers her concession speech at Ellington's last November.

One of Sanibel’s most ardent environmental leaders, former mayor Carla Lee Brooks Johnston, passed away on Thursday evening at her home following a brief but courageous battle against cancer. She was 71.

In March 2005, Johnston received more votes than any of the six other candidates for Sanibel City Council and served two terms as mayor. Following her tenure as mayor, she was appointed to the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization, and was named chair of the organization in 2009.

But perhaps Johnston’s greatest legacy was as champion for protecting the waters of Southwest Florida and helping preserve the environmental interests of the barrier island.

“Sanibel’s top priority has always been protecting our waters, but we also have an economic interest in what the county does,” Johnston explained in a 2010 interview. “It’s important to have a voice there, following in the footsteps of Porter Goss and Bob Janes. We are a critical area of Lee County, and we tend to hold higher environmental standards. In the past, (Goss and Janes) tended to have some clout on those issues.”

A sixth generation Floridian, Johnston was orphaned at age 13. Her memoir, “Raising Myself,” recounts some of her unbelievable but true life experiences which revealed her vibrant spirit and keen intellect. Growing up in the 1950s, on the cusp of the women’s liberation movement, she forged a path for her peers and posterity.

Johnston, left, pictured at a United Way event in April 2010 with fellow former mayor Louise Johnston.

Johnston, who moved to Sanibel more than 10 years ago, became a member of the city’s Planning Commission in 2004. Johnston helped secure funding for the construction of the Sanibel Recreation Center and oversaw the first update of Comprehensive Land Use Plan in more than a decade. She helped initiate local hazardous waste collection, was instrumental in helping pass the city’s build-back ordinance following Hurricane Charley, set transit policy and pass an outdoor dining ordinance.

In addition, Johnston wrote weekly articles designed to give Sanibel’s citizenry a stakeholder role in the municipal policy decision process and was acting chair of the Five-Year Budget Committee to provide long-range financial perspective in 2002.

Last fall, she made her second unsuccessful run at being elected to the Lee County Board of County Commissioners, falling to John Manning of Cape Coral. After conceding the election before a small group of local supporters at Ellington’s Jazz Club and Restaurant, Johnston offered a positive spin.

“What we tried to do, which is most important if we’re looking to solve any of the problems we’re facing, is to bring together every spectrum of voters in Lee County,” she said. “And I think we were successful in doing that.”

Upon being notified of her passing, Sanibel mayor Kevin Ruane issued the following statement:

“On behalf of all the citizens of Sanibel, we extend our deepest sympathy to Elsie, Eric, Jesse and Kelsea upon their loss of their beloved mother and grandmother. Any person who ever met Carla Brooks Johnston could never forget her energy, spunk, commitment to the environment and her love of Sanibel.”

During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, some of Johnston’s former colleagues expressed their thoughts.

“It was great to work with her on council because she was someone who really worked on resolution and getting things done,” said Jim Jennings. “She had such a comforting smile, too. I’ll miss that.”

Vice Mayor Mick Denham offered, “She helped change the way that Sanibel thinks and works together.”

Denham, along with Johnston and Tom Rothman, were part of council’s “Gang Of Three,” when the trio were elected in the same year. He recalled her tireless work on championing the environment on both the local and county level.

“It’s a loss to the community,” Denham added.

Born in Rochester, N.Y., Johnston graduated from The College of Wooster in Ohio and later attended Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts and Harvard University. There, she was awarded a Research Fellowship as well as a Bunting Fellowship.

Johnston served as a visiting lecturer in Community Planning and Management at the University of Massachusetts, taught Community Needs Analysis, Funding Strategies, Community Planning & Development and Proposal Writing at Emerson College as well as Mass Communications and Public Policy at Boston University.

She enjoyed traveling, koi and cats, kids and grandkids, beach walks and ice cream.

“Carla had this wonderful, hard-working spirit,” noted Jennings. “She really brought people together.”

Johnston is survived by a son, Eric, of Seattle, Wash., and a daughter, Elise, of Albuquerque, N.M., along with two grandchildren and one step-grandchild.

Friends are invited to attend a Celebration of Life for Carla Brooks Johnston this Saturday, May 7 at St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church, located at 2304 Periwinkle Way on Sanibel. A service will begin at 1 p.m.