The Atlantic Beach Commission set up for change on Aug. 29, when three unseasoned politicians, without a single election under any of their belts, defeated three incumbents.Up until election day, the five-member group that governs the small beachside community of roughly 13,500 residents was made up of four men and one woman but, after a female sweep at the polls, will now seat four women and one man.
While all three new commissioners would rather not focus on the gender makeup of the commission, it’s worth noting that according to records on the City of Atlantic Beach official website, which date back to 1986, this is the first time the commission will have a female majority.
City elections occur off-cycle in late August every two years. Mayors serve two-year terms, commissioners four, so their terms often overlap the mayor’s. The recent election had Commissioner Seat 4 and Commissioner Seat 5 up for grabs alongside the mayor’s. John M. Stinson and M. Blythe Water, Commissioner Seats 2 and 3 respectively, remain as the only two crossovers from the previous group.
The race for Commissioner Seat 4 was between incumbent Jimmy Hill and Candace Kelly. Kelly recently retired from Duval County Public Schools after working as a world history teacher at Fletcher High School in Neptune Beach. She ran a rather quiet campaign against a mild and not unpopular Hill. Both aligned on positive business development along the Mayport Corridor, the most pressing issue for the district. In a brief interview, she said that her main concern is to ensure that the small, beachside municipality will be fiscally prepared for future growth and/or recovery in case of natural disaster.
Kelly grew up in Cornwall, Connecticut, a town she says had more cows than people. Her father served two terms as mayor of the small town and her mother was repeatedly elected as town clerk, mainly because she ran unopposed. “What I took from both my parents was that I knew I would lead a life of service,” Kelly said. After high school, she enlisted in the Navy, where she worked on aircraft and found her way to Northeast Florida.
While stationed in Jacksonville, she attended the University of North Florida and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Administration. She was subsequently commissioned and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander, which meant she saw much more desk time than daylight. After completing her service, she settled in Atlantic Beach.
Since becoming a resident, she has regularly attended council meetings and, like a good teacher, studied the commission. She vacillated on running for a seat; it wasn’t until the very last day to declare for the race that she decided to do it, beating the deadline by mere hours.
“I had no expectations going into the race, only that I knew that I was raising my hand and I wanted to be called on,” Kelly said. The $5,000 she spent on her campaign paid off when she defeated her opponent by a mere 35 votes. “There were no polls, so I had no idea how I was doing or what to expect. On the night of the election, I pulled up the election results on my laptop and saw that it was my time to step up,” Kelly said. ____________________
The race for Commissioner Seat 5 was not nearly as close, but was no less telling of the changes coming to Atlantic Beach. Brittany Norris defeated Commissioner Mitch Harding 54 percent to 45 percent. Harding, also an untested candidate going into this election, was a midterm appointment. With her win, Norris becomes the first person of color to sit on the Atlantic Beach Commission. The self-described to-do list addict reacted to her election night victory thusly: “I’m going to need to buy some more binders to stay organized.”
The daughter of a Coast Guard pilot father and a chemist mother, Norris came to Northeast Florida in 2005 to attend University of North Florida, where she studied graphic design. After graduation, she applied her degree and has been working as the Digital Director for Adjective & Co, a branding and marketing agency in Jacksonville Beach.
Norris says she never envisioned herself running for political office, but felt called to do so after the 2016 national election. In a conversation with friends who were voicing discontent with the direction dictated by the results, Norris decided to run for a local office to get involved and, as she says, “have actions speak more than my words.” She won all four districts that comprise Atlantic Beach, most heartily her own district, which sits west of Mayport Road and is considered one of the most underserved sections of Atlantic Beach. The notoriously low-voting district handed Norris a 62 percent to 37 percent victory.
Though Norris is quick to agree that her gender and race should play no real part in her work on the Atlantic Beach Commission, she recognizes the significance of her win. “I ran because I was not seeing myself represented by the candidates running for office. I do not minimize the fact that I am an African-American woman elected to a commission seat in Atlantic Beach, but I believe that the best way to give those factors the proper attention is to fold them into the larger narrative of what we hope to accomplish as a city,” Norris said.
Norris told Folio Weekly that her goals while on the commission concern communication and preparedness, especially considering Hurricane Irma’s impact on the coastal community this month. She said that communication between the city and its citizens during Irma was good, but can certainly improve. “I hope to present a more proactive approach to emergency preparedness as soon as hurricane season opens. I want there to be more information about the closing and reopening of the bridges that connect the beaches to the mainland and more information about what happens during a mandatory evacuation,” Norris said.
Norris is also concerned with the speed of development in the city. All the candidates in the recent Atlantic Beach election took a position on the development of the Mayport corridor, the portion of Mayport Road that runs from Atlantic Boulevard to Dutton Island Road along the northern border of Atlantic Beach. The road is owned and managed by the state, but zoning of the businesses that line it to the east and west is managed by Atlantic Beach. Historically, there has been stringent regulation on the type of businesses that can operate along the corridor. Most of the current businesses have had to apply for use by exception, which can add time and expenses to cash-starved small businesses. “We have to update the permitting process to better support businesses and residents looking to do work on their homes,” Norris said. ____________________
The mayor-elect agrees with the importance of improving Atlantic Beach’s approach to existing and future development in the coming term.
The mayoral race in Atlantic Beach was fairly well-documented with significant attention paid to campaign rhetoric and mudslinging. (“The Ugliest Election of All,” Aug. 23.) On election night, the city handed Ellen Glasser a large margin of victory, 54 percent to 42 percent, over incumbent Mitch Reeves.
Glasser grew up in Savannah, Georgia and studied psychology at Duke University. She became one of the first female agents in the FBI. In 1999, the bureau assigned her to Jacksonville, the closest the FBI would let her be to the city in which she grew up. She was one of the case agents on the Iran-Contra Affair. One of six children, Glasser has six children of her own.
Upon leaving the FBI after 24 years of service, she settled in Atlantic Beach and secured a position at UNF, teaching criminology. Ever a high achiever, amid a hectic schedule of family and work, she still managed to earn a doctorate in leadership from UNF. No one in her family has held political office, and many of her siblings have embarked on drastically different career paths. Glasser had settled into a comfortable career in academia when the call to run for office came.
Glasser says the catalyst for her entering the race was when Reeves and the commission abruptly ended the city manager’s employment. Glasser’s campaign centered on ethics—she filed an ethics complaint against Reeves shortly before election day.
Glasser says that another reason she ran for office was to attempt to restore a modicum of dignity and professionalism to politics. To her, the all-female win was less about identity politics and more about the candidates’ qualifications. “I was surprised the electorate chose an all-female ticket. As a woman, I am all for opportunities for women in nontraditional roles, but I never really looked at it as a gender issue. For me, it was all about who is the best person for the job.”
On the job, Glasser told FW, she plans to pursue capital improvement projects for the citizens west of Mayport Road. She also asserted that the city needs to get its public works department in shape by first hiring a director of public works. “This will go a long way to ensuring we have a City Hall that is well staffed and provides better customer service,” Glasser said.
Glasser concedes time will tell how well she serves her constituents as mayor; to that end, she has vowed to listen to her instinct and intuition. “The residents of Atlantic Beach had to decide to trust me and hire me and I feel that I stayed on message from the get-go,” Glasser said.