Civic balancing act

Small-town officials often juggle duties


Jim Gabriel, owner of Santa Fe Bicycle Outfitters and mayor of High Springs, talks to his 3-year-old daughter, Kate, on Wednesday while BMX racer Jeff Adams of Gainesville renews a bike membership for an upcoming race in High Springs.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, January 12, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 10:56 p.m.
HIGH SPRINGS- To some of the people who frequent his bike shop, Jim Gabriel is known as "Mr. Jim."
To others, he's just "the bike man."
To all of High Springs, Gabriel is the mayor, and frequently his business on Main Street is a place where residents come to purchase bicycles and to approach him with city-related questions and concerns.
"I've stopped wearing hats and name tags like, 'Hi I'm the mayor,' or, 'Hi, I'm the bike guy,' " Gabriel said as he stood in Sante Fe Bicycle Outfitters while children Kate, 3, and Jack, 5, and dog Kelsey played around him. "It's all rolled into one."
Gabriel and other Alachua County small-town elected officials who also hold jobs in the private sector say their lives are balancing acts that are often hectic and occasionally unpredictable. Most say the duality has provided a closeness to constituents that would be impossible to develop otherwise.
But that closeness comes with consequences.
"I've had occasions where we've had to take some votes; people weren't pleased with it and some people who had done business with me in the past didn't do business with me because I didn't vote the way they wanted me to," said Hawthorne City Commissioner John Martin, who works as a substance-abuse counselor and also owns a mini-storage business. "In a case like that, it actually shows you who your real friends are."

'Full-time part-time'

Traditionally, mayors and city council or commission jobs are intended to be part-time, Lynn Tipton of the Florida League of Cities said. That often makes the positions perfect for retirees, but Tipton said the jobs attract candidates from all professions, particularly in places with a younger demographic makeup.
"We've got doctors, university professors, school principals, car dealership owners, insurance agents, small business owners, military officials - you name it," Tipton said.
"One of the jokes we have with them when we meet them is we'll say, 'You ran and everybody said this is part-time, but this is the most full-time part-time thing you've ever done,' " Tipton said.
Most days at Gabriel's store include bike business and visits or phone calls from people who want to discuss city-related issues.
"They know I'm accessible. I live three blocks down the street," said Gabriel, who has run the bike shop for 10 years and was just re-elected to his second term on the City Commission. "People really feel free."
He said citizens who come to the store to talk about city concerns usually know when it's time to let him attend to customers, who often end up taking part in the city-business conversations.
"If we're having a discussion about a local issue, it kind of lets them join in," he said.

Juggling many jobs

When asked about juggling a civic position in addition to another job, Micanopy Town Commissioner Fay Baird offered, "You can just come and do a day in the life with Fay if you want."
Baird, who works for an environmental consulting company, said the work is done on a project-by-project basis, which allows her needed flexibility. Although people don't usually drop by to see her at that job, they did show up when she would help out at her husband's antique store.
"People did definitely drop in," she said.
Municipal officials often find themselves juggling more than just two jobs. Most held positions on city or organizational committees before being elected and are still involved with other projects.

Not for the money

Then there's the issue of making time for spouses, children and hobbies.
Many elected officials in small towns and cities are obviously not in it for the money. Tipton said pay for the jobs in Florida's 408 cities, towns and villages can be as low as $1 a year.
Martin makes $300 a month as a commissioner in Hawthorne, outgoing Archer Mayor Roberta Hodges received $200 a month and Micanopy commissioners will get no compensation this year, having voted themselves out of their $200-a-month salaries to offset the cost of new equipment for the Fire Department.
"It's a part-time job, but more hours than people assume," is how Hodges described her job as city commissioner. She also owns Roberta's Workroom, a custom sewing business a short distance from City Hall in Archer.
Hodges said the store, which includes several sewing machines and large multicolored rolls of fabric, allows her to relate to other small business owners she meets in her work for the city.
"People can, and frequently do, stop in with an issue," she said. "The downside is, in my business there are frequent deadlines and sometimes the deadlines conflict with things going on that I need to pay attention to."

Living the 'dream'

The hardest thing for Gabriel, who didn't eat dinner until 10:30 p.m. on a recent night, are the times he doesn't make it home before his children go to bed. As he watched his children ride bicycles in the store, Gabriel said the challenges are worth being able to live the kind of life he wants.
"I can live on a downtown street, I can have a shop on Main Street three blocks up. I can have my children in the store while I'm conducting business. I can be involved civically," Gabriel said.
"People talk about the American dream, and I think that's it," he said.
Rachel Kipp can be reached at 374-5086 or kippr@gvillesun.com.

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