Marineland's new mayor reigns over 4 residents
Published: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 11:55 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 11:55 a.m.
MARINELAND — The population of the town of Marineland ebbs and flows, rising and falling as graduate students and marine researchers move into the Whitney Lab dormitories and leave when their work is completed.
The town had 16 residents according to the 2010 U.S. Census, but town officials today say a more accurate count of "permanent residents" is five.
Its name conjures iconic images of the first-of-its-kind underwater movie studio and the town was created in the late-1930s to facilitate the development of the world's first oceanarium, according to Flagler County Attorney Al Hadeed, who is also a local historian.
The creation of the town was based on a request to the governor from Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Ilya Tolstoy (grandson of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy) and George Burden, who was then a member of the board of the American Museum of Natural History, Hadeed said.
"They wanted to do something scientifically and educationally unique related to marine animals," Hadeed said. "They asked for, and got, the east boundary of the town extending out three miles into the Atlantic Ocean, to the territorial limits of the United States."
Today the town of Marineland is pushing forward with a scientist at the helm. Leslie Babonis, 32, has a biology doctorate degree from the University of Florida and is one of the town's five permanent residents. Most of her time is spent studying starlet sea anemones and how their stem cells switch from general to specific "single use cells" — the ones that sting.
Now, occasionally, she pulls off her latex gloves and steps away from the microscope to attend to a mayoral duty, such as running the monthly council meeting.
Babonis was appointed to the position of mayor on May 16, the day Jim Netherton, who had been Marineland's mayor for 17 years, retired and moved to Little Rock, Ark. She ran her first meeting in June.
"I still feel a little bit like a scientist in mayor's clothing," she said during a recent interview. "I suspect I always will."
Babonis, along with town commissioners Andy Johnson, 29, who works for Flagler County as special projects coordinator, and Matt Welsh, 29, of Ripple Effect Ecotours, manage the town's annual budget of about $50,000.
"With a town of five, if you live here, you almost have to be part of the commission," said Johnson, who's also resident caretaker of the River to Sea Preserve, jointly owned by the town of Marineland and Flagler County.
Welsh defended what he and his fellow commissioners do and said it's not a glib task to run such a small town.
"There are few residents to draw from and limited desire (to run the town)," he said. "We're not paid and there's a lot of work to be done."
That work is very real, said Netherton in a phone interview.
"You have to perform all the legislative-appointed functions of the town — all the same fundamental things it takes to make any town a town," he said. "But without a lot of staff, (the work) is concentrated in those three positions."
Elections are held annually through the Flagler County Supervisor of Elections to fill one of three Town Commission posts per year. If a commissioner leaves before the official end of the term, an appointment is made to the position — as was the case with Babonis.
Potential voter numbers have diminished from 40 or 50, "since back in the day when you just had to work there to vote," Netherton said.
"And, not everyone is a good little citizen who registers to vote," he said.
The three commissioners decide amongst themselves who will be mayor, but Netherton said, "if you're doing a decent job, that's not likely to change."
There are only two property owners on the town's tax roll, according to Flagler County Property Appraiser Jay Gardner. Revenues and expenditures match, with a small reserve account held for insurance purposes, both Babonis and Johnson said.
Marineland, according to town officials, is tied with Weeki Wachee as the smallest town in Florida with a population of five. The big difference is that in that Gulf Coast town, visitors can catch a mermaid show instead of having a dolphin adventure.
Babonis, with toenails painted purple and wearing flip-flops, would rather talk about her experiments — such as extracting RNA from an "expressed" or "turned on" gene to inject into another so it will morph into one that stings — than the business of running government. But she is excited about updating the town's comprehensive plan.
The town is comprised of the Whitney Lab, Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, the River to Sea Reserve, Marineland Marina and the Georgia Aquarium-owned Marineland Dolphin Adventure. A northern offshoot of the popular restaurant, High Tides at Snack Jack, operates within the latter.
"The nice thing," Babonis said, "is that all the interested parties and stakeholders are on the same page. I don't think anyone sees this as a bustling metropolis."
"Robert's Rules of Order is really just a way to get a large group of people to behave," he said. "Scientists, biologists have the mindset that everything is an analytical process. It's not emotional."
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