In small-town politics, everything is personal.
It’s been about 2 1/2 years since Yankeetown last had a mayor. In the interim, Larry Feldhusen, vice mayor and a town councilman, was appointed acting mayor. But he believes it’s time for some new blood.
“I’m of the opinion that elected officials need to be changed often, just like babies’ diapers, for pretty much the same reason,” he said.
The town is holding mayoral and council qualifiers through Friday. So far, no one has “put their ring into the hat,” Feldhusen said.
“The problem is that nobody wants to run,” said former councilwoman and manager of B’s Marina & Campground, Helen Ciallella.
Yankeetown, which takes up about 20 square miles on the Gulf Coast of Florida, has 502 residents and is known for its fishing. The center of town is comprised of eight small buildings. Sounds of tropical birds and hints of conversation tinged with authentic southern drawls occasionally disrupted the quiet atmosphere — until a group of investors came into the picture.
Izaak Walton Investors, LLC attempted to develop the town seven years ago, which sparked a feud and affected the town’s politics, according to residents.
Dee Dixon, a resident, said it was as if a dividing line appeared in the middle of the town, sectioning those who were for and against development.
Ciallella stepped down as councilwoman during this time. She said she couldn’t handle the residents’ behavior. A man named Michael Peters posted in an online Yankeetown discussion board titled “Save Yankeetown” during the feud.
On May 4, 2006, he wrote about Ciallella: “She’s been peeing on everybody’s heads and telling ‘em it’s raining so long that now even the developers are walking around with umbrellas.”
Ciallella described the comment as being the most awful behavior she had seen in her life.
Dixon said people stopped going to town hall meetings. The resident said those who disagreed with the town’s council and wanted to develop were ridiculed by their neighbors.
One argument for developing was that development would bring money into town. Anti-development arguments included the idea that development would threaten the town’s culture.
Ultimately, the town decided not to develop. Izaak Walton Investors, LLC has sued the town over 20 times. Yankeetown has won all of the suits to date, Feldhusen said.
“We don’t want development at the cost of the atmosphere, the culture and the history we have,” Feldhusen said.
Dixon said she felt that decision was a mistake and encouraged her neighbors to let Yankeetown “grow a little bit.”
Dixon said the lack of job opportunities is problematic. A barbecue restaurant was forced to close. The general store almost went under. And only one restaurant survives, along with a handful of small businesses.
The town’s commercial base needs to be stronger in order for vacationers to consider the town a destination, former councilwoman Ciallella said.
Although the town’s council lowered the budget and taxes in 2013, Dixon and Ciallella said they aren’t impressed. Dixon said the town’s water lines need repair.
The lines have been breaking since Ciallella first moved to Yankeetown about 15 years ago, she said. The pipes will often break after intense storms hit the town, sometimes as a result of flooding, which is another issue for the town.
Resident Yolanda Canchola said her home sits in water for days after a big storm because there’s no way to drain it. Ciallella said the water lines need to be looped and the water distribution system needs to be replaced. Potholes are also a problem.
“We live on Swiss cheese,” Canchola said.
But fixing these problems requires money — the kind of money that comes from a large commercial economy Yankeetown doesn’t have, according to Ciallella. People are still scarred from the development debacle. She said some residents still refuse to involve themselves in the town’s politics.
“It has been five years to get people to even look at each other,” she said. Although the town has had a couple of mayors since, keeping the position filled hasn’t been easy. Dixon said she’s disappointed the town hasn’t “pushed forward” and appointed a mayor in the past year.
Ciallella said she hopes someone will volunteer to run now that tensions among residents are settling down. She said she believes a good leader could bring change – that a mayor would benefit Yankeetown. The town has barely been functioning without a full council, she said.
Feldhusen disagrees. He said the councilmen and women have more power than the mayor.
“This town needs to come together and walk together as one body,” Dixon said. “I’d like to see the friendliness and compassion people used to have in Yankeetown.”