The Hot Seat Chronicles

Former Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson shares the wild ride he’s had at the center of all conflicts

BY April 18, 2016

This morning started like most others for me. At 6:15, I got up and started grinding fresh coffee. As soon as the grinder started screaming, I immediately ran over and shut the bedroom door because I forgot and woke up my wife, Lori—again. Then, I checked my schedule for the day (Hmmm…. speech at the morning rotary club. One of my last speeches on the “Bacon and Egg Circuit” and, as City Manager Carl calls it, a “dressy-uppy thing.”) So I suited up, kissed Lori goodbye and searched the cabinet for a large travel coffee mug. The only one clean was my least favorite. It was made of a space-age material that instantly turned the same temperature on the outside of the cup as the coffee on the inside. I grumbled as I walked to my truck.

As I drove off doing my daily delicate coffee-balancing act, I cussed a little more than usual as the coffee sloshed onto my hand. The sorry piece of—dinnerware—was simply too hot to handle. It occurred to me then how being mayor (at least for me) is quite often a lot like being a coffee cup, and since I rarely plan or script speaking engagements at clubs (I wait to see what comes to mind), I knew I had a good starting place for that morning.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have enjoyed serving as the mayor of Bonita—about 90 percent of the time. But, sometimes, I feel like I end up being the vessel, the destination for everything—every problem, every challenge, every need, every great idea, every suggestion, every complaint, every false rumor and every critique of the city. It all ends up inside you, so you either deal with it like my favorite cup, by keeping encouragingly cool on the outside, or like my least favorite cup, by losing your cool immediately and burning everybody you come in contact with. 

So as the mayor I have tried to be the professional, cool, rational public voice of reason on behalf of the community, although I admit that carrying the boiling “hot cup of ‘NO!’” can test my patience. My cup is full of the opinions of people furious to the point of hysteria because they are against both homeless shelters and the existence of homeless camps in the woods; are against plans to increase road capacity while simultaneously hating gridlock and traffic that “other people” are causing; think a high school would be great in our city, but that it would destroy their gated community if it were built near them; and believe that any proposed development is the end of our city even though it’s exactly like the one they now live in. Stir in some comments from people who mistrust all professional, factual information that is contrary to what they desire; flavor with a few insults, some name calling, some purposeful fearmongering, some hurtful accusations; and every once in a while, I will get hot and “burn” someone, verbally or via email. Even my favorite cup burns when it overflows and gets shaken around.

After the speech, I stopped by City Hall to talk to the assistant city manager about the Bonita Beach Road Visioning Study. It seems as though the majority of our present and future council don’t want to create more lanes and more capacity on Bonita Beach Road for the traffic that most experts say is going to come. They want instead to reduce the number of lanes and build large bike paths and sidewalks while not providing connectivity between any existing roads or providing any new alternate routes for the traffic that the future will bring or that they are going to displace. 

After I sat there and complained for a minute or two, I came to a conclusion. Although common sense (and I) would tell you that we should prepare for the future by investing in solid, realistic, fiscally responsible traffic planning and infrastructure, Bonita’s next city council will be in the position of trying to convince the public either that no one else is ever going to move to Estero, Naples or Bonita, or that they plan to let traffic get so bad in Bonita that no one would come here or attempt to drive through it anymore. 

I shook my head and then calculated the days I had left as mayor and how I might be able to keep what I thought was a horrible plan from happening. Forty days. I would be out of office before they tried to implement the “Yogi Berra” solution, aka “No one goes there nowadays…. It’s too crowded!”

I sat there for another second and then I sighed, stood up and walked over to the assistant city manager’s desk where he keeps a souvenir coffee cup. I picked it up and thought about my coffee cup analogy. “I’m going to miss working with you and all the city staff, John.” Then I set the cup down and left. 

As far as I know, it’s still how I left it—lying on its side.

Some Modest Proposals

As an aside to this story the editor asked me to write about, “What I would have done differently as mayor.” I thought for a while about this—and I couldn’t come up with much. Not that everything worked out the way I wanted—it didn’t. But, I really don’t regret much of anything I did, and I don’t know what I could have or should have done to get a different result for things I wasn’t able to accomplish. This sounds ridiculous, even to me, so I asked my good friends (who are always anxious to tell me when they think I’m screwing up) for their input. Here’s what they came up with. “Ben, you should have.…”

1. Amended the charter to give the mayor the power to banish people.

2. Installed a trap door in front of the podium, activated by a large button in front of the mayor.

3. Drunk heavily before the meetings instead of after the meetings.

4. Been accompanied by an entourage wherever you went as you sported a top hat and tuxedo, smoked a large cigar and twirled a cane.

5. Built a NASCAR Track in East Bonita.

Hey, they’re not my ideas!  (Well, one of them is.)  


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