By BOB PETCHER
It's been just over one month since he took office in the Downtown River District area, far away from the familiarities of council members, family, friends and beach sand.
New year. New challenge.
Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker is becoming acquainted to a larger geographical boundary area than he was used to as a councilman and mayor of Fort Myers Beach. Now, as the District 3 commissioner, he represents not only the Beach, but Bonita Beach, Bonita Springs, Estero, San Carlos Park and parts of south Fort Myers while serving constituents countywide.
"I think the biggest difference is that I am not running the meetings anymore," said Kiker, who chaired the Beach Council as mayor for the past five years before resigning Oct. 5. "But, since I am sitting next to the chair, I am learning the procedures of the meetings. They do have different ways of doing business, and I'm getting used to it."
On Nov. 20, Kiker was sworn into office after defeating incumbent Ray Judah in the primary election and challenger Charlie Whitehead in the general election. He was then selected to serve the Lee County Board of County Commissioners as vice chairman.
Cecil Pendergrass, the other new member of the BOCC, is the chairman.
"People are really receptive to having some new blood on the board. It's like a new board bringing on two new faces. I think everybody is looking forward to whatever changes that offers," said Kiker.
The former Beach mayor did get to know the majority of the board members in a different way while running for office.
"In essence, I ran for office with four out of the five commissioners for 10 months. So, I got to know these people on a more personal relationship level before the Sunshine laws took effect," he said. "I am hoping that is going to carry over the next few years on a business level.
"I have been in business with all these folks as mayor or on council for six years now. It's not like I am meeting them for the first time."
Kiker's executive assistant is Janeen Paulauskis, who served in the same capacity for former Commissioner Brian Bigelow. She was the finance director for the Town of Fort Myers Beach in the late 1990s.
There are similarities between Council and Commission but the workload is different, said Kiker.
"You would be surprised how much of it is the same. There is just a lot more of it," he said. "Instead of $100,000, we are talking about $10,000,000. It's a bigger job. You just have to understand all the local interests and what the goals, objectives and problems are in each area. You do get to count on representation from the other board members more."
Kiker was also appointed chairperson of the county Tourist Development Council, a nine-member committee that was established by the commissioners in 1983 to increase tourism to Lee County. That appointment may prove fruitful for the Beach and neighboring islands.
"I am obviously going to have all the beaches in mind every time I make a decision," he said.
During his campaigning for the commission seat, Kiker was steadfast about balancing the county budget, investing in economic development and allowing local businesses to drive while getting tourism back to what he called the basics.
"My interest has been clear throughout this whole campaign. I want to focus on what the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau and the TDC recommendations have on local existing businesses that are affected by tourism," he said. "I still have a deep-rooted concern with the budget. I want to make sure we do an efficient job on budgeting, so we don't spend all of our reserves anymore."
When asked if he was still on a learning curve, Kiker chuckled and said he was still on a learning curve as mayor.
"I learned every time I had a meeting with the other four council people," he said. "Now, I have four brand new people who have a whole new array of experiences and also an extensive staff of almost 2,000 people instead of 40 or 50. That's a pretty big jump."
Kiker is adjusting to his new office. He plans on decorating it in a "real old historic theme" with historic prints and posters from Fort Myers Beach. He also plans on setting up a satellite office to communicate with his district mayors, but still wants to visit the areas for personalized meetings.
"I am going to try to go out to meet the people and not be stuck inside this office," he said. "I am reaching out as much as I can."
The county commission as a whole is tackling issues such as Lee County EMS MedStar, Bonita's desire to have their own EMS system and filling an empty baseball stadium. Kiker is working as a liaison to all the county mayors as well.
"We are going to sit down and see what all the towns, municipalities and communities can do better and what the county can pay better attention to for another avenue for better communication," he said.
"I like what I am doing, and enjoy it very much. At the end of the day, I'm glad I made the decision to run and that people accepted me."