If you prefer city politics painted in bold strokes, the end of a colorful era is at hand.
On Monday, Boca Raton Mayor Susan Whelchel is handing over the gavel to successor Susan Haynie and ending nearly 20 years of public service. She is term-limited in her role as mayor. And for now, it seems that the 69-year-old grandmother of nine is ready to, well, be as retiring as someone like her can be.
“I have always been involved in the city and I will continue to be involved in the city, its nonprofit organizations, civic organizations,” said Whelchel, who had a career as a high school teacher before entering politics. Her trademark bluntness was on display even as her minutes presiding over City Council meetings ticked down Tuesday. She reacted swiftly to a citizen complaint about a rowdy bar.
“We are not going to stop until we somehow solve the problem,” she said, and then thought for a moment. “Well, I’m going to stop, but …”
In an interview, Whelchel said she never imagined a career in politics. But, she wanted to see Boca become more than the retirement community it was in 1994, the year she was first asked to consider it. She wanted the city to be a place for young people to find a future.
She believes she’s done that.
“I have left Boca Raton a better place to live,” Whelchel said.
There are plenty who agree.
“Under mayor’s watch, great things have happened in the city of Boca Raton,” said Betty Grinnan, a member of the Library Advisory Board.
Whelchel was also saluted at her last meeting by Steve Abrams, mayor of Palm Beach County, whom she had succeeded in Boca Raton’s mayoral seat: “Very proud over these years to see your record of accomplishments. I think it’s a legacy that’s going to serve the community well,” he said.
Over the last 20 years — two years on the School Board and 17 years on the Boca council — Whelchel says she has helped strengthen Boca’s schools, raised the profile of its hospital and increased recreational opportunities. The city’s taxes are among the lowest of full-service cities in the area and the city’s financial health is triple A-rated.
And that’s despite the bruising recession that plunged many other cities into financial chaos.
“I had a plan and I executed that plan,” she said.
Part of that plan is still unfolding. Under her leadership, the City Council approved a boom in residential building — more than 1,500 units in downtown Boca alone — and re-zoned areas of the city to allow more workforce housing there.
That process has incited much discussion at City Council meetings, with some residents feeling the sting of Whelchel’s brusque style.
“One thing that Susan Whelchel didn’t want at public hearings was the public,” said Charles Helton, a retired IBM worker, who has lived in Boca Raton for 30 years. “To her, the public hearing is basically a formality to rubber-stamp the developers’ projects.”
Whelchel, however, calls those who lined up against those projects “naysayers.” And she disputes the idea that those developments coming up — and those that could soon come — will fundamentally change the city’s low-rise character.
Whelchel scoffs at the idea that she envisioned Boca as a dense, urban center, as opponents of some of the developments have charged. Boca’s codes do not come close to allowing what’s been built in Fort Lauderdale, for example, she said.
“South Florida is going to grow and grow,” she said. “We should grow it in the right direction.”