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Yankeetown mayor stays on to preserve her good name

By ANDREW SKERRITT
Published July 4, 2006


Yankeetown Mayor Joanne Johannesson is fighting for her political life, to salvage her reputation.

But you wouldn't guess that when you first meet her. She was upbeat, smiling, as she and a volunteer tried to sort out files in Town Hall one day recently.

Handling paperwork is a sensitive issue in Yankeetown, with an ongoing Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation and accusations that the mayor and others have been seen tossing out shredded paper on a Sunday afternoon.

I had driven 90 miles north to see Johannesson. I had to reach Town Hall by noon because that's when the office closed. That says a lot about Yankeetown, where residents are struggling to deal with a hotel and condo development proposal that could change the very character of their Levy County community.

Just seeing Johannesson working in Town Hall said a lot about her and Yankeetown's state of affairs. The mayor's position is unpaid, but the town clerk and deputy clerk quit in the middle of the hotel controversy.

Occasionally someone walks in and gives her a piece of their mind.

The last few months have been vicious, mean, she said.

It's not just what people say that bothers her, though. It's what they write - on a popular local Web site, in the weekly Newscaster newspaper, in the petition filed to recall her from office - accusing her of malfeasance.

That's not the way she pictured it last year when friends urged her to run for mayor.

The 54-year-old grandmother made a name for herself in 2004 when hurricane-related weather swept through Yankeetown and left many without power or running water.

As the Red Cross representative, Johannesson operated the shelter and showed up at people's doorstep with ice and other emergency rations.

"People remember me for getting them supplies," she said.

Contrary to some of the conspiracy theories, she says there was no master political strategy to her relief work.

"I didn't intend to run when I did it," she said.

She was a Town Council member last fall when she ran for mayor unopposed, after her opponent dropped out of the race and endorsed her.

Be careful what you wish for. Those are Johannesson's words, not mine.

Many of those same people who urged her to run have signed the recall petition to remove her from office over her handling of a development proposal at the site of the Izaak Walton restaurant and lodge.

"Small-town government can be a bloodbath," she says.

Nobody told her that before she became mayor.

She said even though she was on the Town Council, she had no clue the town attorney and the developer were holding secret talks for months. She had no idea that the attorney fees for the marina project were actually for the hotel and condo venture.

Her critics don't believe her. There's a group of people who see growth as necessary and inevitable. But others are adamantly opposed to any change to Yankeetown. This group of people distrusts Johannesson most. They've accused her of many things, even sleeping with the developer, she said with a laugh.

So is Johannesson out of touch, incompetent or worse?

An ongoing Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation should eventually answer some of those questions.

But there are questions only the mayor can answer. For instance, if the people don't want her, why doesn't she just quit?

"I could have just walked out," she said. "But I took an oath. I made a commitment."

Still, the intensity of the vitriol has given her second thoughts.

"I've considered quitting, but it became a matter of my reputation," she said.

One woman's reputation - a very big deal in a small town.

 

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.