- January 13, 2021
When Gary Bruhn announced his resignation from the position of mayor of the town of Windermere, it marked the end of an era. Bruhn had dedicated his time day in and day out since he took office in 2004. He led the town through some dark times in the last 15 years and served in other leadership capacities within the county and the state. In short, Bruhn made the unpaid, voluntary role of mayor of Windermere a full-time job.
“Being an elected official takes a lot of time in terms of time that you’re not with your family,” Town Council Member Jim O’Brien said. “It’s something that I think we’re all passionate about because we care a ton about our community. We’re willing and happy to do that, but it certainly does come at a cost.”
In addition to Bruhn’s departure from the Town Council, three council seats will be up for grabs in March. The terms of council members Richard Montgomery, Bob McKinley and O’Brien are set to expire this year.
The town of Windermere could be seeing some changes in its leadership, but the extent of change remains to be seen. The town’s current leadership shared thoughts of what could be expected for the future of the town — regardless of who sits on the council. They also expressed what they hope to see out of the town’s leadership moving forward and what challenges are at stake for the town as a whole.
Montgomery and McKinley both will be running for re-election for their seats on the council. O’Brien, on the other hand, will be throwing his hat into the ring for the mayor’s seat. That means the town will see — assuming Montgomery and McKinley both win re-election — at least one new face on the council. Whoever wins the mayoral election will serve a one-year term.
Town Council terms last two years. Of the current council members, O’Brien has served the longest with four terms. McKinley is serving out his second term, and Montgomery his first. With the most experience serving on the council, O’Brien thought it was fitting he run for mayor.
“After a lot of thought and a lot of conversation with family and friends and neighbors, I am going to run for mayor in March of 2019,” O’Brien said. “I think people know that I’m committed and dedicated to the community and I’m accessible. … I think I bring the skillset, and I’ve proven that over time.”
It’s no secret that the life of politics often comes at the cost of time — and particularly, time away from one’s family. Current council members agree the next mayor should be passionate and dedicated serving to the town and also must be willing to make the necessary sacrifices.
McKinley said whoever decides to run for a council seat or for mayor should have an appreciation and respect for what makes Windermere a one-of-a-kind town. Newcomers to the council will need to be able to find the balance between moving the town forward without losing its charm.
“Windermere in and of itself is very unique,” McKinley said. “We’re the only town around that still has a bunch of dirt roads. … It’s a small town, and that’s good.”
Council Member Chris Sapp added that whoever ends up being mayor should be able to bridge the gap between longtime and new residents.
“I think Mayor (Bruhn) has done a good job of connecting the people that have lived here for a long time and the ones that are new families that are moving in,” Sapp said. “I’d like to see somebody that’s in there that will continue that — to make sure we bridge that relationship between the older generation and newer generations.”
For potentially new council members, Sapp said they should “be ready to work.”
“I knew it would be a lot of work coming into this (position), but you have no idea until you first come in,” Sapp said. “I want to see — whoever is coming in — that we move forward (and) stay on that progressive path that we’re doing. We’re keeping up with the times, yet, when appropriate and anytime we can, we make sure we salvage the heritage of the town.”
No matter the outcome of the election, Council Member Andy Williams thinks the town leadership could use a new face to bring a fresh perspective to the council.
“I think we can use some … younger members of the community to step up and maybe run,” Williams said. “I think (we could use) a change of scenery. We need some changes up there. If (current members) are re-elected, we can’t go wrong. … I think that anybody that’s going to run is going to do us a lot of good.”
Although he still has some time left as mayor, Bruhn offered a word of advice for whoever succeeds him.
“Stay active, stay engaged, stay involved — if you’re not sitting at the table, they’re having you for lunch,” he said, referring to being engaged both within and outside of the town of Windermere. “If you’re not sitting at the table, they won’t deal you a hand. It’s important that you have that voice heard and that this town be represented across not only Central Florida but the state. One of the most important relationships you can have is with other communities and organizations.”
The Challenges Ahead
Between ongoing traffic problems, infrastructure needs and the effort to build new town facilities, the road ahead presents a challenge for the town’s leadership.
“They’re sticking their necks out and making decisions that are going to have, possibly, negative impacts on their friends, their neighbors, their businesses, and that’s a hard thing to do,” Town Manager Robert Smith said. “I think whoever takes on not only the mayor position but also the council position needs to understand they’re going to be making these tough choices and decisions, but it’s going to be based off of the best interest of the town.”
Smith added that whoever runs for office should be willing to commit to at least two terms.
“I ask (would-be candidates) to at least do two terms,” he said. “It’s really hard for them to get whatever initiatives they want done, or projects they want done, within two years. Typically, it takes up to four years to get some of that stuff done.”
Like much of Orange County, traffic is a big concern. Over the years, the town has become a popular cut-through for many West Orange commuters — making traffic concerns a top priority for the town.
“Now, our biggest issue is traffic,” Williams said. “That’s something that’s probably never going to be able to be fixed or changed, but it’s about mitigating what we can.”
“The growing traffic problem — that’s not going away,” Montgomery said. “There’s so many limitations of what we can truly do to fix it.”
McKinley added that the town also prioritizes making sure the roadways are pedestrian-friendly.
“All of us are working on infrastructure,” McKinley said. “(We want) to continue to make (Windermere) a pedestrian-friendly town. We have plans to build a multi-modal path along the old railroad right-of-way that would link the entire town.”
In addition to traffic concerns, the council will need to address the town’s needs for water and sewer in the years ahead.
“A lot of the town does not have water — they’re on wells,” McKinley said. “Eventually, we’d like to see sewage brought into town (and) get off the septic-tank systems.”
“It’s an expensive endeavor,” Montgomery said regarding bringing potable water to Windermere. “Having a sewage system would be nice, but that’s even more expensive (and takes) a lot of time and a lot of pre-planning.”
The town’s administrative facilities are a recent matter the current council has addressed, but it’s also one that will take time. Whoever sits on the council after the March election will be making decisions related to the town’s administrative facilities. Additionally, during the March election, Windermere residents will be voting on a referendum on whether the town can take out a loan in the amount of $5.2 million to pay for the new town facilities.
“It’s important for us to rebuild new facilities and move forward with being able to expand,” Williams said. “The buildings that we have (for facilities) were schoolhouses. They were never intended to be town facilities.”