Naples Mayoral Race: The Case for Bill Barnett
March 14, 2016
By: Katie Egan
Back in 1973, it took Bill Barnett only one night in Naples to realize he’d found his home for the better half of nearly a century.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Barnett, who’s running for his fourth term as mayor. “The next morning you could walk around and you wouldn’t find a piece of paper on the street; you wouldn’t find a cigarette butt.”
It was so pristine, the former car salesman turned city council member and his wife, Chris, decided to sell everything they had in New York and move their family thousands of miles south to a town where everyone knew your name and the downtown strip featured only two restaurants—neither of which are still standing.
“This city is such a part of me and I’m such a part of it,” Barnett said between gusts of wind and supporters waving, smiling and patting him on the back outside the Norris Center.
He served on city council from 1984 to 1992 and then as mayor from 1996 to 2000, and 2004 to 2012.
This year he’s giving up a possible second term on Naples City Council to challenge his colleague, Teresa Heitmann, and the city’s current major, John Sorey, who’s running for re-election.
The 75-year-old is hoping the third times the charm Tuesday when Neapolitans cast their vote for the city’s ultimate decision maker.
Barnett cited some of his proudest accomplishments such as the resurgence of Fifth Avenue South during his first mayoral term and the major community rebuild of Cambier Park.
“I helped shape this community,” he said. “But it’s never an I. It’s always a we. Always.”
Barnett’s slogan is “Leadership by listening,” but some have criticized his approach.
“I’m passive,” he said. “While Mayor John Sorey has often referred to himself as an ‘aggressive mayor.’”
“And he says by listening we don’t get anything done,” Barnett said. “He said any action is better than no action, and that’s not true.”
While Sorey has said that his authoritarian leadership style stems from him being a former CEO and military man, Barnett also points out that he has experience leading a business, too.
After moving to Naples in 1973, Barnett was the head of a Toyota-BMW dealer for a decade until 1983 when he sold his business to the Germain family.
“I started when they were selling five new and five used cars a month,” he said. “So I worked my way up through that. I sold it. I got into politics. I learned my leadership style through many mentors.”
In 1984, when he was 44 years old, Barnett said he was elected the youngest councilman ever, and a group of experienced politicians took him under their wing.
“They were the best bunch of mentors anybody could ever ask for,” Barnett said. “I worked with mayors and council members who taught me so much and that’s how I learned my leadership style—coming up through the ranks.”
When he sold his dealership to the Germains in 1983, Barnett felt he was too young to retire.
“And a friend of mine came to me and said, ‘Look, you are very well-known in the community,’ and I had only been there for 11 years then,’” Barnett said. “But I had been so involved in the early charities and things when I had the car dealership and he said, ‘Hey. People know you. Why don’t you run for Naples City Council?’”
And Barnett replied: “Ok. That’s great,” and asked, “What is it?’”
Back then, Barnett joked he didn’t even know Naples had a mayor.
He admits he didn’t have any political experience back then, but he thought running for city council could be fun.
The former avid drag racer said he chose to run this year after seeing how much support he had behind him.
“I gave up my council seat because I love this community and I didn’t like where it was going,” Barnett said. “I didn’t like to see the city council members fighting with each other. I didn’t like to see that there’s no consensus.”