- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - The mayor? He’s Johnny Miller, the affable bartender in rolled-up sleeves, black tie and gray vest who’s pouring beers and mixing drinks on the day shift at the Palace, which bills itself as the oldest bar in Florida.

The bar started serving in 1903 and still has plenty of that vintage vibe, what with its cigarette smoke, its tin ceiling, those ornate carvings on the back bar, and the big statue of a pirate, who’s currently missing his right arm after falling in a gust of wind that whipped down quaint Centre Street and right through the Palace’s front door.

It’s a tourist attraction that attracts locals as well. Think of it as the Cheers of Fernandina Beach.

Really: Regulars have been known to cheer when another comes in, and politics, religion and many other subjects are fit to be discussed, particularly at a sociable bend in the bar where the locals tend to gather.

Miller calls the Palace’s bar the largest desk in the city. And during working hours, he’ll happily use it to combine business with politics.

“That’s my desk,” he said. “I can take lot of input, too - I’ve got a whole bunch of chairs lined up. And that’s what’s fun: People know I’m here every day but Saturday, Tuesday and Wednesday. They can come in, if they have an issue.”

He’ll write notes on a cocktail napkin, take it home. Schedule a meeting if he has to.

Fernandina Beach, population 12,000, takes its politics seriously. A big chunk of residents are older, successful transplants, and they tend to have a deep interest in local issues - and a lot of time on their hands.

A good bartender, Miller said, has job skills that translate well to local politics: “Being able to know when people want to be talked to, finding out what they want, and how to talk to them. They know you can hit me on Facebook, stick your head in the Palace, or text me.”

He’s 49 and grew up mostly in Atlanta. He moved with his family to Fernandina, where his parents lived, after retiring from Navy in 2006. He’d been in the service 20 years, and spent time at Jacksonville Naval Air Station, as well as in Puerto Rico, Spain and Hawaii. He was also deployed to more troubled areas, flying over Iraq and Afghanistan in surveillance aircraft.

Retirement bored him, so he got a job as lifeguard at a rec center pool. He began working as a police officer at Mayport Naval Station and moonlighting at the Palace, before deciding he liked tending bar more. He’s been full time for five years.

He got involved in local politics after growing concerned about cuts in funding for nonprofits such as Meals on Wheels and the Council on Aging. He began going to City Commission meetings, then ran for the commission. He won in a runoff.

He’s in his third year in office, his first as mayor. It’s a one-year term.

Brian Teeple, CEO of the Northeast Florida Regional Council, which represents local governments in seven counties, has worked with Miller on various issues. He is impressed.

“Don’t let the fact that he’s a bartender fool you,” Teeple said. “He’s a smart guy. Knows governance. Very impressive. And he used to serve me drinks.”

Many Fernandina Beach issues, Miller said, come down to preservation vs. growth - a tricky issue. “It’s the Florida curse. Everybody wants to live here but nobody wants it to change. There’s got to be middle ground.”

He is an ardent environmentalist, outspoken in his concern about fracking in Florida, as well as to seismic air gun blasting to search for oil and gas off the coast. Opponents say blasting causes significant harm to marine life - and would be a first step toward East Coast oil drilling.

Miller has traveled to Washington, D.C., three times to talk to politicians and bureaucrats about the topic. One trip he went on an honorarium from Oceana, an environmental group that had him speak there. He paid his own way the other two times, he said. He took a tent and a backpack last year and camped nearby, taking public transportation to meetings.

Miller laughed about that, saying that Ralph Nader - the longtime consumer advocate - came up and told him he was making everyone else look bad.

To Miller, seismic testing is personal.

In the Navy, he operated sonar equipment on an P-3 Orion out of Hawaii. That involved dropping sonar buoys into the water, after which the crew could hear the constant chatter of whale whistles and clicks and songs, which would change drastically when a ship passed or noise was made. Seismic blasting would be far worse for whales, he said: “What we did out there is nothing compared to what they want to do off the coast.”

Fernandina Beach was one of the first municipalities on the East Coast to go on record opposing seismic testing. Dozens more have followed, with one significant big city missing: Jacksonville’s City Council rejected a resolution last year to oppose it.

Some residents have opposed Miller’s environmentalism, and he said he’s been told he should concentrate on just local issues. Miller sees it another way: “We can multitask,” he said.

Anyway, to him, the environment is a local issue. What would happen, he asks, if tar started spilling on to Florida’s east coast beaches?

“Say goodbye to tourists,” he said. “This is a cash cow, this golden beach. People don’t come just to see the Mouse. They want to see the real Florida. All it takes is one oil spill, and they’re all gone.”

St. Augustine’s Erin Handy, Florida climate and energy organizer for Oceana, met Miller when he was advocating against seismic testing. In January, Oceana gave him a leadership award at the Coastal Voices Summit in Washington, D.C.

“He knows his stuff,” Handy said. “He’s a great advocate for the environment and protecting our tourist economy, our wonderful way of life we have here in Northeast Florida.”

Handy said Miller was chosen to speak to almost 300 people at an event at George Washington University on Jan. 26, telling how humans need to speak up for marine mammals. “There was not a dry eye in the house when Johnny Miller was done speaking,” she said.

Marisol Triana, owner of Hola Cuban Cafe next door to the saloon, dropped by to chat with Miller one recent afternoon. “We don’t always agree,” she said. “My thing with a politician is, I don’t have to agree with you, but you need to be approachable. And he will listen to me.”

She likes to tell tourists that the bartender next door is the mayor. It’s local color, and they like that: “It’s a selling point.”

Miller said some people have talked to him about running for a state office one day, he said. He’s not sure about that.

“It’s flattering, but I’m a bartender. I can’t keep going back and forth between work and Tallahassee,” he said.

Besides, it would keep him away from Fernandina Beach. With its history, its downtown straight out of a movie set, its beach and its waterways, he figures it’s just about perfect. Look at the real-estate offices up and down Centre Street: There’s a reason for that.

“People come down, they say, ‘You know what? I could live here.’ The next thing you know you’ve got another permanent resident. If they leave this place and they don’t want to live here, we’ve done something wrong.”

___

Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide