The Rant Monthly sat down with outgoing Sanford Mayor Chet Mann in late July to talk about his two terms leading the city council. This conversation has been edited for length.
The Rant: What are your thoughts about leaving this position after almost nine years?
Mann: I feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in the fact that we got so much done. At the same time, I feel like there’s still more work to be done. I worry a little bit about people railing against some of the some of the success we’ve had, and how the new council will balance all that with new people coming in. But mostly just sort of bittersweet about leaving.
The Rant: What are you looking for in terms of positive leadership out of the new council?
Mann: One of the biggest concerns that I have is just partisanship and divisiveness. We’ve been able to get more done when we were together. Even in the last eight or nine years, we had periods of divisiveness where the city and county struggled to work together. And then we had periods where we just worked together really well, and the partisanship seemed to have melted away. So my biggest concern is that more partisanship comes into play where we’re spending more time on that rather than community building. I hope that the new council, once they get oriented and sort of set in, they’ll see that staying on task, continuing the “open for business” agenda is the key to moving Sanford forward. We’ve got so many positive things happen that need to be finished.
The Rant: What advice have you given (Mayor elect Rebecca Wyhof Salmon)?
Mann: I basically told her to be her own person. She is intelligent, articulate, quick on her feet, and she’s got great instincts. I think Rebecca is a community builder. All she needs is a council to work with her and a council that will listen, and she will be successful. I’ve encouraged her to keep moving on the things we’ve been working on, and to stick to those vision goals.
The Rant: Going back to 2012, 2013, whenever you first made the decision to run for mayor. What were some of the things that went through your head back then when you were weighing the decision to run?
Mann: I really thought I’d find somebody else to run for mayor. I didn’t really think it would be me. I had served in every nonprofit and every board capacity that could, and it just came to me that if I didn’t have a vote or influence in the elected leadership, the way we were headed back then probably wouldn’t change. I felt like if I didn’t (run), others wouldn’t, and we wouldn’t get the right team together to move Sanford forward. We were not in a very happy place in 2013 and Sanford had had so many years of negative or flat growth, and downtown was old and tired. None of my relatives and friends and younger cousins were even considering coming back to Sanford, and when they did come back to visit, they made a lot of negative comments. That’s that stayed with me pretty hard. If I was going to live here most of the rest of my life and if I was going to care about it, I needed to run.
The Rant: What are some things that you know that you feel like you know about this community that you didn’t nine years ago?
Mann: I’ve learned that in times of crisis Sanford will rally. I’ve also found out that about 90 percent of the people agree with you, and they never tell you. So you really do have to work hard to get consensus and feel the need to learn where people are in their minds. But it also learned the city and the county sometimes have different perspectives, and you have to really balance those out. I’ve also learned that people in Sanford care. They’re very loving and open to helping people. But sometimes you have to show them and you have to gain that consensus. I’ve learned that I used to be able to walk into a restaurant and know 75 percent of the people in the room. Now when I walk into a restaurant, I know less than 25 percent. Sanford has changed.
The Rant: If you could talk to yourself, having just been elected for the first time and getting ready to take office, what would you tell yourself about how to prepare for the next nine years?
Mann: Have even more time in your schedule. That it’s really important to get buy in and be a better listener. Most of the people in Sanford want more, deserve more, and are willing to work for more if you can show them the benefit. People in Sanford have a good heart. I’ve never had to worry about people being disingenuous. In politics you always have some of that, but as far as the community goes, I wouldn’t trade with anyone. Another thing I would probably tell myself is don’t even have a Facebook account. Because social media is the only place where people just say anything. I know 90 percent of my constituents are happy. But it’s the 10 percent that get really loud and can tear a community apart. I learned not to take it personally.
The Rant: Has there been any issue or action taken by the council that you can look back at and say “that was a mistake. I need to do this different next time.”
Mann: That’s a fair question. I’m sure there is. But I don’t know of anything I would do different with the information we had. I don’t know that I have any regrets. One of the things that we struggled with and maybe could have done different was on the Unified Development Ordinance getting in things like sidewalks and residential improvements, where we’re requiring builders, developers to put in sidewalks and do upgrades and build things. Where we really struggled was getting the community to understand that they were no longer a rural, agricultural base community, and that we’d been slowly but surely making this transition to something more urban. Our whole goal was to try to lift Sanford up, get it out of the place that had been and create some jobs and get some growth coming and some tax base expansion so that everybody would have more opportunities.
The Rant: Your last meeting is August 2. What does the rest of the year look like for you?
Mann: I’m sure that will be a little bit emotional because I have enjoyed every day. There’s been some tough days and some bad days but the good outweighed the bad every single day. I’m going to have about 15 or 20 hours a week to find something else to do. I’m not making any big decisions on how I’m going to spend my time yet. I want to do some things that move my business along a little faster. So I’ll probably spend more time building my team at work and also a lot more time on Tuesday nights at home.
The Rant: Do you want to keep using your voice as you know a former mayor to talk about issues or do you want to give Mayor Salmon and the new council space?
Mann: It’s a delicate balance. I’m always going to be an advocate for Sanford, and you know, once a leader always a leader. But I’m not going to hang around City Hall and tell (Salmon) how to do her job. She knows she can call me any time, and I’m happy to be an advisor to anyone. I’m not leaving, and I’ve still got the Mann Center and the Lee County Education Foundation and other nonprofits that I can use my voice with. Hopefully I’ll be a voice of good reason. I’ve got to thank everybody for supporting me. I hope everyone understands how much I appreciate their support. For every one complaint there were 20 thank yous. This is a that cares and supports good ideas. I’ve also got to thank the city staff. They have been so awesome to me. Just wonderful, professional people to work with.
Brick City Video filmed a goodbye message from Mann in August: