Marathon Councilman Rich Keating has barely been in office three months, but with the critical issues facing the current council in the new decade, The Marathon Weekly decided to sit down with Keating to discuss what he’s learned so far and what are among his hopes for the future of the city.
If one thing’s for sure, Keating is a fisherman and family man before anything else. Over eggs and coffee at Stout’s Restaurant in Marathon Monday morning, he spoke with fellow fisherman about what he’s observed. Overcast skies, cooler temperatures and constant drizzle kept the fishermen’s gathering place quite busy this week.
Keating decided to throw his hat in the local political ring last year, citing a need for greater transparency in local government and adding that he was tired of “standing on the sidelines” of his city’s policy-making.
Since his swearing-in last November, Keating said his term in office has been a learning experience.
“You just don’t want to open your mouth about issues until you know what you’re talking about,” he laughed. “It’s been about learning how to operate within the council system and getting to know all the city staff.”
As a professional flats fishing guide, Keating said his career on the water has prevented him from operating within the normal realms of political hours – if there is such a thing.
“It’s definitely taking a lot more of my time than I originally expected,” he admitted, adding that being off the island with customers most days prevents him from meeting for lunch to discuss pertinent issues with his constituents.
“I certainly have no shortage of citizens calling me or stopping me to talk about their issues and concerns,” he chuckled again. “Trips to the grocery store take a lot longer than they used to.”
Though he’s been part of the Marathon community for decades, Keating said on the eve of new city manager Roger Hernstadt’s first day on the job, he cautioned the former Miami-Dade assistant city manager about his government position in a small town.
“You know up in Miami, maybe he had a little more anonymity than he’ll have here.”
The lengthy search for a new city manager, and particularly the intensive interview process, Keating said the whole process was a bit nerve-racking.
“I’m not a public administrator, so it was intimidating to ask them the pertinent questions,” he admitted.
But after hearing about each of the candidate’s individual management styles, Keating said he does feel the council as a whole made the best choice for the city.
“I think with Roger coming on board, there’s going to be a whole new attitude at City Hall and with the council. Whether our choice had been a local guy or someone from out of town, the new manager had to be the most qualified and be in line with what we could afford to pay.”
As one of his neighbors on 75th Street stood up at an adjacent table, Keating hit on the hot topic of concern in the past couple of years – installation of the city’s central sewer system.
He admitted that his front lawn has been trenched a whopping total of six times, and the work is still not completed.
“We’ve really got to get to the bottom of this,” he said sternly. “I’ve got that gray mud inside and outside my house.”
Completing the multi-million dollar, federally mandated system is of utmost importance for the council, but financing the project is going to be a whole other battle. City staff is actively working to pursue grant funding for low-income families unable to pay their sewer assessments on their properties.
“When the economy turns around, we’re not going to be working on our roads and infrastructure like the county and Islamorada will be,” Keating said.
Marathon’s city government is currently operating as a strong city manager system and Keating, clearly voiced his opinion on rumors of a change in that structure.
“A strong mayoral system would be a big mistake,” he said firmly, adding that not only was the rumor a bit of a “scare tactic” but that it likely arose because of the city manager situation.
Smart redevelopment within Marathon’s mile markers is another focus for Keating’s tenure on the council.
Though the Chamber of Commerce recently pushed to market the city as a boating destination to help bring business to the middle Keys, Keating said it is important to seek a broad range of “heads in beds” not solely higher income households.
“Resorts are designed to keep people on their property. An average guy with his family who brings his boat down goes to the fuel dock to fill up, the grocery stores for food and out to dinner in local restaurants. There for a while, it was more expensive to come here than it was to go to the Bahamas or Mexico. We need to get more dock space and hotels that are boater-friendly.
Basically, bring people back to Marathon and help keep our small businesses open. We’ve seen a lot of small businesses close their doors recently.”
Establishing a permanent fire station on Grassy Key is another of Keating’s top priorities for the coming year. He said that currently, the City of Marathon is able to establish a permanent station on Grassy Key for fewer mils than the county to establish a permanent fire presence on Conch Key.
“There’s obviously concern over whether or not Duck Key will incorporate (with the City of Marathon), but that will be a long-term process if it happens, and establishing a permanent fire service is that area is an immediate issue,” he said.
Keating said his political experience so far has been quite satisfying.
“People come to us with problems, and we make the policy to solve them. The more time you spend doing this job, the better you’re going to do.”