Cape Coral Conversations: District Seven Council Member Derrick Donnell

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Monday, November 9 marks the final day Dr. Derrick Donnell will walk into City Hall as Cape Coral’s District 7 City Council Member.

In 2006, Donnell was enjoying a successful career as an administrator in the Lee County School system. However, things would soon change as he decided to take a run at local politics.

Fast forward to today, Donnell has spent the past eight years serving on the council, during which he has been part of the leadership that has led the city through the worst economic times in its 45-year history, as well as at the helm as it begins the recovery process, and become a mentor and voice of reason for those he serves on the council with.

Before he walked out the City Hall doors for the final time, I had one last opportunity for a sit-down interview with the man many simply call “Doc”.

During the interview, Donnell shared his experiences over the past eight years, as well as plans for the future.

 

In 2006, you had a full-time job. Why did you decide to add city council to your life?

That is a great question, and the answer is very simple. I was in church and during the sermon that week the pastor said, “Get out of the bleachers and into the game.”

 As clear as day I remember the sermon. And, something just stuck in me. Because I have always complained about politicians, “They are taking my taxes. There is nothing but idiots down there.” I was one of those people. And, the pastor’s message just kept resonating with me.

Then I went home and saw something on TV about the city council and qualifying. Honestly, I came out of nowhere. I just kind of showed up at City Hall. In fact, I went to the wrong spot, and they had to show me where to go. I just kind of walked in and said, “Hi, I’m Derrick Donnell, and I want to run for city council.”

That is how it started.

 

You mention that you were one of those people that griped about politics. That is not uncommon here in Cape Coral that a person has an issue with an item or situation going on in the city. What was your issue that made you, as you said, “Get into the game?”

I was one of those people that listened to all the chatter that was going on and I heard that the city was going to spend a $100 million on a building (the proposed new police building). The rumor mill regarding that was much like how we are going to take over LCEC now. But, back then it was rampant. Knowing nothing about it, I just heard that the city council was going to purchase a $100 million building. So, it was time to get in there and save the taxpayers money.

 

Now, jump to 2007. You get elected and right at the same time, the economy goes into the tank, and now you are a leader of a city that is facing the worst economic downturn in its history. Obviously, that wasn’t something you expected. But, now you and your fellow council members are faced with going into a financial emergency mode. Can you give us kind of a behind the scenes look as to what was going on in City Hall at that time?

While I had no prior government experience, I did have the training and having been a principal at ALC (Alternative Learning Center), I am used to pressure and chaos. For me, it just seemed like I walked into a different level of organized chaos. That is what it felt like. But, in this case, it was compounded because I had no prior knowledge or background, so, I had to study real quick and real fast and talk a lot. I felt over my head. I felt a lot of pressure to get up to speed.

 

Most councils get that transition period. It seems in your case and for those coming into office with you, that didn’t happen. You all got right to making major cuts in the budget to make up for millions of dollars in lost revenues.

Yeah, that was when all the buyouts of city employees were happening. I knew nothing about OPEB. I knew nothing about market analysis. I knew nothing about that stuff.

 

How did you get through it?

A lot of long nights. A lot of studying. A lot of phone calls. A lot of reading. And, slowly but surely I began to get a grasp of what was going on.

Another thing, at the same time we had an issue with a development going on and the controversy surrounding that particular proposed project. That was a big huge mess like the swim center. And, I knew nothing about deviations, variances, and all that. I had both of those going on. Every night, I was literally making phone calls, going on the internet, just trying to catch up.

 

What some may not realize about Cape Coral elected government is that historically, every two years you see major changes and shifts on the dais. Jumping ahead to 2009, you went through one of those drastic changes in what was the beginning of what has been called the “Fab Five” era. That included a shift in the majority on the city council, as well as a new city manager. What was that like for you?

There were a number of councils before that. We had a mayor who stepped down to run for county commissioner. We had a council member who resigned. There were three or four council changes before that election. There was a lot of movement in those two years.

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