The longest serving city manager in Southwest Florida will retire in June.
Judith Zimomra has notified the city council she intends to retire effective Sept. 24, a few days after marking 20 years on the job.
“It seemed like there was always, and always will be, a challenge on the horizon, and there are now, but it seemed like a good time,” Zimomra said in an interview Monday, her first day off since March 3, 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
“Last week we had our first day when we did not have a single phone call in the city hall that was COVID related,” she said.
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City managers have relatively short tenures in the region; with Zimomra’s retirement, the longest serving municipal manager in Lee County will be Steven Sarkozy, who was appointed to the Estero job in 2015.
Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais is the longest-standing local government leader. He was appointed in 2013.
Zimomra was recruited to apply for the job after the city had replaced a series of city managers at short intervals over a five-year period. The Sanibel City Council of the time was looking for stability.
Prior to taking the job in Sanibel, Zimomra was chief of staff to Cleveland Mayor Michael White, who had announced he would not seek a fourth four-year term.
“I had a public works safety director and a fire chief had been down here fishing and I had a picture on my desk that I had taken on vacation years ago of a sunset on Sanibel and they said, ‘Didn’t you always want to be a city manager,'” Zimomra said.
She checked and found that Sanibel was down to the final four candidates to become the sixth city manager in as many years. Her interest in the job was immediate.
“I had visited Sanibel during my career and noticed a lot of very positive aspects of how the community was laid out and how they did things,” she said.
The revolving doors on the Sanibel city manager’s office meant an acting city manager was on the job. Zimomra made some calls, tracked him down and found that Sanibel was seeking stability and had decided to abandon the nearly universally used national search in favor of an invitation-only search.
“He was willing to look at my credentials,” she said. “By the time we were finished, after conversation in which he looked over my credentials, he said, ‘I think you should be in here.'”
She was hired in September 2001, less than a month before a state mandated Oct. 1 deadline for getting Sanibel’s annual budget in place during the turmoil that followed the 9/11 attacks.
“The week I arrived here was the week of 9/11,” she said. “I was home making phone calls to moving companies, and the first plane hit (the World Trade Center in New York).”
Her first budget was completed during that first month in her tenure at Sanibel City Hall. Her last budget will be finished in the last month of her tenure, a week before the 2021-22 budget year begins.
“The chemistry was good, and it doesn’t mean everybody is happy every day, but it’s a pretty darn good place to work — we’ve had plenty of challenges,” Zimomra said. “There have been a sufficient number of challenges.”
Looking back at her tenure on Sanibel, Zimomra noted that the connection she had with the community allowed her to be more than a bureaucrat over her two-decade tenure.
“When you are somewhere 20 years, this past Saturday night, a family invited me to a graduation party for one of our lifeguards who I met when she was in kindergarten and she just graduated from nursing school at FGCU,” she said. “That’s your legacy when you are in the city for an entire generation.”
Challenges over the years have included hurricanes, a period of bridge weight restrictions and in recent years environmental issues stemming from devastating red tides and blue-green algae outbreaks.
“From the first day that I have been in office there has been a guiding light that the environment is protected as our highest priority,” Zimomra said. “There have been environmental challenges. Every council member who has been elected has embraced in word and deed the Sanibel (land-use) Plan. There has been no wavering during my time here to the commitment.”
In retirement, Zimomra says she plans to develop a busier schedule in volunteer efforts that are close to her heart. In the meantime, she credits the city councils with which she has worked for her longevity.
“When you’re a city manager, you have no success. Any success belongs to the community and the mayor and council,” Zimomra said. “Most elected bodies reflect their community. On Sanibel they tend to be well educated, extremely committed, extremely caring and compassionate — every council member.”