Town clerk’s retirement after decades of service brings outpouring of gratitude
By Steve Plunkett
After 32 years and nine months of explaining building rules to residents and contractors, recording minutes of commission meetings and requesting commissioners’ voice votes, Rita Taylor is leaving Gulf Stream’s Town Hall.
Her retirement, effective Sept. 30, was announced at the commission’s Sept. 9 meeting.
“What a wonderful town clerk she has been. I don’t know how to say it,” Commissioner Joan Orthwein said. “I always tried to talk her into being the manager and she’d never take it.”
Mayor Scott Morgan offered a reluctant farewell aimed at both Taylor and history, comparing her to the late Mayor William F. Koch Jr., whose name graces the commission chambers.
“Beside the possibility that Mayor Koch was the most influential person in the town of Gulf Stream’s history, I am willing to submit that Rita Taylor is actually one who had, at least in my experience, the greatest impact on this town,” Morgan said.
“Every applicant who has come to this town met with Rita; every resident who ever had a question would call or stop in and speak with Rita. … And I can tell you the many responses that I would get back from those people, particularly residents and contractors, was that they loved working with the town of Gulf Stream because they loved working with you.
“You’re smart, knowledgeable, always helpful and honest, and you got things done.”
Morgan said he turned to Taylor for guidance first as a commissioner and later as mayor.
“You always helped me not only with great advice, because historically you knew everything — at least I thought you knew everything — you always gave me sound advice and it was honest advice, and that guided me in what I did, and I think it inured to the benefit of this town.”
Former Commissioner Bob Ganger said he and Taylor had their first conversation “a very long time ago” before he had even moved to Gulf Stream.
“She explained to me more than I probably ever would have known about life in Florida, about governance, about just about anything. And I’ve never forgotten that,” Ganger said. “And so, I want to thank you for being such a terrific person. You’re a very good clerk but you’re just a terrific person.”
Ocean Ridge Commissioner Kristine de Haseth remembered her first encounter with Taylor when she lived in Gulf Stream in 2003. “Came to our first commission meeting and was guided by her through our house remodel,” de Haseth said.
In addition to her years in Gulf Stream, Taylor was town clerk in Ocean Ridge for 20 years and an overlapping 20 years in Briny Breezes, where she owns a home.
Protégé retired first
Karen Hancsak spent eight years as a police dispatcher in Ocean Ridge and two years as Taylor’s deputy clerk before taking her spot as town clerk when Taylor moved on to Gulf Stream in 1990. Hancsak stayed in that role for 25 years.
“You know what’s funny?” she said. “What’s funny to me is, I retired 61/2 years ago after 35 years with Ocean Ridge, and she came to my retirement party. Who would have thought that I would have been first.”
Hancsak called Taylor a good friend and mentor.
“She was always there, always available to answer questions or to help. She was good,” Hancsak said. “I think she’ll be very much missed in Gulf Stream. She had so many years of knowledge, and she was obviously dedicated to the town. When she was in Ocean Ridge, she was definitely dedicated.”
The two still have lunch together several times a month, often at the Banana Boat just across the Ocean Avenue bridge from Ocean Ridge.
“I wonder what she’ll do with her time now, because she worked a lot of hours over there,” Hancsak said. “She’ll probably end up asking me to go to the beach a couple of times with her.”
Synonymous with Town Hall
Tom Stanley, Gulf Stream’s vice mayor, called Taylor “a very special person” and said it would be difficult to separate her from the government routine at first.
“Just about everybody you talk to in town identified the town of Gulf Stream — at least over the last 20 or 30 years — with Rita. It’s Town Hall and Rita Taylor, Rita Taylor and Town Hall. … It’s almost synonymous,” Stanley said.
He recalled being appointed to the town’s Architectural Review and Planning Board in 2011 before joining the Town Commission the next year.
“She’s the one that was there that said, ‘If you ever need anything, you don’t understand anything, you want help in order to do — to perform — this position and do your civic duty the best way possible,’ she was the one there that made it possible. Her door was always open,” Stanley said.
When he walked his dog, he often saw her car at Town Hall on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. “She always went above and beyond,” Stanley said. “It was more than just a job. It was a passion for her to fulfill that role.”
Early last year, commissioners named the one-room library inside Town Hall, her former office, the “Rita L. Taylor Gulf Stream Library” in her honor.
Orthwein, who came to the Town Commission in 1995, called Taylor a “godsend.”
“It’s an end of an era, it really is,” she said.
Decision to retire
In a wide-ranging interview with The Coastal Star, Taylor, 91, touched on highlights of her career, early travels with her husband towing an Airstream trailer, and what made now the right time to retire.
Chief among her reasons: Manager Greg Dunham’s plan to cut her pay 41%, knocking her from her perch as the town’s highest-paid employee at $143,956 a year to being tied with her former deputy clerk, Renee Basel, at $85,000.
If not for that, “I probably would not have” retired, Taylor said. Also, she said, “I am getting older.”
Town commissioners had no warning she was about to leave.
Her retirement saved Dunham from the potentially unpleasant task of informing the public about her salary change. He had told commissioners in August that his budget for the year starting Oct. 1 included pay raises and new job titles for Basel, Staff Attorney Trey Nazzaro, Chief Financial Officer Rebecca Tew and water maintenance supervisor Anthony Beltran. Taylor would become “senior town clerk,” with some of her duties shifted to Basel and Tew, he said, adding that he would provide details in September.
No one asked him to elaborate.
Stanley was surprised by Taylor’s exit but said he would not have challenged Dunham’s decision if he had known about the salary reduction. “We rely on the town manager,” he said. “We usually leave that up to him. He’s there every day.”
While Gulf Stream will bear the immediate loss, Briny Breezes, Ocean Ridge and even Boynton Beach are beneficiaries of Taylor’s legacy. Besides being a clerk, she was instrumental in arranging for Ocean Ridge to provide police service to Briny Breezes, helping establish Ocean Ridge’s police dispatch system, training Ocean Ridge’s volunteer firefighters and getting its first ladder fire truck, which Boynton Beach also relied upon.
Arriving in South Florida
Her story on the barrier island has its roots in Marion, Indiana, where she married a fire department captain and developed accounting and bookkeeping skills at a bank and two trucking companies. She and her husband, Ed, vacationed for at least a couple of weeks every winter in South Florida, usually Juno Beach, she said.
After Ed was injured while fighting a fire, the couple decided in the early 1960s that “it was time to do something different.”
“So, we bought an Airstream and a new Buick … the biggest Buick they made in those days,” Taylor said. “And we decided we would spend three months in the winter here and we would travel in the Airstream the rest of the time.”
After five years of exploring “every mountain in the United States and Canada,” she said, the Taylors ended their traveling days. They towed their trailer to Palm Beach County, rented a lot first in Jupiter and later in Briny Breezes, and finally bought a lot in Briny.
“Back then there were a lot more travel trailers in Briny than what there are today. Oh, quite a few,” Taylor said. “In fact, they had one section that was all travel trailers.”
She filled her days the way many newcomers to Florida do.
“I did a lot of sitting on the beach and swimming in the ocean. Enjoyed it immensely. But I was used to being on the move or else working all my adult life. And I said I have got to find something to do,” Taylor recalled.
Her salvation came from a newspaper ad seeking part-time office help at nearby Ocean Ridge Town Hall. She was hired and a week later went full-time with her hours split between the clerk’s office and the Police Department. Soon she was assigned full-time to the clerk.
“The clerk that was there didn’t plan to stay too much longer. She was a little bit older than me at the time. And so I stayed, and in a few months she retired. So then I became the clerk,” Taylor said.
Husband had a role
Ocean Ridge’s police chief soon decided to turn his force into a public safety department charged with fighting fires as well as keeping the peace, having his officers learn to fight fires supplemented by volunteers. He asked Ed Taylor for help.
Ed recommended that the town buy a ladder truck to boost its partnership with Boynton Beach — a goodwill gesture to the town’s neighbor — even though Ocean Ridge had few multi-story buildings.
Earlier, Taylor drafted her husband to teach proper techniques to the volunteer firefighters after walking through the training room.
“I saw that blackboard and I said those guys ain’t never going to learn to fight fire if that’s the kind of training they’re going to have,” she said.
Ed Taylor received no pay for teaching the classes. “No, he did it for free,” Rita said. However, the chief told Rita that Ed would never be asked to fight a fire.
But, said Rita, “When you tell him no firefighting, might as well save your breath because if he went to the fire, he was going to handle some hose. There’s no two ways about it.”
A few years later, while the chief was on vacation and before the ladder truck arrived, Ed Taylor was called to a two-story beach home on fire. He directed firefighters that night, spent the next morning helping clean the equipment, then collapsed that afternoon outside Town Hall.
When the ambulance arrived, “I said I’m going to ride with you. Today they wouldn’t let you ride,” Rita said. “They didn’t throw me out, they let me run over to the hospital. And he died on the way over there.”
Briny work on the side
Taylor also gave Briny Breezes free work, volunteering to do clerk duties at night and on weekends, first while at Ocean Ridge and continuing after she became Gulf Stream clerk.
The Briny charter at the time required the town clerk to hold elective office, so she took a seat as an alderwoman. The situation changed in 2005 when a developer offered the town’s residents $510 million to sell out to him.
“Kept asking for copies of this, copies of that. My work actually doubled. I had to come up with it because I was the clerk,” she said.
But Taylor was in a minority of residents who did not want to sell. They fought what they feared was a losing battle until the developer missed his first promised payment to the town and asked for more time.
“My group took hold of that and played it for all it was worth,” Taylor said. “Publicized it and everything — how these people were cheating, falling back on their promise with the money, do you want to do business with people like that?”
The deal crumbled, but Taylor had had enough and declined to run for re-election, thus giving up her position as clerk.
The Gulf Stream years
Taylor went to Gulf Stream in 1990 after being wooed by its town manager, Frank Flannery. She had met Flannery while attending police chief conventions for Ocean Ridge when he was chief in Tequesta.
“We just got a new town manager in Ocean Ridge, so it wasn’t like I felt obligated or anything, you know, to stay. And I was bringing up a clerk, a girl much younger than myself that worked in my office, so I wasn’t leaving them high and dry,” Taylor said of Hancsak.
At first, she said, Gulf Stream Town Hall was “a very loosely organized group” consisting of Flannery, herself, an outside accountant and the accountant’s wife working part-time.
She counts as her biggest accomplishment taking over the accounting duties and making the town more self-reliant. “We brought all of the work in house,” Taylor said.
Enforcing new design rules was also important. Gulf Stream’s residents have been very supportive, she said, “of trying to keep the town as it began” regarding the styles of houses and landscaping.
In the immediate future Taylor will concentrate on straightening up her homes — the one in Briny Breezes and another in Atlantis — and has no plans to be a tourist anywhere. “I’ve traveled to Europe a few times, but I don’t have any desire to do that anymore,” she said.
One regret she has will be no longer passing out treats to dogs that residents bring to Town Hall. She kept a cabinet in her office filled with Milk-Bones.
“During the winter I am going to miss not being here when people start coming back, because [their pets] know, all of them know in my office there’s treats,” she said.
“When they come in to pay bills or even they come in sometimes just because the pet wants to come in.” Pets “come right up and put their noses against this credenza.”
Orthwein wants to see Taylor return, too.
“I hope she comes back and consults with us because she’s such a wealth of knowledge,” Orthwein said. “She does everything with such a grace that people never get mad at Rita.”
At the Sept. 9 meeting, Taylor said she would never turn her back on Gulf Stream.
“I’ll think of all of you even though I won’t be here,” she said, “and I’ll be watching the papers, what The Coastal Star is going to have to say, about our meetings and the meetings you’re going to have, because my interest will not die.”