By Rich Pollack
Highland Beach will get a new mayor and a new commissioner come March along with a returning vice mayor, after three candidates for commission seats ran unopposed.
In what appears to be a calm in Highland Beach elections not seen for several years, political newcomer Doug Hillman was unopposed in his bid for mayor, as was newcomer John Shoemaker, who will fill an open commission seat.
Vice Mayor Greg Babij, who was appointed to the position last year, also ran unopposed and will keep his seat at least until the term expires next year.
Hillman will take the post currently held by retiring Mayor Rhoda Zelniker, who has served on the commission for five years, while Shoemaker will fill a seat vacated by Commissioner Barry Donaldson, who was appointed last January.
“I greatly enjoyed being a commissioner, but it wasn’t a good fit for me at this time,” Donaldson said. “As things evolved I discovered I didn’t have a campaign in me.”
Because Hillman, Babij and Shoemaker were all unopposed when the deadline to file to run passed on Dec. 12, Highland Beach will not hold a municipal election. There will, however, be a Democratic Party primary election on March 17.
Without the need for an election, an estimated $10,000 that had been budgeted to cover associated costs will be returned to the town’s general budget.
While Hillman has not run for town-wide office before, he has been a familiar face in town hall for several months, serving on the financial advisory board.
The president of the Boca Highland Beach Club and Marina umbrella organization for three years and president of his own Dalton Place community going on nine years, Hillman was a finalist — along with Babij — for an appointment to the vice mayor position last year.
He said he is looking forward to working with Babij as well as with Shoemaker and remaining Commissioners Evalyn David and Peggy Gossett-Seidman.
“I think we can accomplish a great deal together,” he said.
A former president of London Fog and vice president of sales and marketing for Burlington Hosiery, Hillman, 73, and his wife were part-time residents for five years before become full-time residents in 2014.
“One of the goals is to keep Highland Beach a unique small town where residents feel and are safe and have excellent services,” he said. “We need to protect our paradise.”
Like Hillman, both Shoemaker and Babij have strong business backgrounds.
A Vietnam veteran who served as a paratrooper and infantry combat platoon leader, Shoemaker held executive leadership positions at high-tech companies for 45 years before retiring.
He came to Highland Beach as a part-time resident in 2006 and retired three years ago, although he still helps other companies as a paid consultant.
He became involved in the community during 2018 as a voice of opposition to three ballot issues that would have allowed the town to spend up to $45 million on projects in conjunction with Florida Department of Transportation improvements to State Road A1A. Those ballot initiatives were overwhelmingly defeated during the election.
Shoemaker, 73, said he decided to run for office following his involvement in the referendum.
“I’m at a point where I’m comfortable with my life and I just want to contribute to the community,” he said.
Like Hillman, Shoemaker believes the commission and the town will benefit from more community outreach by town leaders and more collaboration with residents and resident groups.
Babij, who also had not previously run for elected office, says he decided to run to complete the term he was appointed to a year ago.
“It’s only one year, so it made sense,” he said.
Considered by many to be a voice of reason on the commission, Babij, 47, brings a strong financial background to the position.
The CEO of an asset management firm, Bunkport Capital LLC, Babij got involved in the community while on the financial advisory board and was appointed to the commission in March following a structured selection process.
“I guess I’m doing OK since no one ran against me,” he said. “I think I’m contributing by helping the decision-making process.”
In his role as vice mayor, Babij often raises issues and says he enjoys having thoughtful discussions with others on the commission.
“I believe no one is smarter than all of us collectively,” he said.