Highland Beach resident John Ross galvanized voters’ opposition to proposals that called for spending up to $45 million on improvements along A1A. ‘No was the message,’ he said of the idea for the shirts. ‘It just said it.’ Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Rich Pollack
John Ross didn’t plan to start a movement in Highland Beach. He just wanted to bring people together in opposition to town plans to spend up to $45 million of taxpayer money on improvements along State Road A1A.
In the process of fighting City Hall on one issue, however, Ross’ grassroots Committee to Save Highland Beach has done something larger — bringing people from throughout the town together to get involved in local government.
“Our goal is to restore democracy to Highland Beach,” said Ross, who is credited with helping to overwhelmingly defeat three ballot initiatives linked to the A1A improvements.
At 71, the six-year Highland Beach resident — along with a few friends — came up with the idea of sending out daily email blasts urging residents to vote “no” when they went to the polls in March.
They were surprised by what happened next.
“I thought I would send out a couple of emails and everyone would be annoyed and that would be the end of it,” said Ross, whose first email blast went out early in January. “Then it caught fire.”
Ross continues to send out emails — although no longer on a daily basis — to nearly 1,100 addresses of Highland Beach residents. He organized a community forum last month featuring two residents who were hoping to be appointed by the Town Commission to a vacant vice mayor seat.
In light of Ross’ professional background, it’s not surprising he became involved in local government.
Before retiring, Ross lived in northern Virginia where, among other things, he worked for companies that created information technology services for local and state governments. In New York City, the company he worked for helped develop systems to process 30,000 parking tickets a day.
“I made my living helping governments become more efficient,” he said.
He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public administration and served as a political consultant for a short time.
Soon after arriving in Highland Beach, Ross was recruited to serve as first president of the newly formed Highland Beach Coastal Democratic Club. His interest in government led him to make an unsuccessful run for an open Town Commission seat. He finished a distant second in a four-person race.
“That was stupid,” he said. “I am a terrible candidate.”
He doesn’t plan on running for public office again. “It was horrible.”
Ross displayed some marketing skill with a campaign to stop the town’s A1A projects with signs that simply said “No.”
When signs were taken down, he asked people to write “no” on shirts.
“No was the message,” he said. “It just said it.”
During public comment at a Town Commission meeting, Ross appeared at the podium wearing a “No” shirt that his wife, Maxine, had made for him. Asked to cover it up because Town Hall is a campaign-free zone, Ross instead took off the shirt, and while audience members chuckled and cheered, he put on a plain shirt he had brought with him.
He made his point while making people laugh.
“It’s all for mental health,” he said. “If you don’t have a sense of humor, what good is life.”
Q. Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
A. I grew up and went to school in Brooklyn, N.Y. Only the strong survived growing up in Brooklyn back then.
Q. What professions have you worked in? What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
A. Fried burgers in a 15-cent burger joint. Painted houses. Worked in the men’s shelter in New York City. Political consultant many years ago. Developed and implemented large-scale information technology systems for governments at all levels, as well as some of the world’s largest financial services firms and became chief information officer of a $12 billion IT firm.
I was at my best leading projects with a prominent West Coast financial services firm, and a leading New York City-based bond rating agency during the financial crises of 2008. Also, I fully integrated the IT infrastructure of a multinational IT consulting firm for the firm I was CIO of on day one of its acquisition.
Q. What advice do you have for a young person selecting a career today?
A. Take your time, and be yourself. Happenstance will take care of the rest.
Q. How did you choose to make your home in Highland Beach?
A. We found the right ambience in a dog-friendly town that was convenient to the things we liked. I cannot imagine living without a dog.
Q. What is your favorite part about living in Highland Beach?
A. I like the small-town feel of the place. It’s remarkable for a town in the middle of Palm Beach County. And the people I meet are generally smarter than I am.
Q. What book are you reading now?
A. Two: Low Chicago, which is actually a group of short stories set in a common alternative reality, and Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, which is the story of a Silicon Valley startup gone terribly wrong.
Q. What music do you listen to when you need inspiration? When you want to relax?
A. Very eclectic taste in music, from rock to reggae to Broadway and classical. I’m a big fan of Gilbert and Sullivan and Toots and the Maytals. I sort of forgot how to relax some time ago, but I’m most relaxed fishing.
Q. Do you have a favorite quote that inspires your decisions?
A. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” which is also a fine album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Q. Have you had mentors in your life? Individuals who have inspired your life decisions?
A. Several. Some great teachers and coaches and a few extraordinary bosses and colleagues. But I don’t think I’ve made many life decisions — just sort of one thing leading to another.
Q. If your life story were made into a movie, who would you want to play you?
A. John Belushi.