Sylvia Murphy: The People’s Commissioner

by Christine Russel….

Everyone in the Upper Keys knew and loved Sylvia Murphy but she belonged to all of us. Elected in 2006 she served the entire Keys for 14 years and with her love of Key West she made many trips down US 1, paying particular attention to the trials and tribulations facing our island at the end of the road. Sylvia was the one Commissioner in recent years to speak out and stand up for those in the Lower Keys and Key West. She was the People’s Commissioner.

My friendship and memories of Sylvia are from the perspective of a Key West activist. I met Sylvia long ago when I felt compelled to start attending County Commission meetings. Those were the days of ‘The Gang of Three,’ when then County Administrator Tom Willie, in a push for further Keys development, went to Tallahassee and convinced the Governor we could evacuate the Keys in only 18 hours (far less than the 36 hours shown in some studies). Maybe we only needed to get to the 18 mile stretch to be considered “evacuated” and maybe we could just consider all the folks living in mobile homes as already gone before we even started timing it? That really pissed off a bunch of us off who lived south of the Seven Mile Bridge, after-all it was our lives being put in jeopardy.

It was at those County Commission meetings that I met a good ‘Gang of Three’: Kay Thacker, Pauline Klein and Ron Miller…… and then there was Sylvia!

You always knew where you stood with Sylvia and where Sylvia stood on an issue – she was vocal with her thoughts – and with a tremendous sense of humor! I recall Sylvia being in the audience at a Key West City Commission meeting when we began the fight to save Wisteria (Christmas Tree) Island from being redeveloped into another Sunset Key. Sylvia just happened to be in Key West and present at a very important City meeting where she gave her personal thoughts (not the County Commission’s). She understood the citizens of Key West’s concerns about protecting natural areas, about parking, traffic and hurricane evacuation. Sylvia genuinely cared, not just about her Key Largo district but also for those of us in Key West.

With ordinary citizens being ignored by most of the County Commissioners for so many years I eventually quit attending meetings. Then, a couple of years ago, the County Commission seemed to lose sight of the fact that they were elected by local citizens to represent what was best for those citizens. The triangle at Stock Island and Key West had been a traffic mess for years and certainly did not need any added traffic from additional large scale hotel development. As I recall there was an issue with traffic infrastructure regulations; studies showed area roadways could not support any new development. Instead of telling the hotel developers NO, the County decided to request a new traffic study. If the County and developers don’t like the rules or results of one particular study, they just commission another until they get the results they want!

I did not want to go to that meeting, but my friend Diane Beruldson, who organized the Stock Island Association, to fight such insanity, asked me to at least phone in. I was already more than pissed off at the County – AGAIN! For too long the majority had been ignoring residents and their quality of life. They underhandedly gave public waterfront land to developers despite code that says it can’t be done, they wrote specially-tailored regulations just so certain families and developers could make a lot of money.

I would only have 3 minutes when I called in to the County Commission meeting but I packed 25 years of anger, frustration and concern for locals’ safety into that time and ticked off the list of problems with the push for more development of Stock Island in recent years: horrible traffic for locals commuting (and tourists visiting), overdevelopment and its effect on the ocean, environment, further demands on our water, electric and sewer infrastructure, safety and hurricane evacuation, lack of housing as more hotels and businesses are built putting a further demand on nonexistent housing – the list of problems was endless.

I felt better after I’d said my piece (one last time) and when I finished —— there was silence. Silence – until finally Sylvia began laughing! I knew Sylvia and knew not to be insulted at her laugher – Sylvia ‘got it’! “That Christine Russell,” she said, ‘she hit all the points. She told us everything that has been happening over many years that has changed Stock Island. We have done nothing to stop it and now this is the mess we have created.” I have paraphrased but Sylvia understood and once again stood up to the headnodders on the Commission and laid the blame squarely right where it belonged – on County Commissioners past and present!

Sylvia had only one vote and could not change or stop overdevelopment, but she represented us until the very end when she retired in 2020.

Thank you, Sylvia! The People’s Commissioner. I doubt there will ever be another like you! Say hey to Kay – I know you are both rejoicing in your rewards up there in Heaven!

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