Getting Collier County politicians to agree on anything can be tough. However, there are two things on which they all — regardless of political party or position — agree: We live in paradise, and the best way to keep it that way is to give back.
In fact, from sitting on charity boards to rolling up their sleeves and volunteering, Naples’ elected officials are surprisingly involved in our community — their passion for public service perhaps only matched by their passion for community service. Here’s where you can find some of our area’s most dedicated public officials chipping in for the greater good.
Sam Saad III
Legal Aid Services of Collier County
A few Saturdays each year, Legal Aid Services of Collier County offers free legal advice clinics for low-income residents. On these Saturdays, you can find a long line snaking out of Legal Aid Service’s building. You can also almost always find Councilman Sam Saad III sitting patiently behind a makeshift desk, hearing out resident’s legal dilemmas.
Often, the line of people there to see Saad in particular is very long. As a real estate attorney, Saad has valuable knowledge for residents facing tenant-landlord disputes or foreclosure.
“ Sam has been a highly valued friend to our program,” says Jeff Ahren, the director of development at Collier County Legal Aid Services. “He’s very in touch with the needs of our community. We really couldn’t run these clinics without our pro-bono volunteers like him.”
Saad, who relocated to Naples in 2006, didn’t waste any time getting involved in the local community. Somewhere between setting up two business — the Law Office of Sam J. Saad III and Paradise Coast Title & Escrow — Saad joined the Naples Chamber of Commerce, was a member of Leadership Collier and ran successfully for City Council. Amazingly, he also found time to start working with Legal Aid Services.
“I’m a business and real estate attorney, so I have a lot of knowledge about employment disputes or foreclosures,” Saad says. “They’ll come in and say, 'I got fired' or 'I have a problem with my boss'. I help them if I can. I like doing it because I’m good at it and I’m good at the issues. And it’s why I’m on city council, I like to help people.”
During the foreclosure crisis, Saad often had the longest line of clients waiting during Legal Aid Services’ free clinics. While things have slowed down a bit, Ahren is always happy to know Saad is coming to help. “We really do appreciate the spirit of folks like Sam Saad who give back,” Ahren says. He adds, “He gives his proverbial time, talent and resources to us and we really appreciate it.
Although the Bayshore area of East Naples is no longer technically in Commissioner Donna Fiala’s district, she is just as enthusiastic about the Bayshore Cultural And Performing Arts Center (CAPA) project as she was when the idea was first hatched.
In fact, her passion for the planned performing arts venue long predates even her tenure on the County Commission. In the early 1990s, Fiala became involved with the Bayshore neighborhood through her work with the East Naples Civic Association.
“We wanted to make an effort to try and clean up the neighborhood; get rid of some of the crime and give it a better appearance,” she says.
Soon, a group of bar owners expressed interest in moving into the newly spruced-up neighborhood.
“We thought bars aren’t what you need to help get rid of crime,” she remembers. So instead, she put on a luncheon and invited a bunch of artists. “You invite whomever will bring you the right thing you need. We asked, ‘what do you think of making this an arts district?’ and of course they said yes, they’re artists!”
Since those early days, Fiala has been helping with everything from securing the land to recruiting key organizers. In fact, Steve Kutler, now on Bayshore CAPA’s board of directors says that it was Fiala that personally recruited him.
“She was speaking at a luncheon at the Vineyards, which I’m a member of, and she talked about Bayshore CAPA. It tweaked my interest so I went up to talk to her about it afterwards. She had this tremendous enthusiasm; she’s a great saleswoman. She’s how I got involved.”
Kutler says that Fiala has easily been one of the project’s best “cheerleaders,” and that much of the center’s successes over the years are due to her unwavering commitment and enthusiasm for the project. “She’s just been a wonderful support,” he says.
Mayor John F. Sorey III
The Naples Players
Mayor John F. Sorey III learned to give back at an early age. After returning from his service in the Vietnam War, Sorey was hired by a company that insisted all employees engage with the local community. Decades later, he’s still involved.
“Once you get involved you just never get out of the habit,” he says, adding, “I’ve probably been on over 50 charity boards.”
While Sorey has served many nonprofit groups here in Naples, he’s been most involved with The Naples Players. Serving on the local theater group’s board for 14 years—and spending two years as board president—Sorey has helped grow the organization to the robust arts program it is today.
“When I came in as chair it was soon after they’d built their new building and my questions were about what they were going to do strategically going forward,” he says. Sorey helped put in place a plan to ensure the group grew successfully into its new space.
“He was also instrumental in building our children’s program,” says The Naples Player’s executive director Jim Rideoutte. “We were running one to two sessions for 30-40 kids each summer, but John got behind it and turned it into a year-round program serving 700 kids.”
Sorey has become so involved with the group, and is so familiar with its operations that he will actually be taking over as the organization’s executive director on Jan. 1, 2014. While he’ll maintain his mayoral duties, he will abstain from voting on any city issues that might affect the Naples Players. Additionally, his move into the Naples Player’s leading role will only come at the okay of the State Ethics Commission.
But he hopes he’ll be able to step in when Rideoutte steps aside because of his passion for supporting the performing arts. Sorey says he believes these institutions in particular help to improve the quality of life in the city. “From a cultural standpoint, a quality of life standpoint, we need the performing arts. That’s one of the things that makes life so special here.”
Councilman Bill Barnett
Sure, most politicians are known for their fast-talking ways, but City Councilman Bill Barnett takes it to a whole new level.
Of course we mean this in the nicest possible way. See, Barnett is a talented auctioneer. Each year, he donates his time, his talents and his quick-talking abilities to dozens of charity auctions.
“My dear friend Bruce Thalheimer owned an auction house and we’d go out there just to listen to the auctioneers. One night he says, ‘Bill Barnett, how about you come up and help us auction some stuff.’”
A former car dealer, Barnett had a natural talent for sales. That coupled with his up-beat personality made him a natural. Soon word got out.
“When I was mayor, everyone wanted me,” he jokes, adding, “but I still get asked to do them.”
Even though Barnett probably could work professionally as an auctioneer, he says that he’s never wanted to do it for money. That helping the local causes is reward enough.
“It’s great because since I don’t get paid, there’s no pressure. I tell people if I don’t do a good job, don’t invite me back.”
However, that’s never happened.
Amy Lane, the executive director of the Garden of Hope and Courage says that having Councilman Barnett run last year’s Tommy Bahama Coconut Classic auction, was the single best decision the group made.
“We raised the most we’d ever raised at one of our events. We raised $17,000 with just seven items,” she says.
While Barnett is always happy to pitch in, there are a few auction items he dreads: art and Persian rugs.
“With art, someone might say, this is worth $5,000, but unless someone walks in that night and sees it and thinks, wow, that’s perfect for my front entryway, it’s not going to get $5,000. It’s the same with Persian rugs; they can be worth a fortune but I sweat bullets because it’s impossible to get them sold.”
However, you’d never know Barnett is breaking a sweat under the pressure. He’s as jovial as always while under the gun to raise the bids; his perpetually good mood seeming to cheer folks to dig deeper than ever into their wallets.
“He’s just so well-liked and has such a wonderful personality,” Lane says. “He’s just a really good guy.”