BELLEAIR — Longtime Mayor Gary Katica says he is determined to finish his term in office despite the fact that he has Parkinson’s disease.
Katica revealed his diagnosis a month ago at a commission meeting, but it was hardly a surprise to those who know him or those who regularly attend town meetings. For months, he has exhibited symptoms of the progressive nervous system disorder, and in that time missed more commission meetings than he attended.
Now that he has shared the news of his illness, he is talking openly about his intentions to carry on despite some people suggesting he retire.
Katica admits that staying in office and running meetings is not easy.
“The problem is my mind plays tricks on me,” he said. “I don’t have the shakes, but I am always dizzy. The doctor told me recently that I can never drive again, I can’t walk without a cane or a walker and I am very wobbly, and I am afraid of falling.”
He said Town Manager J.P. Murphy has had to produce a special large-print version of the meeting agenda so he can read it.
“I can’t see the normal print,” Katica said. “I have blurry vision; that, too, will be with me the rest of my life.”
Katica is 86 years old and has been mayor for 14 years. He also served as a commissioner for three years. That means the younger residents of Belleair have known no one except Katica as their mayor.
In that time, Katica says there have been issues that he has been able to help solve.
“The Belleview Biltmore Hotel issue was the biggest challenge,” he said. “There were so many people against it and so many meetings and hearings.”
Katica recalls a meeting with Richard Heisenbottle, a Miami architect who wanted to buy and restore the hotel.
“I met him in my office just before a commission meeting and he produced a paper with his plans for the property,” he said. “I asked him for the paper, and he would not show me, saying instead it was confidential information. With that, I threw him out of the office, and that is the last I heard from him.”
Katica said the future of Belleair has another issue that is looming: its water supply.
On and off for two years, commissioners talked about the future of their self-administered water supply — whether they should sell it to the county or build their own reverse-osmosis plant to combat the creeping salinization of their wells.
“The solution to that problem is going to be considerably expensive,” he said. “I do think that J.P. (Murphy) is handling it correctly.”
One thing residents could always count on was a Gary Katica story at just about every commission meeting. He hasn’t slowed up on that front despite his illness. Dressed in a New York Yankees jacket on a cold January evening, he told an appropriate baseball story.
“When I was a boy growing up in New York City, I was a Yankees fan,” he said. “One evening my dad took me to Yankee Stadium, I was 7 or 8. As we entered here was this big man dressed in a camel-hair coat and hat. My father said that was Babe Ruth. I will never forget it.”
Murphy often laughs the hardest at Katica’s stories. He loves them.
“One of his gifts is that of storytelling,” said Murphy. “It is funny, especially when you go to his house and start sharing stories. There are so many nuggets of wisdom anytime you talk to the mayor.”
Murphy said throughout Katica’s time in office, he always put the people of Belleair first.
“One of the hallmarks of the mayor is that he is always looking for the good in people,” he said. “He always loves to hear from the people and to find a way to make everybody happy.”
Murphy said there is no question Katica has made an impact on the town and his legacy will live on.
“Because he has been such a mayor of the people, one of his legacies will be the way the entire commission treats the people of Belleair,” he said. “I think Gary’s term as mayor has been trying to find a way forward without getting in the way of the town staff. He would apply pressure on them to make good decisions.”
Even during the controversial Belleview Biltmore controversy, Murphy said Katica stuck to his principals.
“The hotel fight was with clear lines,” he said. “But he was determined to make it a win-win and that is something that will stay with the commission even if he is not on it.”
Murphy is one of those people who has only known Katica as mayor of Belleair. He began his career as an intern and now, because of the illness, goes to Katica’s house each week to bring him up to speed on town affairs.
“I don’t know that his illness has affected his duties greatly,” he said. “He can’t have his regular office hours, but he does talk to a lot of people on the phone. I can’t imagine life without him. It takes a special person to do what he did for this town and he has been a special mayor for us.”
Katica has one year remaining on his term and hopes to be able to make it to March 2021. He would hardly be criticized if he stepped down. But he won’t.
“I was elected to do this job by 85% of the vote,” he said. “That’s how I look at it. As long as I’m alive, I can give it a shot. I think I can do things for this town. I think I am useful with my knowledge and history of Belleair and what I have been involved in.”
All of it, he says, is a labor of love.
“The people are the kindest in the world and I have loved every minute of it,” he said. “I certainly hope I can finish my term, but I will not be running again, I can assure you.”