Before Nancy Shaver ’68 was installed as mayor of St. Augustine, Fla., in 2014, she dedicated decades to building a career in business: running a Fortune 500 marketing company, working with startups, and treading a well-beaten path between airports and client sites as a management consultant. “Politics was never on my bucket list,” she says. Yet in the November 2016 election, voters in America’s oldest city re-elected her for a second term. “And it’s so much more satisfying than the work I spent 30 years doing,” she says.
Nancy’s meandering path to politics began in 2009, when she moved from Maine to St. Augustine with her partner, Sean Meacham. He was suffering from the aftereffects of a failed stem-cell transplant. Nancy and Sean decided that the coastal Florida town would provide a better backdrop for his last days than wintry Maine. In those bittersweet months, they sat on their porch, received visitors, and made friends easily.
After Sean’s death, Nancy took stock and started noticing her neighborhood in a new light. When the city was considering proposals for a nearby reclaimed landfill, Nancy looked into one group’s claims that they would use the space for coral reef restoration. “After a couple of hours of internet research, I discovered these guys were scams,” she says. Nancy marched her findings to the city manager. When he didn’t take her warnings seriously, she armed her neighbors with information, which they brought to public meetings and headed off the project.
From there, Nancy schooled herself on the city’s finances, communications, services, and the levels of dissatisfaction in town. “I came to the conclusion that I could continue to do these onesie-twosie activist kinds of things. Or, with my background as a management consultant, I can recognize the difference between a one-off problem and a systemic problem. To me this looked like a systemic problem, and I know how to fix things,” she says.
In 2014, after much research and reading of Thomas Jefferson, Nancy ran on a straightforward platform: Government is a service business in need of transparency and accessibility. She knocked on the door of every voter in town at least twice, and she beat the four-term incumbent by 119 votes.
Job one was to establish better communication and transparency: “We now have our finances on the website, and on a website that works,” she says. She set about improving city infrastructure and financial management. She introduced a sea-level study, then addressed traffic management, zoning, and homelessness. “None of those things are sexy, but they provide people with the services they pay for,” she says. More fun, perhaps, was the opening of a public park on the site of that reclaimed landfill near her home; last September, the city dedicated the park to the civil rights leader Robert B. Hayling, who lived in the neighborhood.
Serving as mayor is a part-time job, but only on paper; being enmeshed in the fabric of a city takes time, and this mayor never turns down an invitation to meet with a group or attend a meeting. In October 2016, when Hurricane Matthew ravaged the region, Nancy spent three days and two nights in an emergency operations center. She worked around the clock, communicating with the media and with residents and worrying terribly for those who had stayed behind. The historic city, established in 1565, suffered tremendous damage and is still in the “long slog” of recovery, she says.
The demands of mayoral duties never subside, but working in service of her town has been “incredibly gratifying,” Nancy says. “I think it’s the best work I’ve ever done. It requires every life experience I’ve had, which have been many and varied and interesting. And every skill I’ve ever developed. I use all of them.”