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The road to Tybee belongs to us all
Susan Allen Bartoletti 1981-2015 - photo by Wen McNally

MERGING onto the Bull River Bridge always tightens my knuckles.

As I putted Champagne Carl towards Tybee Island last Monday night, I felt even more anxious than usual. My stomach rolled over as I tried to keep my venerable Mercedes (aka “Old Gold”) steady in the narrow two-lane causeway, past the same spot where Susan Allen Bartoletti was killed on her moped by an oncoming car just a few days before.

This treacherous stretch of Highway 80 has seen more than its fair share of traffic-clogging accidents and tragic fatalities, and this beloved local’s death needs to be the last.

Susan was a loving wife, a bonafide karaoke queen and a deft barmaid who could sedate even the rowdiest Huc-a-poos patron with her charms. She was my daughter’s preschool teacher at Maggie’s Morning School, and when she dressed up for Halloween, those 3 year-olds believed she was an actual fairytale princess.

Anyone ever bowled over by her blond ponytail and sparkling smile understands that in Susan’s case, the phrase “ray of sunshine” is not a metaphor but a fact. The world is dimmer without her, and the road to Tybee will be forever tainted for us now.

Sadly, Monday is deadline day around here, and I wasn’t able to attend the beachside memorial for Susan or stop by the ‘Poo before I was supposed to be at the Tybee Island Candidates Forum that evening. I’d been invited the week before by Shirley Wright of the political action group Forever Tybee, and I felt I needed to honor my agreement.

The same could not be said for four out of the six candidates.

I get it; we’re all sick of politics already. Most of us have been so wrapped up in the national drama and Savannah’s city elections that it’s easy to forget that tiny Tybee Island is having its own race on Nov. 3.

But even if you hate sand and think sea turtles are stupid, the outcome still matters:

The beach enclave next door may only have 3000 permanent residents, but the 30,000 people a day who visit during the summer have to drive through Savannah to get there, and decisions made on the shore affect traffic and businesses along Highway 80. Tybee’s council also sets policy for our most accessible coastline, which boasts some of the most diverse ecology in the state.

At the very least, it’s a place where you can still take in an unfettered view of the water, which is more than can be said for River Street.

The forum packed the fancy new Public Safety Building on the north end, a courtly testament to well-managed funds. Moderator Tom Barton presided, and WJCL anchor Kevin Holmes and I were meant to lob follow-up queries. The rules of the debate included extremely strict windows for the questions, but things moved quickly with only 12-year council veteran Paul Wolff and challenger Julie Livingston to answer them. Timekeeper Carl Looper, wearing a striped referee jersey and wielding a ginormous alarm clock, couldn’t help but hide his disappointment.

I learned later that candidate John Bremer, who was very close with Susan, had understandably skipped the debate to attend her wake. But what happened to incumbents Barry Brown and Mayor Pro Tem Wanda Doyle?

(Tybee staggers its councilmember’s four-year terms so that only half are up for re-election every two years, a change instituted two terms ago to facilitate continuity. Current councilmembers Monty Parks, Bill Garbett and Rob Callahan will be up for re-election in 2017.

It also speaks volumes that Mayor Jason Buelterman is running unopposed in this election for his fourth term—it seems neither man nor mermaid would dispute the fine job he’s doing of leading Tybee’s many parades while balancing its tourists and fragile ecosystems.)

Challenger Stephen Friedman commented on Facebook that night that he chose to bail on the forum because of the antipathy unleashed during the last Forever Tybee-sponsored event in 2013, which he felt favored certain candidates and demonized others.

Perhaps Doyle ducked out for fear of similar retribution; surely island voters have concerns that she was cited by the Tybee Ethics Committee in August for using her city email address to solicit support from local businesses in opposing the proposed Plastic Bag Ban Ordinance.

As far as I could tell, the questions—both anonymously submitted and asked by the audience—were fair and reasonable, seeking the candidates’ stances on Tybee-centric issues such as the public pool referendum, parking, dogs on the beach, beach showers, overdevelopment and the enforcement of 15 mph speed limits.

Barton, perhaps a little punchy after having already overseen an entire day of political forums in Savannah, acerbically directed a few inquiries at the empty chairs.

In the absence of their opponents, the two candidates present dazzled their audience. Wolff had opportunity to list his many accomplishments towards “a progressive, economically vibrant, sustainable future” for the island, including authoring the litter ordinance, numerous grants that have saved taxpayers millions and the Solarize Tybee project, which resulted in a free photovoltaic system for the Tybee Island Maritime Academy. He’s also presciently advocating for a cretaceous well to protect the island from EPD-mandated reductions in withdrawals from the Floridan Aquifer, coming in 2025.

Wolff acknowledged that the plastic bag ban is off council agenda for now, but offered that the BYOB Project and other environmental groups have launched a group effort to purchase 30K reusable bags for Tybee Island shoppers.

Livingston, a former public housing administrator and FEMA disaster specialist who currently serves on island’s Planning Committee, presented astute ideas on curbing blight and handling island traffic.

Her suggestion to implement inexpensive technology to inform daytrippers on their way from Savannah about road conditions and available parking spaces would’ve knocked the socks off everyone in the room, except they were all wearing flipflops.

It was noted that the same kind of flashing sign could begin saving lives immediately on the Bull River Bridge, even if it takes another five years to fund the failed TSPLOST plan to widen the shoulders on Highway 80 and add more intelligent turning lanes.

Though the perspectives were limited, it was an evening full of solutions, though some attendees remained unforgiving of the missing candidates. “I could’ve been watching the Walking Dead!” one man murmured disgustedly as he filed out.

Tybee is blessed to have an active voter base, and I can only hope that proceedings stay civil here over the next week.

Life and politics must converge, especially on an island where there’s only one road in and one road out.

Tom, Kevin and I stopped by Huc-a-poo’s to toast Susan before making our way back to the mainland. A large crowd was still mourning on the wooden deck, candidate Bremer among them, and we saluted her sweet soul on the sidelines.

As my clackety chariot carried me back to the city, it occurred to me: The Bull River Bridge is both a piece of shared infrastructure in need of dire attention as well as a metaphor for how to handle our broken hearts.

In both cases, the only way through is to widen, widen, widen.