There was one main reason why, in December, then-Belleair Town Commissioner Michael Wilkinson felt he could pursue a bid for mayor.
At the time, Mayor Gary Katica had already announced he would not run for a sixth term in the March 9 election as he battled Parkinson’s Disease.
Wilkinson called the mayor and received his blessing for the campaign to be his successor, which was no surprise, since Mr. Katica was the one who recruited him to office 11 years earlier.
“I never considered challenging him,” Wilkinson said.
And most others in this bedroom community of 4,200 didn’t either. In his five terms as mayor, Mr. Katica only faced a challenger in 2018, an election he won with 83 percent of the vote.
“Everyone had faith in him; everyone liked him,” Wilkinson said. “He was very fair. He had no allegiances to anybody because he loved all the town, loved the people, loved the staff.”
As a town commissioner since 2000 and then as mayor since 2007, Mr. Katica, Belleair’s longest serving elected official, known for the deep connections he formed, died on Sunday while serving the final few days of his fifth term as mayor. He was 87.
Wilkinson is expected to take office as mayor on March 16 after running unopposed in the March 9 election.
Mr. Katica was raised in Queens, New York, and served as an air traffic controller in the Air Force during the Korean War. He began his political career in Long Island, where he served as a parks commissioner and police commissioner.
Mr. Katica, his wife Mary and their two children moved to Clearwater in 1979, then to Belleair in 1984 “for the climate and ambience,” Mary Katica said.
He spent more than 35 years with Dimmitt Cadillac in Clearwater, ranking in the top 25 Cadillac salesman in the nation many years, according to Dimmitt Automotive Group CEO Scott Larguier.
“They’d get a ring and add a diamond each year (they ranked),” Larguier said. “He was pretty proud you couldn’t fit any more diamonds on his ring. He was just adored by his clients. I remember the clients would sit with him for hours and hours.”
When a vacancy arose on the town commission in 2000, the city appointed Mr. Katica, then known for his work with the civic association, to finish the unexpired term. He ran for mayor unchallenged in 2007 and never lost a subsequent election.
He quickly became a strong advocate for retaining the town’s police department amid a period of turmoil within the force. And in the early 2010s, he navigated one of the most controversial issues to face the town: the redevelopment of the historic but dilapidated Belleview Biltmore hotel.
When appraisers estimated it would have cost $200 million to restore the Biltmore, Mr. Katica backed the rezoning of the property. Preservationists tried unsuccessfully to save the hotel through a court injunction in 2014, but the redevelopment into 132 townhomes and condos moved forward.
The developer, JMC Communities, preserved the Belleview’s original lobby and 35 guest rooms into an inn within the development, which Katica in 2016 called ”a great compromise” between preservationists and “people who were realistic and realized it had reached a point where it couldn’t be saved.”
The mayor’s regular walks from his home on North Pine Circle to the Town Hall two miles away became a way for him to connect with residents and listen to their concerns, said Town Manager JP Murphy.
Murphy began his career with Belleair as a finance intern in 2005 and remembers Mr. Katica seeking him out at the first commission meeting he attended because he was a new face in a suit.
“What I will always remember about the mayor is he just cared about the residents and the people’s happiness and that they felt heard,” Murphy said. “He was a politician, but he didn’t sort of carry the hubris. He was just the people’s mayor, if you will.”
Besides encouraging new staff like Murphy, Mr. Katica helped recruit many elected officials to serve in their small town.
He encouraged commissioner Tom Shelly to run 16 years ago, and went campaigning door to door with him. But it was those personal interactions Mr. Katica loved the most, Shelly said, which is why he even dressed as Santa Claus every year in the town’s Christmas celebration.
“He’ll be remembered as one of Belleair’s strongest advocates,” Shelly said. “Nobody was ever a stranger to Gary Katica.”