Wellington’s First Mayor

Wellington’s First Mayor
Former Mayor Kathy Foster Shares Her Vivid Recollections Of The Early Years Of Wellington

By Joshua Manning

Our Wellington History series continues this month with a focus on Kathy Foster, a member of the inaugural Wellington Village Council who served as the first mayor of Wellington, back when the role was a position appointed from among the council members. She shares her vivid recollections of the early years of the community.

It has been 28 years since the inaugural Wellington Village Council met for the first time on March 26, 1996. Kathy Foster, who would be named the first mayor of the fledgling village at that meeting, had already been a leader in the Wellington community for years, first as a parent activist and then as an elected supervisor of the Acme Improvement District, Wellington’s pre-incorporation government.

“I really got involved as a mother of young children, when we first realized that there were no schools in Wellington,” recalled Foster, who noted that her children were first bused to Greenacres Elementary School. “I really thought it was about time that the school district focused on the community that was growing so rapidly out here.”

So, Foster and her friend Harriet Offerman organized a group of parents to attend a Palm Beach County School Board meeting to request an elementary school in Wellington. This led to the creation of Wellington Elementary School, led by legendary Principal Buz Spooner, who had been principal at Greenacres. “After that, I realized we had a voice,” Foster said.

Then came the discussion of opening the developer-controlled Acme board to residents. Spooner encouraged Foster to run and be a voice for schools and families. She was the only woman among 22 candidates running for various seats.

“I was the only one not representing outside influences. I worked here, had children here,” said Foster, who won with 48 percent of the vote.

The seat’s incumbent resigned on the spot, leading Foster to be sworn-in the next morning.

“They handed me a one-sheet agenda, which was all consent,” Foster recalled, noting that one item was about a bond refinancing. “Purely ironically, I had worked on Wall Street in college. I asked for the return on the ratio.”

Turns out, broker Smith Barney was making more on the deal than the district, and Foster demanded a public bid, which led to a better deal for Acme taxpayers. “I became a financial expert overnight, purely by accident. That was my introduction to politics in Wellington,” Foster said.

About that time, discussions over the possible incorporation of Wellington began to heat up.

“There was a small group of people led by Ken Adams, Dick Palenschat and Mark Miles, who had done quite a bit of extensive research,” Foster said.

The group hosted meetings to talk about the pros and cons of incorporation. They brought in the League of Cities and Florida International University to study the financial impact of incorporation.

“We all realized that incorporation was really the way to go,” Foster said. “We were paying much more to the county government than we were getting back. We were paying over $7.5 million in taxes to the county government but were receiving less than $700,000 back for the community, and that’s just not right. Everything at that time was focused on redevelopment east of I-95.”

An initial vote failed in 1992, but the discussion was revived two years later. And thanks to some last-minute heroics by sponsor State Rep. Rick Minton on the floor of state legislature, and a nail-biter of a referendum that passed by just a handful of votes, the Village of Wellington was born on Dec. 31, 1995. The first council elections were held in March 1996, and Foster’s name was on the ballot.

“I felt that I had a history in Wellington. I had been here since 1979. I had a point of view as a wife, mother and a small business owner,” she said. “I felt that putting a voice like mine on the council would give some balance to the community.”

By that time, Foster was not only an experienced Acme supervisor, she was a founding member of the Palms West Chamber of Commerce (now the Central Palm Beach County Chamber), was on the board at St. Rita Catholic Church and volunteered with school PTAs. “I felt those organizations needed to be represented within the community,” she said.

Her best recollection from that campaign was partnering with Ken Foster, who was then running for the Palm Beach County Commission, on signs that said “K Foster for Office,” thereby doubling their signs. Both ended up winning their races.

Foster fondly recalls the electric atmosphere of the first council meeting.

“It was wonderful. We were all so excited and happy that Wellington would have a chance at self-determination,” she said.

She was joined on the dais by Dr. Carmine Priore, Tom Wenham, Paul Adams and Michael McDonough.

“The one decision we had to make was determining who would be the mayor,” Foster said. “I had by far the most experience, and I had received more votes than any other candidate. They felt it was a logical way to make a selection, and it was unanimous, I recall.”

While the first board had its differences, Foster was impressed by how cohesive it turned out to be.

“Everyone wanted the same thing for Wellington, which was to try to preserve the neighborhood feel that had been established in the community,” Foster said. “We wanted to ensure that our children and grandchildren would enjoy that same small-town feel that had brought us to Wellington.”

This included working to bring together a new village still healing from a divisive incorporation fight.

“We wanted to reassure the people who had been against incorporation that we would work with them to preserve their way to life, in particular the equestrian and farming interests in the south end of Wellington,” Foster said.

Meanwhile, the county was not happy about Wellington’s incorporation. A fax came in from the county road department about no longer fixing potholes in Wellington. “We had to immediately figure out a roads department,” Foster said.

However, she remains grateful to Nancy Graham, then mayor of West Palm Beach, who reached out to help.

“I was so grateful to her for opening that door for us,” Foster said. “She was the only one of the other municipalities who reached out to help us.”

That inaugural council would go on to make key decisions that shaped the village into what it is today, but the key challenge, Foster said, was more theoretical.

“I think the biggest challenge we had was to convince the community that we were one village, regardless of where you lived, how much property you owned or whether you were a renter,” she said. “We, as the council, would treat everyone fairly and create an atmosphere that invited future homeowners to come and join us.”

This required getting the community involved in deciding Wellington’s destiny.

“There were so many unanswered questions. We had to take it step by step. We created committees for public input on multiple topics,” Foster said. “We opened the door to public input and asked their help in making these decisions. And I think that went a long way in establishing a sense that the village belonged to all of us, and everyone had a voice.”

Many of the key decisions involved what not to do.

“The most important decision we made was to preserve the entire village as it was,” Foster said. “No major zoning changes. Preservation of the existing zoning in all communities. Keeping [a village average of] two units per acre, and not widening Forest Hill past four lanes. There was an effort to maintain what we had.”

It has been nearly 25 years since Foster left the council in 2000. Her assessment of Wellington today? “So far, so good.”

“I think the village has done 95 percent of it very effectively over the years,” she said. “None of us could have imagined how well Wellington would turn out. It is an amazing place to live. We have managed to maintain multiple levels of neighborhoods, incomes, variety and diversity of population. Our schools are all A-rated schools. It is really a fantastic place to live.”

This includes the best recreation system in Palm Beach County and “a quality of life that is rarely found throughout this country,” Foster added. She is also glad to see that the equestrian community remains a key part of Wellington’s success.

“The equestrian industry is really the backbone financially that we based Wellington’s success on,” she said. “Without the equestrian industry, we would be a very different community.”

While no longer in elected office, Foster has stayed involved in the community, both through her business, K. Foster Designs, and her work with nonprofits. She served as executive director of the Adam Walsh Children’s Fund and Junior Achievement, and later founded Wellington Cares, which harnesses local volunteers to help seniors age in place. In 2020, her name was placed on the Wellington Founder’s Plaque to honor her contributions to the village.

“I hope that our future leaders maintain the vision that has supported us so well over the past 30 years and keep Wellington what it is today. As long as the families of Wellington are the priority, I think they will do a very good job,” Foster said.