Joe Barkley has returned his supporters’ campaign contributions. He doesn’t need the money because he won‘t be running for reelection. Two incumbents, Barkley and Taylor Shimkus, filed for the two open seats on the Belleair Bluffs City commission. No election is needed. According to city clerk Debra Sullivan, they’re both in, saving the city an estimated $6,287.30.
Barkley, who values family, education, and the Democratic process, first ran for city commission in 2006. He lost by only 43 votes to Hunt Brand, who remains a friend. In 2008 and 2010, Barkley won by a respectable majority. This year, with no contested seats, the March 13 city election has been canceled.
Born in Wilmington, Delaware, Barkley was raised in a family that stressed education. His father was an aerospace engineer and pilot. Barkley spent his high school years in Hawaii. The family rarely discussed politics at home.
His original career plan was to become an Episcopal priest. At Trinity College in Hartford, Barkley majored in philosophy and religion. Accepted into seminary, he was never able to attend. Newly married, he needed to support his family.
Barkley joined the military, becoming an air force officer, working on air craft maintenance. At the same time, he earned an MBA, a master’s of business administration, from Southern Illinois University. The professors flew into his base in New Jersey to teach classes.
After considering a doctoral program in business and finance, in 1976 Barkley embarked on a career in estate planning, the precursor to today‘s financial planning. There he met his second wife Mary Lou Ambrose. “I liked her smile,” he said. “We were good friends first, and we still are.” They were married in 1981 and still work side by side every day.
The sparks flew both ways. “Joe has a great personality. He‘s upbeat,” Ambrose said. “He’s a type A personality. We’re a lot alike.”
They blended seven children into their new brood. Two daughters, born only a few weeks apart, have been fast friends for over thirty years. Facing the stresses of a new marriage and a new family, the couple added another: graduate school.
In 1987, both Barkley and Ambrose enrolled in Rutgers University. Ambrose earned her J.D., a doctorate of law, first in 1990. Barkley, studying nights, earned his J.D. in 1991. They founded a Mom and Pop law firm in Moorestown, N.J. Ambrose handled family and probate matters, while Barkley specialized in taxation, property, and municipal court defense matters.
Ambrose came from a strongly Democratic family and had always registered as a Democrat. Barkley, not particularly partisan, was registered as a Republican. “I was always kind of an independent thinker,” he said. “I tended to vote for the underdog.” They had both political parties covered in New Jersey’s closed primaries.
Then came the U.S. presidential election of 2000. “The whole Republican thing got so crazy when Bush got elected…or didn’t,” Ambrose said.
“I was extremely upset,” Barkley said. “My wife was more upset. It made us sit up and pay attention.”
They had always loved Florida. Phillies fans, they had attended spring training games here in Clearwater for twenty-five years. “Every time we came, Joe took me house hunting,” Ambrose said.
Although they had traveled Florida’s east and west coasts, Pinellas County drew them. It was attractive, with business opportunities and a cultural scene. Finally, the kids were grown, and on a Tuesday they decided to make the big move. By Friday, Barkley had a job offer here.
They bought a home in Belleair Bluffs just a block from city hall. One evening, on a stroll, they noticed a sign announcing a volunteer opening on the Belleaire Bluffs Board of Adjustment. It seemed a good fit for Barkley. The next day, he phoned city hall to inquire. The position required a year’s residency. Barkley just made it. He was soon appointed. Later, he was appointed to the Belleaire Bluffs Planning Board.
Belleair Bluffs, with approximately 2,300 inhabitants, is about ¾ of a mile square. Barkley will be sworn in to start his third term as an at-large city commissioner in March. He enjoys working with his fellow commissioners. “They’re great people,” Barkley said. The commissioners usually work out issues in workshop, so that their votes are frequently unanimous at the monthly commission meetings.
Barkley was surprised to learn that his position earns a small salary. “I thought it was voluntary to be honest,” he said.
His reputation is growing. Barkley now represents the City of Belleaire Bluffs in the Suncoast League of Cities and the Florida League of Cities. There, he serves on the Intergovernmental Relations Committee.
“I strive to act in the best interests of citizens and in the long-term interest of the city,” Barkley said. “Belleair Bluffs is small and could be annexed.” He’s against raising property taxes, although the commission did pass a slight increase last year.
He and Ambrose own East Bay Insurance and Financial Services, 3690 E. Bay Dr. Largo 33771. They each have over thirty years’ insurance experience and knowledge. “Small businesses in Florida are a challenge these days,” Ambrose said. “But we enjoy helping our customers.”
These days, he’s adding home health care aide to his resume. Ambrose broke her foot over Christmas and has been confined to a wheelchair. “He’s getting a lot of exercise lifting me out of chairs, cars, and beds,” said Ambrose. “He’s a great caregiver.”
Ambrose and Barkley are members of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Clearwater where they serve as lay readers and challis bearers.
Barkley serves on several local boards, including the American Stage; the Greater Pinellas Democratic Club, and the Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee, where he chairs the Grievance Committee and serves as a member of the Veterans‘ Caucus. He is a member of the Largo/Mid-Pinellas Democratic Club, American Legion Post 119, and the Bluffs Business Association.
Barkley is committed to Belleaire Bluffs and about Pinellas County. He’d like to see new blood on the county commission. He cares about what happens there, and he thinks the Pinellas County Commission needs a new commissioner who dares to think differently.