NEPTUNE BEACH | As the sky filled with subtle shades of pink, gold, purple and orange, Harriet Pruette raised her smartphone to snap a photograph of the sun rising above the ocean waves — celebrating another new day in Neptune Beach.


To complete her daily ritual, the Neptune Beach mayor will post the photograph on her Facebook page — sharing the beauty of the ocean and beach of the place she’s called home since 1967.

“I love the people. …This is just a nice community to be in. I think anybody who lives at the Beaches is very fortunate because we are small communities but we’re still sort of like family. We’re three different cities but one community” said Pruette, who in two years will be the longest consecutive-serving member on the City Council.

Pruette had gone to council meetings nearly 18 years and seldom missed one even before she was elected in 2000. She was elected mayor — of the city and its 7,200 residents — in 2008 after serving two terms as a council member, including a stint as vice mayor. Re-elected without opposition in 2012, Pruette is the city’s first female mayor.

“The first time I was ever elected, I said ‘wherever you go, go with all your heart.’ And this is where my heart is,” Pruette told the Times-Union. “I also believe ‘one who has no fire cannot warm others.’ You’ve got to have fire and passion if you are going to do a good job. And I’ve tried to be a part of the community and I’ve tried to listen to people and help them or at least steer them in the right direction to get an answer for what they need.”

Fire and passion for the city, say those who know her, are among Pruette’s greatest strengths.

“She cares. She just loves that little city,” said former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney, also a Neptune Beach resident who has known Pruette about 35 years.

“Harriet is the kind of public servant that you like. There is nothing about self-interest. There is nothing about trying to get her friends’ money. She listens to anybody with any complaint or any concern, and she runs them out to try to resolve the problem.”

On Sept. 27, Pruette, 68, will be honored by Beaches Watch for her years of service to the Beaches. The nonprofit, nonpartisan citizen advocacy organization is recognizing Pruette with its Cultivator Award during the organization’s 10th anniversary celebration.

The group’s president, Sandy Golding, said Pruette helped establish the grassroots organization in 2004 with its mission of “helping residents maintain the quality of life for themselves and for future generations.”


“The beach is in Harriet’s heart … and she follows her heart,” Golding said. “Harriet has always been such a huge advocate for the beaches and what is important to the Beaches.”

In 2004, Golding, Pruette and other concerned residents rallied against a developer’s plans to build a 500-condominium complex in Jacksonville Beach. They spoke out against the massive project. Pruette became a regular at the Jacksonville Beach City Council meetings, explaining how the development would negatively impact the Beaches community and residents, Golding said.

“She cares about the beach and is always going to do what it best for the beach. She has no political agenda. She has no special interests. It’s always about what’s best for the beach and we are honoring her for that,” Golding said of the organization that has about 150 members and more than 900 on its email distribution list.

The council ended up turning down the project when the developer declined to scale it down, Golding said.

Idleness doesn’t suit Pruette. It’s not in her nature to sit home twiddling her thumbs. She’s worked since childhood and volunteered in the community throughout her life.

When she was 14, Pruette had a fresh vegetable business. She’s never been without a job since then. She worked at Mayport Naval Station for 33 years before retiring. Then she went to work at Publix for seven years. Her volunteer work includes 20 years of service to the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine.

“You should do what’s right for your community,” she said.

Defending Neptune Beach’s fragile ecosystem and natural resources from over-development, pollution and other threats while ensuring Neptune Beach keeps pace with its neighbors isn’t easy, but it’s a labor of love for Pruette.

“Once it goes away, you can’t replace a natural resource and that is why it needs so much protection. Marshes aren’t there just to be marshes. They are there for a reason. Even New Orleans said if they would have had their marshes intact that Hurricane Katrina wouldn’t have been quite as bad,” said Pruette, who is currently trying to persuade Neptune Beach council members to leave intact an ordinance limiting the width of docks in Hopkins Creek.

As a city council member, Pruette was one of the sponsors of a referendum to keep Neptune Beach a low-rise community. That means buildings can’t be taller than 35 feet in the city. Keeping that restriction in place is a priority for her. As is public beach access.

“The beach public accesses are the only way you and I have a right to an ocean view,” said Pruette, explaining why she lobbied the Neptune Beach City Council for a referendum to keep the city beach accesses free and open to the public.


Pruette credited her late mother for inspiration and strength.

Mattie Pruette was tiny in stature but big in heart and wise in her counsel to her daughter to whom she instilled faith, confidence and an unwavering desire to give back to the community.

“My mother taught me to treat all people, fairly and equally and to do what I could to help people,” she said.

Pruette grew up in the 1950s in North Carolina. She saw her 80-pound mother back up those words with deeds.

“I remember one time we were walking on the sidewalk in town when a black gentleman fell. He was a big, tall guy. And my mom stopped and helped him up. And nobody else did. They walked right past her. But she stopped to help him,” she said.

Pruette said when her father, James, died in 1984, her mother came from North Carolina to live with her. She was 90 when she passed away in 2006.

Pruette will be honored by Beaches Watch on the eighth anniversary of her mother’s passing. With her death, Pruette lost her best friend as well as her mother.

“My mother used to worry about me. She used to say, ‘Harriet, if you’re going to be in politics you better put your alligator hide on.’ So I try to wear my alligator hide every day,” Pruette said.

Pruette said her mother also taught her to be independent, stand up for herself and stand up for those in need. It’s a lesson she tries to live every day.

“My mom always told me to be true to yourself and be true to your beliefs. … I’m not going to be something I’m not. I am what I am,” Pruette said of the same advice she shares with young people.

Getting out about 5:30 a.m. each day, Pruette walks the beach. She tries to get there to see the sun rise so she can snap her photographs.

Each sunrise is unique, she said.

“You never know what you are going to get in the morning time. You can sit and in a 10-minute time the whole thing will change,” she said.

It’s a daily ritual that’s taken on added significance since she was diagnosed several years ago with macular degeneration, a medical condition resulting in the loss of vision in the center of the eye’s vision field because of damage to the retina. Although the vision loss has slowed, Pruette takes nothing for granted.

“Every day I can see, I’m thankful,” she said.

In 2006 she was walking the beach after a storm when the sun broke through the clouds, bathing the sky and sea in a rainbow palette of colors. She captured the moment in time in a photograph for her mother. Now, that portrait of beauty and serenity at Neptune Beach is the backdrop of her business cards

A fellow beach-lover and recent Neptune Beach resident, Darryl McLeish, said he hasn’t met Pruette yet, but has heard a lot about her from his new neighbors who see her walking the beach.

“They told me that you can talk to her and she will really listen to you even if you are complaining. … She won’t give you lip service. What she tells you might not be what you want to hear, but she’ll tell the truth and respect you,” McLeish said.

Term limited, Pruette will be 70 when she leaves office in two years. She hasn’t decided what she will do then, but volunteer work definitely will be on the agenda. So, will attending City Council meetings, she said.

“I’ll still go to the meetings with my friends, and I can still speak up occasionally and pick my battles. I still have a mouth on me and everybody knows I’m not afraid to speak up,” Pruette said.


Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075