BY BUDDY NEVINS
Long-time activist Helen Ferris, who almost single-handedly cleaned up the government at Port Everglades’ government, has died Saturday night, according to her legal guardian, lawyer Norm Kent.
Ferris, whose age was not announced but thought to be in her early 90s, had been living in a local nursing home for years.
The sharp-witted retiree almost single-handedly transformed the way Port Everglades was governed. She was one of Broward’s best examples that persistent gadflies can change government for the good.
Not many would stay in the decades-long fight against the seemingly corrupt and invulnerable group of insiders that ruled cash-rich Port Everglades. These appointed and elected Port Everglades Commissioners, along with a cadre of business types, controlled the port as their fiefdom for years.
But Ferris relished her role as the Port Everglades watchdog, often sitting in meeting as the only member of the public who didn’t have a business interest at the port. In later years, she had vanity license plate proclaiming her title as Port Gadfly.
It was Ferris who stood up at a port meeting in the 1990a and asked why they had signed a lease contract to burn medical waste in the middle of the county’s population center.
“I could tell by the look on their faces they hadn’t even read the contract. But I had,” Ferris said.
The resulting protests resulted in the lease being cancelled.
It was Ferris who first exposed the infamous gold rings that port commissioners bought for themselves with public money. The rings only cost $11,200, not much in the multi-million dollar port budget, but they became a symbol of arrogance, misspending and corruption that the public could easily understand.
The scandal involving the rings led directly to the 1992 referendum abolishing the Port Commission and turning the seaport over to the Broward County Commission.
Some called Ferris a crackpot for filling her Southeast Fort Lauderdale home with Port records. But when the county needed records for a lawsuit years later, Ferris was the only one who still had them.
She later donated the decades of records, memos, clippings and notes to the county historical society. They are now housed in the Helen Ferris Port Everglades Collection.
Jim Kane, a noted pollster and a contributor to Browardbeat.com, has fond memories of Ferris although he was a Port Evergaldes commissioner in the 1990s.
“She single-handedly changed Port Everglades and led to the Port Commission being abolished,” Kane said Sunday. “Most gadflies stand up and start yelling. Helen always calmly explained things and always did her homework. She read every document, which is more than most commissioners did. She spend a lot of time on the port. She was the best example of someone who paid attention to their government with the best intentions.”
In 1995, Ferris was inducted into the Broward County Women’s Hall of Fame.
Dana Banker, then a reporter and now editor at the Sun-Sentinel, called Ferris “a 20th Century Paul Revere” in a 1994 article. Banker applauded Ferris: “For 20 years, the feisty and frugal retiree has bird-dogged the commissioners of the Port Everglades Authority.”
Her interests grew beyond the port. In 2000, she was one of two Broward residents filing an election law complaint against then-all powerful County Commissioner Scott Cowan. The resulting investigation ended up with Cowan quitting office and being jailed.
I once summed up how I felt about Ferris in the Sun-Sentinel. I believe everybody in Broward owes a debt of gratitude to this noble woman.
This is what I wrote about her in 2001:
“Helen Ferris (is)The Grande Dame of Broward government activists, this senior from Fort Lauderdale keeps government honest. A decade ago, her repeated complaints about corruption forced the county t o take over the operations of Port Everglades. Her complaints about election law violations ended with former County Commissioner Scott Cowan in jail this year. Her dedication to decent government makes Broward a better place.”
Here is the statement from Norm Kent:
Helen Ferris passed away last night, at 6 30 pm, of natural causes at the age of 93 at Memorial Regional Center in Hollywood.
She had been residing the past few years at Dania Beach’s Willow Manor ALF.
Helen’s body will be flown to Blue Hill Cemetery in Braintree, Massachusetts, her hometown, where she will be buried alongside her mother and father.
Particularly, I wanted you to know that she was ‘ready to move on’ and leaves a significant trust for the Salvation Army specifically designed, per her will, ‘ to benefit the poor people of Broward County.’
Firm and feisty to her last days, Helen refused surgery to cure an abdominal rupture, saying it was her ‘time to pass.’
While no memorial services are planned, I intend to ask the Broward County Commission to declare a memorial day in her honor and commemorate her achievements with a moment of silence as a citizen activist of Broward County.