Her new title was coined years before she was elected, but has always had a nice ring to it.
“It’s Mayor Melonie or Mayor Monson,” Melonie Bahr Monson said, with a laugh. “My friend came up with that well before I was running, but was like, ‘Nooooo — we have to save it!’ … I guess I’m glad we did!”
That turned out to be a good call since Monson became the city’s new mayor, after tallying a whopping 59% of the vote in the April municipal elections. She assumed the role after Gene Whitfield stepped away after three terms as mayor.
Monson, the city’s 21st mayor, is just the second female mayor in the town’s history.
“It’s exciting because, in my whole lifetime, there’s never been a female mayor in Zephyrhills!” the 62-year-old said. “That was exciting when I was campaigning because I heard there was excitement — ‘Let’s have a female mayor!’
“I also didn’t want to run on that platform because I felt my experience and expertise was much more than just being a woman.”
Monson came to Zephyrhills in 1969 when her family established Bahr’s Mobile Home Park.
She went to Zephyrhills Middle (now Raymond B. Stewart Middle) and was in the graduating class of 1979 from Zephyrhills High. She was named American Legion Student of the Year when she was in eighth grade, and played softball and golf in high school.
“My mother (Edna Bahr, 86) was very adamant that girls are going to be able to do anything boys can do,” Monson said.
Monson became a cosmetologist when she was 17 years old and did that for 33 years. She owned and operated her own business for 25 years. She moved from Zephyrhills to California, where she raised her children and ran her business.
But she came back to Pasco County’s largest city about 12 years ago. She knew it would be the place where she, and her husband of 29 years, Dennis, would retire.
“I thought I would just retire and play with grandbabies,” she said. “Nope. That’s not me.”
She worked as the town’s assistant city clerk, then joined The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce, where she eventually became CEO, a role she held for eight years before stepping down in late 2022.
“I thought I’d just do it for fun, but I ended up running the show for eight years, so that was a little unexpected,” Monson said.
It was eight years well spent.
Monson calls running the chamber “one of the most political non-political jobs you can have” because of all the relationships she built, as well as being an ambassador to the city. That includes promoting the city, and its businesses, and trying to attract new businesses.
“There’s hardly anyone who doesn’t know Melonie,” new chamber CEO Vicki Wiggins said. “She loves to talk to people and has such a welcoming personality that you can’t help but like her. The chamber is the way it is because of that personality. She is the best ambassador for this city.”
Wiggins also knows Monson relished her chamber role.
“You’re the voice of the business community. You’re the voice of a lot of people, so you’re at everything and involved in everything, from festivals to meetings — everything,” she said. “You’re out there talking to everyone.
“It was like everyone already knew me — or felt like they did.”
Which would come in handy running for mayor.
Running on familiarity
While it may be cliche, Monson feels she has hit the ground running as mayor.
That may be because she had thought about running for mayor for some time. When Whitfield announced on Dec. 16 he would not seek reelection, it ended up being the “perfect storm” for Monson to enter the race.
“I said for years, when the mayor retired, that I was going to run, and the kids thought it was a joke, but the hubby knew I was serious,” Monson said. “Everyone already saw me as the ambassador to the city and so it was a natural fit.
“If the citizens wanted someone with experience who was ready to rock and roll, “then I knew they’d vote for me,” she said. If they wanted someone different than that, they wouldn’t.
“One thing Mayor Whitfield told me is you can’t solve every problem — but you can listen to the people and direct them in the right way and really learn a lot of what people really need and want.”
Not only will Monson listen to her citizens and residents, she also listens to her fellow government officials, especially the City Council members.
“I think it’s important to have an ambassador like Melonie,’” City Manager Billy Poe said. “As we go through these changes and address various issues, someone like Melonie brings a level of trust to the community at-large. To have an additional leader who understands the issues and can go out and communicate the city’s direction for the community and our solutions, I think that’s extremely beneficial.”
“One of the biggest reasons I ran for mayor and not city council was the influence I knew I would have with my work behind-the-scenes — to talk things out,” she said. “I don’t get a vote, but when I’m at City Council meetings, I bring up points, and they still want to hear what I have to say because I’m the voice of the citizens.”
Children are the future
Monson already has initiatives in mind for her term as mayor.
“I’m passionate about the youth,” she said.
She recognizes Zephyrhills — the city, its downtown — has changed since she was out riding her bike down to places such as the movie theaters or the bowling alley.
It’s important, she said, for the city to have a place for the city’s children and teens.
“I want to get a civic center for our kids, if it’s the last thing I do in my term or terms,” Monson said. “We need a new place — something for kids to keep them off the streets and teach them how to be adults. I talked to (State) Sen. (Danny) Burgess about it and he was like, ‘Go for it!’”
Monson has an optimistic outlook.
“I’m excited about what the future holds, but I also don’t know how anyone could do this without any experience,” she said. “I’m grateful for my experience at the chamber because of the relationships I built and, now, I feel I’m making a positive impact for the citizens.
“I’m approachable — I’m going to interact with people, and sit down and talk with them. That’s why they elected me, and I really stepped into a great job — if you even want to call it a job.”
Published July 19, 2023