Farewell to a familiar foursome 

City Sage

Tired? Peevish? Dispirited? Ready to get out of Dodge?

That pretty much describes Mayor Lionel Rivera, Vice Mayor Larry Small, and Councilors Randy Purvis and Tom Gallagher. All four will leave the city stage on April 19, most likely forever.

During that last Council gathering, they'll be presented with plaques fulsomely detailing their service to the city. In the generous spirit of de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est (basically, "Speak no ill of the dead"), each will be said to exemplify the selflessness of Washington, the sagacity of Pericles and the moral compass of Mother Teresa.

They'll leave quietly, ignored by much of the media, which will concentrate on the new show. And why not? As Lindsay Fischer said of former Mayor Bob Isaac in 2000, "Even the finest cut of beef has a sell-by date."

But these retirees will take something infinitely more valuable than their plaques: institutional memory.

Purvis was first elected to Council in 1987. He has served a total of five terms (1987-1999, 2003-2011) under four mayors (Isaac, Mary Lou Makepeace, Leon Young, and Rivera).

Small, first elected in 1991, was on Council until 1993 and then again from 2003 to 2011.

Rivera, whose deep involvement in city politics began in 1991 when he managed Isaac's re-election campaign, has served as an elected official since 1997. Add Gallagher's two four-year terms to the mix, and the city loses 52 years of experience.

And so what? No one's irreplaceable, not even Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. The loss of a few part-time pols won't make much difference to a city of 415,000 ... or will it?

Normally, it wouldn't. But thanks to the recession, the change in the form of government, and the impending loss of so many senior elected and appointed city officials, these aren't normal times.

If Steve Bach prevails in the runoff, we'll have a mayor who has neither worked in the public sector nor served as an elected official. That's OK, maybe even beneficial in some respects. But he would be handicapped by an exodus of middle and senior managers, many tired of layoffs, furloughs, defunded programs, public opprobrium and the angry taxophobia of city residents.

Moreover, Bach has made it clear that interim City Manager Steve Cox won't be chief of staff, saying he intends to hire an experienced private-sector COO. Richard Skorman hasn't indicated his hiring plans but might face similar problems, and he's been away from Council for five years.

So here you have it: six newbies on Council, perhaps a newbie mayor, and maybe an entirely new group of managers.

That's a recipe for disaster. If you don't know the past, you'll understand neither the mistakes nor successes of your predecessors. You may repeat their mistakes, screw up their successes, and make your own mistakes as well.

So how can our wet-behind-the-ears elected officials avoid such traps? For Skorman or Bach, the answer's simple: Listen to Lionel!

As the outgoing mayor reminded me on election eve, we won't have him to kick around anymore. And it's true that we in the media criticized him bitterly for his policies, his supposed ethical lapses, and even for his taste in shirts (which I once compared to Gordon Gekko's).

But it's also true that the much-maligned Rivera was a powerful and effective city leader, who bulled through both the U.S. Olympic Committee deal and the Southern Delivery System. He knows where the bodies are buried; he buried a few of them himself. And after having led the city through good years and bad, through the great boom and the greater recession, he understands city government as no one has since Isaac.

As for Council: Listen to Purvis and Small! They're smart and reflective and know the territory. Between them, they've reviewed, helped amend, and approved 30 city budgets. They've worked with scores of city employees, and every city manager in the past quarter-century.

So here's a suggestion: Mayor and Council should jointly create a "council of the elders," consisting of Messrs. Rivera, Small and Purvis. For a modest fee (say, $25,000), they might be persuaded to share their wisdom and experience for a few days each month with our talented rookies.

What a concept: Work essentially for free for years, then make a few bucks. Now there's a public employees pension plan that anyone would support!



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