It’s Gary Smith’s town now

 

by Mike Kroll

 

When Gary Smith announced his campaign for Galesburg Mayor last winter he had a laser-like focus on a single issue: “Jobs, my number one priority!” In a post-Maytag, post-Butler community reeling from the giant sucking sound of jobs disappearing, there was no avoiding the issue. But it was only one of many challenges facing the new mayor. Smith steadfastly maintained that single-issue platform throughout the campaign against well-liked two-term incumbent mayor Bob Sheehan. There were those who questioned the strategy but in the end the results spoke for themselves; Smith soundly defeated Sheehan last April.

The political newcomer and businessman won during an Illinois election cycle that was very unkind to incumbent mayors. While Smith’s official campaign theme may have been jobs, there is little doubt that the unspoken issue was leadership. Smith may have had no political experience but he did have a record of running a good-sized business (NAIER) and while Sheehan made it abundantly clear that he “felt our pain” Smith, implied that he exhibited little inclination toward leadership during his first two terms in office. Galesburg voters apparently wanted somebody to take charge and do something — anything — and Smith promised he would.

Gary Smith has been in office four months now and it is too early to begin trying to evaluate his performance. But it is not too early to ask him about the novel experience of being Mayor. During the campaign, Smith was not only somewhat politically naēve, he also had only a faint sense of how local government worked. He had begun attending city council meetings only during the campaign and, like most people, he didn’t fully understand the role of the Mayor under the Council-Manager form of government. Today that naēveté is gone and Gary Smith has quickly gotten himself up to speed as Mayor.

Smith and I sat down for a lunch recently to discuss his experiences as Mayor. We ended up spending more than two hours together talking about the job, Galesburg as a community, and the commitment he feels toward the voters and taxpayers.

“I really enjoy it, but it is definitely a learning experience. I understand now just how daunting a job this is and I can say with conviction it certainly is not the part-time job I anticipated. It is very rewarding and frustrating at the same time. I am still unsure of how much a Mayor can or cannot do. I can say this much for certain, being Mayor is nothing like running a business. I have also learned the huge difference between campaigning for Mayor and being Mayor. I’m still struggling with managing my time between city, NAIER and my family. I’m lucky I don’t have any real hobby; work has always been my hobby.”

“I think the City Manager and staff are truly dedicated people have they have all worked hard to get me up to speed as Mayor. I began videotaping council meetings before I was elected and continue to do so. I regularly watch parts of the tapes to see how well or poorly I handled the situation. Let me tell you I looked like a deer in the headlights for my first few meetings. I think I’m getting better over time but I just keep wondering when this will start feeling comfortable for me.”

The first challenge of being Mayor is among the most public, running the City Council meetings. During his campaign it was pretty clear that Smith didn’t fully appreciate how big a job that would be. “Watching Bob [former Mayor Sheehan] run city council meetings left me with the impression that they wouldn’t be that difficult and that I could easily reduce their length. I quickly learned I was wrong on both counts. Running those meetings is hard work and maintaining control isn’t easy. It also isn’t easy to shorten the meetings. Neither the length of the agenda nor its topics seem to be a good predictor of how long a council meeting will go. And I think we still do not make the most effective use of our time. Sometimes we spend far more time discussing an issue than I think is necessary while other times we seem to rush through an issue I wish more time were devoted to.”

“The average citizen just doesn’t appreciate how much material a council member must study to prepare for the meeting. I know I didn’t. I am happy to note that from where I sit, it appears that all of the aldermen do prepare well before meetings but it is amazing how often information key to making a decision doesn’t seem to come out until the meeting itself. I have also learned that people really do pay attention to city council meetings. Based on conversations I have with people it is shocking how many watch them on cable channel 7. We also get pretty good public attendance at the meetings themselves. I like to give audience members the time to speak to an issue when time permits but I try to insure that we keep a forward momentum.”

As Mayor under the Council-Manager form of government Smith’s statutory powers are pretty limited. Technically speaking the Mayor sets the agenda for council meetings, chairs those meetings, appoints members of boards and commissions and performs the ceremonial duties of Mayor. The Mayor does not cast an official vote on most issues before the city council unless he sides “ceremonially” with the majority or he breaks a tie. He does have veto power

Neither the Mayor nor the city council have any direct role in hiring, firing or supervising city employees excepting the City Manager — who by statute runs the city day-by-day. The biggest impact a Mayor can have under this form of government is that of charismatic leadership, persuading the City Council to see the wisdom of his plan or viewpoint. Traditionally, it is the City Manager, not the Mayor, who advises the city council on what course of action to take.

“You’ve got to pick and choose the issues where you are willing to spend what little political power the Mayor actually has,” noted Smith. “You have to weigh carefully the relative likelihood of success and it really helps if you have the power of public opinion on your side. Timing is critical and the best example I can think of so far concerns the property appearance issue. By highlighting a single really bad situation, we were able to get real movement forward by both the city council and staff. We didn’t need more ordinances, just the political will to take action.”

Smith says he spends hours on the weekends before city council meetings going over the material and making telephone calls as necessary to understand what’s going to be discussed. “You may have noticed that I don’t use the laptop computer during City Council meetings. I just find it too difficult to work with while I try to keep an eye on everything else going on around me. I print out my meeting notes and regularly make additional notes to myself during the meeting.”

“I learned early in my business career that preparation is critical. Often the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t is in how well they prepared. The better you prepare the more likely you will achieve your goals, but, in my experience, too few people properly prepare. When a person stands before the city council to make a formal presentation, I really expect them to be well-prepared but too often they’re not. And I really wish there was a way to reconfigure the council chambers so these presentations could be made to the public audience. Often, I am embarrassed that they are speaking to me at the exclusion of the public. A bad or poorly-prepared presentation can and does kill good ideas in both business and government. I also expect my fellow City Council members and city staff to be prepared at Council meetings.”

Smith believes strongly in the role of positive thinking in achieving success. He is frustrated by the local doom and gloomers who seem to expect only the worse for Galesburg’s future but he is also growing weary of the unwillingness of many to conduct critical — yet constructive — analyses of what does and doesn’t work. He is optimistic about the prospects for Galesburg if it is willing to adapt and evolve into a better, bigger community.

“I really think it is reasonable to aim for a Galesburg of 50,000 or more if we begin working to grow ourselves from within. I feel the need to get a message out to the people of Galesburg that we must take our destiny into our own hands. We need to develop a coordinated plan of how Galesburg can help itself. There are too many people in town now just sitting around waiting for someone else to do something. We need to convince these people to start doing things on their own. The best opportunity for positive change and growth in Galesburg will come from within our community. I can see the potential of this community and I just wish more of us could simply get past the fear and start working toward a better Galesburg.”

The City Council will be getting into budget discussions shortly. “Developing a responsible budget has to be a primary priority for us in the next few months. After that is done and we have a handle on the financial health of Galesburg it will be time to begin looking at items we need to work on to build and improve Galesburg. We already know that City Manager Gary Goddard will be retiring at the end of 2006 and I think it is critical that the City Council begin talking about that transition as soon as possible after we put the budget to bed.

It is still early in my time as Mayor but I aim to leave Galesburg a better place than it was when I was elected or the voters should hold me accountable in the next election. Accountability is a big thing for me and I think the expectation should work both ways.”