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Looking for a savvy mayor


Spent a little time at the City Auditorium Antique Show last weekend. In case you've never been, the show is a monthly event, featuring 65 to 70 dealers, most of which specialize in a particular area. A couple of thousand folks visit every month, myself included.

But on this gorgeous Sunday afternoon, I was on a different mission, asking folks to sign a petition opposing the sale of the City Auditorium.

Kind of reminded me of the last time the 80-year-old building was in play, back in 1992, when the city administration came up with the idea of converting it into a municipal courthouse.

Bob Isaac was mayor then, and he loved the City Aud. But he was too smart to make the sentimental, preservationist argument to the hardheaded know-nothings who sat on Council. Instead, he quietly passed the word that Council would be discussing the City Auditorium at a forthcoming informal meeting.

Informal meetings are just that. No decisions are made, and the public, although welcome to attend, can't address the elected body. That meant, of course, that few people ever bothered to show up at the Monday meeting.

Imagine our surprise, then, to see the room packed to overflowing with angry voters. Feigning surprise, Mayor Bob asked the attendees why they'd come.

"Mayor, we're all very concerned about the City Aud! We want to address Council right now!" said a silver-haired spokesperson.

"Well," replied Mayor Bob, "This is an informal meeting, so you can't speak now. But [and here he directed his remarks to his colleagues on Council] who among us would deny these good people the opportunity to be heard? If there's no objection, let's have the city manager arrange for a public meeting at the Auditorium in a couple of weeks."

No one had the temerity to object. Come the appointed day and hour, all nine of us showed up and were ushered to an onstage table, complete with microphones and water glasses. There before us sat several hundred people -- all voters, all Republicans, and they all wanted to kill us!

Not one person supported converting the historical auditorium to a municipal court. Isaac sat benevolently in his chair, the hint of an amused smile playing over his face. After an hour or so of testimony, he leaned forward to the mike, cleared his throat, and in his inimitable deep bass voice, addressed the crowd:

"We've certainly heard from a lot of you this evening, and we thank you for coming out. I think we know pretty well what our citizens want. We're elected to do what you want, and I don't hear any sentiment here for this conversion, so, unless there's any objection from Council, we'll just give direction to the administration to continue as we are, and to run the auditorium as economically as possible. No objection? Then we stand adjourned."

And then Mayor Bob rose, making his way slowly out of the Auditorium while stopping every few feet to shake hands with his supporters and admirers.

The rest of us sat there dumbfounded, dimly aware that the mayor had just pulled one of the slickest political maneuvers we'd ever witnessed. Faced with the cold reality that converting the City Aud to a court building would save the city millions over new construction, Bob had managed to kill the deal without ever being fingered as a mush-brained preservationist.

And we all know the rest, don't we? The city eventually built a new municipal court building across the street, and named it after good ol' Mayor Bob.

It's 10 years later, and the City Auditorium is once more threatened by politicians who care more for dollars than for the city's soul. In the last 25 years, we've had good council members and bad, councils that worked together harmoniously -- as well as councils that fought like cats and dogs. But there's been one common thread that has always enabled the city to avoid truly bad decisions: brilliant leadership.

Bob Isaac, Leon Young and Mary Lou Makepeace were wise, skillful and even idealistic leaders. Lionel Rivera, I'm sorry to say, has so far exhibited none of those qualities. Particularly in difficult times, the city's mayor needs to define what the city stands for, and what it is that makes our city unique and special.

And what has Lionel done so far? Let's see. He's opposed the acquisition of Red Rock Canyon, axed health benefits for partners of gay employees, and has -- for three weeks since the secret deal was exposed -- sat mute on the sidelines while developers maneuver to buy the City Auditorium for peanuts.

As his buddy Ed Bircham might say, "C'mon, Lionel, you can do better than that!"

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