Larry Small can't remember much about his first City Council meeting, back in 1991. But he recalls soon realizing that being most effective means not just having good ideas, but also convincing others to go along.
Two decades later, and having spent 10 of those years (including the past eight) on Council, Small has reached his final days as one of Colorado Springs' elected leaders. He already has been cleaning out his office and taking pictures off the walls. He's not even sure he can attend his final Council meetings on April 11-12, because of pressing personal business in his home state of West Virginia.
But it'd be wrong to let Small slip away from City Hall without a proper send-off.
During his two at-large terms, which cover his past six years as vice mayor, Small has provided a strong, influential presence — especially when deliberations have required institutional knowledge. He could be a professor at one meeting, philosopher the next, historian after that. When others would meander, unsure of how to tackle an issue, he would be the one to offer sharp perspective, describing past actions and how they apply to the present, all without condescending.
As Small says early in our visit, "There's danger in going forward when you don't know where you came from."
Since 2003, Small has provided that guidance by following a simple rule.
"We have to be statesmen when the situation calls for it," he says. "You're in the role of acting as the people's representative, making decisions on their behalf. It takes time, energy and patience. And you do have to have a conscience."
The best example might've been related to the 2007 St. Patrick's Day parade. After the facts came out, Small wanted to talk to those in the parade who had been dragged off Tejon Street. Not privately, but at a City Council meeting, where Small earnestly apologized on behalf of the city for how those marchers had been treated.
He assumed that role willingly, long after his early years of learning from former Mayor Robert Isaac and Vice Mayor Leon Young. But Small admits being on Council and dealing with constituents now is nothing like it was in the 1990s.
"Back then, the city wasn't as big or as sophisticated," Small says. "There was no e-mail, and we'd just gotten cell phones. We got all our public messages through the Council administrator, and we'd just pick them up. Now, we all get a couple hundred e-mails every day."
Asked to name some accomplishments, he talks about efforts involving Prospect Lake, the Downtown Development Authority, Fountain Creek, the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority and others. On the downside, he says, "I wish we'd done some things with more sensitivity to the public."
Looking at this city election, Small does have concerns: "I think the candidates should have been studying the city more, which is probably always the case. Even though it doesn't pay much, they're applying for a job. They should be ready. And we need new eyes on our problems."
Small sees one priority for the next Council that has gone largely ignored.
"We need to keep our relationship with Pueblo positive, both at the city and county level," he says. "We spent a lot of time and effort developing those relationships. People don't really know how many times we've gone down there, being actively involved and visible in Pueblo. That's still very important."
Our discussion turns to the mayor's race, beginning with him. Small seriously considered running but didn't for two reasons: his age, and seeing Richard Skorman as the best choice.
"I'm 69 years old. At some point, age and energy become a factor, and the time comes to step aside and let others have their turn," Small says. "Richard has been here for years, he knows the issues, and he wouldn't be representing any one constituency. He would bring the whole community together, more than anyone else."
As for himself, Small promises he'll stay involved — while playing more golf. He'll also watch to see who steps up next.
"My goal when I came back on Council in 2003," he says, "was that I wanted to be the hardest-working City Council member in the history of the city."
There's no way to measure that for certain, but if Larry Small wants to say "mission accomplished," it would be hard to argue.