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Swift change comes at top of Gainesville's leadership
City manager's departure, attorney's retirement, council member's retirements shake up landscape
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Gainesville has some big roles to fill with the recent departure of its city manager, the upcoming retirement of its city attorney and the pending retirements of two council members. - photo by Erin O. Smith

It's all happened so fast, faster than some could have believed just the other day.

“To say the least, it’s got my adrenaline pumping ...:”  said Gainesville City Councilman George Wangemann.

Bob Hamrick’s decision Tuesday to retire from the council and not seek reelection this fall clears the way for yet one more new member in Gainesville’s top leadership posts.

Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras, despite some temptation to seek another term this fall, has also said she plans to step aside.

And with City Manager Kip Padgett leaving earlier this month, and the pending retirement of City Attorney James “Bubba” Palmour, a skake-up like no other seen in years is afoot.

These departures leave some big roles to fill, uprooting deep connections to the community and rich knowledge of the city’s history.

“It’s going to be new,” said Mayor Danny Dunagan. “It’s going to be a learning curve for all of us. When you have that big a turnover that quick, it’s going to have an impact.”

But sitting officials said it also creates opportunities for city government to foster and manage new ideas.

“In no way am I discounting the value (Hamrick and Figueras) bring to the council,” said Councilman Sam Couvillon. “But in life, when somebody moves on, somebody has to step up.”

Recent and pending departures open door to change

Padgett is now the town manager in Wake Forest, N.C., a job he said is both a good career move and one that will bring his family closer to his wife’s relatives.

Padgett took over as Gainesville’s city manager in January 2009. He had worked for the city since 2002, first as the planning director and then as assistant city manager.

Council members credited Padgett with guiding the city through the worst years of the economic recession.

Chief Financial Officer Melody Marlowe is serving as interim city manager until a new hire can be made sometime this summer.

In early June, Figueras announced that she will not seek re-election this fall.

Figueras has represented Ward 3, which includes the city’s historic African-American neighborhoods, since 1996. She also served two stints as mayor before it became an elected position.

But Figueras may be compelled to run again if no contenders enter the race for the Ward 3 seat.

Hamrick surprised more than a few of his colleagues this week when he announced plans to retire at that end of the year.  

Hamrick said earlier this spring that he intended to seek another four-year term, but health issues for his family have caused a change of heart.

“Mr. Gainesville” has served on the council for 46 years, with 12 years as mayor when it was a rotating position, and worked with six city managers and 14 council members during that time.

Dunagan was in high school when Hamrick came to the council, and Couvillon wasn’t born yet.

Gainesville resident Zack Thompson has announced that he will run for the Ward 2 seat Hamrick represents.

Thompson is the co-owner of Professional Touch Landscapes and Tap It Gainesville Growlers on Thompson Bridge Road.

“Revered by the citizens of our community, Mr. Hamrick is a man of utmost integrity,” Thompson said. “(He) cannot simply be replaced. One can only work hard to continue his tradition of respect and work ethic, while improving upon the strides made before them.”

Councilwoman Ruth Bruner, meanwhile, will seek re-election this fall.

She said the absence of Hamrick and Figueras, in particular, will upend the continuity the council has experienced since she joined 12 years ago.

It’s part of the reason, Bruner said, why she’s as motivated as ever to serve another term if elected.

“You don’t need to lose all of that (experience) at one time,” Bruner said.

Finally, Palmour announced just a few weeks ago that he will retire at the end of the year and not seek reappointment for 2016.

Palmour, 78, said he will focus on his private practice. He has served as city legal counsel since 1987.

There has been no decision on his replacement.

On from here

“There will definitely be some growing pains,” said Wangemann, who will become the council’s elder statesman when Hamrick exits.

For nearly three decades, Wangemann has presided over unpredictable change, sometimes good, sometimes bad.

He said meshing new governing styles can be challenging.

“Sometimes those are quite a bit different from your own,” Wangemann said.

For example, he added, he expects to lose an ally in Hamrick against the city’s relaxing of some alcohol ordinances.  

Dunagan said he would be still be calling on Hamrick and Figueras for advice and friendship.

For Couvillon, who still considers himself the new guy on the council, change is something to be viewed as a chance.

For starters, he said, existing leadership will help bring new additions up to speed.

And new leadership can help push city government to explore different ways to better serve residents.

“Having to replace them all at once might be easier than when I came on,” he said.

Bruner said she is confident that experienced staff and department heads will help guide the transition smoothly.

But she said change is not always easy, likening flux in government and loss of “institutional knowledge” to shakeups in recent years among leadership at the county level.  

“We’ve all thought about it,” Bruner said.

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