Any city’s strength and achievements can be best measured by the talents of the leaders selected to guide the way. Without talented, forward-thinking people in key positions, local governments can become bloated, bickering obstacles to progress that stifle effective growth.
Gainesville is fortunate over the years to have avoided that swampy mess by selecting leaders who have, for the most part, worked well together to drive the city forward economically, politically and culturally.
And sadly, two of those bright and capable officials are taking their leave after years of success.
City Manager Kip Padgett announced his resignation in May to accept a job in Wake Forest, N.C., closer to his wife’s family. His resignation is effective Thursday, ending his 13-year career with city government. He began in 2002 as planning director, moved on to assistant city manager and then as city manager since 2009.
And a few weeks ago, longtime City Council member Myrtle Figueras announced she would not seek re-election to her seat this fall after 18 years of service representing Ward 3, including two terms as mayor when that position rotated among council members.
Both Padgett and Figueras represent what is best in city government, and both will be sorely missed. The affection and respect they have earned from their colleagues and from city residents is a testament to how well they have served Gainesville’s interests over the last two decades.
Padgett entered his position during a time of controversy and turmoil within city hall after the sudden resignation of the former city manager over what was found to be inappropriate communication with an employee. The turmoil and morale issues that resulted brought Padgett into office under a cloud despite the respect he had earned previously.
Despite this, he was able to quickly bring stability and continuity to city government and helped move it forward from there by working closely and effectively with council members, residents and businesses. He was at the forefront during the Great Recession, helping the city negotiate its difficult budget challenges during times of decreased tax revenue and necessary cutbacks.
“This council, the employees and the citizens of this great city will always hold a special place for us,” Padgett said. “It is difficult to say goodbye, but we are also excited for the new adventures that await us.”
There are pluses and minuses to the city manager form of government. On the down side, the manager is appointed and not elected and may not be seen as being as responsive to constituents.
On the other hand, that also frees up a professional administrator to focus on the job at hand without having to play politics to appeal to voters.
This turned out to be one of Padgett’s strengths: His ability to solve problems in a straightforward manner minus the drama and infighting often seen in government. He was able to check his ego and focus on what was best for the city, not for his political career.
That work led to mutual respect between Padgett and council members.
“I hold you in the highest regard,” Councilman Sam Couvillon told Padgett when he announced his retirement. “I consider you a confidant and a friend. I don’t think that that ends today; it just moves forward.”
And that respect was echoed by the retiring Figueras.
“We’ve been through quite a few things together,” Figueras said of Padgett. “I ache, but I understand.”
Since taking office in 1996, Figueras has become the kind of elected leader every city needs, one who deftly closes gaps by seeking to serve all residents, not just those from a particular ward or voting bloc. In particular, she has helped build a strong bridge between the city and the African-American community, helping Gainesville avoid the kind of racial tension that has divided so many others.
But even then, she has never served just that community exclusively but all Gainesville residents, reaching out to everyone with her ever-present smile. And following her 30-year career as a teacher, she has been a tiresome advocate for strong education initiatives citywide.
She promises that effort won’t end with her absence from elected office.
“At age 72, I plan to continue to be used as the master guides me into the next season of my life,” Figueras said. “I will always remain available to serve where needed.”
Both Padgett and Figueras represent what public service should be about: Service. Not playing people against each other to score political points, but genuinely solving problems and seeking to make their city the best place possible for its residents.
These two leaders have given Gainesville everything they had and helped make it the great city we take pride in. Their efforts will always be appreciated, and we join all city residents in thanking them for their service and wishing them well in the future.