It took Larry Lavagnino 69 years to get his dream job — mayor of Santa Maria, his home town. So it wasn’t easy for him to announce Monday that next year will be his last in the position.
Surrounded by his wife Donna, son Steve and daughter Laurie Pipan and their families at City Hall, Lavagnino said he will not seek re-election in 2012.
It was a long-rumored announcement, but one still emotional enough to bring the long-time public servant to tears.
“Yesterday I turned 76 years old. I’ll be 77 by the end of my term. You add four years to that, and you’re 81,” Lavagnino said standing in the City Council chambers where he has worked since 1996, when he first joined the council. “If I ran again, I would want to finish my term.”
Even though he said his health is good for somebody who had heart-bypass surgery 10 years ago and has “a titanium knee,” he doesn’t picture that possibility.
Lavagnino was born and raised in Santa Maria, and he has seen the community grow from 10,000 people in the 1940s to more than 100,000 today. He attended Santa Maria High School, Hancock College and Loyola University in Los Angeles.
He began his career in public service 46 years ago, serving as a staff assistant from 1965 to 1980 to Santa Barbara County Supervisors Curtis Tunnell and Harrell Fletcher.
Lavagnino was appointed to the City Council in 1996, and served in that capacity until 2003, when he was appointed mayor to replace Joe Centeno, who was elected as a Santa Barbara County supervisor. He was last elected to a four-year term in 2008.
“There’s not a job anywhere, including supervisor, that’s better than being mayor of your home town,” Lavagnino said, taking a jab at his son Steve, who as 5th District county supervisor also represents the people of Santa Maria.
Lavagnino counted construction of the Abel Maldonado Community Youth Center and the Santa Maria Public Library, along with securing $46 million for the rehabilitation of the Santa Maria River levee and the upcoming Santa Maria River Bridge improvement project, as some of the biggest accomplishments during his run as mayor.
“We’ve done all of this without bonding. The library is paid for. The fire stations are paid for. The transit center is paid for. The Maldonado center is paid for. None of this stuff was bonded. I think that was our greatest achievement is that we were a pay-as-you-go. I don’t think San Luis (Obispo) and Santa Barbara can say that.”
Over the past three years, Santa Maria has felt the sting of the country’s economic woes probably more than other Central Coast communities. Lavagnino and city leaders often tout how “lean” their government runs with fewer than 500 employees and more than 100,000 residents.
Lavagnino credited City Manager Tim Ness with guiding the city through the tough financial times, and City Clerk Patti Rodriguez with keeping him on task. Others lauded Lavagnino’s leadership as a key with helping keep the city afloat.
“Without question, in my opinion, he is the finest mayor this city has ever had,” said Bob Hatch, president and chief executive officer of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce. “He oversaw the city through one of the most difficult economic times this city will ever see.”
Two current council members, Mike Cordero and Alice Patino, said Monday they hope to succeed Lavagnino. Both sent out emails announcing their
intention to run for the office, and Patino said she will hold a press conference at 10:30 a.m. today at City Hall to discuss her candidacy.
“He was one of the first people that I think once I decided to run for council let me know what to expect,” Cordero said. “He said, ‘You just got to have a thick skin, Mike. You can’t take things personally.’ I think those things, although brief, were good advice and extremely helpful.”
Cordero and Councilman Bob Orach are both up for re-election next year. Patino’s and Jack Boysen’s terms run through 2014.
“He’s been so good for the city of Santa Maria. He loves the city, and it shows in the decisions he makes,” Patino said. “He was always fair and that’s the way a mayor is supposed to be.”
In addition to his work as mayor, he is a board member with the Marian Medical Center Foundation, Central Coast Water Authority, county Air Pollution Control District and the county association of governments.
Steve Lavagnino laughed when he said his father always had an agreement with his family that they wouldn’t let him get to “drool stage” while he was in office, meaning he didn’t want to out-stay his usefulness or his health.
By bowing out now, Lavagnino said, his father is in a good position to pass the baton to the next mayor.
“When you’re on a City Council, mayor or Board of Supervisors, you’re on a smaller stage. You’re more open to criticism and you’re held responsible,” the younger Lavagnino said. “Just seeing what he did and how he responded to people was a great inspiration to me.”
The mayor will continue to serve the city through 2012. The general election is Nov. 6.
“It was a hard decision because truthfully I’d like to be the mayor of Santa Maria until I die. But to be fair to the citizens, I don’t want to try to push it too far,” he said. “I just thought this would be the time to go out on top like (Rocky) Marciano and (Joe) DiMaggio instead of all punch drunk, so to speak.”