- PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVE ROMERO, 2010 PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- SLO AND ROMERO CLOCKWISE: SLO in the ’50s, Romero in the ’70s, SLO in the present day, Romero in his office in 2010
At first glance, this announcement comes as no surprise: Romero is 81 years old, well beyond the conventional retirement age. But for those who know him and know how he’s become enmeshed in the fabric of the city, his planned departure still comes as a bit of a shock.
When he goes, after the November election brings in a new mayor, the city will lose a sizeable chunk of living memory. Romero has served San Luis Obispo for 54 years, first as the head of public works for more than 36 years and then as a city councilman and mayor. He has literally seen it all.
His primary incentive for removing himself from the public arena now is the fact that he and his wife of more than 60 years, MaryBelle, are still in reasonably good health.
The octogenarian is San Luis Obispo’s bridge to a bolder time. The longtime politician was part of a generation of Americans who actually built things. They put astronauts on the moon, always looking to the future, to the next great conquest.
Romero is an engineer who practiced his profession during an era when people wanted their cities to be bigger, faster, and better than the ones their parents lived in. He’s had a hand in structuring much of San Luis Obispo, and the parts he didn’t build he had a large hand in designing and planning. During these years, there were no environmental reports to file, and few committees to stretch out projects for years.
“Things were a lot more fun back then,” Romero said simply.
It’s partially because of his background that Romero is a polarizing figure in the city. To some, he’s come to represent many of the changes they don’t like: new developments and the transition from a small downtown to sidewalks dominated by glitzier chain stores. However, even people who fall on the opposite end of the political spectrum from him seem to have a tremendous respect for him.
Christine Mulholland, a former city councilmember, frequently found herself on the other side of a political vote from Romero. Nevertheless, her voice is tinged with fondness and respect when she talks about his legacy.
“We’ve always had some fundamental philosophical differences,” Mulholland acknowledged. “We worked quite well together most of the time.”
She added: “His heart is very much in the city. He’s come a long way. I’ve seen him open to growth and change.”
Meeting the man
You can hear Dave Romero coming from far down the hall. He shuffles a bit, but he really moves well for an 81-year-old man only a few weeks recovered from knee replacement surgery.
“No cane,” Romero said proudly, having left his walking stick at home.
Romero met a New Times reporter for an interview at city hall on an afternoon in early August. His office is small, nothing at all like the sprawling mayors’ offices in old black-and-white movies. In a case of architecture bringing bureaucratic reality to life, the city manager’s office is actually bigger than the mayor’s.
Over the years, Romero has watched the posts of mayor and city councilperson lose political potency as the city manager and staffers have gained clout.
“The city manager position started out as a council administrator,” Romero said. “The position started out as kind of the council secretary. It’s evolved to a manager position.”
Romero came to San Luis Obispo from Los Angeles in 1956. He had taken a job with the Los Angeles Department of Public Works after leaving the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, but after a few years, he realized he wanted more than the southland could offer. San Luis Obispo was looking for a public works director/city engineer, and Romero jumped at the opportunity; it was the only job he applied for after receiving his engineering license.
When Romero arrived, the city had a population of 17,000 and only one traffic light, located at the intersection of Chorro and Higuera streets. Romero and his family encountered a problem that was rare in those days: a shortage of affordable housing.
“We paid more for a small, five-year-old house here than we did for a bigger, newer house [in Los Angeles],” he said.
Romero was the right man for his time. At heart, he’s an engineer. He likes to create, design, and build things. The ’50s and ’60s were a time of explosive growth.
The city grew by tens of thousands during Romero’s tenure as head of public works. Rampant growth was hugely popular during much of his professional life. The environmental movement was in its infancy, and “smart growth” was a concept of the future.
“People wanted growth,” a glowing Romero said as he remembered those days. “When I first came here, everybody was interested in growing. People wanted more industry, more jobs. They wanted to get bigger, they wanted to improve. It was glorious for an engineer. We were putting in new streets, widening and putting in new water lines. Oh, it was a wonderful time.”
There were no committees, no environmental impact reports, and few county and state agencies that had to be placated. A road or bridge project that now would take years to approve could begin construction in six months or less.
Romero’s worldview has become decidedly unfashionable in these days of ever-increasing environmental and bureaucratic regulation. He’s become a dinosaur to some people on the city council and in the city; many of his critics weren’t yet born when he was designing much of the city they live in. Though few of his detractors would think to acknowledge it, much of the city they enjoy was planned or built by Romero.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVE ROMERO
- A KID : Romero as he left the service.
On another August afternoon, Romero accompanied a New Times reporter on a drive around San Luis Obispo. He sat in the passenger seat and slowly told the story of the city and his part in its history.
Romero directed his New Times chauffeur east on Johnson Avenue to where it passes beneath the Union Pacific railroad tracks. It’s the sort of underpass you drive without giving it a moment’s thought. The four-lane road that runs underneath was Romero’s first “job.” Before he and his crews got to it in 1956, it was only a single lane.
“Cars had to wait and take turns, and there was always a line,” Romero said as he pointed to the faded plaque that commemorates the project. “Sometimes a truck would get jammed in there.”
Widening the road under the tracks did more than clear it for more traffic; the project opened a route for massive development to the southeast during the ’60s.
As the car slowly progressed along Johnson Avenue, Romero described the landscape as he found it 54 years ago.
“That house was here then,” he said, pointing to a worn, hulking residence.
A lost world paraded past as Romero made a verbal sketch of the old city and its arteries, the water and sewer lines he and his crews designed and installed. Romero knew every street and knew where the hidden tentacles of the subterranean underworld of electrical, water, and sewer lines stretch, deep below the concrete.
Many parts of the city were planned decades before there were people to fill them. As Romero passed the auto mall—an area built during the ’80s—he recalled when the idea of the mall was first discussed.
“We talked about that the week Glenn went up,” Romero recalled.
John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, launching into space on Feb. 20, 1962.
There are still parts of the city that remain unfinished, in Romero’s view. He commanded the reporter to stop just short of the Los Osos Valley Road freeway overpass. The bridge is one of the most overcrowded roads in the city, mostly because of the big box stores that have sprouted on the southwest side.
Romero blames the slow-growth city councils of the ’80s for the cramped, two-lane bridge. The ethos of the time had moved away from growth and the domination of cars; local leaders used road dieting to restrict traffic. Now, traffic demands a bigger bridge. The overpass will eventually be replaced, but Caltrans has put the project on hold due to budget setbacks.
The condition of Laguna Lake also irks Romero. The body of water on the southwestern side of the city was once relatively clean and deep. Now it’s slowly being overwhelmed by silt and vegetation. The city has discussed dredging the lake for more than 30 years, but always pushed the project into the future.
The lake dredging project came before the City Council on Aug. 17 of this year. Residents who live nearby complained that the city was letting the lake go and insisted improvements be made. All sides acknowledged that, if left alone, the lake will slowly turn into a swamp and eventually a meadow.
Three city council members and Romero (Allan Settle recused himself because he owns property near the lake) each had their own idea of how best to address the issue. The city staff reported that any kind of dredging would cost $4 million to $7 million and suggested the city put off any substantial work on the lake indefinitely.
Romero was visibly frustrated by the staff’s suggestion.
“We’ve been doing that for 30 years,” he said later. “As far as I’m concerned, we’ve been shuffling our feet for 25 years.”
The mayor proposed a plan that would start some initial dredging and put the silt in a shallow valley next to the lake. It would cost a fraction of what the staff proposed, and at least it would be a start.
As he presented his plan, a staff member consulted a map showing the location of endangered flowers around the lake—areas that are considered off limits for silt. Staffers made it clear they were dead set against any dredging projects in this financial climate. And the council members revealed Romero’s proposal was going nowhere. They had counterproposals that consisted of feasibility studies, hiring a consultant for $30,000 to $50,000, and “a restoration of a larger part of the natural system.”
As the other council members spoke, Romero’s expression deepened into a frown.
In the end, the council voted to do nothing concrete and consider the lake renewal project for the next budget cycle.
“Yeah, that drove me crazy,” Romero said. “We should have done something.”
After a pause, Romero added, “I do miss the old days. If we had a problem, my crew would take care of it. I’d call Joe and say, ‘Get your tractor out there and take care of that.’”
But it was under Romero’s watch that the city’s budget exploded. The rate of budget increase has far outpaced population growth, and most of that is because of labor costs. Personnel costs account for around 80 percent of the city’s budget.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVE ROMERO
- SILVER FOX : Romero nears his first retirement.
He said the council, like many others in California, increased salaries and benefits in the good times. The state pension system said their investments were doing so well that city and county governments wouldn’t be on the hook for many long-term benefits. Romero concedes it wasn’t the council’s wisest decision, though he points out that many other cities did the same thing. He also said binding arbitration for police and firefighters was a move approved by voters; labor arbitration has helped balloon salaries and benefits for police and firefighters to among the highest in the state.
Romero insisted that he and the council have been prudent in their decisions, but he added that clouds on the horizon threaten the well-being of the city.
“I think we’re going to have some hard times when it comes to negotiations for salary increases, particularly fire and police this year,” he said.
If employee salary growth isn’t checked, Romero believes the city could face dramatic changes.
“Eventually we will have less money to do capital improvements,” he said. “That will be the first thing we will cut, so our streets will get worse. A lot of the nice things we do in the community will be eliminated, and finally, if things get really serious as they have in some cities, start threatening bankruptcy. That’s a long ways off, and we have very prudent management of virtually everything we are doing, but the thing that could drive it quickly is binding arbitration.”
Nevertheless, Romero insists the city is on good financial footing and ready to meet any potential challenge. And overall, he’s happy with how his city has turned out.
“It’s a good place to live,” said a tearful mayor. “Not paradise, but pretty close.”
Contact Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.