Dave Romero reflects on long career in San Luis Obispo

Tribune photo by David Middlecamp

After more than five decades of city service, San Luis Obispo Mayor Dave Romero will hand over the gavel Wednesday, leaving behind an immeasurable imprint on everything from the city’s roads and sewers to its economic growth.

Romero, 81, spent 36 years as the city’s public works director and then 16 more on the City Council, including the past eight years as mayor.

In recent months, the man known for his firm handshake, smile, consensus-building approach and unwavering dedication to the city has been lauded by many of the county’s top leaders, thanked publicly by his constituents, sang to and even honored in verse by poem.

Romero spent a recent morning sorting through years of files in his office.

“The city has been my life forever,” he said.

As he looked at handwritten notes, greeting cards and photographs slipped among staff reports, he took time to answer some questions from The Tribune.

Q. San Luis Obispo had a population of less than 20,000 people when you started with the city. A lot has changed since then and many credit you with the infrastructure that put the city on the map. Looking back, what is the one accomplishment that you are most proud of?

A. The crowning achievement is just now occurring: The participation between San Luis Obispo and the North County cities and the county to build a pipeline from Nacimiento Lake to Paso Robles, Templeton, Atascadero and San Luis Obispo that will provide a guaranteed water supply for all those communities for the next indefinite period but undoubtedly for the next 50 years. So my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have an ample supply of water and a good quality of life in San Luis Obispo.

Q. You have shepherded the city through many milestones. What is one that you will always carry with you?

A. The city’s experience, and it was a difficult one, in blocking off the section of Monterey Street and developing Mission Plaza has to be one of the milestones I think most fondly about.

The community is certainly changed because of it — it makes us an outstanding and different community.

Surprisingly enough, that was the project I almost lost my job over.

At the time, I was asked by a reporter how I felt about closing off Monterey Street. The City Council was very strong in favor of extending Monterey Street through. I said, as the city’s public works director/city engineer, that the street could be closed off because we didn’t need it for traffic or parking.

The council took umbrage to that and after the election they had a personnel hearing on me for being disloyal to the city. They didn’t charge me with anything but noted in my file that it wasn’t prudent.

Q. San Luis Obispo is known for its careful planning ethic, which may be why the city is now known as one of the “happiest places on earth.” Have such high standards stopped businesses from relocating here — businesses that could offer head-of-household jobs?

A. It is a blessing being noted as one of the happiest places on earth. We have planned very carefully for the development of our downtown, and there are still improvements to come. We also have had slow growth and that carries with it not quite keeping up with the housing needs, in turn making housing very unaffordable.

We are trying to balance all of that and still keep this place as desirable as possible.Our city councils have had visionaries in the past who have gone well beyond the normal city planning. We have very much to be proud of. I just happened to be here when the accolades started to come back.

Our city decided many years ago that we would encourage jobs that did not require a large consumption of water, did not have major transportation products that would come in or that would require large usage of the sewer system.

We have oriented toward technical jobs or service jobs for the community. We love it when there are start-up companies, however they tend to be successful for a few years and then acquired by a bigger firm and then moved somewhere else.

I think the mix of jobs we have is excellent for the community. A lot of it is high tech, high quality because of the Cal Poly campus as an ongoing and never-ending source of very bright graduates. I think that contributes to the quality of life we have in the community.

Q. How do you meet the challenge of keeping the city a viable place to live yet preserve its history and the natural surroundings that are cherished by many?

A. The balance is within our own perceptions and the city councils decide year after year how we can keep that balance.

I think that the balance we have of trying to preserve the history of our community and the old buildings have been very successful.

One of the things I am very pleased about is the seismic-retrofit program which forced the seismic improvements to about 100 buildings. Not only were they retrofitted but refurbished, and now they are attractive, new and modern.

One of my biggest complaints is that we have been lax in keeping up the infrastructure downtown.

I was successful in getting the council to agree with me to make improvements to the sidewalks, tree gates, signal poles, street lights, fire hydrants and name signs.

Q. What is one time that you didn’t get your way? How would things be different now?

A. The city’s plan to provide a bypass route for Highway 1 from Cuesta College to Highway 101 near the Madonna Inn.

I had my way for about 10 years, but as the years went by more City Council members became anti-automobile and asked Caltrans to rescind the route. Caltrans later sold the land and now we have no plan for the ever- increasing traffic at Santa Rosa Street.

The engineers’ approach is to find what people are doing and try to accommodate that. The planners’ approach is try to get people to do what you think it is appropriate for them to do and the planning basis used in more recent years makes it more difficult for people to drive their cars as a way of encouraging them to get into car pools and use public transportation.We’ve been experimenting with that approach for about 20 years. Traffic congestion has gotten worse and worse because of it. Someday we need to go back to the fundamental approach used by engineers, find how people want to transport themselves and accommodate that.

Q. What are your plans for the coming years?

A. I had planned to be an ambassador with the city but it is written in the city charter that a person has to wait one year after public office to serve in that capacity.

So I am hoping to get my wife, MaryBelle, on a cruise. The cruise starts in London and goes to Sweden, Finland, Copenhagen and Russia.

I want to stay involved with the city on some basis and will stay involved with the Downtown Association and the Chamber of Commerce on some issues.