Sunday, November 30, 2008

Walnut Creek mayor to depart after 21 years on council

The giant hole in the ground Gwen Regalia can see from her City Hall office window is what the Walnut Creek mayor was waiting for.

The hole, which will transform into the home of the new library, is how she knows after 21 years of service it's time to step down.

"You know, I said after the last election that I would leave after we had the library. Well, we are getting the library," Regalia said.

Now under construction, the library should open in 2010.

On Tuesday, she will officially be finished as mayor, having served an unprecedented five terms during her two decades on the council.

Regalia has been on the council during major capital projects, including the Lesher Center for the Arts, the Shadelands Art Center and the Iron Horse Trail bridge over Ygnacio Valley Road. Two gyms, five parks and seven ball fields have been built during her tenure, and she has been a part of the acquisition of 305 acres of open space. She acknowledges that she didn't act alone, but she is proud of what she has supported.

Regalia, 68, is leaving along with Councilman Charlie Abrams, a 12-year veteran who did not seek re-election. She waited to announce her departure until she made sure Gary Skrel was running for re-election; she didn't think three newcomers on the council at once would be good for the city, but she knew it was time for change.

"I mean, you can't go forever," Regalia said.

She and her husband, Ed, moved to Walnut AdvertisementCreek in 1958. She taught in the early days of their marriage — she has a lifetime teaching credential — and then had four children. Now, they have eight grandchildren.

Regalia successfully ran the 1972 campaign for Peg Kovar, Walnut Creek's first female mayor.

"She was the one who talked me into running," Kovar said. "She thought it was time for a woman to get on the council. I think I was elected with grocery money."

Kovar said the council is due for new blood, but stressed Regalia's knowledge of the city has been important and will be missed.

"She has certainly brought continuity and carries with her a history that was invaluable," she said.

Regalia's own rise in local politics started after a public battle to get all Walnut Creek schools into one school district. In 1978, Regalia ran for the Walnut Creek School District board and served for almost 10 years. In 1987, she was elected to the City Council.

She wanted a seat on the council because of a growth limiting measure she disagreed with that passed but was eventually overturned.

Her duties haven't stopped at Walnut Creek's borders. She has been a member of the Association of Bay Area Governments executive board since 1989, and is a past president of the group, tackling a variety of regional issues.

Being a mayor and councilwoman has not been the easiest job. Once, when a council meeting went until 5 a.m., she got home in time to intercept her husband, who was about to go look for her. He thought she had been in an accident.

As for the city's future, Regalia thinks Walnut Creek will weather the economic storm because the city has built up cash reserves, and because property values have only slightly dipped.

For the council, especially the newcomers, Regalia advises that they work together.

"Listen to each other and figure out how to come together," she said.

Council members do that now, Regalia said, but she disputes recent accusations that the council rubber-stamps projects. There is always discussion, she said.

"We really do think about this," she said. "This council reads everything. We listen to everyone."

Primo Facchini, who has come to council meetings for 40 years, said Regalia is all business when she is acting as mayor.

"We are going to lose a very dedicated lady who is always very straight with you," he said. "She doesn't cut anyone much slack."

So what's next? Regalia plans to continue to lead tours of the county courthouse for fifth-graders, and she may tutor.

She plans to follow the Neiman Marcus situation, a lawsuit and a referendum against the proposed downtown project have caused recent headaches for city officials. Regalia will also watch the Jewish Community Center project, and the economic health of the downtown, she said.

But her immediate plans are to take care of her husband, who had a stroke in September. And they have no plans to leave Walnut Creek.

"I have helped to make this into a lovely community — I plan to enjoy it," she said.

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