Mayor of change

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo David Lansford announced in November he would not seek a fourth term as Clovis mayor. He defeated eight challengers in three elections.

By David Stevens: Editor

Drainage issues had long plagued Clovis. Nearly every time significant rain fell — even a quarter of an inch — Greene Acres Lake would overflow, Main Street and sometimes parts of 21st Street would have to be shut down because of the flooding.
Joe Thomas, a former public works director and now the city manager, said he can remember times when Main Street would be closed up to 30 days because of high water. Following many storms, Hillcrest Park and the zoo would be under water for days. Thomas remembers a picture
of someone in a kayak outside Taco Box at 136 W. 21st. He remembers children trapped on bleachers behind Marshall Junior High whose rescuers arrived in a row boat.

Many city residents decided the flooding was no longer tolerable on May 31, 1988. That’s the morning a 33-year-old Clovis man — Macario Lovato — drowned in a culvert at 21st and LaFonda streets after his car was washed off Thornton Street by an overnight downpour. Plans were made to start saving money to build a drainage system so that surface water could be pushed underground.

But even eight years after that, not much had happened. City leaders still talked about fixing the drainage problems, but said costs associated with the added infrastructure were rising faster than taxpayer dollars could be set aside.

David Lansford — stepping down as Clovis mayor this week after 12 years — was in his first weeks in his first term as mayor in 1996. That’s when he and city commissioners began talking about a new approach to the problem — tax hikes.

Some city leaders were hesitant, but the new mayor was loud and proud, convinced there was no other way.

“I made a proposal at the first press conference I ever had,” he said. “I think two people objected. Everybody else seemed to believe it was the right thing to do.”

On Dec. 19, 1996, commissioners approved two measures — a property tax increase to pay for drainage, and a 1/4-percent sales tax hike with funds equally divided between drainage, other city infrastructure, parks improvements and a multi-purpose special events center.

One year later, a $5 million bond was issued to cover initial costs for the drainage project.
“We organized our taxes,” is how Lansford put it.

By 1998, heavy rains still annoyed city residents, but they were seldom life threatening as the surface water was dispersed below city streets soon after it arrived.

Lansford does not deserve all the credit for minimizing the drainage issues, Thomas said. But that’s one example of his ability to lead the charge for change.

“There are people that disagree with him and there have been instances over the years where I have disagreed with him,” Thomas said. “But he’s always, in my opinion, had the best interest of the community in mind and he’s been proactive enough to motivate people to take some kind of action rather than just sit around complaining that ‘We ought to do this or we ought to do something about this.’

“He’s always been able to identify problems and create programs that involve people and make them feel like they’re part of the solution and actually take active participation in making the community better.”

• • •

Bill Clinton was president when Lansford was first elected Clovis mayor in 1996. Closer to home, Gov. Gary Johnson was feuding with the state Legislature, Mr. Holland’s Opus was the most popular movie at North Plains Cinema 4 and Guy Leeder was among organizers recruiting teams for the Clovis Softball Association whose complex now bears his name.

Five candidates wanted to become the first mayor in Clovis history elected by the people. Previously, commissioners had appointed the mayor from among their ranks.

Lansford, then a 37-year-old pharmacist, attributed his first victory to integrity and allegiance to Christian principles.

His first goal was to “improve the professionalism of the City Commission.”

“One of the comments made to me when I was running for City Commission (in 1994), was, ‘Why would you want to associate yourself with that?’” he said.

“I took that to mean an elected official in this community would be seen as a bad guy. I wanted to make serving the community something good guys did.”

Lansford, now 49, said he set out to make the City Commission a “respectful environment,” one in which reasonable people could disagree, but “not become angry in their disagreement.”

“Then,” he said, “the city could have a better chance of moving forward.”

Over the next 12 years, most all would agree Clovis has been moving, at least.

With Lansford as mayor, the city has actively pursued — and snared — new business by offering tax incentives. It has also built two new fire substations, added playground equipment at area parks, built a swimming pool at Potter Park on the city’s sometimes-ignored west side, opened a business enterprise center, built a women’s softball complex, even opened a civic center that had been debated for decades.

There have been some dark days under Lansford’s leadership, the darkest of which were in 1997 when city leaders learned they’d lost $4 million in a fraudulent investment scam.

“It was a very, very depressing period,” Lansford said. “I’d been mayor a little over a year at the time. There was anger, there was confusion as to how in the world it could happen, there was disbelief.”

The city was able to recover about $500,000, and received additional funds in an insurance settlement, but the bulk of the $4 million was never located.

“I think the most important thing that happened (after the loss) was the city finance committee began having meetings on a regular basis,” Lansford said.

The committee makeup was also changed to include more City Commission members, Lansford said, and a system was soon in place that required multiple signatures from city officials anytime funds were transferred.

And, Lansford said, he was encouraged that “even though we lost that money, it didn’t stop any projects from moving forward.”

Also on Lansford’s 12-year watch as mayor, the city rallied to save nearby Cannon Air Force Base after federal officials targeted it for closure and created extraterritorial zoning ordinances, setting subdivision regulations for one mile outside city limits.
Some might argue those are not all changes for the better. But Clovis has clearly changed during Lansford’s time as mayor.

Asked about three things he hopes residents will most remember about his time in office, Lansford said, “I hope they’ll remember that city government became a more respectable organization. … I would want people to remember that those I served with, as well as myself, were sincerely working to improve the community. And the third thing is, I hope they remember that I cared.”

• • •

Lansford announced last year he would not seek a fourth term as mayor. Tuesday’s ballot features six successor candidates, perhaps a testament to the prestige associated with the job.

Lansford has not been particularly clear about why he’s stepping down.
When he first made the announcement on Nov. 8, he said simply “It’s time,” and did not elaborate.

He’s not elaborated much since then either.

“The best answer I can give myself, is that I never really went into this wanting to do it for a lifetime,” he said in an interview last week. “I just feel like it’s healthy for the community to have a different mayor. I think it’s healthy for me not to be mayor anymore.”
Commissioner Juan Garza has speculated that Lansford is tired.

“He has been working too hard and he needs some free time,” Garza told a reporter in November.

Whatever Lansford’s reason for not wanting to be mayor anymore, this much is clear: He will be missed by many.

About 125 co-workers, friends and family turned out to say goodbye at a city reception on Wednesday.

The mayor received more than a dozen gifts, ranging from framed photos and poems to a “D. Lansford Way” street sign and a symbolic key to the city to an autographed basketball from Clovis High School players.

“I don’t know that people realize yet how much he’s going to be missed,” City Commissioner Bobby Sandoval said.

Sandoval described Lansford as “a consummate gentleman,” who “works his butt off,” and does everything “with a passion.”

“And he’s very articulate,” Sandoval said. “I wish I could speak 10 percent as well as he speaks.”

Sandoval said Lansford has earned respect from all parts of Clovis.

In his three mayoral elections, Lansford has defeated eight challengers, earning 59 percent of the votes. He’s only lost one precinct in those three elections, that in 1996 at La Casita Elementary School, where only 3 percent of the votes were cast.

“Anytime I had anything to discuss, he’d stop what he was doing and he’d listen and we’d talk,” Sandoval said. “He always had respect in his eyes. I don’t know anybody that has anything bad to say about David.”

Chad Lydick, a former city commissioner who worked closely with Lansford and other city officials when Cannon Air Force Base was targeted for closure in 2005, echoes Sandoval’s views.

“It would be foolish to say there’s any man who doesn’t have his critics,” Lydick said. “But David has the respect of his critics.

“He has always tried to remain on an even keel and listen to both sides of controversies and position himself in a place where the city as a whole moves forward.”

• • •

Listening is a skill Lansford said has long been important to him. He learned the value of listening at Stanfield Kindergarten on South Prince.

“Instructions were given to draw circles around the similar objects and I drew lines connecting them,” he said. “The kindergarten teacher embarrassed me like you can’t believe. I felt like I was the biggest jerk, the biggest loser that ever existed. That was the first big lesson I learned in not listening. I was humiliated for being stupid.”

Lansford said he’s had to learn to listen carefully in his career as a pharmacist and he soon learned listening paid benefits as mayor as well.

“Every time somebody is talking to me, I try to totally focus on what they’re saying,” he said. “It’s not my nature, but it’s become a habit for me that’s served me well.

“I think that’s probably why I haven’t been hated (as mayor). People think I’m really listening to what they’re saying … and I really am.”

At a glance:
• Full name: David Matthew Lansford
• Birth: Feb. 9, 1959, at Clovis Memorial Hospital
• Family: Parents — Aubrey and Roberta Lansford. Brother — Mark Lansford. Wife — Debbie. Children — Matthew, 24, Micah, 21, Marissa, 18, Miles 15
• Hobbies: Clovis Wildcats sports and NFL Network
• Best friend: Debbie
• Worst enemy: Self

In his own words:
On leadership: “I’ve always trusted most of my leadership instincts. Growing up as a kid on the playground, because of my size, my personality, I was a leader in elementary school. I was the one responsible for us getting in trouble or I was the one responsible for us being productive.”

On his future in community service: “No,” he said, he’s not interested in running for a seat in the state Legislature.

“I’m at a point I think where I want to see what develops. I don’t have a definite plan for how I’ll serve the community. I know there will be opportunities and I plan to serve, I just don’t know … how that will be.”

Will he continue to work with the Ute Water Commission and make plans for building a pipeline from Ute Lake near Logan to Clovis and Portales? “I want that to be something the next Commission and mayor make a decision on. … If they decide they want me, we will have a candid discussion and see what they want from me.

“Mostly yes, (he would like to continue working on a pipeline), but there is a part of me that wants someone else to take that responsibility and move it forward. It’s been a very steep climb to get to where we are. And the climb is going to continue to be as steep as we move forward. It’s a multi-decade project. At some point it will need to transition to someone else.”

On what should be done with Hotel Clovis: “What I proposed close to a year ago, is we need to start the clock on it. We need to say, ‘OK, for the next five years, we’re going to put forth the best effort we know how, with the resources we have and creativity we have and try to make something happen.’ If we’re still where we are today in five years, then we need to come to reality and say it’s not feasible to redevelop the building. We need to take steps to demolish it and leave some sort of memorial in its place.”

On what should Clovis look for in its next mayor: “Without sounding like I’m describing myself, I really think the next mayor needs to have good communication skills, and they need to be a good listener. … They need to be able to deliver the city’s message in a manner that is productive, that doesn’t, hopefully, harm the innocent.”

— David Stevens

Did you know:
• Lansford’s first run at a public office in Clovis was in 1989 when he lost to Dr. Ken Merritt in a run for the Clovis school board.

• Dr. James Moss was Clovis’ mayor when Lansford first won a seat on the City Commisison in 1994. In that same election, voters approved a measure to add a ninth position to the City Commission, a mayor to be elected at large, beginning with the March 1996 municipal election.

• Lansford defeated four opponents in 1996 to become Clovis’ first mayor elected by voters. He received 2,683 votes. Gayla Brumfield was second with 1,343 votes. She was appointed to Lansford’s vacant seat on the City Commission.

• Chick Taylor Jr. (1968-80) is the only mayor in Clovis’ 101-year history to serve as long as Lansford. Both were mayor for 12 years.

• Lansford said he has worked with 21 city commissioners and four city managers since joining the Commission in 1994.

• Lansford set two records as a basketball player at Clovis High. He had a free-throw percentage of 86.8 percent and took 28 charges in a single season. He described himself as one of Coach Jimmy Joe Robinson’s “obedient students. If he told me to stand in front of a train, I’d do it.”

• The mayor is 6-foot-3-inches tall and weighs about 190 pounds today. He was 6-3 and weighed 175 when he graduated high school in 1977.

• Among Lansford’s classmates at Southwestern Oklahoma State University’s pharmacy school was Carl Birdsong, who later played professional football for five seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. “Carl was very well known for being the brightest student in our class,” Lansford said.

• Lansford will not say which of the six candidates he’ll be supporting for mayor, although he said there are two or three he believes would be successful in the job. Are there any candidates he thinks are not qualified to be mayor?

“I guess the best and softest way to say it is … there are a few I would not support under any circumstances,” he said.

• He’s always been a hard worker and has held some kind of job since he was 10 years old, said Roberta Lansford, the mayor’s mother.

“Our David began his first job by mowing lawns. He and his brother would ride their bikes (to a neighbor’s house) and together they could push her lawn mower. …When he was able to drive, he worked at the Hilltop Twin Theaters. He was the projectionist. He ran two projectors and could splice broken film quickly. … After the films were over, he helped a friend to sweep and mop the theater.”

• Lansford is a natural athlete, according to his older brother, Mark Lansford:
“David was a gifted athlete, which presented some interesting problems for the rest of us.For example, I participated in a bowling league during my late teens. One Sunday afternoon, I asked David to go with me to the bowling alley to practice. He rolled over a 600 scratch series that day, having not bowled in years. What made matters worse, was the fact that one of my teammates witnessed the event. I am not sure if David has even bowled since then.”

— David Stevens