Strassell proud of her City Hall years

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By Vince Luecke

Tell City's mayor reflects on what she has, hasn't been able to accomplish

TELL CITY - As her days in office dwindle, Tell City's first female mayor hopes to be remembered as a caring leader who reached out to the community, listened to the needs of residents and gave city employees the independence to do their jobs free of mayoral interference.

"I think they'll remember me as a mayor who listened, who got people involved and who had a management style that let city employees, especially department heads, do their best," Gayle Strassell said last week.

Elected in November 2003, Strassell defeated four-term Democratic mayor Bill Goffinet, taking the top elected office in a city that hadn't elected a Republican to the city's top job in decades.

During her four years in office, Strassell said, the city made strides in developing municipally owned land along Seventh Street, extended sewer lines to families outside the city and reached an accord with state leaders on Tell City's combined-sewer system.

Yet Strassell's administration stumbled at times. She was unable to convince city-council members to move forward with an annexation plan that drew opposition from property owners and was put on the defensive by ads from her Democrat opponent this year that the city's cash balance had fallen.

Strassell was defeated for a second term in last month's election by Barbara Ewing, the city's clerk-treasurer for the past 20 years.

Strassell's four years in office weren't always easy, she admitted, but she found satisfaction in winning the respect of city department heads, who she said had the freedom to do what they believed was best.

"I delegated authority to them and made them responsible," she said. "I let them do the jobs. We gathered each month for department-head meetings, something I don't think had been done before, and we shared ideas. We were a team."

Strassell also reached out to local residents, hosting Saturday-morning coffees that allowed residents to talk about issues that mattered to them. She also convened an advisory group of involved residents who shared ideas and complaints alike. The overriding goal, Strassell said, was to get people involved in the process of city government, something she said was lacking.

Though she followed two multi-term mayors in Goffinet and Walter Hagedorn, Strassell said she did a lot in her four years. "We brought more than $2 million in grants to the city and used that money to help a lot of people," she said. "We listened to teens and got them and their parents involved in activities. Now we have a skate park."

In addition to the skate park, the city worked to promote local arts, obtained funding for a riverside trail project and obtained funding for a project to extend sanitary sewers on the city's east side and along Indiana 66. Some residents in those areas suffered from failing septic systems. The skate park came about after teens and parents pushed for a location skateboarders could pursue their interests without bothering others.

An agreement reached this year with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management over the city's combined sewers headed off possible federal intervention into the city's combined sewer-stormwater lines, Strassell said, and puts in place a plan to make improvements to the city's sewage-treatment plant.

The project will cost millions, but Strassell said federal intervention could have been even more costly.

The outgoing mayor is especially proud of work under way in the city's downtown. Four blocks of Main Street, from Jefferson to Pestalozzi streets, are getting sidewalk improvements, new street lights and, come spring, new trees.

We've recognized for a long time the importance of investing in industry, but we've never really invested in our downtown," Strassell said. "Our downtown project is drawing interest and I hope it can reach to other blocks over time."

Asked to name disappointments over the past four years, Strassell points to annexation. The city council approved first readings of four annexation ordinances this fall that would have added more than 500 acres to the city, taking in the Barkhamsted subdivision, homes along North 14th Street and other areas that already receive some city services and according to Strassell, enjoy many of the benefits of city police protection and recreational programs.

Many of the residents in those areas protested the move, saying they would pay higher taxes but would see few, if any, benefits. The council let the current annexation issues die at a Dec. 3 meeting, but members indicated they may ask some of those property owners to join the city voluntarily.

Strassell said the council initially supported annexation plans but balked when it came time to vote in the interests of Tell City residents. "Their actions weren't in the best interests of the city or those who live here," Strassell said.

A plan that would have combined electric, water, sewer and trash bills also failed to win support, Strassell said when asked to identify another idea of hers that failed to muster council support.

During her tenure, the Tell City Electric Department moved from City Hall to the former Tell City National Bank building at 601 Main St. City leaders considered moving other utility offices to the Main Street location but shelved that proposal.

Strassell plans to retire after leaving office and her four years as mayor cap a career that included years in her family's furniture business, banking and insurance. She turned 65 this year and looks forward to traveling with John Balser, whom she describes as her "significant other."

Strassell said she has appreciated the cards and notes of support in recent weeks. And while politicians are lightning rods of criticism, Strassell said she has truly enjoyed serving the city's residents. "Being mayor has been fun. If I had to do it again, I would," she said.