Every week day by 9 a.m. since Feb. 22, Vice Mayor Bill Gavin has set up shop in the conference room just off Mayor Robert Smith’s office at City Hall downtown.
From there, he oversees meetings with city department heads, takes phone calls from citizens and addresses issues throughout Columbus whenever they cross his — temporary — desk.
“I’m not comfortable going into the mayor’s office,” Gavin said Friday, sitting at the head of the board table in the conference room. “That’s his personal office with his personal things in there. I’m not the mayor. … I’m just kind of filling in. I’m very comfortable coming in here working. Just give me a Diet Coke every now and then.”
Smith announced he was resting at home and temporarily out of City Hall on Feb. 22, the day after he was hospitalized briefly at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle for an illness. City officials have said he is under the care of doctors who have told him to rest.
Smith called Gavin after being released from the hospital and asked the Ward 6 councilman — who has served as vice mayor for eight of the 12 years he’s been on the city council — to fill in for him while he recovered.
“At that time when he called, it was just primarily the department head meeting, and would I fill in for him for a few days while he got well,” Gavin said. “There was no time period set there.”
It wasn’t a new position for Gavin, who has overseen city council and department head meetings before when Smith has been away. But seven weeks after Smith took sick leave, Gavin said he has taken on more and more responsibilities and gotten an entirely new perspective on city operations.
“It is different (from being a councilman),” he said. “Personnel issues, running the department head meetings, making sure everything’s going (smoothly). Of course there’s the never-ending job of attending a grand opening or some sort of function like that, a ribbon-cutting. … Plus trying to do all the other little things involved. It’s constantly changing every day.”
It’s also one of the last things Gavin will do as councilman. He will step down July 1, after he lost to challenger Jacqueline DiCicco in Tuesday’s Republican primary for Ward 6.
Gavin said he wished DiCicco well and contributed his loss partially to being unable to campaign the way he would have liked while also handling mayoral duties. Still, he said it will not change how he approaches being a councilman or how he handles filling in for Smith — other than maybe taking off some of the pressure of the campaign.
“My job comes first, and people need to understand that,” Gavin said Wednesday. “I know it’s a campaign. Of course I’m disappointed. Doing my job is the most important thing to me. … I just got back from being over on Seventh Street looking at somebody’s ditch. This is a job that I don’t think people understand how much time it takes, nor the amount or degree of I guess personal attention that you need to give these people.”
‘Dealing with city issues’
While serving as councilman involves more working with citizens and representing their interests, mayors oversee day-to-day city operations. One major difference, Gavin said, is dealing with far more personnel issues and department heads.
Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong said while he’s tried not to bother Gavin unnecessarily, he’s called him to get permission on matters the mayor would normally sign off on, as well as his advice or opinion.
“Having been a mayor myself, I can assure you it’s a totally different job,” said Armstrong, who previously served as mayor of Natchez. “You’re talking about an executive role instead of a legislative role, which is what a councilman and alderman and probably supervisors would be lumped in there too. … I call him if I need his advice or I need his opinion on something or I need his permission to do something. I always want to run it by the vice mayor just like I always ran it by Robert.”
While council members may make requests of department heads, they’re not direct supervisors, Gavin said. That’s the mayor’s and COO’s job. Gavin said he’s also received more calls from citizens with concerns or complaints than he’s ever received before.
The biggest challenge has been the time involved. Normally, Gavin said, he devotes about 20 hours per week to his position as councilman, attending council meetings and other events and answering his constituents’ calls.
Now he takes those calls all over Columbus.
“If I’m not dealing with Ward 6 issues, I’m dealing with city issues,” he said.
Paving project and amphitheater
While at first Gavin attempted to focus on the day-to-day business, he said he’s worked on bigger issues as the weeks went on.
“The first few weeks I kind of laid kind of low and just ran what I was comfortable running, knowing what I knew how to do,” Gavin said. “Since he’s been gone for sort of an extended period of time, I have taken on more responsibility of making mayoral-type decisions and so forth.”
One such task he’s taken on is helping City Engineer Kevin Stafford and other officials put together an application to Rep. Trent Kelly’s Office for $3.5 million of the federal funding anticipated from President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure program. The money would fund paving projects throughout the city, Gavin said.
Gavin said the project is only in the beginning stages, and he and Stafford do not have a timeline in place. However, if the city can get the funds, they hope to use them to widen Bluecutt Road from Highway 45 to Leigh Drive, pave part of Fifth Street North, pave the amphitheater parking lot downtown and/or update the city’s drainage master plan.
A more immediate issue is the planning of the annual Market Street Festival, which features vendors and performers setting up shop downtown. This year, Gavin said, he’s planning to rope off the pedestrian bridge at the Columbus Riverwalk, which suffered some damage after a barge apparently hit it last year. Normally musicians perform under the bridge during Market Street, but this year Gavin wants to move those performances to the Columbus Amphitheater.
That’s one area where Gavin admits he’s splitting off from what Smith may have wanted. While the amphitheater itself is built and has lighting, it is still missing concession stands, bathrooms and fencing.
“(Smith) wanted to not use the amphitheater until it was completely finished, because he thought it would give a bad impression to the public,” Gavin said. “… He’s got a very valid point. But it has sat there and it’s not being used.
“It can work,” he added. “The lighting is all in place, the stage is in place, the sound system’s in place. Everything’s there. We’re just missing a few little components.”
Gavin said he’s worked with Main Street Columbus Director Barbara Bigelow about bringing in porta potties and vendors to serve the amphitheater during the festival, which will be held in September this year.
Gavin said taking on these extra responsibilities has given him a different perspective on city operations.
“Running the city is a very hard, difficult job,” he said. “… I feel like since I’ve been sitting in this position, I’ve taken on more and more responsibilities. I’ve made decisions, and I think I’ve done a pretty decent job of filling in for the mayor. I may not have been making the same decisions the mayor made, but at this point it falls on somebody to make those and that’s me.”
‘We never missed a beat’
Gavin’s fellow council members Joseph Mickens and Stephen Jones, of Wards 2 and 5 respectively, said they feel the city’s run smoothly over the past few weeks.
“We never missed a beat, so I think it’s a plus for the council,” Mickens said. “Being up there now three terms, since ‘09, (Gavin) know(s) the role, he’s spent a lot of time with the mayor and with the help of David Armstrong … I think the mayor would be really proud of the job Bill has done since he’s been up there.”
As for some of Gavin’s decisions — the application to Kelly’s office and opening the amphitheater for Market Street — both Mickens and Jones said those plans would be presented before the council like any other plans, and the council will decide on them then.
“I think (the infrastructure project) in the very beginning stages, and probably the first I heard of it was … the other night, so it’ll be something that we’ll have to look at,” Jones said.
Jones, Mickens and Gavin also credited Armstrong with helping keep city operations running while Smith is out, with Gavin adding City Attorney Jeff Turnage and the rest of the city’s employees.
“The department heads have helped me out quite a bit by keeping their departments straight and running and doing their job,” he said. “I do not have the time to oversee them, to micromanage. … I asked them to please call me and keep me updated day-to-day on major issues. … I’ve trusted these people, they have come through in the pinch to help me out quite a bit and help the city by running their departments and do the same old job that they would have done if the mayor had been there. … They get a star in their crown.”
He and Mickens also said they hope Smith gets well soon and returns to his position.
Until then, Gavin said, “I’m all in his corner.”