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Ryan's legacy will live on in Springfield

Finance Control Board Chair Christopher Gabrielli congratulated Mayor Charles Ryan for his service at the Dec. 20 meeting. Reminder Publications photo by G. Michael Dobbs
By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor


SPRINGFIELD It's quiet in the outer office of the mayor, typical of the last days of a lame duck administration.

Charles Ryan's desk, though, has the neat piles of documents it always has indicating that he is still busy at a time when others might coast.

Being different and going against the political conventional wisdom is part of Ryan's style and legacy.

Sitting down with Reminder Publications on a December afternoon, Ryan said that being mayor of Springfield for two more terms was nothing he coveted.

When he left the mayor's office in 1968, he never expected to ever be back, he said.

Like many other aspects of his life, he said it was something that just happened through a series of circumstances. He thought, though, back in 2003 that his city needed him and he was ready to serve once more.

Ryan's two terms marked a reversal of fortunes for the city that was left broke and broken public buildings, roads and sidewalks in need of significant repair, little economic development activity and finances near bankruptcy.

The Ryan legacy includes miles and miles of improvements to the city's roads and sidewalks, repairs on city buildings, streamlining city government operations, economic development of two major sites in the city and settling union agreements left outstanding from the previous administration, among other accomplishments.

"This job is a challenge, running the city right is a challenge," he said. He likened it to being a judge having to make difficult decisions that would undoubtedly offend some of your constituents.

The controversies over alleged inappropriate remarks from his chief of staff, the impositions of a trash fee and the premature departure of Police Commissioner Edward Flynn were all issues Ryan had to face.

Does Ryan have any regrets?

"Not at all. Virtually all my memories are very positive, very good ones. Oh, I don't mean it didn't rain from time to time," he said.

Whether as an attorney, a mayor or working at the former downtown redevelopment agency Springfield Central, Ryan said, "I spent my whole life as a sort of an assignment." Once he did his research and got an overview, he would "dig in."

The city's situation was worse than what he thought when he ran in the fall of 2003 against State Senator Linda Melconian, who at the time painted Springfield's situation in mush rosier hues than Ryan.

"Until you do the analysis, you don't know the facts and the facts drove the whole thing. By mid-May of 2004 I had a pretty good handle on it," he said.

Ryan was dubbed the underdog in the race with most of the area's power elite backing Melconian. His victory signaled the desire for change in the city.

Ryan will go down in the city's history as the first mayor to have a control board imposed upon him by the state. Once Ryan was in office, he wanted to address the city's financial problems with a loan from the state. Instead, he noted, the city received a Finance Control Board (FCB) and a line of credit.

"I didn't ask for a control board. I didn't want a control board. I wasn't shocked, though, because we were in deplorable condition. Based on [the city's] prior performance the state had no confidence," he said.

Ryan sought to work with the FCB rather than fight them.

"If a mayor and a control board are fighting all the time it's a very destructive dynamic in play. I've always been able to work constructively with others. I tried hard to work with the control board. Luckily, because of who they were, they were prepared to work with me," he said.

The success of the relationship between him and the FCB members was there was no "grandstanding, no playing to the bleachers," he said.

He said there were a number of issues where he disagreed with the FCB, but those issues were dealt with privately in order to reach a middle ground.

"The ability of all of us to act as adults served the city well. I hope it continues," he added.

The proof of Ryan's positive relationship with the FCB was the gifts and tributes paid to him at his last FCB meeting on Dec. 20 as well as two standing ovations from the audience.

What should the city be focused on in the future?

"More of the same. It's what I said in the campaign. It's not very sexy to say that, but we've had enormous success far beyond our expectations," he replied.

Ryan said he has striven to make "the right decisions for the city in a very, very non-political atmosphere."

Although Chicopee has begun a process to have a four-year term for mayor, Ryan doesn't support that in Springfield.

"Plan A is a great form of government if you have a good mayor. It's a nightmare if you have a bad one," he said.

Any change has to reflect value to the city, not to the position of mayor, he added.

He is looking forward, though, to one change in city government: ward representation. He expects to see new faces running for the ward seats with the current incumbent councilors competing for the at-large seats.

Ryan has stayed out of the public eye since his defeat for another term. At some events he would have normally attended only Mayor-Elect Domenic Sarno has been present.

"I don't make a big deal out of it. It's appropriate," he said. "It's the right thing to do, not hanging onto this thing for dear life."

And although he won't make another run for office, Ryan said if the right situation occurred and the city needed his advice, he wouldn't rule anything out.