Garza leaves lasting legacy as retirement looms
By Mike Cook
Las Cruces Bulletin
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part story about retiring Las Cruces City Manager Robert Garza. Part 2 will run Friday, April 29.
When Robert Garza started work with the city as a 21-year-old engineer, Las Cruces was about 28 square miles in size and had a population of about 47,000 people. The city had 600 employees and an annual budget of about $100 million.
Garza was the first city employee to have a personal computer at his desk, and started work when the city offices were located in the old hospital building on Alameda Boulevard. There were no cell phones in those days, so he used a two-way radio to communicate with other city staff. As chief engineer and public works director, he used an overhead projector and transparencies at city council meetings, and remembers dazzling councillors with the first color transparencies they had ever seen. (“The focus of council members lit up like an extra-, extra-bright bulb,” Garza said.) Almost 30 years later, as Garza prepares to retire as city manager, Las Cruces has more than doubled in population to nearly 120,000 people, it has almost tripled in size to about 77 square miles, there are 1,483 full-time city employees and the budget is nearly $400 million.
Garza’s office is on the third floor of the new city hall.
“This is not the same city that I came to work for,” said Garza, whose last day of employment is May 28. “We’ve quadrupled the size of our business,” he said.
GARZA ‘The gold standard’
Few would argue that Garza’s impact on the city has been enormous.
“Robert has used those decades to hone his skills and his understanding to a level that has served our community exceptionally well and to a point where he is widely acknowledged as the best city manager in Las Cruces history,” said Mayor Pro-Tem Greg Smith.
“I have worked with over 10 managers, both city and county,” said Mayor Ken Miyagishima. Robert is by far the best I have ever worked with. “He set the gold standard for city managers.”
“He brings a wealth of knowledge and understanding to whatever table he comes to; coupled with institutional and regional knowledge and history, he has the kind of vision and ‘big picture’ perspective needed in a public administrator,” said Doña Ana County Manager Julia Brown. “He leaves very big shoes to fill as he departs.”
Time for Robert to be selfish
Despite efforts by Miyagishima and others to get him to stay, Garza is retiring in May because of changes in the Public Employee Retirement Association (PERA) that make leaving before July 1 financially advantageous. The city will lose more than 200 other employees because of the changes, Garza said, including Fire Chief Travis Brown and Parks and Recreation Department Director Mark Johnston.
“I am a very, very fortunate person who is leaving a job that I love and I am going to miss,” Garza said.
“It will be difficult for him to ‘unplug,’ since he dedicated countless hours to this job and feels there is more work to be done,” said Garza’s wife, Maryester Garza, who is the principal of Sierra Middle School. “But now, it’s time for Robert to be selfish and do something for himself. He definitely deserves it,” she said.
“It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be weird,” Garza said. “June will be great. Come July and points beyond that, I’m going to definitely be missing the work and the people. They have become extended family.” Maryester Garza suggested that her husband may now find the time to “play some golf, go fishing and travel.” Garza himself said he likely will become a consultant to “other communities in the region,” using his skill sets in engineering, management and finances to help them design and build strategies for growth. And, he said, his “skills will continue to be brought to bear to help this city.”
Putting together this puzzle
There may even be a run for public office in Garza’s future. Although he said he wouldn’t consider running for a local office, he might be interested in a statewide campaign. The land commissioner’s job is of particular interest, since it would make use of his vast storehouse of knowledge and experience.
As he looks to the future, Garza said what he will miss most at the city is the people he works with. He also will miss “creating the future, designing what we will have in our community,” which he said is “one of the biggest rewards that comes with being a city manager. I have my hands on so many buttons putting together this puzzle,” Garza said.
There are some things Garza said he won’t miss about the job, including “continuously defending everything we do. Every breath we take, every move we make is being questioned by somebody,” he said.
He also won’t miss “being at the receiving end of critics,” who “try to degrade and erode. The part that’s most difficult is when it becomes personal,” he said, adding that “my skin is really thick. I can take a lot.”
Garza was born in Ruidoso and moved to Las Cruces when he was a year old. His father, Lalo, was the longtime district attorney in Las Cruces, and also was a district judge. His sister, Carmen, is a federal magistrate judge and former defense attorney. His brother, Carlos, was a county magistrate judge and county commissioner.
Robert Garza is a 1982 graduate of Las Cruces High School with a degree in civil and structural engineering from New Mexico State University. He has been a licensed engineer since 1994 and is a member of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).
Mike Cook may be reached at goodguymwc@ q.com.