Luis Gutierrez relaxed and laughed and flashed that great smile of his. There were plenty of stories and a few confessions, like the one from a neighbor who spoke of youthful forays to Southern Pacific sidings, where sometimes the kids helped themselves to a little bit of a load of wine. A little went a long way.
Gutierrez, a proud son of Barrio San Antonio, rose to the top level of city government, presiding as city manager since 1996 to cap a 31-year city career. At this gathering, Gutierrez didn't want any special treatment. He didn't make a few remarks and leave for some big-shot dinner. He didn't boast. He didn't tell tales.
Indeed, he joked later, his stories from the old days would have to wait until he retired.
And that day, with some surprise, is on its way.
Gutierrez, who will turn 58 on Christmas Eve, announced last week that he will leave his 10th-floor office at City Hall and his $130,000-a-year job at the start of the new year.
His retirement will come a few weeks after a new City Council is seated, with the additions of Bob Walkup, the first Republican elected mayor since 1983, and Carol West, a Democrat who will take over the northeast Ward 2 Council office where she was once an aide.
Gutierrez's close ally and friend, George Miller, a Democrat who held the mayor's office for two terms after serving more than 13 years on the City Council from northside Ward 3, also will begin retirement.
Council and city officials insist that Gutierrez was not forced out, although there were some unconfirmed reports that Walkup, a former Hughes Missile Systems executive, may have wanted to keep Gutierrez, but his heavy-hitting backers didn't. That would surely show some strength of Walkup's bosses; under the City Charter, mayors have no vote to dismiss city managers.
"I don't think there were four votes to get rid of Luis, but I think there were four to put him on notice," said Councilman Fred Ronstadt, a Republican from central Ward 6.
But Steve Leal, the southside Ward 5 Democrat and the new Council's senior member, said: "I truly believe Luis wanted to retire to relax a little bit and to be with his family. His father didn't live that long and neither did his grandfather. So I think he wanted to enjoy himself and his family. And he certainly ends on a high note."
Indeed. The city is not reeling from budget problems, morale crises, or cover-up scandals that have plagued previous administrations. And though budgets are likely to grow tighter with increased demands -- and burgeoning, expensive traffic problems -- that will become more acute with an eventual economic downturn, Gutierrez is leaving city government in good shape.
And after successfully directing focus -- and money -- into neighborhoods and into fundamental services with the Back to Basics program, Gutierrez also helped steer the Rio Nuevo project back on course.
After a shaky start, the plan Gutierrez and his team restyled for a 10-year, $320 million development south of Congress Street along the Santa Cruz River was approved by voters on November 2. Still, he faced criticism for either initially "dusting off" an old Rio Nuevo plan or using portions of those submitted by rival developers.
"Luis' soul is the city," Leal says. "He cared about all parts of town. Whenever I discussed issues and needs on the southside, it wasn't an uphill battle."
West, who is taking over the Council seat vacated by her former boss, Janet Marcus, after three terms, said she thought Gutierrez was going to stay on until some time in the spring.
"I think he believes the city is financially stable, the economy is still good and Rio Nuevo passed, that it's time to go fishing," says West. "And I mean that in the truest sense. He's a terrific fisherman."
Generally soft-spoken and pleasant, Gutierrez was a fierce defender of the city who didn't flinch in whatever battles sprouted with Pima County or other governments. A Tucson High School and University of Arizona graduate, he also was the third Hispanic to have the city's top job since 1973. (Over that 26-year stretch, Hispanics have held the job for 21 years.)
His greatest lesson is perhaps one that won't get a lot of discussion but one that propels the Council to look inside for its managers rather than for a Paladin. He reminded all that local talent is best, including predecessors Joel Valdez, the record holder for longevity, and the one-year interim Manager Ruben Suarez, a former longtime budget director.
Gutierrez took over three years ago, when a slow-moving Council majority found the courage to dump the itinerate Michael F. Brown. Smart and talented in some areas, such as budget planning and project management, the Napoleonic Brown ultimately failed to get Tucson Water to correct its monumental problems. His arrogance matched his flash, such as when he spent $23,155 in taxpayer money in 1995 on a purple Impala Super Sport capable of reaching 93 mph in the standing quarter mile. And Brown's abrasive -- some said abusive -- ways and fiery temper finally wore thin.
The Council and city would have been better off had Gutierrez been promoted after the talented, politically savvy Valdez left in 1990 for a vice president's position at the UA. Instead, the then all-Democratic Council installed Tom Wilson, a Catalina High School grad, lawyer, television salesman and former Scottsdale city manager. Wilson also had a bad temper and had trouble correcting and reporting the fuel leaks at the Thomas O. Price Service Center on the southside.
Brown, imported from Berkeley, returned to California to be the administrator for Santa Barbara, while Wilson is down the coast in Oceanside.
Yet it appears one of Brown's many city executive imports, John Nachbar, has the votes for the top job. Also lured from California, the 43-year-old Nachbar has headed a number of key city projects and has won praise for righting Tucson Water after the 1992 CAP delivery crisis and subsequent management crises. He is currently serving as Gutierrez's chief deputy.
Council members, for the most part, are not holding Brown against Nachbar.
"People (Council members) are basically supporting Nachbar," says Leal, who will soon begin another stint as vice mayor.
In the course of frequent shifts, even in the new Council, only Jerry Anderson, the Democrat from Ward 3, favors a full-blown search.
Ronstadt says that while he likes Nachbar he would prefer to see "at least a regional search" for a new manager.
Leal says Nachbar has a good and suitable "temperament and is not an egotist. He helped big time on Rio Nuevo and stabilized the water department while handling other duties. He is bright yet unassuming and listens well."
Nachbar, Leal says, will be a fine fit at a time when he says the Council "needs to be very prudent, particularly when it comes to water. We can't fumble anything. Sometimes after an election, people get a little heady and think they can fly without gravity."
West says she's ready to appoint Nachbar and particularly would like to avoid the six-figure cost associated with a search.
She too praised Nachbar's performance. "He turned the water department around. He's smart and yet he always was respectful of working with and for Luis."
Although some city officials -- none on the record -- are suggesting that Nachbar is too cozy with Walkup (his Starr Pass neighbor), no one is publicly leveling any criticism at him.
Simmering underneath the apparent support for Nachbar, however, are reports of investigations of a Tucson Water chemical spill in 1997. Leal sought probes about six weeks ago by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, and the state Attorney General's Office also is looking into the matter, which involves the response by Tucson Water at a time when Nachbar was its acting director.
The findings of the reviews could certainly affect Nachbar's rise.
Anderson says "no one has convinced me otherwise'' that a search would be valuable to be careful about who the Council is placing in the manager's office.
"I think John is a good professional," Anderson says. "(Assistant City Manager) Benny Young has his points as well. There's baggage that comes with anyone. This is my first time through it, selecting a manager, and I just think a search is generally the way to go."
Anderson says "in some cases, I feel more comfortable with Benny and hoped to put him in on an interim basis."
Young, 48, is the former director of transportation and has won widespread praise for his brains, dedication and personality; he is friendly and approachable. He's also a member of the popular Desert Sons Western music group.
He says that although it is "flattering" that his name is raised as a possible successor to Gutierrez, it is not a role he is seeking.
Gutierrez's replacement will be a key task for the new Council that begins December 8.
Expectations, Leal says, must be checked.
"Luis is not replaceable," Leal says. "His virtues are such that it would be unfair to John to compare them."