The people of Fresno said goodbye on Jan. 3 to one of their best public servants – Assistant City Manager Renena Smith retired after nearly 20 years of service at City Hall.
The City Council, Mayor Ashley Swearengin and City Manager Bruce Rudd last month surprised Smith by proclaiming Dec. 15 to be Renena Smith Day.
The Council Chamber was packed. The audience gave Smith a standing ovation as she made her way from the dais to the public microphone, where Council President Paul Caprioglio orchestrated a proper send-off.
City Clerk Yvonne Spence read a proclamation that summed up Smith’s City Hall career.
Smith started work for the city on Nov. 3, 1997 as a budget analyst. Promotions soon came her way. She became a senior budget analyst in 2000, moved up to budget manager in 2002 and was named budget director in 2008. By 2011, she was an assistant city manager.
“Very few people, other than her family and members of the administration, will every fully appreciate the time, energy, years and tears Renena spent working to mitigate the impacts associated with the Great Recession,” Spence read from the proclamation.
In other words, the Great Recession very much affected the level of municipal services in Fresno. But without Smith on duty, the Great Recession could have turned into a disaster for Fresno’s half-million residents.
Smith’s sharp eye ensured that the general fund got every dollar it deserved from other government agencies. She helped clean up the administrative mess involving federal Housing and Urban Development grants (“mess” is my word, not the proclamation’s; I’m being kind).
The proclamation didn’t mention it, but I know from experience that Smith did a great job dealing with the Fresno Grizzlies and their rent challenges at Chukchansi Park.
“These are just a few of the many accomplishments and contributions that Renena has been responsible for over her distinguished career with the city of Fresno,” Spence read from the proclamation. “Renena has been a nurturing mentor within the organization providing guidance, support and assistance. She has always been first to offer a kind word or gesture to ensure that employees were recognized for their efforts….The people of Fresno and the city of Fresno employees owe Renana a debt of gratitude for her dedication to, and tireless efforts on behalf of, our community.”
Rudd told the audience that he brought some Kleenex to the microphone, just in case things got too emotional – for him.
“This organization has been blessed to have this phenomenal woman as part of our team,” Rudd said.
In 2011, when Smith joined the City Manager’s Office, many experts on Wall Street expected Fresno to join the ranks of American cities filing for bankruptcy protection. It was a time, Rudd said, when “we were in the midst of the most difficult time that this organization ever went through.”
Rudd said Smith is well known in the public for her good manners, precision and kindness. But when it came to delivering tough policy advice behind closed City Hall doors, Rudd added, “I saw another side of Renena.”
That comment drew some laughter among those in the know.
Smith under such pressure was a “tenacious, take no prisoners, don’t take no for an answer, we’re not going bankrupt come hell or high water, we will do everything we can to keep this organization from going over the edge” leader, Rudd said. “Without her creativity and, more importantly, her commitment to the employees and to this community, I would venture to say we very easily could have ended up like some other cities. This woman is absolutely phenomenal.”
Swearengin said she agreed with all of Rudd’s comments. Swearengin added that a key part of Smith’s legacy is the depth of talent to be found in the city’s Budget Office.
“To me, that is as big a testament as anything,” Swearengin said.
Council Member Oliver Baines thanked Smith for her wise counsel to the legislative branch – wisdom always imparted with tact.
“In my six years here, you have been a tremendous asset to our office,” Baines said. “I appreciate all you did for us.”
Fire Chief Kerri Donis had another surprise for Smith.
“Renena, you are a talent and a leader – so kindhearted and a wise mentor,” Donis said. “Just so you know, we think you are chief officer material”
Donis presented Smith with a fire chief’s helmet.
Smith was handed the microphone. She was cool and calm.
“There’s a lot in my career that I think is remarkable, but it’s remarkable because of everyone that I work with and supports me and has always been there for me,” Smith said. “… I’m going into retirement. It’s a little bittersweet. I love what I do and I love the people I do it with and the city I do it for. This is my hometown, and that’s never lost on me. I go forward with the higher purpose of serving my family and my Lord.
“I will still be watching over everyone and will be taking calls – for awhile.”