Don Reimal was a commercial carpenter for 30 years. He didn’t go looking for a career in politics.
But 20 years in office, including the last eight as mayor, have brought friendships, accomplishments and new insights.
“... I found out we’ve got a city of people who care,” he said.
Reimal, 72, leaves office next week, when a new mayor and two new City Council members are sworn in.
Today there is a reception for Reimal, open to the public. It’s from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Truman Memorial Building, 416 W. Maple Ave., just west of the Square.
Reimal announced about a year ago that he would not run again. And he still says it was a tough decision.
“Yes, I love what I’m doing,” he said.
In an interview with The Examiner, Reimal talked about highlights, some frustrations and the some things he’s learned about politics, and his city, along the way.
Persistence and perseverance count for a lot, he said, and the value of loyalty in politics cannot be overstated, he suggested.
“It’s the glue that holds the city together, that you can count on people to do the right thing,” he said.
He had never been into politics – “Politics didn’t mean anything to me. I knew things were going on,” he said – but got drawn into the effort to defeat a recall of Mayor Barbara Potts in the late 1980s. (Potts won.)
“I silk-screened all the signs over in Suzie Block’s garage,” he says, mentioning a former council member.
Ron Stewart’s election as mayor in 1994 created a vacancy in the 1st District, the city’s northwest side, and few wanted to step up for less than half of a four-year term. Reimal did. He held that for position for 12 years and succeeded Stewart as mayor in 2006.
One of the lessons of all those years, he said: “Change is hard. Change is inevitable. Change is constant.”
Reimal offered thoughts on a variety of subjects:
• “The highlight was the school district,” he said, referring to the 2007 vote that moved seven schools in Independence and Sugar Creek from the Kansas City School District to the Independence School District, a move generally seen as bringing economic stability and renewal to the city’s northwest – the area where Reimal grew up and calls home.
Steadily, he said, homes are being rehabbed and neighborhoods improved.
“We saved a whole section of the community,” he said.
• Challenges lie ahead for the city.
“I think it’s going to be finances. The city budget is going to be tight,” he said.
• The city needs to address public safety issues.
“We need more police officers,” he said. “As the valley grows, we need more police and fire. And we need to start now.”
• After Stewart came into office 20 years ago, the city embarked on the widespread use of tax-increment financing to attract retailers, mostly to the southeast edge of the city. Officials at the time made the argument that getting those businesses here would be a stepping stone to businesses – offices, manufacturers – with better-paying jobs. Reimal conceded frustration on that last point.
“Yes, the commercial-manufacturing jobs are what everybody wants,” he said.
He added, “The economy nationally isn’t helping the situation out.”
There’s been some concern that other cities in the area are attracting retail growth at Independence’s expense, though Reimal put it differently.
“ ... a lot of what they’re building we already have,” he said.
His bottom line on economic development: “(Economic development) is hard,” he said, adding, as just one example, that it took years and a few near misses before Burlington Coat Factory finally committed to come to the city. It opened last fall.
• Any advice for the City Council?
“Pay attention to what you’re doing,” he said. “Know your history, because some of the things that are coming up have come up in the past.”
• Another frustration, he said, is coming up with stronger property codes for rental properties. Other issues kept getting on the front burner, he said.
“That is probably one of the main issues we have – out-of-town landlords that don’t maintain their property,” he said, adding that tenants who complain about problems often are evicted.
Reimal had endorsed at-large Council Member Jim Schultz for mayor, but he was defeated last week by Council Member Eileen Weir.
“Oh, it’s always disappointing when you don’t win,” Reimal said. “She’s going to do a good job.”
The mayor has had some health issues. He recently hurt himself during a project around the house, injuring his hand badly enough to go to the hospital. While there, he suffered a heart attack, but, after a blocked artery was taken care of, he said he’s on the mend.
He said he plans to kick back a little, but his wife, Jo, will have projects for him. They are moving into her grandparents’ home, built in 1903, on Winner Road, so there are more household projects.
Jo is often seen at his side at public events.
“She has been a champion with me and for me,” he said.
Now it’s time for a change.
The mayor put it this way: “She deserves to have some time for her.”