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Gary Skrel (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff)

It was more than 30 years ago, after helping his mother through a bruising campaign to win a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives, that Gary Skrel made a vow.

"After seeing what the campaign did to me and to her, I pledged to myself that I would never run for elected office" he said. "All the negative stuff was just exhausting."

Funny how that turned out.

The Man Who Would Not Run is completing his 12th year on the Walnut Creek City Council, making him its longest-serving member. He's attended so many first and third Tuesday night meetings he can remember when the city still had money.

That's about to change. He will vacate his seat at the end of the year because "it's a good time for some fresh ideas."

His was an unexpected ride. Skrel rose from community activist, lobbying for the Tice Valley Gymnasium, to an appointment on the Parks, Recreation and Open Space Commission, to his first council campaign. Former councilwoman Sue Rainey caught him "at a weak moment" and urged him to run in 2000. He won again in 2004 and in 2008. The longer he held the position the more he appreciated the voice it allowed him in shaping his city.

Local government is where the line is drawn between public servant and politician. Only the earnest run for small-city office. Hours can be long, issues can be complex, and the only real payback is the satisfaction of making a difference.

"No one knows what they're getting into until they're elected," he said. "It's quite a learning curve. The surprise is how much you need to know to be an effective council member."

The biggest demand is time, and it's the reason members eventually quit. Doing the job correctly can take 40 hours some weeks -- hours that need to be squeezed around the job that pays your bills.

Skrel, president of the Covello Group, said he felt guilty when he didn't spend every spare hour on city business. Understanding the dozens of agenda items that come up each month requires careful preparation.

There have been gratifying moments, of course. Skrel said one was leading the push for an ice-skating rink in Civic Park. Another was construction of the Veterans Memorial Plaza at City Hall.

Less enjoyable was the pitched battle over Neiman Marcus. Opponents of the store coming to Broadway Plaza, backed by a rival shopping center developer, brought lawsuits, initiatives and referendums to the fight in 2009, when Skrel held the rotating position of mayor.

"What a year to be mayor," he said.

He left his mark as a champion of fiscal prudence -- his dissenting votes often hinged on funding -- and a supporter of growth. He smiled as shops, office complexes and Plaza Escuela sprung up during his three terms.

What of the poker face he wore during stinging public comments and policy debates? He credits that to a lesson learned early in his first term, when he was chagrined to find a closed-circuit TV broadcast caught him rolling his eyes while a colleague spoke. He didn't roll his eyes again.

He still expects to be involved in the community, just as he was many years ago when he spearheaded fundraising efforts to pay for the renovation of Northgate High School's gym.

"If people think I can help, I'll help," he said, "just not every first and third Tuesday."

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayarenewsgroup.com.