Port Richey losing its "city momma" to retirement

Shirley Dresch, 69, will retire today after decades of weathering Port Richey’s ups and downs. First up: a Hawaiian vacation.

KERI WIGINTON | Times

Shirley Dresch, 69, will retire today after decades of weathering Port Richey’s ups and downs. First up: a Hawaiian vacation.

PORT RICHEY — Shirley Dresch was swamped again — working right up until the end. It was late Tuesday night, the meeting at City Hall had just adjourned, and before she could even stand up, a host of residents and council members quickly surrounded her with questions.

She had grown used to it after three decades as the city clerk, working 10-hour days fielding relentless requests into the minutiae of small-town bureaucracy. She began to leaf through a tall stack of agendas, maps and spreadsheets looking for answers, though the night's biggest question seemed, at least for now, unanswerable.

Who can replace Shirley Dresch?

When she retires today, the employee-labeled "city momma" will take with her a font of knowledge into every sliver of this city's operation. She's dealt with dissolution threats, internal backbiting, cranky residents and big-money lawsuits, becoming the sole constant in a city often haunted by rocky controversy.

In short: Nobody knows City Hall — the codes, the people, the secrets — better than Dresch.

"Any time the city was in a pinch or needed anything, she was always the person who stepped up. She has saved this city multiple times," said former mayor Michael Cox, now a Pasco County commissioner. "Most people, if they put up with the kind of stuff she had to, they'd probably run out of the place in a straitjacket or as a raging alcoholic."

• • •

Dresch, 69, was born and raised near Chicago's Wrigley Field. While working as a school bus driver in DuPage County, Ill., she decided to follow relatives to Florida and its promises of warmer weather.

She worked seven years as a Pasco school bus driver, then as a part-timer at a secretarial answering service, before being hired as a secretary to the Port Richey city clerk.

Dresch had no government experience. But over time she began to learn the ins and outs of municipal service, earning promotions from secretary, to deputy clerk, to city clerk in 1984.

She was expected to reply to records requests, assemble agendas, coordinate meetings and maintain ordinances, resolutions, minutes and contracts — a job that required the legal memory of a mayor and the patience of a saint.

That didn't stop Dresch from filling in for positions above her pay grade. She wrote a budget as a chief financial officer, helped enact a new charter as an acting city manager, even managed an election recall where tied council candidates drew straws out of a film roll.

"There's not a department in this building I'm not familiar with," Dresch said.

Or, as Cox put it, "Some people have multiple hats. She has multiple hat racks."

• • •

The city has proclaimed today "Shirley Dresch Day." Officials will chat about her from 2 to 5 p.m. over cake and coffee.

Former mayor Eloise Taylor: "She maintained decorum, good humor, professionalism. She was really an unusual person, especially given the — how do I say it? — colorful nature of Port Richey."

Former mayor Eileen Ferdinand: "If she didn't agree with something you said, she'd let you know it."

Former council member Jim Priest: "You might not have always heard what you wanted to hear, but you knew what you were hearing was the truth."

No one can say who will become the next city clerk. City Manager Ellen Posivach said a call for in-house applications was posted this week, with possible outside advertisements to follow. No one has trained under Dresch in the last few weeks, a move Priest called "a little negligent."

"I would have hoped a number of months ago that somebody would have seen this day coming. … That's just smart business," Priest said. "To not have someone there is a bit of a mistake."

As for Dresch? She'll be vacationing in Hawaii for 10 days with women from the Red Hat Society. Then she'll lie out on Ormond Beach and read James Patterson thrillers. Then she might visit family in Chicago or volunteer with small-dog rescue groups. She said she'd like to relax.

Though she'll be leaving City Hall behind, she said she still loves the idea that "a little community" can run itself through home rule — and a lot of work.

"The one thing I've always guaranteed people here is, you'll never be bored," Dresch said. "I don't like boredom. That's why I liked this job."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6244.

Port Richey losing its "city momma" to retirement 04/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 28, 2010 9:47pm]

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