Political Notebook

Armstrong says retirement from Clovis City Council is bittersweet

You don’t last 50 years in municipal government without strong principles.

In Harry Armstrong’s case, those principles came through loud and clear nearly 25 years ago when a group of developers tried to overrun planning in Fresno and Clovis. Many, including local politicians, were swept up in an investigation that the FBI dubbed Operation Rezone.

Bill Tatham Jr., who wore a wire to record conversations with several of the more than a dozen convicted in the case, said there weren’t many people he could trust, but he learned quickly that Armstrong was among that small group.

“Harry was absolutely one of them, and I still consider it that way today,” Tatham said. “I respect Harry so much; all his career he was standing up to these people.”

Pat Wynne, who was Armstrong’s colleague on the Clovis City Council at the time, remembers being shaken by a developer who approached her. She sought Armstrong’s advice.

“He just laughed and told me, ‘Tell him to go straight to hell,’ ” Wynne said.

Mr. Clovis

Armstrong, 85, announced his retirement last week after 46 years on the City Council and four years on the city’s planning commission, a career dating back to 1966. His retirement is effective Oct. 17.

He has described the council job as full-time, one that takes 40 hours a week to do correctly. And the pay, about $15,468 per year, doesn’t even equate to minimum wage.

Armstrong personifies Clovis. Even when he was not the mayor, a post that rotates among council members, residents called Armstrong “mayor.”

After losing an election for Fresno County supervisor in the early 1980s, his only attempt at another office, Armstrong became determined to fight for cities.

He was named president of the League of California Cities. He testified in Washington, D.C., and in state hearings.

He earned notice. Armstrong recalls, for instance, his dealings with former House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

O’Neill first met Armstrong at a fundraiser for then-Fresno Congressman John Krebs, then the two ran into each other again in the Denver airport.

Before Armstrong could reintroduce himself, O’Neill said: “You’re Harry Armstrong.”

Later that year, Armstrong returned to Washington, D.C. He spotted Valley Congressman Tony Coelho coming out of O’Neill’s office after a scheduled visit.

Armstrong walked into O’Neill’s office, unscheduled, and chatted with O’Neill for several minutes. When he returned to the hallway he was greeted with looks of disbelief from lobbyists and others unable to get time with the speaker.

“I have to say Tip O’Neill was the most impressive individual I ever met,” Armstrong said.

Last year, Armstrong was recognized for his service by the League of California Cities.

“Harry’s dedication to the cities of California is unsurpassed,” agency executive director Chris McKenzie said. “He has brought incredible integrity and focus to his decades of service, not only on the Clovis City Council but to the League of California Cities and all the other local government-related organizations and agencies he has served.”

Through the league, he became close friends with Tom Bradley, the former Los Angeles mayor.

He recalls a time when their families got together. Bradley got an important call about preparations for the 1984 Olympics and the Soviet Union’s participation, but the Los Angeles mayor was otherwise involved.

“Tom was down on the floor with my grandson, David,” Armstrong said. “He said: ‘I’m busy; I got an important person (in my office).’ 

Clovis achievements

Clovis has grown from a farming town of 18,000, to a bedroom suburb of 108,000 while Armstrong has been in office.

He says the city has been well-managed with continuity from city staff that works together and council committed to getting along and improving the community.

Projects that came to fruition in his more recent years on the council include a new police and fire headquarters downtown and the municipal water treatment plant and sewage treatment plant and pump house near Clovis East High School. There’s also the Clovis Botanical Garden and Miss Winkles Pet Adoption Center, which he credits former Pelco President David McDonald for pushing forward.

“We set a bar and set an example for pet adoption centers throughout the state,” Armstrong said.

Clovis has a large network of parks and trails, and now Highway 168 pushes its way through the city, making downtown Clovis less than a 15-minute trip from downtown Fresno. Fresno County was one of the first regions in the state to approve a local road tax plan, Measure C in 1986, that helped pay for urban freeways.

“It was very forward-thinking, and Harry was at the forefront,” said Tony Boren, executive director of the Fresno Council of Governments.

Boren says Armstrong worked with the agricultural and business communities to get buy-in on the tax hike. “He told them this is how we will move our economy, move goods from farm to market. At the time, this was all groundbreaking stuff.”

It won’t be long before a section of Highway 168 is named for Armstrong. It will be near the William H. “Harry” Armstrong Transit Center the city is building downtown. An interchange will bear his name, too. Armstrong was named in a state Senate resolution sponsored by Jim Costa in 2002. The designation will take place upon the end of Armstrong’s service on the City Council, the resolution says.

Looking ahead, Armstrong looks forward to seeing a new Clovis Senior Center and the transit hub near Clovis Avenue and Third Street. Also on that property, a new Fresno County Library is proposed that will draw funding from the city and county.

Not ready to leave

The end didn’t come suddenly, but it was too soon for Armstrong.

He recalls falling asleep early on New Year’s Eve and then waking up at 2:30 a.m. needing to go to the bathroom but unable to get up from his bed. An ambulance took him to the hospital, where he stayed for about two months.

The council gave him a leave of absence as he battled complications from pneumonia.

“It really took a lot out of me.”

When he ended his leave of absence, he attended meetings by teleconference, saying the council was “good to me.”

The council has several options to replace him, but could wait until March to hold a special election for Armstrong’s post, making it a two-year seat to go along with the election of two four-year members.

“I still see a lot of things on the horizon that I would like to see happen in Clovis, and hopefully the council will follow through on some of those things,” Armstrong said. “It’s a bittersweet ride off into the sunset. … The city has been good to me; hopefully I’ve been good for the city.”

With a half-century of civic service and a long résumé of accomplishments, his advice to future Clovis City Council members is simple.

“If future councils look out and have a vision and do the right thing, it will be a great asset to the city,” he said. “My closing comment to my colleagues is: Always do the right thing.”

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

Harry Armstrong’s farewell

When: Monday, Oct. 17

What: Reception for Harry Armstrong, retiring after 50 years serving the city of Clovis

Where: City Hall, 1033 Fifth St., Clovis

Time: 4:30 to 6 p.m.