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Day in the Life with Mary Lilly Smith

June 21, 2019

Posted online

Before her co-workers cross the threshold of the Busch Municipal Building, Mary Lilly Smith begins her day as director of planning and development promptly at 7:15 a.m.

Never mind that she was out until 9 o’clock the night prior, showing the consultants of Houseal Lavigne Associates LLC, a firm hired to help coordinate the city’s comprehensive plan, around the Queen City. Or that she was at a Springfield City Council meeting until 10 p.m. earlier in the week.

Smith has worked for the city of Springfield for 37 years. She’s become a city institution, a wealth of knowledge and a humble public servant, co-workers say.

Smith spends most of her time on development activity, like the rezoning of a piece of property or developing regulations to address a new industry, such as medical marijuana and short-term rental properties.

Smith became the director of planning and development in 2014, following a 16-year stint as economic development director. Before that, she was principal planner in the Neighborhood Conservation Office.

At 7:55, she grabs her Napoleon Bonaparte coffee cup – purchased on a recent trip to France – and heads to the fourth floor, where she and her co-workers plan the agenda of the City Council meeting two weeks in advance.

“It’s pre-pre planning,” she jokes, taking a sip from her third cup of coffee this morning.

The meeting is quick as City Manager Jason Gage, City Clerk Anita Cotter and Deputy City Attorney Jan Millington work through the council’s agenda, along with a handful of other employees.

Smith runs from meeting to meeting. She stops by her office to drop off paperwork and sit for just a few minutes until Sarah Kerner, director of economic development, knocks on the door.

At 8:50, the two, later joined by Millington, walk to the City Utilities building, where the consultants of Chicago-based Houseal Lavigne are prepared to present the nine-step process the city will take the next 18-24 months as part of the new comprehensive plan process.

But this isn’t new to Smith; it’s one of the many projects she’s been focused on for the last month since the city and consulting firm signed a $657,000 contract.

The heads of multiple city departments and law enforcement agencies fill the City Utilities auditorium. It’s the crème de la crème of city government.

Smith, with a constant smile on her face, makes the rounds in the room, chatting with anyone she passes. Her laugh is heard throughout the room.

The sign of a seasoned public speaker, Smith quickly brings the chatter to an end to begin the presentation.

“You know that we’ve been talking about a comprehensive plan for a very, very long time,” she says. “The new comp plan, we hope, will provide not only direction for future land use, but also will provide an opportunity to really dream and think about what this community should become over the next 20 years or so.”

The meeting lasts for less than an hour. John Houseal of Houseal Lavigne walks the audience through the plan, which includes utilizing community outreach and engagement, market and demographic analysis, and citizen focus groups.

At 9:30, Smith sneaks away for a few minutes to her office, which showcases many of the awards she’s received for decades of work in public service.

Also, on her wall is a signed frame from the city recognizing her 30-year anniversary as a city employee.

Smith takes a sip of her fourth cup of coffee as she answers the many emails filling her inbox. She also writes explanation sheets for council bills when she finds the time.

Thirty minutes later, she grabs her keys, takes her last sip of coffee and throws on her Ray Ban sunglasses. She’s headed to the Lake Springfield Boathouse, where her department is hosting a comprehensive plan workshop.

It’s not common to have everyone from City Council, Planning & Development Department and the city managers in the same room.

At 11, Houseal Lavigne presents for the second time in the day before hosting a workshop with the city leaders. Houseal asks the audience to list five problems in Springfield. Ultimately, there were 33 comments listed on large sheets of paper: ability to attract and retain a diverse workforce, opioid and drug abuse, and the lack of attractiveness of the city, among them.

Councilman Matt Simpson asks about council members participating on the upcoming Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee. Smith later tells Houseal she knows of four council members interested.

Around 1:30 p.m., the workshop comes to an end, and city leaders gather with Houseal Lavigne for a debrief.

“Did anything come up that surprised anyone?” Houseal asks.

The city’s principal planner, Randall Whitman, answers: “I heard them specifically say that the community’s not attractive, and it’s one of the few times that I’ve heard someone put it out there.”

Smith reminds the group they have a lot of work ahead, such as scheduling interviews with key people and constituents they’d like to hear from.

The consultants will return to Springfield in August for a community workshop.

Looking around the boathouse, Smith gives a sigh of relief – the first step for the new comprehensive plan is complete. She decides to return to her office downtown to turn off her computer and pick up a few files, but one thing leads to another, and she’s working past 5 as she returns calls, reviews council bills for the July 1 meeting and replies to emails. So much for the early start to her weekend, she thinks. But at least she’ll have a clean slate for Monday.

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