Woodbury looks back on 28 years as a Clark County leader

Attorney Bruce Woodbury glances out a high-rise window that shows craggy mountains in the distance and ribbons of traffic that look like so many Matchbox cars.

On this day in his Las Vegas law office, Woodbury can count the hours he has left as an elected Clark County leader. After 28 years, Woodbury and many others have difficulty envisioning him without the title "commissioner" in front of his name.

Today, Democrat Steve Sisolak will be sworn in to succeed the county’s longest-serving commissioner.

Woodbury, a Republican, became a lawyer a decade before taking a commission post that would last far longer than he imagined. He says he will dedicate the time and attention to being an attorney that he has not had the luxury of doing since 1981.

He sought re-election this year before the state Supreme Court ruled that the 12-year term limits, passed by voters in 1996, barred him from running again. Woodbury still disagrees with the secretary of state raising the term-limit issue as the race got under way, but he now views his ouster as a blessing.

"I was feeling some burnout," Woodbury said. "I came to the conclusion that I was running for one more term, not because I wanted to, but because of pressure."

Many friends, neighbors, family members and political allies keep urging him to pursue various public offices, including governor or U.S. senator.

Some people have suggested he pursue a local judgeship so he could stay in his Boulder City home. But Woodbury said that as a judge, he would have to give up his civic activities to appear impartial, something he’s reluctant to do.

Woodbury insists he will forgo politics entirely for at least a couple of years and take a welcome break.

"But I love public service, so I’ll never say never," he said.

Woodbury’s imprint on the valley is clear when it comes to air quality, transportation and flood control.

Twenty years ago, a brownish haze shrouded the mountains while smokestacks at a Henderson industrial complex spewed pollutants skyward.

"I was disgusted by what I saw," Woodbury said. "A gray, murky, smoggy valley that seemed to be getting worse all the time."

While a member of the local health board, which in the 1980s regulated air quality, Woodbury drafted a plan to reduce pollution from cars, factories and even allergen-producing vegetation.

The irony, he noted with a smile, was that he was a Republican pushing for restrictions, and he met staunch resistance from certain Democrats on the health board and commission.

His proposal to curb car emissions stoked a fierce debate, he said. "One columnist accused me of writing a political suicide note."

With a split vote, the commission in the early 1990s approved the plan, which laid the groundwork for combating pollution on a county-wide scale, he said.

"He was instrumental in getting the ball rolling in developing a regional air quality program," said Lewis Wallenmeyer, director of the county’s Department of Air Quality and Environmental Management. "He really realizes the need to have clean air."

Working on storm drainage is another of Woodbury’s legacies. He led the creation of the Regional Flood Control District a quarter-century ago, an effort that earned him the nickname "the father of flood control."

Flash floods plagued the Las Vegas Valley for decades, including a gusher that swamped the Strip in the mid-1970s and forced Caesars Palace and other resort casinos to shut down for days. Government leaders were reluctant to ask taxpayers for funding to fix the problem, one resident recalls.

"There was a lot of talk but nothing happened," said M.J. Harvey, who has served on the flood control district’s citizens advisory panel for more than two decades.

Severe storms in the early 1980s drenched neighborhoods and stirred an outcry that caught Woodbury’s ear, said Harvey, who described how her subdivision near Duck Creek flooded six times in 1984.

Many people lost their homes, and some died when they drove across flooded streets and were swept away by the current, Harvey said.

Woodbury saw the need to get the local governments working together as a regional body rather than as separate entities, she said.

He lobbied for the state legislation needed to create a regional flood control district. Lawmakers denied his request in 1983, then approved it two years later.

The next task was to establish a way to fund the district and the projects. Voters passed a quarter-cent sales tax in 1986.

The tax has paid for most of the $1.3 billion of work done, including 470 miles of underground channels and 60 flood basins, said Gale Fraser, the district’s general manager.

The flood system is about halfway finished, Fraser said.

Because the district is regional, it qualified for $250 million in federal money to improve the washes on Tropicana Avenue and Flamingo Road, Harvey said. Fraser credits the drainage system for lessening the effect of an intense rainstorm that swept through the northwest area in 2003. Fifteen years ago, such a storm would’ve caused horrendous flooding, he said.

"Future generations will have a better quality of life because of Commissioner Woodbury’s resolve to make sure this thing got going," Fraser said.

Woodbury’s allies applaud him for having the foresight to expand the area’s transportation system to meet growth.

He pushed to build the Las Vegas Beltway, and he approved expanding runways and adding baggage carousels at McCarran International Airport when many residents opposed the projects, said Jacob Snow, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission.

"He could see the growth coming," Snow said. "He took the heat for saying, ‘We need to do this.’"

Woodbury also had a hand in forming the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Snow said. "So the list goes on and on."

Robert Bilbray, 61, a Laughlin developer, said the town owes much to Woodbury for its roads, aquatic center, library and hospital clinic.

"Bruce has put fingerprints all over Laughlin," Bilbray said.

Respect for the longtime incumbent cuts across political and economic lines, Bilbray added.

"He has been the center of gravity for the commission," Bilbray said. "We’re looking forward to moving on with Commissioner Sisolak, but it’s a hard act to follow."

Woodbury said he always tried to ensure the outlying areas weren’t treated like unwanted foster children.

"I worry about my small towns and cities," he said. "I’ve had a protective attitude about them over the years."

Not all small town folks know of his work. Two employees at the Southwest Diner in Boulder City interviewed recently had never heard of Woodbury.

"Don’t know who he is," said Kristina Gloege, 35, who moved to Boulder City five years ago. "To me, he didn’t really stand out."

But down the road at Bradley’s Restaurant, one couple’s memory of Woodbury was fond. Jo Rowland, 78, talked of teaching a few of his children how to swim.

"We wanted to vote for him again," she said.

"And we’re Democrats," said her 79-year-old husband, Tom Rowland. "He took care of Boulder City."

Woodbury helped to extend U.S. Highway 93 to the city, improving traffic flow through the downtown core, he said.

Projects like the highway extension were rewarding because they benefited residents, Woodbury said. That’s why he swapped a convention authority seat for one on the transportation board, he said.

The convention authority was considered plum because he could travel abroad to lure companies to Las Vegas, he said. "It didn’t seem right to me. I didn’t see the value to constituents."

For Woodbury, accommodating growth is different from welcoming it.

He peers out the window at the bustling, world-famous city visited by countless tourists, and he longs for the smaller, Rat Pack town of his childhood.

"I was born in Las Vegas, but frankly, I get nostalgic for the old Las Vegas, even though it’s exciting and dynamic now," Woodbury said.

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

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