Laramie Assistant City Manager Dave Derragon’s office is quaint and nondescript.
The shades are typically drawn. His bookshelves are filled with master plans, code books and city records. His desk, like his handwriting, is neat and tidy. A simple frame that never seems to gather dust contains a picture of Dave and his wife, Anita. Almost out of place, as if forgotten by a young visitor, a small Superman figurine watches traffic roll past city hall from Dave’s window sill.
But the first thing most people will notice upon entering the administrator’s office is a large glass jar filled with an assortment of miniature candy bars.
“The candy jar is a tradition Dave started in his office,” Laramie City Manager Janine Jordan said. “It draws people in with the promise of a treat and starts a dialogue about what’s going on in the city.”
Behind the candy jar sits an unassuming man with silver hair cut as close to a mullet as one might dare in 2017. The man’s wire-frame glasses, clean-shaven face and soft voice at first appear to be the punctuation of an unremarkable career spent basking under fluorescent lights in swivel chairs.
“I’m really not that important,” Dave said. “There really isn’t a story here.”
With decades of local government work notched into his belt, Dave is a veteran administrator and a master of deflection.
Behind his veil of unimportance, however, Laramie’s assistant city manager might be more of a superhero than he initially lets on.
“Dave is always the guy who’s in the office first and leaves last — always,” Mayor Andi Summerville said. “He’s always had the ability to think beyond a policy and through to what the public actually needs.”
In addition to his connection with the community, Janine said Dave could brighten a dismal scene with only a few words.
“Dave always has a witty comment for a bad situation,” she said. “He brings light to situations where there seems to be none.”
Since arriving in Laramie in 2008, Dave has worked tirelessly at becoming the go-to guy for questions about Laramie’s municipal clockwork.
And yet, despite his coworkers quiet assumptions he would retire from the Gem City lauded with praise and remembered for decades of dedication, the 58-year-old is leaving the high plains to become an assistant city manager in Storm Lake, Iowa.
Born in Pontiac, Michigan, Dave discovered a passion for city administration in the 1980s.
“I started as a city auditor in a small North Dakotan community,” Dave said. “I enjoyed the opportunity working in local government afforded to make an impact on people’s lives every day.”
After North Dakota, he took a job as the Rawlins city manager, before crossing the Snowy Range and diving into Laramie’s administration.
“What I like about working in Laramie is the group of employees we have are pretty remarkable,” Dave said.
Most of his quotes sound like empty brochure promises one might find in a tattered tri-fold forgotten in the entrance of a boarded-up tourism office. But what Dave doesn’t, or can’t, say is that his former coworkers feel the same.
“I came onto council fairly young, not having any experience in government,” Andi said. “I’ve always relied on Dave to help keep me grounded and for that mentorship. He would always pick up the phone to answer my questions, and I spent hours in his office learning how the city worked.”
At Laramie’s City Hall, Dave’s open-door policy is so well known, meetings tend to blend together as each visitor is greeted with a smile, offered a candy bar and invited into the conversation.
It is an alter ego he has built through decades of working long hours and rarely sparing a day for himself.
But as he slipped out the door Friday, it was an alter ego he planned to leave behind.
“I’m not very good at putting my family first,” Dave admitted. “Here’s what I’ve realized: I have more of my career behind me than ahead of me.”
The point was driven home in September 2016 when his wife suffered a heart attack. Although she recovered, Dave said he started thinking about what their future could hold.
“I realized that she might feel better at a lower elevation,” he said. “So, this opportunity allows me to move her to about 1,400 feet elevation. It allows me to put my family first — for once.”
Despite the tremendous amount of work performed at the assistant city manager’s desk, Janine said the city does not currently have a plan to replace him.
“The intention is not to fill this position until after the budget session following the 2018 Legislative Session, so we know how much funding — if any — we have to work with,” she said. “It’s challenging, especially in light of the reductions we’ve already made. Our office has taken on a lot of extra duties after dissolving the Community Development Department.”
The move comes at a time when droves of professionals are leaving Laramie, and Janine said while Dave’s decision was based on personal matters, she wouldn’t be surprised to see more city staff move on as the state’s financial situation continues to degrade.
“Across our organization, we are concerned about people leaving,” she said. “Hard times in Wyoming’s history prove that people leave when there is a bust.”
A possible exodus was always on the horizon, and Janine said she worked with Dave from day one to create a work environment people could thrive in.
“One of the things we both agreed is important to leadership is dedication to our staff,” she said. “We try hard to keep our salaries competitive, our benefits competitive and show care and appreciation for what our city staff do.”
Sitting in the Albany County Courthouse courtyard, Dave watched a bee buzz around the purple blossoms of a Russian sage as he reflected on his years in Laramie.
“As I look at doing this, it’s not about leaving Laramie because I’m unhappy — professionally or personally — because, I’m not unhappy,” Dave said. “It’s about the best opportunity for my wife to feel better and for us to have a quality life as my career winds down in the next decade. That’s what I’m doing.”
The mayor laughed knowingly when she heard about Dave’s reluctance to let a reporter write a story focusing solely on him and his work.
“Dave is the kind of guy that doesn’t want to be in the front seat or the spotlight,” Andi said. “He works so hard to promote the organization, but he’s never there to take the credit, when maybe he deserves it most.”
Like the out-of-place figurine watching over the city from beneath the assistant city manager’s window shades, Dave has been an unseen champion of benevolent bureaucracy.
“We’re going to miss him,” Andi said. “And not just Laramie, there is no city in Wyoming where Dave’s work is not known. He embodies the government servant we all hope exists.”