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Mayors moving on: Shirley Fanning-Lasseter - Duluth's Lasseter most proud of sweating the little things

Editor's note: For political, health or personal reasons, seven of Gwinnett's and Barrow's mayors are stepping down at the end of this year. Here's a look at the leaders who helped build and transform the local community.

DULUTH - Shirley Fanning-Lasseter looked at the photo from her first year in office and heaved a sigh.

"Boy, that was a hellacious year," she said of 1993, the year she ousted a mayor she respected because she believed things needed to change in Duluth.

In 14 years under "Mayor Shirley," everything from the city offices to the downtown have taken new shape.

But it's the little things - the city's interaction with citizens and open and responsive government - that Lasseter is most proud of, as she leaves office to prepare for a run for county commission.

"You know that saying, 'If you want something done, give it to a busy woman,'" Lasseter said with a laugh. That's how she has spent her entire career in politics, raising kids and working hard.

Prior to her tenure as mayor, Lasseter worked as Duluth's marketing director, trying to spin glories into a system she didn't fully support.

"I really believe I brought great professionalism to the position," she said, adding that she faced great resistance from the council during her first year. "I don't think it was as difficult as it was for me being a woman as it was for being a change to the present council."

But while she planned for the Town Green and for the sidewalks and parks and revitalization, Lasseter said she missed choir concerts and ballgames for her kids.

"I do regret that," she said, remembering one of her worst memories of coming in halfway through her daughter's choral performance. "I tried to make it up to them in different ways."

In those years, though, Lasseter became a mother to Duluth.

"Her genuine concern, she always showed that. It was one of her shining lights," Councilman Jim Hall said of Lasseter's best attributes. "In meetings, when things get tense, she was a reassuring presence."

Lasseter remembers a few times when that came in handy, especially the time when councilmembers and residents began coughing hard during one meeting.

It turned out that a police officer had to use pepper spray to detain a suspect in the department offices below the council chambers, and the fumes spread upstairs, Lasseter said with a laugh.

Then, she recounted the time when she herself brought pepper spray to the chief of police, thinking the device was faulty. She ended up setting off the spray in the chief's face.

"You have to keep a sense of humor and a love for people," Lasseter said.

As she sat in the old city hall's offices just days before a new edifice opened to the public, Lasseter reflected on the creation of the Town Green, which was an old parking lot before the council transformed it into a popular park, with a fountain and a stage for events.

"We had to create a destination and create the excitement to come in it," she said. "The old saying, 'If you build it, they will come,' is a movie. ... But once the downtown was built, the children and the teenagers and the parents hovered around that fountain. It was unbelievable."

Over the years, Lasseter dressed up as the Runaway Bride at a hockey game, bringing laughter into a situation that once had the city tensely searching for a missing woman, and she placed a bet with the mayor of Alaska, when the Gwinnett Gladiators faced off with his team in a championship match.

She's proud of Duluth's reputation as a patriotic place, thanks to a Memorial Day service and display she helped create when she was working as the city's marketing director. It's grown even larger, and citizens are now working to create a memorial for living veterans and public safety officers.

In the new year, Lasseter has a couple of resolutions, including beginning her commission campaigning and quitting smoking.

She said she leaves her city office with mixed emotions, but knows she left the city in the best shape she could manage.

"I know what I have done and the journey I've been on with the city for 14 years," she said. "I know that has been amazing and produced wonderful things. I can take that with me."