Wednesday, April 11, 2012

City mourns loss of its go-to guy, Rep. Carl Gatto

Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer

State flags across Alaska flew at half-mast Wednesday in honor of Palmer-based Rep. Carl Gatto, a Republican who represented Palmer in the Alaska Legislature since 2002.

Gatto, 74, died April 10 in Washington state, where he was being treated for a kidney condition. Gatto had for several years battled prostate cancer. He recently took a break from the legislative session to receive radiation treatment for tumors and, after heading back to Juneau, was flown to a Seattle-area hospital for treatment for dehydration and a kidney condition. His chief of staff told Associated Press reporters last week that it appeared unlikely Gatto would return to Alaska before the end of session.

Gatto chaired the House Judiciary Committee and pushed this year for a bill to ban texting while driving, a measure that stirred a little controversy. But locally, he was known more for the hard work he put in on several sizable projects. 

Last fall, Gatto was one of several dignitaries who spoke at the grand opening of Mat-Su Senior Services Center, the new and spacious senior center in Palmer. Seniors in Palmer had been working on getting a new building for nearly 20 years but Gatto put the project on his top priority list for the state budget for five years running. He did so after visiting the center and literally cringing at the cramped space and piles of paper files that occupied nearly every corner of the building. A former Anchorage Fire Department chief, he said the building was one giant fire hazard, in addition to being too outdated to meet the various and many demands of Palmer’s growing senior population.

Another project Gatto championed was the new, broad thoroughfare that is Trunk Road. The project to widen and straighten the narrow old road had languished on state Transportation project lists for years. Gatto, who lived on the road, was familiar with its failings. An avid runner, he had a cadre of horror stories to tell about being forced off his path by drivers zooming around its twists and turns.

Gatto championed many projects but Palmer Mayor DeLena Johnson said she would remember him for his unfailing support for the city fire department. When a new piece of equipment – and none of them are cheap – was needed, Gatto was the city’s go-to guy. In fact, Johnson said she’s a little worried the city’s top capital project, a new fire tanker and roof replacement for the city fire station, might get lost in the legislative shuffle without Gatto there to shepherd it through. It’s a big-ticket request, $780,000, and Johnson said she hopes it won’t be forgotten. She and city manager Doug Griffin were headed to Juneau for a session-end lobbying trip this week to make sure that and other city requests are on legislators’ minds.

Johnson said she felt Gatto did a great job keeping in touch with community needs and representing the city at the state level.

“He was always visible in the community, we were always able to talk to him,” she said. The news of his passing, she said, was not unexpected given his recent health battles, but it was a tragedy nonetheless.

Palmer City Council members passed a resolution Tuesday night honoring Gatto for his service. City leaders meant to give it to him in celebration of his retirement – he had announced he would not seek another term in the House earlier this year. But with his passing, the council felt it important to mark his “unwavering support” to the community.

Here's the proclamation the city passed:

-- Rindi White

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