Peña says goodbye to city hall

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When Lenore Peña walks out of Belen City Hall tomorrow on her 61st birthday, her present to herself is a long-awaited and bitter-sweet retirement.

For the past 19 years, Peña has worked for the city of Belen, hoping to make a difference in the lives of residents and fellow employees. But it’s time, she says, to focus on herself, her family and spend time taking care of her ailing husband, Steve, who is battling cancer.

Clara Garcia-News-Bulletin photo Lenore Peña, who has worked for the city of Belen for the past 19 years, is retiring this week, saying she needs to now spend her time focusing on her family.

“My husband is sick; he was diagnosed with cancer a year and a half ago,” Peña said. “He needs my 100-percent attention now. I guess I’ve given my full attention to the city for all these years, but I need to take care of him now.”

Peña first started working for the city in 1994 when she was hired as the graffiti coordinator in the parks and recreation department. Not only was she the first female laborer hired at the city, but she also became the first Hispanic female fire chief in Valencia County, from 1996 to ’97, a part-time position while continuing her work as the city’s “Graffiti Warrior.”

But because of her attention and what some say her dedication to safety, she was promoted to the risk manager’s position in 2004 — a job she has taken very seriously for the protection of not only the city, but for it’s employees as well.

Some of her greatest accomplishments while being risk manager, she says, are bringing down the insurance rates for the city and helping reduce the amount of work-related injuries within the city of Belen.

“It’s all about training,” she said. “We hold about two trainings every month, which helps employees learn about safety while doing their jobs. I also mandate everyone who is injured to report it immediately, get them medical attention right away so we can get them back to work.”

Even before she became a city employee, Peña had been volunteering her time as an EMT with the fire department and volunteering her time painting over graffiti in her own neighborhood. It was then, in 1988, that the city approached her and asked if she would volunteer with Keep America Beautiful, a program to help beautify the city.

“They were tagging in my area, and at that time, I was taking care of my dad,” she remembered. “I was painting and painting and Richard Baldonado said that if I took on the program, they would pay for the materials. Then YDI came along and said they would provide me with kids to supervise to help paint over the graffiti.”

In the early ’90s, Belen had a bad problem with tagging and Peña, who also served as a member of the Belen Board of Education from 1991-95, decided she would help in any way that she could.

“All I can say was that it was good exercise — it kept my weight down,” she laughed. “I just enjoyed beautifying the city. The Lord made me do it, I guess. My husband would always say, ‘For all the volunteer hours you’ve given, we could have been millionaires.’ But I don’t do it for the money; I do it because I wanted to help.”

After becoming risk manager, Peña said it was hard to give up her graffiti duties, but said during the city’s budget crisis in 2010, she again took over the program, although this time on a smaller scale working 10 hours a month.

And after she retires, Peña will still help out on a contract basis to make sure the city is clean of graffiti, at least when she is available.

Some of the most memorable moments during her time with the city include the flooding in 2006, the hail storm in 2008, the Del Rio Fire, when the city council proclaimed Lenore Peña Day in 2007 and when she was inducted in the Belen Fire Department’s Hall of Fame in 2008.

But the most memorable and satisfying moments, she said, is being able to help employees learn how to be safe while doing their jobs.

“I think they finally realized that I wasn’t after them — I wasn’t trying to catch them,” she said. “They realized that I was just helping them and that I cared about them.”

Mary Lucy Baca, Belen’s city manager, said Peña will be missed by every employee of the city, saying that she not only watched out for the employees safety but the safety of the city as well.

“… If everyone loved and cared for the city of Belen like Lenore does, Belen would be perfect,” Baca said. “Imagine, she still wants to continue to remove graffiti after she’s gone, which will save the city a considerable amount of work and cost.

“Lenore is extremely dependable, sometimes overly efficient, and certainly dedicated,” Baca added. “She will be retired, but I know Lenore will continue to call in (about) pot holes, lights out, missing signs, employees not wearing their safety vests, etc. Filling her shoes will not be easy. The city of Belen will be losing one of its most valuable assets, but we are happy, and jealous, for her and wish her a blessed future.”

While she won’t miss being called out at all hours of the night, Peña says she will certainly miss the people she works with, the window in her office, her city-issued truck and working one-on-one with the citizens.

“I can’t say this has ever been a thankless job,” Peña says as she looks through binder after binder of thank-you notes citizens have sent to her. “I’ve been thanked over and over again, and that’s what I’m proud of. They’re (the citizens) just grateful that we respond quickly and try to help them.”

While taking care of her husband is the first priority after retiring, she is also planning on traveling, having already three trips scheduled to Baja, Mexico, New York City and Tahiti.

“I love my job. I love the city of Belen,” Peña said. “I was born and raised here and I’ll always come back home.”


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.