Skip Lee’s 12 years as Sterling mayor to be celebrated Monday

Friends and well-wishers invited to reception

Former Sterling Mayor Skip Lee took this selfie in his office – his "farewell picture" –  as he prepared to leave the post. May 1, 2023, was his last official day as mayor.

STERLING – Former Mayor Skip Lee, who couldn’t make his own retirement party May 1 because he was under the weather, is back in the pink and ready to give it another go.

Friends, family and well-wishers are invited to a reception Monday to recognize his years of service to the city, the first six as an alderman, and the last 12 as mayor.

It’s been a fantastic ride, and it’s because I’m part of a great team. Public service gets a bad rap, and here in Sterling, that’s not the case.”

—  Skip Lee, former Sterling mayor

The reception will be held at Johnny’s Bar and Grill, 707 Freeport Road, after, what else, the city council meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m. and usually lasts about an hour.

Folks are invited “to offer a farewell and perhaps a light roasting!” the city said on its Facebook page.

Skip Lee signs his last document as Sterling mayor before yielding his gavel to new Mayor Diana Merdian, whose first day on the job was May 1, 2023.

“I’m going to miss it, but it was time for me to move on and give someone else a chance at leadership,” Lee said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“I think [new Mayor] Diana Merdian is going to do a great job.”

Lee, who decided not to seek another term, was an alderman-at-large for six years when he defeated Marc Batley in April 2011 to become mayor.

He was head of Rock Falls High School science department and a chemistry and biology teacher at the time.

He retired at the end of the 2010-11 school year, then went on to win three more terms as the city’s head of the class.

A case of vertigo that turned into a stroke scare, which turned out to be nothing serious (as he explains in a May 3 posting on his Facebook page), kept him from attending his last City Council meeting on May 1 and confirmed for him that he’d made the right decision.

“I need to refocus my attention” and spend more time with his wife, Sue, and their family, he said.

Sue and Charles "Skip" Lee. April 2023

For more than 30 years, Lee has been part of the U.S. Naval Academy’s admission process, also working with the Coast Guard, the Virginia Military Institute and others when asked, and he’s also president of the Grace Episcopal Church board, roles he will continue in retirement.

When it comes to his accomplishments as mayor, there’s a lot the famously upbeat Lee has to celebrate.

Most notably might be his role in the ongoing transformation of the Sterling riverfront, from a blighted, abandoned manufacturing site to a community jewel in the making.

The final plan, approved in March after years of planning, plotting and negotiations, will result in a multimillion-dollar site featuring retail, residential and restaurant spaces, a park with amenities that include a splash pad, and bike and walking paths, among many other things.

Other successes under the Lee administration include economic development landmarks, such as the redevelopment of the Kmart building and creating TIF districts that helped bring Kohl’s and other businesses to the city; helping get local option sales taxes passed to help pay for road and storm sewer infrastructure; using grant money to demolish 35 decrepit homes, build 11 new homes and remodel eight, while also creating 24 new green spaces; promoting quality-of-life projects such as local festivals and events and neighborhood beautification efforts; and balancing the city’s budget every year while also paying down pension obligations and setting aside money for future projects, such as a new sewer plant.

In fact, he said he has only one regret: the death of Sterling firefighter Lt. Garrett Ramos, killed fighting a residential fire in Rock Falls on Dec. 5, 2021.

“That was the low point. I would have given anything not to go through that,” he said.

As always, he’s optimistic about the city’s future.

“There are a lot of great things coming down the pike,” Lee said, citing efforts that have been going on his entire tenure get a rental property inspection program off the ground that may be coming to fruition; work to bring more affordable housing units to Sterling; and a program to help Sterling homeowners pay the potentially devastating costs of failure of the sewer lines that come into their homes, which many people aren’t even aware they are responsible for.

Two things contributed to Lee’s successful ride, he said.

The first was advice given to him by a mentor years ago:

“Be a part of the team. Find out what your role is on that team, and do the best job you can do,” while supporting and allowing other team members to do their jobs.

The second was the caliber of the people with whom he’s worked.

“It’s been a fantastic ride, and it’s because I’m part of a great team,” he said. “Public service gets a bad rap, and here in Sterling, that’s not the case.”

Beyond its good staff, Lee also had praise for the city’s residents who share the staff’s “dedication to making this a better place to live.”

Lee’s not completely retiring from the city he has loved for so long, and said that while he is “looking forward to the next chapter in his life,” he also plans to continue helping out in some capacity or another as other opportunities arise.

“I’m not just going to sit on the porch. This city means too much to me.”

Kathleen Schultz

Kathleen A. Schultz

Kathleen Schultz is a Sterling native with 40 years of reporting and editing experience in Arizona, California, Montana and Illinois.