Inaugural city leaders stay tuned in to municipal legacy
By Craig Howard
1/9/2013 10:24:14 AM
In December, Judi Owens vacationed in Oregon and found herself evaluating lighting fixtures on a city street. Dave Crump notices curbsides and parking features when he drives through different towns, while Wendy Van Orman reflects on building codes in areas she visits.
Welcome to life after municipal government.
For Owens, Crump and Van Orman - representatives of the very first Liberty Lake City Council - the notion of preserving and improving their community continues despite being away from public office for over a year. The trio stepped away from City Hall in December 2011 after a combined three decades of civic service.
"What I miss the most about being in public office is the focused attention and information on topics for the public good," said Crump, who also spent time as mayor pro tem. "I also miss working with others on ideas and projects to help move services forward in a positive direction. I enjoyed listening to the public, hearing from staff and trying to make the wisest decision possible."
Van Orman, who served on the governance study committee leading up to the vote to incorporate Liberty Lake in November 2000, said the vision of establishing a city with reliable amenities and a healthy balance between residential, commercial and open space formed the foundation for the Liberty Lake of today.
"It was an opportunity to set up our community to be self-sustaining, provide services and do it collectively," she said. "We spent a lot of time together as a council, researching and taking the best of the best from other cities in the state and country. I think it paid off with tremendous dividends."
From inadequate police protection to roads layered with snow during the winter months, pre-incorporation Liberty Lake found itself relying on a Spokane County government that, in Crump's words, "had good intentions, but just couldn't get to it all."
As a springboard to incorporation, the area featured a rich history of civic involvement integral in creating a world-class trail system and a popular community venue like Pavillion Park. When ballots were cast in the fall of 2000, nearly 65 percent of voters approved the idea of a city. The following April, another election would take place, this one implementing the first governing board in the city's history.
In addition to Owens, Crump and Van Orman, the premier collection of city brass included Tim Shea, Brian Sayrs, Scott Bernhard and Dennis Paul on council with Steve Peterson as mayor. The first council meeting was held on May 8, 2001. Arlene Fisher (city clerk), Lewis Griffin (city administrator), Doug Smith (community development director) and Brian Asmus (police chief) were among the inaugural hires at City Hall.
"I'm proud to have been a part of the beginning," said Owens. "Lots of people get to serve on a City Council, but there are only limited opportunities to actually start a city from the ground up. I loved being part of the city team and hiring the first of our employees."
While the City Council and municipal employees are now housed in a well-established City Hall just east of Trailhead Golf Course, lodging arrangements following the incorporation vote read like a community directory of commercial space. The transition team - led by former Washington Secretary of State Lud Kramer and consisting of committees focused on topics like roads, open space, zoning, law enforcement and the budget - gathered at a variety of venues, including the Liberty Lake Portal, Greenstone's Liberty Square Building and the headquarters of the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District named after Denny Ashlock.
Meanwhile, council members and staff donated their own computer gear and furniture as the city began to find its feet. Representatives of council garnered a humble wage of $75 a month.
"We really built this city on a shoestring," Owens said.
Meetings routinely stretched out to four hours and beyond in that first year as the council discussed and approved nearly 170 ordinances.
"I always tried to make decisions that were really going to have an effect on a future time that I may not be around to see," Crump said. "Some of my favorite memories of that first year are developing the foundation of something that is much greater than myself and developing and modifying all the governing laws of the city."
The governing board also crafted a mission and vision statement for Liberty Lake and established a municipal symbol that is now seen everywhere from the city letterhead to the entrance at City Hall. The first few years of the city also included landmark campaigns to form a police department and municipal library, the purchase of Pavillion Park from Spokane County and the establishment of codes for signage and development that set the tone for the city's distinctive look.
"I like the things we've put in place," Owens said. "We worked so hard to establish a community we could be proud of. I don't think you need to give up on your high standards. I think you need to be collaborative and work with people and hold those standards - they will bring businesses here. It makes me very nervous that we won't maintain that. That's the one thing that bothers me about not being on the council."
Crump, who was behind the idea of supporting local commerce with monument signage that meshed with existing aesthetic values, agreed.
"Liberty Lake has an identity," he said. "I don't want to see that go away. Set your standards and live to that. I don't think we need to settle."
Van Orman dealt with debates over signage and development issues while serving as mayor from 2008 to 2011. She said the city's signature regulations are directly correlated to its success in drawing new commercial ventures.
"Our city was incorporated for the protection of the beauty of our area," she said. "One of the main reasons was the creation of our development code and the signage provisions incorporated into it. We want to help our businesses remain competitive and successful, but also want to keep protections in place so the beauty will be here for future generations."
While City Council meetings, executive sessions and committee discussions may not be part of the agenda for Owens, Crump and Van Orman these days, each remains plenty occupied in their respective professional fields. Owens works in administration for the Central Valley School District and serves on the Washington State Investment Board. Crump is director in student services at Spokane Public Schools District 81 and Van Orman operates a successful flooring business that has been in her family for decades.
All three city pioneers say the best part of the past year away from City Hall has been the opportunity to spend more time with family, while each expresses gratitude for the sacrifices and understanding of their families during the time they were in office.
As for any advice they would pass on to those who now sit around the dais, Owens begins by recommending that current council representatives should "be truthful and remember they represent all of the community."
"I try to keep my distance from what's going on and just pray that the qualities and values that are important will rise to the top," Owens said. "It would be easy to pass judgment on the folks that are doing the work now, but I'm not sitting in their seats and not privy to the background on every issue, so I'll just say that I'd be disappointed if the foundation that we put in place were compromised."
Crump said he does have concerns over a number of municipal issues, including the budget, the utility tax, open spaces, community congruity and use of LIFT and TIF funds. Still, he says he will approach speculations about the city's health and growth from the standpoint of informed citizen, not lingering ex-council member.
"I know that when I stepped out of public office my role needed to change, and the new public representatives deserved the freedom to do their best," he said. "I have followed city news by speaking with citizens and reading articles about the process and decisions. The current City Council is doing an excellent job. I greatly appreciate their time and dedication."
Van Orman expressed hope that the city would be "very deliberate with our finances" by stretching the tax dollar to fund basic services like law enforcement and road maintenance. Based on the last two years of rebounding revenue from sales tax and permit fees, the former mayor said "there is no need for a utility tax."
"I believe each council member is there for the betterment of our community," Van Orman said. "It is a tough job and a lot of responsibility to read through the packets and ask the tough questions, but we are counting on you to make good decisions based on the information you receive."