Arlene Fisher was part of the first Liberty Lake administration before the official incorporation of the city in August 2001. Fisher wore many hats during a tenure that lasted until the end of 2007, including city clerk, finance director, city administrator and HR manager. She went on to serve as city manager for three Washington jurisdictions – Cheney, Mountlake Terrace and Union Gap – before retiring in 2023.

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Return Ticket Home; Fisher helped establish LL city roots
2/8/2024

In the acclaimed 1940 novel, "You Can't Go Home Again," author Thomas Wolfe paints the picture of ambitious writer George Webber who leaves his rural hometown roots to seek fame and fortune in New York City.

While Webber achieves his professional vision, he discovers the harsh realities of a changing world along the way. As his journey comes full circle, Webber realizes that hope, love and optimism represent far more than provincial cliches of his youth.

While Arlene Fisher may not have left Liberty Lake for the bustling streets of Manhattan, London and Paris like the protagonist in Wolfe's book, she did punch her ticket in late 2007 to take on a challenging role as a full-time city manager in a jurisdiction to the west.

And unlike Webber, Fisher has proven that you can go home again. Arlene and her husband Rich relocated to Liberty Lake last spring after she retired from her job as city manager in Union Gap, a city of around 6,500 in Yakima County.

"I was sitting with Rich one day and I just said, ‘What are we doing here? I want to go home,'" Fisher said. "For us, home is Liberty Lake."

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Arlene and Rich, who grew up in Newman Lake, have four kids and seven grandchildren in their blended family.

For Fisher, leaving Liberty Lake 17 years ago meant a major transition from the place where she cut her teeth in municipal administration. When the vote to incorporate the city passed in November 2000, Fisher was working as a technician for the U.S. District Court representing Eastern Washington but was looking for a change.

One of her professors from Eastern Washington University told her that the new city would be hiring.

"I said, ‘Liberty who?'" Fisher recalls. "I'd never heard of it but he told me to go and talk to Steve Peterson."

Fisher attended a meeting at the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District office and began the process of introducing herself to those comprising the city's inaugural leadership structure. Peterson would serve as Liberty Lake's first mayor.

There was no revenue coming in yet, so Fisher decided to volunteer as part of the fledgling staff getting the city on its feet.

"I had some savings, my kids were off to college," Fisher said. "I thought it was a unique opportunity."

Peterson remembers Fisher being integral to the formation of the first city to incorporate in Spokane County since Airway Heights in 1955.

"As the first mayor, I was fortunate enough to hire Arlene as our first employee," Peterson said. "She had the financial skills and organizational skills to ensure all of our documentation was completed accurately and on time. When I hired Arlene, I told her we had no money to pay her salary but she quit her federal job and truly believed in what we were doing. She brought very incredible dedication to the task."

Over the years, Fisher took on many roles, including city clerk, finance director, HR manager and city administrator. She brought her own chair from home to set up her original office and shuttled from temporary City Hall sites in the Liberty Lake Portal and Greenstone Building with fellow employees before staff settled into the current home of the city on Country Vista Drive.

"We were all more than capable," Fisher said of the inaugural municipal team. "We brought our hearts to work every day."

Fisher was involved in every hiring decision in the city's first seven years and was front and center in key acquisitions that helped mold the character of incorporated Liberty Lake.

"Arlene made sure we were all focused on the outcome – the purchase of Trailhead, the library, the master plan for the 6.5 acres at Town Square, our place within the county and our relationships with the other electeds," Peterson said. "She had terrific people skills and worked extremely well with our council to make sure that they were well-informed on issues and challenges which faced our new city. There were hundreds of times which Arlene helped us succeed."

Fisher learned the value of a consistent work ethic growing up on a farm in Fort Lupton, Colorado, 25 miles north of Denver. She was the second youngest in a family of four brothers. Her dad worked as a truck driver.

"We had a mini-farm with horses, cows and a cornfield," Fisher said. "The farm didn't make money but it taught us a work ethic."

Fisher began working for Safeway on weekends while in high school and continued as an employee after graduation. She met her first husband during that time and the couple had two sons.

In 1988, Fisher left her home state and moved to the Puget Sound area with her boys. She applied for an opening at Bellevue District Court running the traffic division and was hired. When a court job became available in Spokane a year later, Fisher realized the compensation coupled with the cost-of-living reduction made sense for her and her sons.

After planting new roots in Spokane, Fisher also went back to school, taking classes at Eastern Washington University. She would go on to earn a bachelor's degree in finance and business and a master's in public administration from EWU.

"My favorite course work in college was public administration," Fisher said. "I knew then I wanted to be a city manager."

Fisher's tenure in the city of Cheney lasted from January 2008 until early 2014 when she accepted a similar position with Mountlake Terrace, a suburb of Everett. When she left Liberty Lake for Cheney, she was overseeing a budget of $12 million and a reserve of over $1 million.

In Cheney, Fisher spearheaded a revamp of the city's inefficient water utility that had been leaking significant money. The water loss ratio, normally around 10 percent, stood at 38 percent. Under Fisher's leadership, the city combed every residence and business, repaired old pipes and reduced the water loss ratio to 15 percent in 18 months. At the same time, revenue increased by 27 percent.

After a two-year stay in Mountlake Terrace, Fisher was named city manager in Union Gap. Her office there bore resemblance to the modest furnishings in the early days of Liberty Lake – the corner of the city's fire station. Fisher went to work again, leading the charge for a new City Hall.

"We built a City Hall with no bonds, no rate increases," Fisher said.

Since returning to Liberty Lake, Fisher has resumed her familiar focus on making a difference. She is a member of Liberty Lake Rotary and will serve as club chair next year. She was also recently appointed to the city's Community Engagement Commission.

In Fisher's Trutina neighborhood, she has become the ad-hoc expert on municipal matters.

"I mentioned that I helped start the city and now anytime my neighbors have a question about the city, they come to me," she said.

Q: With your re-entry into Liberty Lake last year, have you noticed much change since you called this city your professional home?

A: The city has grown tremendously since we moved back. It's a well-planned city and it shows that a lot of thought and care went into the planning. When Rich and I tell people we live in Liberty Lake the response is, "Wow that's such a beautiful community."

Q: Why did you decide to be part of the city's Community Engagement Commission and what are you looking forward to most about this new challenge?

A: The commission is just that – engaging with our citizens. I love talking about our city and most importantly, I love helping our citizens.

Q: Speaking of community engagement, what are some of your memories of the way the city connected with residents in those early years after the incorporation vote passed in 2000? Do you think it took awhile for Liberty Lake to develop its own "city brand" so to speak?

A: Absolutely. It took time for everyone to accept we had become a city.   For most of the residents they weren't sure what benefits they would be receiving.   However, the formation of our own police force was expected by the residents. We achieved that and more.

Q: You could have easily continued in your stable role with the court system and probably finished out your career there. Why did you decide to take a chance with a brand-new city, signing on with no pay and no guarantee that it would be a sustainable position?

A: This question makes me giggle. I just felt there was promise. The original council members and, of course, Mayor Steve, were so strong in their beliefs that we could succeed.   I was very drawn into that emotion. Also, the council members accepted me and my strengths.

Q: What were some of the takeaways you took with you from your years in Liberty Lake that benefited you as a city manager in Cheney, Mountlake Terrace nd Union Gap?

A: Never give up. There is always a way to solve a problem.

Q: Do you think most people underestimate the amount of work and ongoing maintenance it takes to run a safe and viable city?

A: Absolutely. Often I get asked the question, "What do you do for work?" My reply is city manager. The next question is, "What is that?" After many times trying to explain my job and folks still don't understand, I simply say, "It's like being a CEO of a company."   That usually does the trick.

Q: Of all the roles and responsibilities you've had in the various municipal stops across your career, which have been the most rewarding?

A: Of course Liberty Lake was my favorite. However, Cheney is where I really learned how to be a city manager. I was the first woman manager so I had to prove myself quickly. I continually interacted with staff, I let them make decisions, and they, for the first time, felt empowered. The staff began to trust me and I personally cared for everyone. The university played a large role in the city and we had a wonderful relationship of working together.

Q: You and your husband could have chosen anywhere to live after you retired from Union Gap, why did you pick Liberty Lake?

A: Liberty Lake is home. I knew what kind of community Liberty Lake is and I knew we would be very happy--- and we are.

Q: Finally, as someone who was part of the team that poured the foundation for Liberty Lake, what are you most proud of when it comes to the city it has become today?

A: Everything. When I attended the first Community Engagement Commission meeting, I walked into the chambers and cried. I was just so overwhelmed with pride and I knew I had come home.