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The Simpson legacy
"I will be the first to tell you that I don't have all the answers. I have learned a lot of the questions, however. But I need your help in finding the solutions."
- Joan Simpson, Feb. 18, 1995, announcing her candidacy for mayor at the Mount Si Senior Center.
By Travis Peterson
NORTH BEND - During her junior and senior high-school days, Joan Simpson, then editor of the school newspaper, acted as campaign manager for fellow male students, managing to get each candidate she supported elected to the post of Associated Student Body president. Simpson said she never considered running at the time, because back then "women just didn't do that."
Years later, when former North Bend Mayor Max "Obe" Healea asked Simpson if she'd join the Planning Commission after proving her merits as a community activist fighting to keep development from taking over a golf course near her Si View home, her immediate reaction was "No."
"Even then I said absolutely not, it's a thankless job and everybody hates you," Simpson recalled of the mid-'80s conversation.
Healea told Simpson that if she had concerns, she needed to help the community change. The statement would not only convince Simpson to get on board, it would become the mantra for the following 18 years of political service to the community.
Simpson is stepping down as a two-term mayor of North Bend at the end of this year to move to the Lake Chelan area and orchestrate a wedding with her fiancé Dan Wright. The woman who said she never had political aspirations leaves behind a legacy that includes securing more than 800 acres of open space in the area, successfully keeping an oil pipeline from running through the heart of the city, staving off the state's attempt at placing a sex-offender halfway house on Grouse Ridge and reuniting a city and its government that for years had suffered from infighting and dissension.
When Simpson took office in 1996 as North Bend's first female mayor, all was not well within city ranks, according to former City Administrator Phil Messina who is now heading up the city of Central Point, Ore.
"To say morale was bad is to say there was morale," said Messina.
Infighting and a lack of trust between the City Council, City Administrator and city staff created an environment at City Hall where "people were hunkered down looking over their shoulder," according to Messina.
"It was a huge amount of work she was contemplating on Jan. 1, 1996, and she just dug in," said Messina.
Through her leadership and dedication, Simpson created a "sense of teamwork," said Messina, where employees were "judged on merits and results." It wasn't an easy task - making around $500 a month Simpson worked 50-60 hour weeks - but it was beneficial to the community, Messina said.
"In 18 years she's the best mayor and best boss I've ever had," he said. "The great thing about Joan is that she'd say we're going to do 'X' and she'd let you do it."
Fred Rappin, who served on the City Council from 1993-2001, said if the group disagreed with one of her policies and voted against it, Simpson accepted and respected the decision.
"There was never any pay back or rancor," said Rappin. "I was really impressed she could do that."
Simpson cites much of the success of the transformation on hiring an outstanding management staff - she had none upon taking office - that has placed North Bend in a solid position for years to come.
"It's made for a tight-knit group that wants to be here and supports each other," said Simpson.
City Administrator George Martinez said now the atmosphere at City Hall is shaped by Simpson's ability to balance hard work and a penchant for having fun. Martinez said staff appreciates the mayor's ability to "lead by example" and her fair and caring demeanor.
"Joan looks at staff as an extended family," said Martinez. "She expects a lot from us, but she understands the issues we deal with."
In the political world it is often difficult for a woman to maintain a level of approach that is persuasive and forceful without being tagged as aggressive, said Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger. Often a male politician is pegged as assertive, while a similar action can be construed negatively from a female politician as aggressive, she added.
Working with Simpson on a number of regional boards and issues, Frisinger said the North Bend leader was persuasive and strong and always did her homework, as evidenced in the city's battle to deter the state Department of Social and Health Services from placing a sex-offender halfway house on Grouse Ridge.
King County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert said when it came to the political arena, Simpson represented one group, the residents of North Bend.
"She wasn't there to make a political statement, she was out there trying to get the best possible outcome for the citizens," said Lambert.
Redmond Mayor Rosemarie Ives, who has worked with Simpson on regional issues, said there's an "inspiring and energizing" aspect to the mayor's personality.
"Can-do is Joan Simpson," said Ives.
Former state senator turned gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi, who worked closely with Simpson on the issue of gaining needed water rights for the city, praised her dedication to moving North Bend forward.
"I think her approach is the same as mine, she is willing to work with anybody who is willing to move forward in a positive manner," said Rossi. "Eastern Washington's gain is our loss."
After eight years at the helm, Simpson said she's leaving with fond memories.
"During my campaign I used the slogans 'neighbors united' and 'together we can move mountains,'" said Simpson. "I think we've done that."
Travis Peterson can be reached at (425) 888-2311 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.