For nearly three years, wearing my reporter’s hat for methowgrist.com, I’ve observed the deliberations of the Twisp Town Council. It’s been an unexpected pleasure.
Let me explain: An appalling portion of my professional life has been spent covering elected officials, from local school boards to the United States Congress. When it comes to how our “electeds” comport themselves while going about our business, I daresay I’ve pretty much seen it all. But I’ve never seen anything quite like the Twisp Town Council — or what it’s up against.
With a population of nearly 1,000, Twisp isn’t the Methow Valley’s most economically successful town. That would be much-smaller Winthrop, a tourist mecca. Until the early 1980s, Twisp, too, had an economic engine, the lumber mill. But when it closed, hundreds of jobs, and much of the town’s tax base, went away. Stores closed, stagnation set in.
So did rot and rust. Town facilities deteriorated. Streets crumbled, water and sewage systems and the public pool leaked, fire department equipment malfunctioned. Even Town Hall itself was in danger of collapse, thanks to sub-standard construction.
Still, residents of Twisp expect drinkable water to gush forth when they turn on their taps, sewage to vanish when they flush their toilets, professional police officers to respond at crime scenes, competent firefighters to show up at fires, and snow cleared from the streets. But without adequate funding, how can any town provide such basic services? Hello?
For a quarter-century, beleaguered town officials made do with patchwork fixes for what would grow into today’s costly, multi-dimensional infrastructure failures. They were running the town without a dime in reserves for emergencies.
Plus, to add insult to self-inflicted injury, the Washington state Supreme Court ruled that Twisp was using too much water, dampening hopes for development to pull the town out of its slump.
Twisp was in serious trouble. But then something quite American happened: citizens, determined to fix the town’s underpinnings, intervened. And that’s the story of what’s going on at Twisp Town Hall. To my mind, it’s as good an example of how our government is supposed to work as you can find. Here’s why:
Not one of the five council members has any professional political experience. These are just “ordinary citizens” inexperienced in governance, feeling their way through daunting fiscal and legal issues. But they had what it took to step up to tackle intractable, long-festering problems. And they’re doing it without the meager per diem they’re entitled to. “Doing one’s duty as a citizen” is what we used to call this sort of thing in more high-minded days.
These five people are by no means of one mind — except on this: they’re serious about wanting Twisp to realize its potential. They treat one another with respect and good-natured ribbing and don’t seem to care who gets credit for good ideas.
Clint Estes, owner of Quality Lube, served eight years before resigning last month. He provided valuable institutional memory and thoughtful common sense. Estes rightly credits the council’s hiring of “can-do” Superintendent of Public Works Howard Moss for the town’s recent impressive infrastructure improvements.
Bob Lloyd, co-owner of Lloyd Logging, brings a dry wit and a businessman’s skepticism to the table. “If everybody does a little bit, nobody has to do a lot,” is his explanation for taking on this time-consuming, thankless task. He’s served once before.
Traci Day, indefatigable Queen of Sidewalks, came aboard from the town planning council, where she steered development of the town’s comprehensive plan. Insistent on sidewalks for pedestrian safety, she also spearheads the town trail project.
Vietnam veteran John Fleming, a journalism teacher who first came to Twisp in the 1980s as editor of this newspaper, admits to wanting to “cut to the chase” during interminable council discussions. But he says listening, and focusing thoughtfully on the big picture, is imperative when making decisions.
Clay Hill, former deputy prosecutor for Okanogan County and leading proponent of bus service for the valley, resigned from the council to take a job in Olympia — but not before he laid the groundwork for voter passage of the bus measure. When other town councils were shying away from endorsing it because it meant a tax increase, Hill persuaded a majority on the Twisp council to help stiffen spines by being the first to vote in support.
Dwight Filer, owner of Filer Plumbing, replaced Hill, whom he had challenged. Filer inherited Hill’s seat on the county’s transportation advisory committee, so he’s getting those buses ready to run. It’s also his second time to serve.
The council’s work is ably facilitated by a mayor who is an immigrant from Canada, Soo Ing-Moody. The council voted to pay her $2,000 per month to manage the vexing particulars of the town’s $2 million budget — and to speak up firmly on behalf of townsfolk safety to fire bureaucrats during the recent unhappiness. Paying someone with Ing-Moody’s skills to mind the store is proving an excellent investment.
In Washington, D.C., too many members of Congress, though well-paid to govern, refuse to earn their salaries. In Twisp, people unpaid and untrained for governance nonetheless can cooperate to turn a town around. It gladdens the heart that in some corners of the republic, effective self-governance still is possible.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.