GRANGEVILLE “It’s been long enough,” said Bruce Walker, in an interview last month. “I’m comfortable with the council we have, comfortable with who is leading it, and it’s time – I’m 66 years old.”
At the Tuesday’s Jan. 2 Grangeville City Council meeting, Walker conducted his last meeting as mayor, presiding over the swearing-in of three councilors, and his replacement at the gavel, Wes Lester. All total, Walker—who opted not to run for re-election last November — served 22 years on the city council, followed by the last 10 as mayor.
“I’d like to thank my wife [Diane] for every other Monday for the last 32 years, being in this room right here,” said Walker, smiling, prior to his stepping down from the dais. During this service, he attended every meeting while on council and missed only two as mayor. “It’s been quite a journey, and I thank her for that.”
“This city doesn’t run because of elected officials only,” he continued, giving personalized compliments to several staff members and department heads, and to each member of the council. “I thank you all.” At the meeting’s close, Walker was presented a refurbished fire hydrant, including a steel plaque noting his service – which also included 30 years on the city fire department.
Starting in 1981, Walker was encouraged to run for office as several of his friends and fellow Jaycees members were heading off the council at the time. That November he was elected, to serve under re-elected Mayor Ralph Bos. At his re-election, he lost: “I was pretty shaken by that,” he said, and four years later he ran again. “Diane and the kids went door to door for me, and I was elected again.”
What came as part of the learning curve in serving on council?
“I learned you can’t do a lot of the things you want to do,” he said, limited by the restrictions of government and knowing you have to serve the public. “Not everyone agrees with you, and you have to walk a fine line between what you want and what other people want.” Sometimes that loses you friends, he said.
You can push your will through regardless of the public, he continued, but you won’t last long on the council, much less 32 years.
Walker clarified the specific roles of city government: council has the power to make rules, and the mayor oversees day-to-day management. On that last, “It’s pretty much like running a small corporation,” he said, noting the importance of weekly to daily check-ins with department heads – city hall, police, public works, legal counsel – to keep out ahead of issues and on those that come up.
And many of those issues involve maintaining and improving essential “behind the scene” services – including streets, water and wastewater, “all those things people expect you’re going to do but take for granted,” Walker said.
For example, when he first got on council, Walker said the city had two full-time personnel whose jobs all day were to patch water leaks. Having funded water line replacements and upgrades, “those are far and few between. Now, we can put them on other projects that were lacking before, and keep up on other things.”
City wells have been recased, one updated and one added – water supply is sufficient and good, he said. Streets have been maintained to extend past engineered lifespans through routine patching and seal coating, and multimillion dollar improvements at the wastewater plant – “That’s a big thing, and people don’t understand that,” Walker said — have met EPA-mandated regulations for stream discharge.
City parks? “They’re beautiful,” and the city has multiple recreational options that few, if any cities of similar size could boast: four parks, Heritage Square, a swimming pool, ski course, skatepark – “We have a lot of stuff for a small town.”
These services depend on city employees, and he said, “We have a pretty good crew,” with not much turnover. Walker has overseen the transition out of several longtime experienced employees, and now a “younger group of people is running the city. We are trying to do the best we can to give them the most money we can and benefits to keep them.”
It’s these examples he’s responding to, Walker said, when he’s heard behind his back, “The city isn’t doing anything,” or “The mayor isn’t doing anything.”
And he clarified: “When everyone says the ‘city,’ it’s you, it’s me. It isn’t just the council, it’s everyone.”
For Walker, he said these years of service have been very fulfilling, in getting to know and work with many people, and to truly come to understand this system of government and sympathize with the continuing challenges to small towns. These include mandated projects – such as the city’s wastewater plant upgrade – that incur substantial costs both up-front and in continued operations, for which the benefits – in this case stream improvements – can be, at times, questionable at best.
“We need people in the upper levels of government who have been at this local level,” he said, “because we really need them to know how to deal with people.” Problems come with those ego-driven, who implement rules at statewide or nationwide levels, “that don’t look at the individual needs of individual cities.”
As far as Grangeville’s future, Walker sees the council looking to deal with another possible EPA mandate for the wastewater plant – discharge temperature within the next five to 10 years. Curbs and gutters “need to be fixed,” he said, and that looks to be addressed with pending purchase of a machine for that purpose. He looks to the city continuing to pave its remaining gravel streets.
“If the economy picks up,” he said, subdivision development is likely, which he recommends the council hold to its ordinances and not incur financial responsibilities that unduly burden city taxpayers. On development, he is hopeful a proposed but still pending 94-acre land gift to the city – announced last spring from owner Brad Mildenberger – will go through, and the council will “hopefully deal with that in a smart way. That could bring a significant income to the city if they do it right.”
On heading out, Walker said he leaves the city in good financial health – conservatively managed with reserves “for a rainy day” – and in good hands with a mayor and a council that he said will do well. His focus for the next six months will be on the future of his jewelry business, whether to sell to downsize. “I really don’t want to retire. I like being around people.”
He and Diane have been married for 45 years, with four grown children and several grandchildren. It’s a point of reflection for Walker:
“My dad died when he was 67; I’m there in a year,” he said. “But my grandpa lived to be 103, so it could go the other way,” he smiled.