TUMWATER - Ballroom dancing seems an unlikely source of political acumen, but Mayor Ralph Osgood says it has served him well in his 16 years as the city's leader.
The most important lesson he has learned: Make your partner look his or her best.
“If you’re always doing your best and trying to make your partner look golden, it can really be successful,” says Osgood, who will leave office Thursday.
Osgood was in his mid-30s when he was elected to the City Council in 1989, the year President Ronald Reagan left office, and won his first term as mayor four years later. Only one mayor has served longer in the history of Thurston County’s three major cities, records show: Another Tumwater mayor, Ray Johnson, held the post for a combined 22 years during two stints, from 1923 to 1928 and 1941 to 1956.
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Osgood, who turns 56 next month, ends his tenure as one of the county’s most popular political figures. Three times he faced re-election, and three times he ran unchallenged.
“He’s been a great mayor, and I know he’s going to be very sorely missed within the community,” says Mayor-elect Pete Kmet, who has had a close working relationship with Osgood as mayor pro tem for many years. Like Osgood, Kmet was elected to the council after serving on the Tumwater Hill Neighborhood Association, created as a result of development in the area in the 1980s.
“He’s a student of government management,” Kmet says. “He does it in his day job. He applied those practices at City Hall.”
He adds: “I know I’ve got some big shoes to fill.”
Osgood has had considerable power under Tumwater’s strong-mayor system but says he has chosen to work side by side rather than top-down. Partly, this is a political necessity because he doesn’t have a vote on the council, except to break ties.
“I didn’t really do anything,” says Osgood, whose other job is managing the state Department of Licensing division that licenses businesses and occupations. “It really was a collaborative effort, with the City Council, the city staff, the citizens, the businesses.”
Those who know him say that philosophy reflects his personality.
“He has a great gift to get to know them and being accepting of them,” says Jerry Murphy, a business owner, former city councilman and past president of the Tumwater Area Chamber of Commerce. “Just to watch him interact with other people is very good. He has a lot of patience and is a great listener.”
Adds Councilman Neil McClanahan, who lost in his bid to succeed Osgood: “I don’t think that’s for votes. That’s just who he is.”
People who have worked with City Hall say Osgood has always treated them fairly and listened to their opinions, whether he agreed or not.
“He seems to be very open to hearing both sides of an issue and making sure that information gets fairly presented to the council,” says Laura Kimbrough, the executive officer of Olympia Master Builders, a trade association that represents developers and home builders.
E.J. Zita, a co-founder of the Salmon Creek Basin Neighborhood Association, says Osgood’s welcoming demeanor relaxes residents who are nervous about speaking publicly before the City Council. Zita’s neighborhood association waged a three-year fight to keep developers from building mega-warehouses in their neighborhood along Kimmie Street.
She noted that his pleasant demeanor can mask his true positions on issues.
“He always smiles, whether he means it or not,” she says. “I realize that he may not be meaning it. … The fact that he was always a friendly presence on the bench really did make it easier for neighbors,” even when he later did things that outraged some residents.
One example was when Osgood directed former City Administrator Doug Baker in December 2004 to notify a property owner that the City Council was going to approve a moratorium on big-box stores, a move aimed at stopping Wal-Mart from coming to Tumwater pending further review of the project. The tip-off allowed Wal-Mart to file and vest its application a few hours before the City Council took action. Opponents exhausted numerous appeals, and the store now is scheduled to open in spring 2011.
McClanahan, who cast the lone vote against the moratorium, says the mayor’s decision angered council members and many residents. He said a hearing after the council’s initial approval of the moratorium got ugly, with finger-pointing and shouting. They “had me for breakfast and also barked at Ralph too,” he recalls.
Osgood says he still gets “extreme heat” for the decision but added that he’s convinced it was correct. He won election to his final term less than a year later.
“I’m not a Wal-Mart supporter,” he says. “But I am an open- government, being-honest-with-people sort of person. To me, there’s really no room to do those real backroom things, whether intentional or unintentional.”
Another source of contention is the mayor’s strong backing of the public ownership of Tumwater Valley Golf Course, which the city acquired in 1996. The city has borrowed $2 million from sewer-fund reserves to subsidize its operation; the fund will be repaid with interest.
Osgood says the acquisition preserves 100 acres of pristine property in the city’s core and gives the city an opportunity to make a profit when the debt service is paid, which is projected to occur in 14 years.
Osgood questions why some residents support losing money subsidizing public ballfields, but they challenge an enterprise that could make money for the city in the long run.
Murphy, who was voted off the council in 2007 and opposed the course’s continued public ownership, says every year he saw the golf course’s budget increase, but he never saw a business plan to ween it off the subsidy.
“I thought it was better to privatize it,” he says.
REFLECTING ON A LEGACY
Asked what his legacy as mayor will be, Osgood speaks of the journey the office gave him and not a specific destination.
He’s proud of the small, incremental improvements to a city that has seen its population grow nearly 50 percent since he began serving as mayor in 1994. Sidewalks have been improved. Residents have curbside recycling, one of his initial campaign goals.
He’s pleased to see the development of office buildings at Tumwater Town Center, the beginning of a new downtown. Harsh economic conditions have put the brakes on the project, but the departing mayor remains confident that it will move forward when things turn around. He’s happy the city had to lay off only one employee during his tenure.
Again, Osgood spreads the credit around.
“We did them,” he says. “It was not my signature.”
Osgood says a major disappointment has been leading the city when the century-old Olympia Brewery closed in 2003 and watching it slowly fall into disrepair after a failed venture to bottle water there.
“When it got shut down,” he says, “it really removed the heart of the community. There were very good jobs at the brewery.”
The mayor doesn’t mince words when talking about its current situation. He said the current owner is asking too high a price, akin to trying to sell a $200,000 home for $1 million. Over time, developers have suggested public assistance in the form of waiving fees and charges to aid the idle property’s redevelopment. But Osgood stands steadfast against such suggestions.
“I can’t fathom why we would have citizens of Tumwater and businesses of Tumwater try to bail out the people who did the bad investments,” he says. “It’s just wrong.”
He also expresses disappointment that Tumwater was unable to secure tax revenue from the public facilities district to construct an aquatic center, a project he feels had “strong potential” but divided the City Council. The cities of Lacey and Olympia secured the funding to build the Regional Athletic Complex, which is complete, and a new Hands On Children’s Museum, which is planned.
After leaving office, Osgood plans to spend more time with his family and reconnect with friends. A portion of his extra time will be dedicated to a favorite pastime: ballroom dancing with his wife of 31 years, Annette.
He says he leaves the city without regrets.
“The decisions that I made may not have been perfect, but I don’t regret the ones that were slightly imperfect,” he says.
Christian Hill: 360-754-5427