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Sackrison bids farewell after long career

LACEY - Mayor Graeme Sackrison is the city's first council member to hold the top post during two separate tenures.

Sackrison, 67, served as mayor from 2000 to 2003, returning to the post in 2008. He will leave office Thursday after losing in his bid for a fourth City Council term during last month’s elections.

Sackrison, who served on the city planning commission for four years before being appointed to the elected post in 1997, says his two mayoral terms have been marked by some differences.

During his first term, he focused on learning the ropes as the city’s ceremonial head. The second term was dominated by the fracturing relationship with Lacey Fire District No. 3, which has provided firefighting and basic emergency medical response within the city limits under contract for more than 40 years.

The dispute led to acrimonious meetings, a lawsuit over the temporary closure of the Hawks Prairie fire station, and an initial decision by the city to part ways and start its own fire department. After the ouster of Sackrison and two other longtime council members in November, the city charted a new course and will ask voters in April to annex into the district.

NEW FACES ON THE COUNCIL

Councilman-elect Ron Lawson will succeed Sackrison. The council will appoint a mayor and deputy mayor in January. Deputy Mayor John Darby and Councilwoman Ann Burgman, the council’s longest-serving member, also were defeated in their re-election bids.

“I’m always looking for a way to solve problems, and collectively, the district and the city were having a terrible time solving problems – and that’s stressful and it’s unsatisfactory in my book,” Sackrison says. “But sometimes parties can’t agree. So that made the second go-around more difficult than the first.”

He acknowledges that both sides could have handled the situation better. He declines to go into detail, saying the focus should now be on the annexation election. Both sides have asked county commissioners to schedule the special election for April 27.

“I think he has always strived to do what he believes is best for the city,” says Lacey Fire Chief Jim Broman, who has held the post for 20 years. He declined further comment.

GROWTH MANAGEMENT

Sackrison presided or served on the council during an explosion of home and retail development that made Lacey a fast-growing city during the decade – then watched as development practically ground to a halt as the housing and lending markets went into free-fall.

Some residents have been critical of Sackrison and the council, saying they let developers clear-cut and pave over a community that proudly declares itself a “Tree City USA.”

Sackrison has heard such criticism and says the purpose of the Growth Management Act is to contain growth within cities and urban growth areas to preserve farm and forestland.

“If someone buys a piece of property and plans within the zoning restrictions and says ‘We’re going to build,’ there’s precious little even those who don’t like growth can say” to stop it, he says.

The mayor says the city has attempted to strike a balance between two extremes: laissez-faire development and stopping growth entirely.

Asked about his accomplishments, Sackrison touts the council’s environmental record. During his tenure on the council, the city committed hundreds of thousands of dollars to reduce the amount of polluted runoff flowing into Woodland Creek. The council agreed to power all city facilities and equipment with renewable energy and toughened the tree-protection ordinance in the face of the development spike.

COLLEAGUES, CONSTITUENTS

Ken Balsley, a longtime resident who writes a community blog and closely follows City Hall, says Sackrison started or furthered many environmental initiatives that residents aren’t aware of.

“I think he’ll be remembered for raising the consciousness of the community on environmental issues,” he says.

Balsley says he didn’t have “great expectations” for Sackrison when he was appointed to the council but has found him to be personable and a good communicator.

Virgil Clarkson, whose four-year tenure as mayor was bookended by Sackrison’s stints, says the city’s environmental efforts are far ahead of those in other communities.

The two councilmembers have an interesting history. Sackrison defeated Clarkson for the council seat in 1997 by 61 votes. Clarkson was appointed to the council the following year. Two years ago, Clarkson was thwarted in his efforts to be appointed to a third term as mayor by Sackrison.

Without going into details, Clarkson says he didn’t always agree with Sackrison’s decisions as mayor, but he notes that the mayor probably didn’t agree with some of the things he did when he held the position.

“All in all, he served very well,” Clarkson says.

Sackrison says he is pleased with voter-funded improvements to various parks and the completion of the Regional Athletic Complex, which will bring visitors and their tax dollars to the area. The complex recently secured its first national tournament.

Other notable improvements are the Lacey Woodland Trial, which will expand the impressive urban trail system in the area, and the opening of the Lacey Senior Center, which has proved so popular that the city has begun planning for expansion. These projects were completed without asking voters for more tax dollars.

In addition, Sackrison is pleased that the city has been able to weather the economic downturn without resorting to layoffs or major program cuts.

“I guess it’s not a single item, but there were a lot of things I advocated for as a member of the council and as mayor that got done,” he says.

His biggest disappointment is rooted in the economic free-fall, notably how it stopped progress on the proposed Lacey Gateway Town Center, a huge mixed-use development in Hawks Prairie.

The city and Hawks Prairie Investment LLC, the property owner managed by prominent South Sound developer Tri Vo, jointly worked to secure a Cabela’s outdoors store at the site in an effort to attract even more development.

The recession put the brakes on the project, and it now is in question. Vo is in financial trouble and is behind on property taxes on the Gateway property, as well as other ambitious projects in Olympia and Tumwater.

Sackrison expresses confidence that the project will continue as long as the city’s elected leaders and staff members hold to the vision established for the property in the early 1990s.

“Obviously, they can change their minds,” he says. “I would hope that, as is often the case, that you keep the vision in mind.”

WHAT'S NEXT

Sackrison is ready to dive into his new leadership role with another environmental endeavor: the Thurston Climate Action Team. The group, which is seeking federal nonprofit status, has secured $1 million in grant funding to improve energy efficiency in homes and small businesses around the county. It is working with the Thurston County Economic Development Council and other public and private organizations.

“Bringing these disparate groups together and working on this project is going to take effort by a lot of people, and that’s what I’m going to put my efforts to,” he says.

Sackrison says he has no plans to return to public office. He says he’s not a fan of partisan politics and was saddened that they crept into his nonpartisan race during the campaign. He refers to how the firefighters union solicited the local Democratic Party to find candidates to unseat him.

“Being turned out of office is a rejection,” he says. “I’m viewing the glass as half-full, and I’m going to go full-bore on improving energy efficiency in Thurston County. I’m not going to dwell on the fact that I lost a campaign.

“But, yes, it is disappointing. I don’t want to convey the feeling that I didn’t care one way or the other. I will truly miss being involved with the problem-solving.”

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