Yelm Councilor Mike McGowan is saying goodbye to the Yelm City Council, but he’s not saying goodbye to Yelm.
McGowan is resigning from his position on the council because he’s relocating to unincorporated Thurston County, outside Yelm city limits. The city requires city councilors to reside within city limits. He’s been on the council since first taking office in January 2006.
He won’t be a stranger, though, as he’ll still be working at Yelm Timberland Library.
McGowan was born in New York City and moved to Washington in 1986, first landing in Lewis County with his wife and daughter. He and his wife split up, and he and his daughter moved to California briefly before moving back to Washington, in Yelm.
He’d been planning to move to Portland, but his ex-wife knew of a house in Yelm where he could pay month-to-month, giving him the flexibility to move when something better became available.
“I landed there and 20 years later I’m still there, until next week,” he said of the house. “I sometimes feel like places choose me more than I choose them.”
He applied for a part-time job at Yelm Timberland Library that he didn’t expect to get. The library chose him, though, and he’s worked there ever since.
“During the interview was the first time in my life that there was a job that I wanted beyond just the paycheck,” he said.
McGowan first considered running for a public office because people would periodically suggest he run for mayor, he said.
But he was told being the mayor required at least a 20-hour-per-week commitment, and with a 40-hour-per-week job, McGowan said he didn’t see how he could do both.
“I came home one day and was speaking to my daughter and said, ‘I don’t think I can run for mayor, it’s going to be 20-plus hours per week,’” he remembered. “And her response was, ‘Dad, that’s if you were going to be a good mayor.’”
He decided to run for the city council instead.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “Some people might say I still don’t.”
One of the biggest surprises for McGowan when he was elected to the council was how he was treated by city staff, he said.
McGowan expected to be treated as an outsider. Before he was on the council, he wasn’t involved with city government and he had suspicions about how it operated, he said. It seemed questionable that most of the council’s votes were unanimous.
“I believed this to be that there was some shenanigans going on and that somebody coming in that wasn’t really connected to these things would be not so welcomed,” he said.
He came to find out the reason so many of the decisions are unanimous is because the council seeks consensus, he said.
“It’s not that there’s shenanigans by any means,” he said. “It’s that the study sessions are where things are worked out and when a council member or the mayor has some concerns on something then staff is given the assignment of easing those concerns or rectifying those concerns when possible.
“When those concerns are not met and there’s no deadline, then usually the vote on something will be delayed and another study session will be held. There’s a real attempt to get everybody’s opinion involved in a decision so that by the time it comes to council, it may not be perfect from everyone’s view, but they know that their concerns were addressed and there was an attempt to work out whatever could be done. So it’s not an accident, but it’s not shenanigans. … I didn’t realize that it was really just professionalism that was bringing about the consensus.”
One accomplishment McGowan said he’s proud of is how the city has managed growth while he was on the council.
“There are things that could be better in regard to traffic, say, but how the city has managed with the capacity that it has to improve traffic — and it has improved traffic — is an accomplishment, from planning to mini-loops to just moving the traffic along,” he said.
Much of that traffic doesn’t originate in Yelm, making it even more difficult to manage, McGowan noted. Two-thirds of the traffic coming through the city at peak hours doesn’t start or end in the city, he said.
“That’s a challenge because your tax base is only in the city,” he said.
He said he’s also proud of the city’s work on its parks.
“I think Yelm has great parks. I am disappointed at the vote for Yelm City Park. I think what could have happened there would have been really outstanding,” he said, referring to the failed bond that would have paid for improvements at Yelm City Park.
He said he thinks those improvements will still come to the park, just over a longer period of time.
He said he feels he had some impact on bringing affordable housing and social services to the area through his work on the Thurston County HOME Consortium, but added he leaves with frustration and disappointment that he wasn’t able to do more.
“I think there’s a great need for an increase in social programs in the rural area and it’s really difficult because the funding is so limited,” he said.
Whoever replaces McGowan on the council, he said he’s confident they’ll develop a role on the team just as he did, whether they take over his work on the HOME Consortium or take the council in a new direction.
“I leave the council feeling good about the people that I’ve worked with and … clearly I’m going to remember the warm welcome that they gave me,” McGowan said. “There’s some feeling of unfinished work, but there’s also a feeling of having been part of a good team and I never really expected it, so now that I’ve done it, it’s a little odd not being a council member. But I did my time.”