Gates got involved


Staff writer

Anyone passing time, talking to their neighbors or checking voice mail messages in the Federal Way City Council chambers Dec. 16 wouldn’t have known by looking that Mary Gates was standing at the back edge of 14 years of service.

In two hours, during which Gates would make a handful of final votes and deliver her last Sound Transit update to the city, Mayor Jeanne Burbidge would bang the gavel adjourning the meeting, and Councilwoman Gates would become former Councilwoman Gates.

Or, as city manager David Moseley said, “citizen Gates,” as in: “I really don’t look forward to hearing from citizen Gates coming in to tell me things I’m sure I should hear.”

At a cookies-and-coffee reception half an hour before the meeting, Gates smiled and chatted with city officials, business owners, activists and residents, holding a paper cup of coffee in one hand and touching friends on the back with the other.

When Burbidge called the meeting to order, Gates, the mayor from 1994 to 1995, was seated in the first chair on the right, taking notes and ready for business.

Work is second-nature to Gates, who has learned to manage her time in minutes and can operate bi-modally, meaning she can read a city staff report while listening to an update on an unrelated issue and absorb both.

She got her masters degree from Ohio State University in nine months and taught at Ohio State and Indiana State, at Grays Harbor College and in the Hoquiam Public Schools system, and then other colleges in the Puget Sound area, including the University of Puget Sound.

She married and had children, taking about a week off work after each was born, and eventually started her own business and a women’s civic organization in Federal Way to give professional women here the opportunity to meet and network when other civic groups didn’t admit them.

She was politically active and worked on Dan Evans’ U.S. Senate campaign and Rod Chandler’s congressional campaign. She thinks that might be how she became involved with a committee in the mid-1980s that helped King County update its community development plan for the unincorporated Federal Way area. She was involved with so many things, she couldn’t remember if she called someone or if someone called her.

The committee, which included former state representative Maryann Mitchell, a Republican from Federal Way, drafted a plan and submitted it to King County. But in 1986, county officials changed it so that much committee members asked that their names be removed.

About the same time, Gates co-chaired an effort to incorporate Federal Way into its own city, but the vote failed.

As the wheels — or bulldozer tracks — of clustered, multi-family development began turning, Gates said she and several other local community activists realized they had to do something to save Federal Way.

Gates, Mitchell, Burbidge and others tried again to get the voters to incorporate, and the second time, they did. In November 1989, an interim city council was sworn into office, and Gates was on the dais.

She and her fellow council members had about five months to create the governing infrastructure of the nascent city, including a comprehensive plan, all the codes for parks and police, and a financial plan.

“I went to bed at midnight every night of the week, at least Monday through Thursday,” she said. “It was pretty time-consuming.”

Gates was in charge of the financial part of city planning, and through a trial by fire, she learned the ropes of municipal finance, taking out municipal loans to get started on basic necessities for Federal Way, which, in 1989 and 1990, wasn’t much to speak of.

“When Mary started on this council, we had nothing,” Councilwoman Linda Kochmar said. “We had the Steel Lake fire station, and they didn’t even have pencils, paper or a typewriter. They had to borrow one.

“There was flooding at the mall. South 320th Street and Pacific Highway South was the worst intersection in the state. There was no Celebration Park and there was runaway apartment growth.”

Today, Kochmar said, the city has the money and staff in place to help Federal Way grow.

“We’re building a community,” she said. “One of those to step forward 14 years ago was Mary Gates.”

Gates recalled that Federal Way was shabby when the city incorporated. There were no sidewalks, no lighting, the asphalt was in bad shape and there was flooding, she said. There were very few trails at the time, though city officials went on to create the BPA Trail system and had to figure out how to transfer the parks from the county.

“Apartments now have requirements for having play areas if there are children in them,” she said. “We had thousands of units built where the only place for the children to play was the parking lot.”

In addition to laying the financial and community development groundwork, new city officials had to figure out a way to lay literal groundwork. King County had lower standards of service for roads and stormwater management, and the city needed a plan and the money to fix them.

“We had to do it all,” she said. “It was definitely multi-tasking.”

Gates said city officials planned development through a community project called City Scape, during which community members met with city officials over the course of several meetings to hash out exactly how the city should look. The result of that effort was the city’s first comprehensive plan.

“The vision was done with the community when we did the first comprehensive plan,” Gates said. “It was very inclusive. There was nothing done behind closed doors. That would not have been acceptable to anyone, least of all to me.”

The new council adopted strict development guidelines — back then, residents didn’t want a lot of development in the area, she said — and set to work developing Federal Way into a city with a quality standard of living. It was a long road ahead.

Community activist David Kaplan recalls standing before Gates for the first time, urging the council to consider purchasing a large tract of land for what would become Celebration Park in the early 1990s, purchased with real estate excise tax funds.

Over the years, the city established its own police department, purchased a building for its city hall, opened the Knutzen Family Theater, repaired and improved roads and limited the growth of apartment complexes, among other things.

City officials now are preparing to move into a new city hall and to construct a community center, senior center and swimming pool.

Gates became an expert in finance, and some credit her prudence and planning with landing Federal Way in a good spot when the economy went bad. Federal Way was one of the only cities in the region that didn’t have to lay off workers, freeze hiring or cut programs to make their budgets.

“Many think Mary’s specialization in transportation to be a major contribution and it certainly is, for the city and the region,” Burbidge said. “But she’s also contributed her expertise in finance. I want to thank her for the quite favorable position in which we find ourselves in the city. We’ve accomplished so much.”

Councilman Eric Faison said he learned a lot about municipal finance from Gates and said “her brain and the knowledge she’s gained over the years will be missed.”

In addition to serving on the council, Gates worked with other groups in the city to bring the West Hylebos wetlands into the state parks system, to build the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatics Center in Federal Way, and to bring Weyerhaeuser’s and World Vision’s corporate headquarters into the city.

She’s also volunteered on many regional and local organizations, networking and sharing information ranging from human services to finance to transportation.

Even despite a serious illness last year — viral encephalitis knocked her out of commission for several months — Gates returned to work, jumping back into city and regional business, joining council members and staff on a trip to Colorado to see community centers there, and campaigning for another term on the council, a bid she lost to challenger Jim Ferrell.

Ferrell will be sworn in during the first city council meeting Jan. 6.

At the meeting Dec. 16, the city presented Gates with a plaque and a pair of glass bookends to thank her for the work she put into the city.

Councilman Dean McColgan said he met Gates on a basketball court 15 years ago, when he volunteered to coach at the Boys and Girls Club in Federal Way. He ended up coaching a team on which both Gates’ and Burbidge’s sons were playing. He said when he first began thinking about running for public office, Gates was the first person whose opinion and feedback he sought.

“How privileged and fortunate I’ve been to be able to work with Mary,” he said. “Mary truly walks the talk. She has dedicated herself to the community and the region with her time and efforts.”

He added she has attended more than 300 council meetings in her 14 years of service in addition to countless committee meetings, study sessions, and regional and local meetings on other boards and committees.

“Her time has always been the community’s time,” McColgan said.

Councilman Jack Dovey recalled his first experience before Gates.

“I think back to being out in the audience when I first came to council and Mary was up here,” he said. “We were talking about soccer fields and kids breaking their ankles and she said, ‘Get involved.’ So I did.

“She’s always said, ‘Get involved. Don’t just talk about it, do something.’ I want to thank Mary for her vision here in Federal Way, way before we were a city.”

Councilman Mike Park recalled working with Gates on important issues in the city, particularly Korean relations. “It seems like yesterday you and I got acquainted, right after city incorporation,” he said to Gates. “You’ve done a wonderful job. Federal Way government and your community will miss you.”

Gates said she’s not sure what lies ahead for her.

“Sometimes in Federal Way, we have maligned our leaders. We don’t just want them to lose an election, we want them to be gutted,” she said. “The community can gut and say (former leaders) don’t have any value, which I think is very shortsighted. It would be very unwise for a city that is so young not to develop a base of past and future leaders. We are still in the process of becoming a city.”

Gates said she hasn’t decided what projects she might undertake in the future, though she said transportation and finance would make the most sense. “It’s where I have the most to offer,” she said.

Still, the most immediate tasks at hand have been celebrating her wedding anniversary, enjoying the “extremely busy” holiday season with her family, and now going through 14 years of paperwork.

She said Federal Way is “blessed with a council that’s always been very big-picture,” but she said officials will have to continue to be financially careful.

“There will be a temptation to ditch financial policies,” she said. “It’ll be managing for the long term as opposed to the short term. And I have every bit of faith the council will be fine.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565,

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