They each, at times, have been a thorn in the sides of their fellow council members and members of the public. But as Jeanne Stewart and Jeanne Harris prepare to depart from the Vancouver City Council, it must be noted that such an assessment of their tenures should be viewed as a compliment. In many ways, the highest honor for an elected official is to serve as a thorn in somebody’s side while pursuing the business of the people.
Stewart and Harris are longtime council members whose tenures will come to an end with Monday’s meeting. They were honored this week for their service, with Mayor Tim Leavitt announcing that departing council members, starting now, will have bricks placed in Esther Short Park’s Propstra Square, noting their names and years of service. For Harris, that would be 1998-2013; for Stewart, it’s 2002-2013. That’s a long time in the fickle world of politics, where voters tend to remember your stumbles rather than your triumphs.
Harris and Stewart both ran for re-election this year, but Harris lost in the primary and Stewart lost in the general election. Their seats will be filled by Anne McEnerny-Ogle and Alishia Topper, respectively, giving the council a much different look and demeanor for the coming years. Whether that will be more effective or less effective remains to be seen, but it certainly will be different.
On Clark County’s overriding political question of recent years — the Columbia River Crossing — Harris and Stewart found themselves on opposite sides. Harris supported the project; Stewart opposed it. That led Harris to point out this week that, “It might have been a little bit messy once in a while, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” We agree. While The Columbian editorially might choose sides on an issue, sometimes more vociferously than others, we celebrate the democratic process and the importance of dissent in our political process.
Stewart, in particular, has represented such dissent over the years, often playing the role of contrarian and often embracing a stance she believed in even though she knew she was outnumbered on the council. In addition to the CRC, she often clashed with councilors over development of the Columbia River waterfront, C-Tran and other big issues. While meeting with The Columbian’s editorial board during this year’s campaign, she said, “This attitude of ‘get with the program or get out’ is not good for our community.” Said fellow council member Bill Turlay, who often joined Stewart on the minority side, “Your heart is with the people.” Stewart often played a watchdog role on the council and had an eye for detail, examining and questioning an issue to the fullest extent.
Harris more often found herself among the majority on the council and has served well. Her tenure was marred by what could best be described as a tantrum during a council meeting on Sept. 13, 2010, but that episode should neither define her tenure nor overshadow her service. In serving 16 years and being elected four times, Harris brought a big-picture mentality to the council in her efforts to do what she thought was best for the city.
Politics, particularly at the municipal level, can be a trying but thankless endeavor. While we might disagree on policy points or the decision-making process or the direction the city is heading at times, we are appreciative of those who chose to serve and choose to put their energy toward the betterment of the community. As Leavitt told Harris and Stewart: “You two have played an important role. You’ll both be dearly missed from this council.”