Oral History Spotlight: Local Government, Real Change

Interviews with Jean Barnard, Anne Solem, Don Hunter and Dick Spotswood

In a recently launched monthly series, we spotlight oral histories from our collection. The Mill Valley Oral History Program is an ongoing collaboration between the Mill Valley Historical Society and the Mill Valley Public Library. We gather the stories and opinions of individuals from the community and preserve them for posterity. You can explore this collection of over 250 interviews by visiting us in the History Room at the Library. A growing number of interviews is available online. In this post, we introduce some local government luminaries.

Campaigns, conventions, debates, elections, appointments, bills, bans, Tweets… have national politics left you reeling? Whether you’re elated, ambiguous or angry, an avid news-follower or quietly disengaged, there’s more to politics than what goes on in Washington.

Let’s get local.

“I like small town government because it is real citizen involvement,” enthuses former Mill Valley Mayor and City Council member Anne Solem in her 2011 oral history. “It is the one place,” she reminds us, “where you can really have a direct impact.” Thorough and thoughtful, Anne’s interview is part general primer, part juicy glimpse into the structure of city government and how that translates to the Mill Valley we see around us every day. Anne and interviewer Joyce Kleiner touch on what it means that Mill Valley is a “general law city” and how the relationship between City Council and City manager is the key to making everything tick.

Former City Manager Don Hunter discusses that relationship from the other end. “If you have to pass [your work] on to the city council you’re not doing your job very well,” he notes when discussing the ups and downs of his time in Mill Valley’s city government, which began as head of the Parks and Rec department and included the construction of the current Community Center. Like Anne, Don is motivated by the intimacy and realness of small-town government. “That’s what I love about my job,” Don tells his interviewer Ed Addeo. “I love being in small towns where you know most of the people and people can reach out and touch you.” Working in local government is about being a “joiner,” adds Dick Spotswood, City Council member in the early ’80s.

The Mill Valley Oral History Program houses several interviews with members of city government, dating back as far as Jean Barnard’s, who was born in 1918 and acted as Mayor of Mill Valley from 1972-1974. Jean’s first foray into local politics was as a campaign manager in a successful attempt to stop “the beginnings of a political machine arising here in Marin County.” A staunch environmentalist who managed to be both “dissident” and “very conventional at the same time,” Jean and her interviewer Carl Mosher hold frank discussions about preserving open space and the controversy of building the library in a wooded public park. With characteristic deep-thinking, Jean reflects on the landscape changes to downtown Mill Valley and Cascade Canyon, noting that, contrary to popular belief, the formerly sunny area has become dense and dark with rapidly proliferating second growth redwoods. Jean’s 1978 oral history interview - one of the earliest in the collection - is filled with the stories, history and knowledge that shaped a love for and perspective on Mill Valley that feels at once familiar and rooted in a different time

Like so many in city government, Anne, Don and Jean all recognize the importance of how space is allocated, designed and used. Jean didn’t just fight for open space, she fought against a parking structure. Don firmly reminds us that as beautiful as public space can be, “Parks [are] there to serve the people. It [doesn’t] matter…if the shrubs [are] perfectly groomed if [you’re] shutting the park down… to get it that way.” And if you’re wondering about all that construction on Miller Avenue, Anne’s interview digs deep into the nitty-gritty of the Miller Avenue Redevelopment Project, as well as environmental protections, citizen safety and her clear passion: the issue of affordable housing.

Mill Valley is a “magical” place, Don remarks near the end of his interview. But even the people who work in magical places are inspired by very real national and global events. Each of these oral histories chronicles the profound events of their time, from the bleak population predictions of 1934 to gas rationing during WWII to civil rights and the Summer of Love. Don remembers the first student at Tam to die in the Vietnam War: “Vietnam was on us. And that made you pay attention to world politics because it was gonna affect you.” Influenced by - and sometimes involved in - politics of large scale, these locals got passionate about what they could change right here in town.

Get inspired! To read the transcripts and listen to the recordings of these oral history interviews, along with many others, access our database here.

To catch the flavor of each interview, check out the snippets below: