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The small-town mayor who was Oso’s hidden hero

Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert Credit: Credit: Mary Bruno

Mayor Barb Tolbert got to the park early that morning. She wasn’t scheduled to deliver her kickoff speech until noon, but she wanted to greet the folks who were there setting up booths for the town’s annual Relay for Life Festival. After an overnight downpour, Saturday March 22 dawned clear and sunny, a perfect spring morning in the Stillaguamish Valley.

The first signs of trouble, says Tolbert, “were the sirens on Highway 9. They kept coming. And I knew something wasn’t right.”

Within minutes, she learned that a mudslide in nearby Oso was blocking the road and maybe the river; that flooding (“An emergency we were familiar with,” she says.) was a real possibility; and that local fire and police were about to start evacuating the residents upriver. “We didn’t know the extent of it then,” says Tolbert. She did know that some of the people setting up booths in the park lived in Oso. “So I told them, if you have people at home, make a call.”

A little after 11 a.m., Tolbert and her management team made a call too and, for the first time since she became mayor in 2012, the City of Arlington activated its Emergency Response plan. While her department heads assembled at the Emergency Response Center next door to City Hall, Barb Tolbert walked back out to Legion Park and, with the throb of helicopters overhead, kicked off the 2014 Relay for Life.

For Tolbert and Arlington’s city managers, that Saturday morning, March 22, was the beginning of an exhausting blur of tragedy and logistics, and a mass invasion of strangers. Local, state and federal emergency personnel, 117 different relief agencies, more than 100 media organizations and a wave of politicos, from the county executive and governor on up to the president himself. All of it taking place around the clock, in the midst of a grisly search for bodies, on a dangerously unstable slope, under the relentless glare of an international spotlight.

Being in the Arlington Emergency Response Center in those first few hours, says the town’s fire chief Bruce Stedman, “was like being on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, with a thousand bits of information coming at you at 100 miles an hour, and knowing that every decision you’re making is going to be evaluated by the world.”

Tolbert ceded tactical decisions early on to emergency response pros like Stedman, and to Northwest Incident Command, which took over operations at 6 p.m. Saturday evening. She recognized quickly that in the complex maze of moving parts, “My job was care and comfort. And to find resources when people asked me to.”

View of downtown Arlington from the gazebo at Legion Park. Credit: Mary Bruno

Tolbert wasn’t trained in crisis management per se, but she possesses skills and talents that make her well suited for many aspects of the job. She’s smart, organized and goal-oriented, able to see both the forest and the trees. She loves data and details and building systems from scratch. And she is preternaturally social. “Barb is excellent with people,” says Bruce Angell, her partner of 14 years. “She really connects.”

Indeed, Tolbert is that rarest of breeds: a number-cruncher with personality. (And also a taste for Tequila, and a “total girl crush” on U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.) Her talent for strategic thinking, data-based decision making, collaborative style and genuine likability all hint at a career beyond Arlington. If hard times reveal things about people, the crucible of Oso showed that Barb Tolbert is ready to play on a bigger stage.

She grew up in a big family — five sisters and a brother — that moved all around the “tri-state area.” (That would be Michigan, Illinois and Indiana.) Her father, a mechanical engineer who specialized in boilers, was transferred every few years so Tolbert spent her childhood on the go, attending 14 different schools by the time she finished 12th grade.

Her dad was sent to Seattle in 1976 when Tolbert was a business administration major at Michigan’s Grand Valley State College. A year later, she joined her parents in Bellevue and she never looked back. The rest of the family gradually followed.

Aside from a three-year stint selling financial products all over Alaska, Tolbert has spent her adult life in Washington state. But whatever she was doing, wherever she was living, she and her six siblings would convene in Arlington every July to volunteer at the city's annual Fly-In, grilling hot dogs, picking up trash. “Glamorous stuff,” says Tolbert. (This year's Fly-In starts July 10.)

The Fly-In, a kind of Burning Man for the aviation crowd, was her father’s big event. A lifelong aviation junkie, he spent every weekend of her childhood at some Midwest airport working on his plane and hanging out with the other pilots. On Sundays after church, he’d take the family tailgating at one of the small airports nearby.

“We’d sit in our station wagon and eat our sandwiches and watch airplanes, and Dad would tell us about all of them,” Tolbert recalls. “One of the big motivators to be good and get good grades was that you might be the one that got to go to the airport with Dad for the weekend.”

After complaining one year that the Fly-In marketing was “all wrong,” the board put Tolbert in charge of it. A few years later, in 1994, she became the Fly-In’s first Executive Director. It is now the third largest event of its kind in the country, behind Oshkosh, Wisc., and Lakeland, Fla.

“There’s 116 acres of grass at the airport and we have to build a small city that houses [thousands of] people for five days,” says the mayor/executive director. “You have to provide everything: transportation and sanitation and food and first aid. There’s like 200 million details and you’re balancing them all. I loved it. That’s where my experience with building systems came from.”

Pilot Barb Tolbert sold her vintage Grumman Tiger (sadly) in 2011.

After she successfully shepherded a fire districts levy for then-Arlington mayor Margaret Larson, Tolbert entered the mayor’s race in 2011. (Larson, who decided not to seek a third term, endorsed her.) Tolbert ran as an independent, campaigning on a positive, forward-thinking message about economic development. She defeated her rival, Steve Baker, by six percentage points.

She assumed office in January 2012. By February 1, she realized that Arlington had “huge financial problems” — as in $77 in its reserve fund and a bond rating in the toilet. In March, her veteran City Administrator was sidelined by major heart surgery. He’d be out for months. “I was on my own,” says Tolbert. “Which was a great thing.”

She convened the heads of all the city departments (fire, police, finance, public works, etc.) and told them that, as a group, their first order of business was cutting $325,000 from the city’s $39 million budget and that the only way to do it was by laying people off — “immediately.” She could make the cuts herself, she told them, or they could do it together.

“It’s more my style to have a conversation than to tell you what to do,” says Tolbert. “We’re articulate and bright and I don’t mind the debate, so let’s have the debate. Through the debate, we all become stronger.”

The team opted for the group approach. Of the six city workers who were eventually let go, two were close to retirement.  

In order to raise more revenue, Tolbert decided to convince Arlington residents to raise their property taxes. She put together a “State of the City” PowerPoint presentation, which outlined the sorry state of the city’s financial health, and delivered it to more than 25 different clubs, community councils, neighborhood groups, boards, commissions, anybody who would listen.

The message was simple and stark: Arlington had exhausted its reserves. The post-recession economy wasn’t rebounding fast enough to support all the services the city was providing, and cutting expenses wasn’t the answer. She ended with a thinly-veiled challenge: “You have to decide what kinds of services I can provide you.“ With that, the mayor conscripted her constituents to help solve the town’s fiscal problem.

Tolbert was in the middle of her property tax campaign when the hillside in Oso gave way.

She kept delivering her property tax PowerPoint. The disaster gave her pitch a new urgency — and a tailwind. It also overwhelmed all other initiatives. As the Oso crisis evolved, so did the mayor’s role.

First came the emergency response and rescue, breakneck and fleeting. Then the grueling and protracted recovery of bodies, which demanded care and comfort and an emotional steeliness. The visiting dignitary phase found Tolbert hosting a succession of major political players. Snohomish County Executive John Lovick, Governor Jay Inslee, Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Reps. Rick Larsen and Susan DelBene and finally President Obama. “Barb was great with the electeds,” says Paul Ellis, Arlington’s Director of Economic Development and head of its emergency response team.

Tolbert had nothing but praise for the officials who made the pilgrimmage to her small town. “The ones who come,” she says, “listen to all the staff that are trained in disaster management giving their assessments and then they turn to you as mayor and say, ‘What do you really need?’”

She credits Gov. Inslee’s “get it done” leadership style with getting Highway 530 between Arlington and Darrington cleared so quickly. She marveled at Murray’s heartfelt concern — the Senator, not an aide, called Tolbert every day or so during the worst of it to see how she was doing — and was in awe of Cantwell’s no-nonsense style. When Cantwell learned that the slide had cut off communications between Arlington and Darrington, she picked up the phone. The next day crews ran a fiber optic cable across the slide site and Darrington was back online.

Gov. Jay Inslee (far right) looks on as Susan DelBene and Maria Cantwell chat with the president. Credit: John Stang 

The final phase of the Oso crisis, the economic comeback, says Tolbert, began “shortly after they pulled the last body from the site.” That's when Senators Cantwell and Murray and the head of the Puget Sound Regional Council urged her and Darrington mayor Dan Rankin to start drafting economic recovery plans; plans which are destined to play out for years to come.

Tolbert also slipped into the role of chief communicator during the crisis. She briefed townspeople — via social media — about the progress of the recovery, keeping spirits up and tempers cool as the town was overrun. She personally called the spouses of all 30 Arlington Fire Department members to thank them for sharing their families, a gesture that impressed Assistant City Administrator Kristin Banfield. She made sure the powerbrokers from Olympia and Washington, D.C. got the intel they needed to get the disaster relief and economic recovery funds flowing.

“Barb always taught us — and led by example — that everybody is a customer,” says Banfield who, as Arlington’s Assistant City Administrator since 1999, has served three different mayors. “That’s the same premise we took — and that Barb took — through this emergency. These are customers we need to make sure we’re taking care of. She just dove right in.”

The dive was headlong and often hellish. Beyond the grueling hours and all the Type A personalities and the media and the sheer volume of details to absorb and work to be done, there was the almost paralyzing weight of grief and loss. Tolbert felt its rawness up close on the Wednesday evening after the slide when she attended her first briefing for families whose loved ones were still missing.

The briefings, which were closed to the press, took place in the Red Cross shelters at Arlington’s Post Middle School gym and at the Smokey Point Community church. Using a map of the site as a reference, the NW Incident Command leader would review what his team had done that day, where they’d searched and why, how many workers had been deployed, how many dogs, how many bodies — or body fragments — they’d found, and when those bodies might be identified. Then he took questions from family members.  

As the Arlington Fly-In’s only paid staffer, Tolbert has some experience with tragedy. “I’ve done death notifications to family,” she says. But nothing prepared her for this. “It was almost surreal,” says the mayor, who attended every family briefing until the last victim was found. “It was that look. That shell-shocked, vacant look. It’s the grief right up in your face. That was the hardest part for me. That was the human face of the disaster.

“The mom who lost her husband and three of her kids, sitting there with this total PTSD look on her face and her six-year-old just running around playing. Or the older guy at the shelter, which was in a big gymnasium, and [his family] brought in a little carpet and a lounge chair and a little table. And I realized that they were grasping for something familiar.

“It’s not like an auto accident where [you find] everybody all at once. This tragedy just goes on.”

Weekends were spent going to funerals or memorials. Tolbert declined to speak at any of the services. It’s not that she didn’t shed her share of tears. “I just felt like the mayor had to hold some strength,” she says. “I don’t think I could have contained my grief.”

Like her Relay for Life kickoff speech in the park that first Saturday, the nightly family briefings became an eerie counterpoint for Tolbert. Each morning, she’d shake off the evening’s film of sadness and go about the more mundane duties of being mayor. Even now, months after the tragedy, Tolbert’s daily slate of meetings (with the Arlington City Council, the Arlington Economic Development Committee, Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation, Girl Scout Troop 168) resounds with mudslide-related business. Agreeing on how best to disperse charitable donations, putting policies in place for FEMA reimbursements, writing grants for economic recovery funds.

“It never ends,” she says. “It never ends.”

It took weeks to recover bodies from the brutal mudslide site. Credit: Mary Bruno

She only lost her temper once in all those weeks. She was hearing so many complaints about a certain relief agency that she finally called the group’s acting director into her City Hall office to find out what was going on. “And she spent, like, 40 minutes complaining,” marvels Tolbert. “’You don’t understand how hard we’re working. I have 300 volunteers to manage. I’m tired.’ “

Tolbert pauses here and sighs.

“That made me mad,” she continues. “That made me mad. I just said something like I don’t give a shit how tired you are because everybody in this town is exhausted and if you can’t find some capacity to organize your volunteers or some compassion to do your job then hand it over to someone else.”

Tolbert was buoyed by the way her community stepped up after the mudslide. Catholic Community Services offering to pay for all the funerals, regardless of the victim’s religious affiliation, for example. One kindness in particular stayed with Tolbert. It came about a week into the tragedy. “Somebody handed me a letter from a business,” she recalls. “And I’m thinking, oh I have no capacity today for some petty complaint. And it was the most beautiful letter, with a $10,000 check to the city because [the writer] was so worried about our general fund. People really are that good. Good things give me energy.”

On April 22, one month to the day after Oso, Arlington residents voted (53-47 percent) to raise their property taxes for the first time since 1958. The city’s reserve fund had been growing under Tolbert’s prudent management — to half a million dollars at the end of 2013. The new property tax bump (an additional .58 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value) will add $1.04 million annually to city coffers. Tolbert’s team, along with a large and diverse group of government agencies, is already applying for a $200,000 grant to develop a long-term economic recovery plan.

The "Stilly" winds through Arlington. Credit: Mary Bruno

The City of Arlington, pop. 18,340, sits in the flat bottomland along the Stillaguamish River. The way Tolbert sees it, there are really three Arlingtons: the authentic, walkable downtown, the light industrial zone near the Arlington Municipal Airport, which supports 5,800 family-wage jobs, and Smokey Point, the “anywhere USA” commercial strip along the interstate. “Three children with three distinct personalities,” says Tolbert, who has made uniting the three a goal of her administration. “We need to figure out the right course for each child. It shouldn’t be one against the other. They should be integrated, and then we should compete externally for resources.”

As Fly-In executive director, and a pilot herself, the airport has always been home for Tolbert. She kept office at an airport hangar and spends much of her time there. It’s a way to escape the cocoon of City Hall. “Barb gathers information from a lot of different places,” says Banfield. “She’s out and about in the community a lot.”

Tolbert has always seen the airport as a job engine, and the key to Arlington’s long-term success. She intends to leverage post-slide economic development dollars to supercharge that job-generating capacity. The area around Boeing’s Paine Field complex, says Tolbert, is one of eight areas in the state that enjoys one of the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Regional Manufacturing Industrial Center designations. The designation opens the door to much larger pots of regional money for transportation, transit and other infrastructure additions and upgrades.

Tolbert wants to secure a designation for the area around Arlington’s Municipal airfield. The threshold to qualify, she says, is 10,000 jobs and the capacity (in acreage and industry) to grow to 20,000. Arlington’s airport, says Tolbert, supports 5,800 jobs at present and has the space to make that 77,000, if the city can attract the industry. “The strength of communities starts with family-wage jobs,” says Tolbert. “I want the family wage jobs. That’s where our advantage lies.”

In essence, Tolbert plans to parlay Oso’s dark cloud into a silver lining for her city and for the greater Stillaguamish Valley. She’s stepping onto that bigger stage. “Arlington has never walked into that arena, “says the mayor. Until now.

The mudslide left a huge, gray void in Oso. The ugly gash is a rebuke to the verdant landscape that surrounds it. Lushness turned inside out. Flying over or driving through the site is sobering. Crews have tidied things up, bulldozing twisted trees and cars into neat piles of rubble that dot the empty hillside. Besides the odd construction crew, the only sign of life is the cloudy Stillaguamish snaking through the mud.

It’s spooky, and impossible not to imagine what it must have been like in those horrible moments when the earth moved. One group of survivors told Oso fire chief Willy Harper that they watched the giant evergreens in front of their home heave straight up into the air.

Tolbert is wrestling with how to both honor the tragedy and move beyond it. How to keep the generous community spirit it unleashed alive. How to use the tragedy without exploiting it.

“There are emotional cycles to the disaster,” she says. “The whole euphoria stage, where everybody wants to help everybody out. Then there’s a shifting point, where things are trying to get back to normal and some of the old pettiness and disputes start to creep back in. I want to come out of this with something greater. That’s what I’m struggling with. My expectations — for people, for my organization, for the city and what we can provide — have been raised so much. I know they can’t stay there. But how do we not go back to where we were? How can we land somewhere in the middle? How can we say, hey, this is what we do: We help people. We take care of them. I know it has the potential to be different. It has the potential to be different.”

Tolbert is the kind of person you want to have dinner or be in a lifeboat with. She’s resourceful and optimistic. She laughs easily. She listens. She’s nice. Tough, too. When asked what makes her mad, she replies, without hesitation: “Incompetence.”

Arlington is her focus for now. The mudslide disaster both sidetracked and fast-tracked her economic vision for the town and she is eager to get back to it and play it out. She has the chops and the clout and the momentum to get it done. She's amassing the funds. The pieces are falling into place. She just needs the time to make it happen.

Tolbert's mayoral term ends in 2016. "We both agree that she won’t get done what she wants to get done in four years," says her partner Bruce Angell, who also chairs the Arlington Planning Commission. But will she consider a second term?

Her performance during the epic Oso mudslide did not go unnoticed by the state’s political movers and shakers. She has already been approached about running for the state legislature. After she spoke at Crosscut’s Civic Cocktail event in May, two political fundraisers slipped their business cards into her hand and urged her to call when she’s ready to run for higher office.

Tolbert has no plans to abandon Arlington. She isn't one to cut and run. But her political star is unquestionably on the rise.

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