Leaning In: Grants Pass New Mayor Wants to Make Changes
Sara Bristol stepped into the mayor position in Grants Pass with a certain gusto–and a promise to celebrate what’s great about the city, but also not to shy away from its problems. As she finishes her first busy month as the mayor, the Messenger asked a few questions.
Rogue Valley Messenger: In your campaign, you talked about the mayor being largely a ceremonial role, yet you also talk about the role as providing accountability. Do you feel as if you will receive any push-back from wanting to provide transparencies and accountability? Or, do you feel like everyone is on-board?
Sara Bristol: I don’t have to speculate; there’s already been some pushback. There are differing perspectives about what it means to be transparent and accountable, as well as differing opinions about the mayor’s role.
Grants Pass has a council-manager form of government, which is distinctly different than a “strong mayor” system where the mayor runs daily operations. Although we don’t have a “strong mayor” system, it’s important to recognize that it’s also not a “weak mayor” system, which is typically associated with the council-manager structure. In a typical weak mayor system, the mayor is elected from within the council to chair the meetings and has no additional powers. In that sense, the mayor is more like the chair of the board. In Grants Pass, however, we have a hybrid council-manager system where the mayor is elected directly by the people, runs meetings, votes to break a tie and—this is important—has a de facto veto power. The council can override with a 3/4 majority, but either way, it’s a check and balance.
The reason why that background is important is that I feel the mayor holds a key role in providing accountability. Our mayor typically doesn’t vote or legislate, but the role is much more than “ceremonial.” I have used that term in the past, but I’m moving away from it. As mayor, I need buy-in from the council to make effective changes, and that’s going to take some time and a lot more conversations, as well as some anticipated resistance. But I do feel we’re taking steps in the right direction.
RVM: This is an extremely tough time – with COVID impacting businesses and the impact of last summer’s fires. Are you a glutton for punishment? This seems like an extremely tough time to be a mayor. I mean, are you setting yourself up to be blamed for any problems that the city has in the upcoming years?
SB: LOL. I don’t have “glutton for punishment” bulleted on my resumé, but the short answer is yes. The definition of that phrase is “someone who is always eager to undertake hard or unpleasant tasks.” I hedge on the word “eager,” but I’ve always been at least willing to take on difficult tasks.
Honestly, I wouldn’t have run if I thought it was going to be easy; I have plenty of hobbies to fill my time. I ran for office because I thought it was needed, and I care about our community. I was born in Grants Pass, and it was a great place to grow up. I moved away for a while, but my husband and I jumped at the opportunity to return to raise our kids here.
I’m immensely proud of my hometown—beautiful mountains, river recreation, a charming downtown. But I’m not immune to our struggles. Job insecurity and housing insecurity are the hallmarks of my generation. I mean, literally. Google Gen X: “Gen X entered a slow job market with a mountain of debt.” I know what it’s like to struggle with bills. So, yeah, if there’s something I can do to help boost economic opportunities and affordable housing in our town, I’m willing to give it my best shot. I’d rather get blamed for effort than apathy.
RVM: Let’s be frank: You won by a lot. Nearly twice as many votes as the incumbent. Any insights? Or, feel free to boast, if you want!
SB: I ran for this position because I felt Grants Pass was ready for a change—not just a new face, but a fundamental change in the way the council approaches communication, transparency and the process of making decisions. I felt that my background in communication and journalism, along with my experience on the city’s Tourism Advisory Committee and the Yakima City Council, would establish me as qualified for the job.
The election results hit some people like a sneaker wave. I hadn’t been especially active in G.P. politics before, so I think some people underestimated me. I’m all about gathering and sharing information so people can make informed decisions. I think that appeals to people.
RVM: And, what do you hope will be your legacy as the mayor? Or, at least your biggest impact?
SB: I have a 15-year-old daughter who didn’t want me to serve because, she said, it would take too much time. I hope to prove to her it was worth it.