Richland mayor retires from public service

Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 4, 2014 

richland mayor john fox

Richland Mayor John Fox is retiring and plans on relaxing after a lifetime working as an engineer and public servant. He doesn't have any firm plans in retirement, but his wife Kathryn suspects he'll be doing a lot of reading.

KAI-HUEI YAU — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

John Fox has left fingerprints on just about every part of the city he's called home for six decades.

He spent two terms on the Richland School Board in the 1970s and 80s. In the 90s, he served on the city's parks and planning commissions.

And in 2002, he joined the city council, spending more than 11 years at the dais, including six years running meetings, representing the city at a range of community events and working with other Tri-City officials as Richland's mayor.

Now, the 86-year-old is taking a step back from public service. He retired from the council at the end of 2013, choosing not to run in the fall election to keep his seat. On Tuesday, when the council holds its first meeting of 2014, Gregory L. Jones will be sworn into Fox's council slot. And the council will pick a new mayor from within its ranks.

Fox said he doesn't plan to make a habit of continuing to show up at council meetings. "The last person any council wants to hear from is a former mayor," he told the Herald with a laugh.

But he plans to stay involved in the community.

Fox first moved to Richland in 1951, fresh out of college -- he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from Oregon State University -- and went to work at the Hanford site. Raised in San Francisco and Portland, Fox imagined staying in the Tri-Cities for a few years before moving on.

He liked bigger city life, he said.

But he wound up putting down roots. He met his wife, Kathryn, a South Dakota native, in the Tri-Cities, and they married and had three children -- two sons and a daughter. When the kids were in school, Fox ran for a seat on the school board.

He took office in 1975 and had to hit the ground running. "The first issue before the school district in the fall of 1975 was whether to build additional schools across the Yakima River in south Richland, which was new at the time, and in West Richland, or go to year-round schools," Fox recalled. "That was a very hot issue. We had several large public meetings."

He supported building the schools, and that's the direction the board ultimately headed -- proposing a bond measure that voters approved.

Fox said that experience taught him a valuable lesson. "Afterward, (some) people would come to us and say, 'Well, we don't agree with your decision, but you listened to us and you gave your reasons for doing it, so we'll accept it.' So I learned something about public participation and public opinion," he told the Herald last week.

After two terms on the school board, Fox decided to take a break. But it wasn't all that long before he stepped back into public service.

In 1996, a few years after retiring from full-time work at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Fox joined the city's Parks and Recreation Commission. He had a hand in multiple projects during his time with that group, including the effort to build a new community center. (The center at 500 Amon Park Drive opened in 2001).

Fox also became part of the city's planning commission during that era.

In 2002, a city council position opened up due to a resignation and Fox applied for the seat, beating out several other applicants. He later won election to finish that term, and then ran successfully twice more for reelection to the post.

During Fox's years on the council, Richland experienced growth and change. The city's population jumped by about 11,000 people, the assessed property value swelled by 96 percent, sales tax revenue increased 30 percent, and the city gained more than 2,900 acres through annexation, according to information from the city.

And the city tackled numerous projects big and small. Fox points to the development of a long-range strategic plan as one of the most important projects he touched on the council. The plan provides an "enduring framework" for where the city should go and how to get there, which has led to greater efficiency and cooperation, he said. And, "it's responsive to the people. It's looking at the balanced best interest of the total community."

Fox speaks with an engineer's deliberateness and logic, but he's also known for his dry sense of humor. He said he's tried to build consensus on the council and foster a collegial atmosphere.

David Rose, the mayor pro tem, said Fox has deep knowledge of the city and city government workings. "I learned from him patience, and to make sure I knew both sides of each issue before coming out and commenting," Rose said. And Fox was able to provide context to council discussions with his memory of the city's past, Rose said.

Fox also earned praise from officials beyond Richland's border. Kennewick Mayor Steve Young described him as a mentor and "the patron mayor" in the Tri-Cities.

Young said he turned to Fox for guidance after being selected as his city's mayor, and "(Fox) spent about two hours talking with me about the ups and the downs, the highs and the lows."

A new tradition grew out of that meeting -- the mayors of Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Pasco began getting together regularly, leading to greater understanding among the cities and even opportunities for some of them to work together on projects to save money and gain efficiency, Young said.

He described Fox as "the most honest, professional, compassionate person I think I've ever known," and said Fox's commitment to the Tri-City community is an inspiration.

Matt Watkins, mayor of Pasco, praised Fox for the wisdom and perspective he brought to the mayor gatherings.

Fox told the Herald that the time was right to retire, a sentiment he also shared at his last council meeting, in December. He told the crowd that he's been "very fortunate to be a small part of this council and this endeavor in the past decade," but that it was time to pass the baton.

Not one to sit around, Fox plans to stay active in community groups, such as the B Reactor Museum Association and the Columbia Basin Badger Club.

In an interview with the Herald, in which he reflected on his many years as an elected official, Fox said he's looking forward to a schedule that's not quite so packed with meetings.

But he'll cherish the time he spent helping lead Richland. In city service, "I've met a lot of people who I wouldn't have otherwise met, and I've enjoyed the relationships and the trust I've built there," he said, "and I hope that endures in some way."

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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