These days, Ava Frisinger, when not volunteering her time on various councils and boards, is spending a lot of catch-up time with her grandchildren. She won’t say which role is harder, being Issaquah’s longest-serving mayor or that of grandmother.
“But being a grandmother is a very satisfying job, rewarding as well,” Frisinger said. “It’s neat to watch kids grow, encourage them to do what it is that they want to do.”
Sounds a lot like her first days as mayor, overseeing a city with just over 10,000 residents that now sports a population north of 31,000.
As the community celebrated Frisinger’s tenure Jan. 9, she shared her reflections leading the fastest growing city in the last decade.
Coming from a long line of political activists on both sides of her family, Frisinger first got involved in local politics in 1981 in an effort to preserve the Issaquah Skyport and the surrounding Pickering property. The Issaquah Press at the time endorsed her opponent, banker Ernie Smith.
“He was a member for Citizens for Responsible Growth, while I was a member of Citizens for Creative Alternative,” Frisinger recalled. “The Issaquah Press said I had some good ideas, but was too much a die-hard, anti-growth candidate.”
She lost by 39 votes, which came down to the absentee ballots. After staying involved in city government through the Planning Commission, she’d run again for City Council, only to lose again by an even more, a razor-thin margin of five votes.
“The first time I lost was the hardest,” she said.
Frisinger added she might have been happy to toil away on the fringes of municipal government if not for the interaction of the Planning Commission chairman.
“The chair said you’re going to run again for council. I said no. Why not? Because nobody likes me,” Frisinger recounted the conversation, admitting it probably wasn’t a very mature answer. “So, that person insisted we go out to the market for a diet cola and they would walk around with me until I decided to run again.”
Frisinger reluctantly agreed.
“The next time I lost, I thought, ‘Well, it’s painful, but it’s not fatal.’ So, I thought I’d try again. By then, I just had a lot more confidence,” she said.
By 1997, she successfully parlayed her experience on the City Council to the mayor’s office.
Looking back, the political activist at heart said if you’d asked her as a teenager if she’d ever aspired to be mayor, she’d have told you no.
Jane Kuechle, executive director of Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery
“She’s been a supporter of FISH since it began in 1994, as one of its original members. She’s very knowledgeable of salmon habitat. She’s not just a member of the board but an active volunteer docent. Her stewardship with the city was her strength, trying to balance its growth and protect the environment and the water shed for salmon habitat. It’s a hallmark of her decisions that we will all benefit from for a long time.”
Cynthia Welti, executive director of Mountains To Sound Greenway Trust
“She’s been a steady presence in Issaquah who so embodies what we all want in a growing town. Bellevue has that feeling, as you head east, of leaving a metropolis. But thanks to Ava’s efforts, while not all towns have survived keeping their identity, Issaquah kept its, as it was growing while remaining a gateway to all the natural environment around it.”
Fred Butler, new Issaquah mayor and 13-year member of City Council
“Anyone who’s been mayor for 16 years, who has had such a huge, positive impact on Issaquah and the region, leaves huge shoes for me to fill. From my point of view, her service has always been for the common good. Her views on sustainability were visionary in terms of what Issaquah should be in 30 years.”
Suzanne Suther, former 20-year director of the Chamber of Commerce
“She is a very kind person. It’s one word that I’d most associate with her after knowing her for all these years. After being very amiable with the chamber over the years, it’s why we became personal friends. With a wicked sense of humor and quiet determination, she had a remarkable commitment to the community.”
When Frisinger first came into office, she considered herself very anti-growth.
“At one point, asked by the Journal-American at the time, I said I didn’t think Issaquah could grow beyond 11,000 people. And somehow in my mind that seemed ideal,” she said.
What she said she wasn’t factoring into her calculations was Interstate 90. At that point, Issaquah had relatively inexpensive property available for development.
“I became convinced, after my introduction to local politics, that it was better to control one’s growth of one’s own city than to let things just happen to us,” she said. “I switched from strongly anti-growth to one of controlled growth, thoughtful growth.”
That led to what she considered her two biggest achievements.
“The first was maintaining an emphasis on salmon recovery and habitat acquisition, preservation, protection and improvements to habitat in this basin,” Frisinger said. “It was done through the efforts of a lot of different people, from the city, county and state.”
The other achievement she’s proud to have overseen was the development of the Issaquah Highlands as an urban village.
“That was something that was pretty innovative at the time,” she said. “It was a way in which this city was able to retain the nature of existing neighborhoods, accept its Growth Management Act, growth numbers, population numbers and, to a significant amount, environmental preservation.”
She added that of the about 500 acres developed area in the Issaquah Highlands, about 1,400 acres remains permanent, dedicated open space.
Looking back, Frisinger wishes there had been some way of resolving the regional traffic problem that Issaquah is stuck with. An idea that percolated with the City Council and then grew in support from the mayor was the idea of a Southeast Bypass. She said the problem was finding a suitable route with the least amount of disruption to the environment and neighborhoods.
“Then, as time went on, opposition grew,” she said. “People, I guess, believed letting the city bear the brunt of regional traffic was the way to go. Then, occasionally, people would complain about congestion on Front Street and wonder if anyone thought about doing anything about it.”
Most influential people
Frisinger said she’s met some very influential people during her tenure. At the top was local environmentalist Ruth Kees, who passed away in 2009.
“Ruth was one of the people very instrumental in what I describe as the habitat protection of Issaquah Creek,” Frisinger said. “She was also instrumental in wanting to make sure development didn’t continue up the valley from Issaquah Creek.”
Another major influence on Frisinger was former mayor A.J. Culver, who she found an encouraging, mentor to City Council members, and a very practical personal.
“He was in the Issaquah Alps Trails Club, was a mountaineer, and cared about environment and cared about economy of city,” Frisinger said. “He was one of the influences on me being interested in sustainability.”
The biggest influence on her interest in sustainability came from New Yorker David Gershon, who Frisinger said came up with the idea of a global action plan, which looked at sustainability and the costs of the city’s environmental footprint.
“He really emphasized doing things locally, working with neighbors to figure how to critique each other to be more environmentally responsible,” she said. “It was something that made sense to me. In particular, it exposed me to the concept of sustainability, which had three parts to it — economic, social and environment, and that it doesn’t work if it’s not balanced.”
Time to move on
Frisinger thought she’d only be a two-term mayor. But she found herself liking the job, seeing the positive changes taking place and very much enjoying working with city staff and all the other outstanding people over the years.
By 2009, she announced she wouldn’t seek another term in 2013.
“I didn’t want to become stale,” she said. “It’s important to let others in and run things with a fresh set of eyes.”
Nowadays, Frisinger keeps busy serving on the Seattle-King County Advisory Council for Aging & Disability Service, an advocacy commission for seniors and those with disabilities. She is still president of the Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery and a member of the Mountains to Sound Greenway board. She may even pop in to City Council meetings occasionally.
“I don’t want to be someone who haunts them,” she said. “I think they’ll do good things. Issaquah is an extraordinary, caring community. There’s a tremendous amount of volunteerism, and big heartedness and passion. The residents have strong convictions that makes the community more alive.”
It’s understandable that Frisinger didn’t want her leadership to go stale, sort of the way of her taste buds, according to her namesake 9-year-old granddaughter, Ava.
“She and I have a lot of fun. She describes me as silly. She also gives me helpful bits of information. Like the time I put peanut butter on a whole-wheat tortilla then I sprinkled black pepper on it. I said it sorta tasted like Thai food,” Frisinger recalled. “At that point, Ava said, ‘Grandma, I’m sorry to tell you, but your taste buds have expired.’”