Sitting down in the small council chambers of the renovated Bingen City Hall, Mayor Betty Barnes described a time when the building was about the size of the room where she sat.
Barnes said the intimate setting for council meetings nowadays allows for a relaxed environment during council meetings which encourages participation from the public.
“We allow people in the audience to ask questions during the meeting as long as they raise their hand to be recognized. We just feel like that’s the best transparent way to operate,” Barnes said.
It had been this way since before Barnes’s introduction into local politics. Now, fifteen years and a new City Hall later, Barnes is celebrating her tenth anniversary of being mayor of a town where, even though the city has undergone change, they still hold council meetings the same way.
Speaking with The Enterprise, Barnes explained that the downtown revitalization project that Bingen had gone through was a main motivator for her to get involved with the community.
Barnes said certain factors led her to act. Knowing that the City then had a small workforce and watching as council deliberated led her to begin asking questions and participating in the debate. Seeing the little progress the City was making on the project, Barnes said she felt inclined to take more aggressive action.
“Finally it was like, ‘hey this is harming our businesses. We need to do something to get them to move faster,” Barnes said. So she called the governor’s office to tell them there’s an unsafe situation in the city. Barnes said she faced some backlash for the move, but it worked out in the city’s favor. Things started to move along.
“I thought that was wonderful because… for our businesses, it was hindering them. Imagine all the sidewalks being out through the whole town,” Barnes said.
She said she carried that same mindset through her councilorship since her appointment in 2004, researching topics beforehand and coming prepared to council meetings.
In 2009, Barnes ran unopposed for the mayor seat under advice of former Mayor Brian Prigel after he stepped down in 2009, having held onto the council seat for five years.
Her career as mayor has been one of many surprises. As a councilor, she said, you don’t see the back room where much of the work is being done, or many of the intricacies involved in managing a project in a local government scenario. Wading through the obstacles of managing growth, especially as Insitu established a presence within the city and its employees followed suit, Barnes said the job has changed many ways.
“It used to be, even when I first came on as mayor, you had your downtimes in the year where you can a lot of these things done. That’s not true anymore,” Barnes said. She acknowledged that the work is self-imposed to an extent as she began undertaking more responsibilities, such as joining the many commissions and boards she currently sits on, such as the Klickitat County Regional Transportation Policy Committee and the Our Klickitat leadership team.
Barnes said a major hurdle occurred years ago, when Bingen was at risk of losing its quorum in City Council meetings, which put the city’s future at risk. The fallback option, she said, was to join Bingen and White Salmon. That never occurred though and the situation was avoided, yet “we got a lot of heat from it.”
Barnes is now on her third term as mayor. Describing the feeling you get when you put your name in the hat for the position, she said that “every time it’s scary and every time you put in your paperwork, it’s like, ‘what have I done? And then you kinda go, ‘well, you’ve done it because you care.’”
“I’m out there on the street, I’m talking to businesses, I can go to the meetings, so I do go to the meetings. I just want to be a good mayor representing the people that brought me here,” Barnes said. She added, “and accountable.”
When asked about accomplishments over the last 10 years, Barnes pointed to the Daubenspeck Skate Park.
“We raised a lot of money for that, did fundraising. We really went to work on that and we have really concentrated on doing things for families that don’t cost money,” she said.
Barnes also cited the City’s relationship with its neighbor, White Salmon, and seeing it form into more of a partnership than before as an accomplishment, though she said she couldn’t take all the credit.
Barnes praised the City staff for being accountable and having good work ethic. They work together, she said.
“We don’t have a street sweeper, but you’ll see them out sweeping the street, even with a broom if necessary. They take pride in their work, and it shows,” Barnes said.
Moving forward into the future, Barnes is focusing on the multitude of projects the City is underway on, such as the water loss and self-sufficiency study and the update to the City’s comprehensive plan.
Barnes is also looking forward to the 2020 census. In previous counts, Bingen was considered low-income based on the surveys submitted. That status has since changed, she said, so this upcoming census will determine a lot about Bingen’s future, namely, its position to receive grants and other funding.
Barnes named Bingen’s previous mayors, Brian Prigel and Charlie Long, as people who have supported her in her position as mayor, as well as former White Salmon Mayors David Poucher and Roger Holden.
On the topic of reelection, Barnes said she was keeping the option open to run again in two years when her third term will come to a close but would not confirm whether or not she would be in the running.
“I believe in new blood, young blood, but I believe also the same as Mayor Prigel did, that it needs to be one of the councilors that steps up, somebody that has at least some background to start off with,” Barnes said. “But a lot can happen in two years.”
Asked about what she hopes her legacy will be, Barnes said: “That I somehow helped improve Bingen to be a better place to live,”
“…and that we have a quiet zone,” she said through quiet laughter.