In the mid-1970s, Jill Guernsey got lost when she and her mother were on vacation in Washington state. They traveled often had a get-in-the-car-and-go attitude.
In her mother’s 1969 Corvette, Guernsey was in Tacoma and crossed the Narrows Bridge. That’s the first time she found herself in Gig Harbor, and it was an accident.
In January, Guernsey will be sworn in as mayor. It’s another slot in a long career of public service.
She was on the Peninsula School District’s Board of Directors for a decade, from 2000-10. She also was on the city Planning Commission from 2005-11. Then, she was elected to the city council in 2012.
That’s a pretty good record for someone who discovered Gig Harbor through a wrong turn.
Guernsey ran for mayor the first time in 2005, when Chuck Hunter was elected for the first of his two four-year terms. Looking back, Guernsey said it was the right decision for the city at the time.
After her trip across the bridge in the Corvette, she came back and never left.
“I loved it the day I set foot in this town,” she said.
It was August 1978, and Guernsey was in law school. She was in her third year at Loyola in California when she became a visiting student at the University of Puget Sound School of Law -- now the Seattle University School of Law. She moved into a one-bedroom apartment near the bridge, what today is the Cliffside Apartments.
“I was so happy here, I didn’t even go back to Los Angeles for graduation (at Loyola),” Guernsey said.
She’d been here before to visit. As she sat with a cup of hot water at Java and Clay, she recounted her family vacation to see her uncle on Whidbey Island in 1960. She talked about visiting Seattle for the 1962 World’s Fair.
Although she was Pasadena born and raised and educated at both UC Irvine and Loyola, she said: “I just kept coming back.”
Her priorities as mayor mostly concern downtown, a place with which she fell in love when she moved here years ago. She would like to see a fuel dock, a grocery store and a vibrant community downtown.
Guernsey wants to see it thrive because she sees Gig Harbor as “the gem of Pierce County.” The vibrancy she wants to see is all about atmosphere — “where you have places and people and things to do during the day and in the evening,” she said.
At a recent city council meeting, something council ember Steve Ekberg said stuck with her.
Ekberg said he had everything he needed when he was downtown 30 years ago. He could get groceries, dinner and even a suit. That’s what Guernsey wants to see come back.
In terms of completing goals, Guernsey said her motto is “baby steps.” Improvements work best as little steps, not sweeping changes, she said.
“I think you need to be sensible to the fact that we live in a small town,” she said.
Outside of city work, Guernsey works in the civil division of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s office. She is the in-house counsel and handles all land use suits filed against Pierce County. Her main client is the county planning department.
“Land use is my main thing,” she said.
Guernsey recommended reference books and talked about the latest zoning in the city. She said she feels lucky to be mayor at a time when there’s a good council to work alongside. While they don’t always agree, the council members are always respectful, she said.
She called the opportunity to be mayor with this council “tremendous.”
“The stars were aligned, as they say,” she said.
Guernsey sees cooperation as the way to succeed as a council. She said she applies that in her day job as a lawyer, too. She doesn’t find the win-loss lifestyle fulfilling. Instead, she’s most excited when solutions are found and parties work together.
Moving into the mayor’s seat is not about the title but about the opportunity to work with the community, she said. That’s something she learned while she was on the school board, something she ran for because she wanted to work for her two sons — now ages 25 and 28.
“There’s no glory,” she said. “You don’t do it for the pay. You do it because it gives you the opportunity to do something good.”Reporter Karen Miller can be reached at 253-358-4155 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.