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Posted on: December 1, 2022

Councilmember Jamie Stephens Retires, Leaving a Legacy for Lopez

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SAN JUAN COUNTY, WA December 1, 2022 – San Juan County’s most senior council member, Jamie Stephens, retires this month after 12 years of public service. They say good things come in threes, and after three terms on the Council, Stephens has done more than his fair share of good work.

Stephens was elected to Council in November of 2010 to represent Lopez, Shaw, and Decatur Islands. During his tenure, he has worked on 28 committees and advisory boards, served on the Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC) and the National Association of Counties (NACo) among other state and regional associations, and played key roles in important land acquisitions, capital projects, and economic development programs around the County. 

"Jamie has dedicated his life to making the islands stronger, greener, and more equitable," said Councilmember Cindy Wolf. "Jamie has had a unique ability to coalesce the Council around our shared values and goals and has tirelessly worked to meaningfully improve life in the islands.” 

Stephens and his family of four moved to Lopez Island in 1996 after purchasing the Edenwild Inn Bed and Breakfast, and quickly became involved community members. His two children went through Lopez Schools and his wife, Lauren, served on the school board, at the Fisherman Bay Sewer District, and more. 

“Like many people, we came for the beauty and stayed because of the community,” Stephens said of his move to Lopez – something long-time friend and former Lopez Councilmember Rhea Miller echoed. “He enjoyed being behind the scenes in the community, helping others look good,” Miller said. “Anytime you needed a volunteer for any event, Jamie was there. He’s such a can-do guy.” 

Stephens spent much of his time volunteering at various local organizations. He served on the board of the local water association, the Lopez Island Family Resource Center, the Lopez Community Land Trust, the Community Center, and more. He worked as a substitute teacher, was president of the Lopez Chamber of Commerce and a Lopez Port Commissioner, organized the 4th of July parade for 10 years, and led the effort to build the village skate park before setting his sights on politics.

“He was on our board when he got elected, and I thought for sure that we’d lose him,” said Sandy Bishop, the Executive Director of the Lopez Community Land Trust. “Twelve years later, he’s still doing this regular volunteer work for us. He’s never stopped – that’s just who he is. And we couldn’t be more grateful.” 

When Stephens ran for election, the solid waste system needed restructuring, the State was threatening sanctions due to the outdated Critical Areas Ordinance, and broadband regulations were stalled. 

“I felt that these issues could be solved even if it meant only one term,” Stephens recalled. “I ran again because there was more work to do. We still had major projects that needed to get done.”

A Dozen-Year Local Legacy 

Throughout his career, Stephens played an instrumental role in major County milestones and initiatives including approving the Affordable Housing REET, ushering in the 2036 Comprehensive Plan Update, creating policy around vacation rentals, reinventing the solid waste system, and updating the Critical Areas Ordinance and Shoreline Master Plan.

“It’s hard to take too much credit for any one success because everything we do is a team sport,” Stephens noted with humility.

Passionate about land conservation, Stephens also helped establish the San Juan Islands National Monument. He often traveled to Olympia and Washington D.C. to advocate for the permanent protection of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in San Juan County and helped develop the National Monument Advisory Committee. His Council resume also includes major projects such as the Cattle Point Road relocation, Pear Point Road to Turn Point Road work, the new Parks and Fair office, the Prune Alley improvement project, the Orcas Road and Mount Baker Road expansions, and much more.  

Stephens is particularly proud of his work benefitting the residents of Lopez Island. The Odlin Park renovation, for example, was a once in 70-year project that upgraded the grounds, camping facilities, and day-use areas. He’s also proud of his work on the Fisherman Bay Walking Trail and the acquisition of Lopez Hill from the Department of Natural Resources.

“I operate under the saying, ‘great things can happen if nobody cares who gets the credit,’” said Stephens. 

Impact Beyond the Islands

Stephens was an influential policymaker, leader, and advocate beyond San Juan County. His work regionally and nationally brought recognition to the islands and a broader understanding of the issues faced by our small county and counties across the country.

“He leaves from office a legacy of leadership and building community that will be felt for a generation,” said Senator Liz Lovelett, with whom he worked with closely when in Olympia. “I am proud to have worked with Jamie Stephens and to call him my friend.”  

He championed making oil spill prevention and response a part of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Strategic Initiatives. He authored letters that the County Council sent to various agencies concerning oil and coal shipments through local waters. He also testified in Olympia and worked with legislators to forward local interests on ferries, farming taxation, and shared tax revenues. Stephens served on the Salmon Recovery Council and Ecosystem Coordinating Board which advised the Puget Sound Partnership on policy and funding to restore Puget Sound. He served on the interview panel for a new Washington State Ferries CEO by the Secretary of Transportation.

“I think people will never understand all that he’s done for Lopez,” said Rhea Miller. “He does things that don’t make headlines – like supporting our senior services and mental health – but make a big difference in our community and other communities around the state and country.”

Stephens joined the Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC) in 2011. He has served on the Legislative Steering Committee, as the Chair of the Coastal Caucus, on the Board of Directors, and on the Executive Committee as Vice President and President.  

As President of WSAC (2021-present), Stephens traveled to counties around Washington State to meet with local representatives and learn about the challenges they faced.  

“He used the information he learned from those visits and the relationships he built to better tell the story the issues facing county governments at the state level,” said Eric Johnson, the Executive Director of WSAC. “As president, he spoke on behalf of Washington State counties and really advocated for us in Olympia.”

Stephens was perhaps most impactful at WSAC during the COVID-19 pandemic when he led 39 counties in adopting new technologies and adapting to such unprecedented times. 

“He kept everyone working together, communicating, and working to understand the issues that were changing on a daily basis during the pandemic,” said Johnson. “He did a phenomenal job keeping the association active and productive.” 

In 2018 he became active in the National Association of Counties (NACo) where he now sits on the board of directors. Together, along with other NACo representatives, he traveled to Washington DC to advocate for local governments as part of Puget Sound Day on the Hill’s annual meeting with the State’s federal delegation.

“I remember when I was new to county government and would see Jamie at meetings – I knew that he is a leader to emulate,” said fellow NACo member and Kitsap County Commissioner Robert Gelder. “Jamie is the epitome of what a local public servant and statesman is or ought to be.” 

On the statewide level, Stephens sits on the Legislative Committee on Public Records Reform, the Governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, and the Shoreline Hearings Board. Regionally, he is part of the Puget Sound Partnership Ecosystem Coordination Board, PSP Salmon Recovery Council, SWISS, Northsound Behavioral Health Organization, and the Northwest Regional Council.

“For the past 12 years, Jamie has been dedicated to improving the lives of others,” said Representative Rick Larsen. “I have enjoyed working alongside him to deliver critical pandemic relief to residents and small businesses, address coastal erosion and climate resiliency, and improve child care options for working families.”

A Legacy of Mentorship

Stephens has worked with his fair share of organizational leaders, County department heads, council seatmates, and more. He helped hire a number of key positions within the County – including County Manager Mike Thomas in 2013 – which he considers one of the highlights of his career. 

“Any success that a Councilmember claims is in large part due to Mike’s work,” said Stephens. “He has taken time to mentor or hold individuals accountable, depending on what was needed, and has acted as the honest broker for Council.” 

Thomas, who has worked with Stephens on a number of County initiatives, says he admires not only the councilmember’s work ethic, but his community ethic as well. 

“He’s always doing something in the islands for the betterment of his community,” Thomas said. “He lives this community ethic that trumps politics and just takes care of his neighbors. He looks out for people.”

Stephens looked out for his fellow seatmates, including Councilmember Christine Minney. She joined the Council in 2021 and says she is grateful for Stephens’ mentorship. 

“He has been such a blessing to me as a newly elected official because he was so patient and willing to take the time to show me the ropes without ever being short or condescending,” said Councilmember Minney. “The list of things I’ll miss about him is large – his ability to be fair and reasonable in decision making, his institutional knowledge, and his ability to challenge an issue or person with thoughtfulness.” 

Looking back on his years, Stephens says he is most proud of his contributions to establishing the Lopez Village Urban Growth Area, the Housing REET, and the 2036 Update of the Comprehensive Plan. 

“I will miss the people I work with both inside and outside the County,” said Stephens. “I have been blessed to work with wonderful people who are trying their best to serve the citizens of San Juan County.”

Councilmember Stephens holds his final meeting on December 13, 2022. He will be recognized for his years of service at the last Lopez Island meeting of the year on December 6, 2022. 

While Stephens doesn’t have any firm post-work plans yet, chances are you’ll find him in the mountains, skiing into retirement. 

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