Former Monroe mayor builds legacy

Walser receives naming honor at parks, public works facility

By Chris Hendrickson

After more than 30 years in local politics, former Monroe mayor Donnetta Walser is still a force to be reckoned with. And although she’s enjoying her retirement, she’s not done yet.

Walser was recently recognized for her valued impact on Monroe during a building dedication ceremony coordinated by Monroe Mayor Geoffrey Thomas. Monroe’s parks and public works building at 769 Village Way was renamed the Donnetta Walser Building, in honor of Walser’s many contributions to the city. It was Walser who spearheaded the acquisition of the property on which the parks and public works building sits.

The ceremony was held on Tuesday, Dec. 15.

Thomas gave an overview of Walser’s political career, which includes service on the Monroe City Council from 1976 to 1983, Monroe’s Civil Service Commission from 1984 to 1999 and another brief period on council prior to being elected mayor in 2002, where she served through 2009.

“Mayor Walser made her role as mayor a full-time job,” Thomas said. “Her dedication and service to the city of Monroe will be remembered with the dedication of this public works building.”

In addition to serving her community politically, Walser was a teacher with the Monroe School District for 27 years. Currently, she is the vice president of the U.S. 2 Safety Coalition, founded by her husband Fred, and sits on the Senior Services of Snohomish County Board of Directors.

Walser graduated from Jerome High School in Jerome, Idaho, in 1961. Coincidentally, the school colors at Jerome are orange and black, the same as Monroe High School. She attended the University of Idaho and achieved a bachelor’s degree in English, intending to pursue a career in either business or law.

But the need for immediate income led her to teaching.

Walser worked hard in college. During her senior year, she became certified for teaching while simultaneously fulfilling the requirements for graduation. Her first teaching job was in Morton, Washington, where she taught for one year before accepting a position with the Monroe School District.

She moved to Monroe in the fall of 1968 and immediately fell in love with the town, and short time later fell in love with husband-to-be Fred Walser, who was a trooper with the Washington State Patrol. The two were married in Monroe in 1971 and became parents to two boys; Matt and Scott. Health issues resulted in Walser becoming a stay-at-home mom for a period of time, and she took a break from teaching to raise her children.

It was then that she decided she needed more “adult communication,” so she applied for a position on the council.

“I was appointed by Grace Kirwan,” Walser said. “She really fought to get me on the council… Grace was a huge supporter.”

Kirwan was the mayor of Monroe from 1973 to 1981. It was Kirwan who was responsible for relocating Monroe City Hall from its original location on East Main Street to where it sits today. Though it was controversial at the time, Kirwan made the right decision, Walser said. It’s what inspired Walser to “pull a Grace” when the public works property came up for sale in 2007.

Walser’s early days on council were a learning experience, and she immersed herself in the process.  

“I had to prove myself,” Walser said. “Not only was I a woman, but I was the youngest, and so I had to prove myself. They were certain because I had two small children that I wouldn’t be able to make meetings, and I wouldn’t be able to make decisions on my own.”

She said she proved them wrong. 

“I took to it kind of like a duck to water,” Walser said.

Her most significant political accomplishments came once she began serving as mayor in 2002. Walser treated the position as a full-time job, and was immediately determined to become the face of Monroe. One thing that struck her early on was that youth in Monroe didn’t know who the Monroe mayor was.

“She queried her class on who’s the mayor, and nobody knew,” Fred Walser said. “And their parents didn’t know. And she said, ‘I’m going to change that.’ ”

She visited schools and attended Monroe Chamber of Commerce meetings, wholly embracing the public relations aspect of the job. She had a young student win the opportunity to be “Mayor for the Day” through a fundraising initiative sponsored by a local service organization, and the program stuck. Walser would give her “mayoral appointees” tours of city hall, one year even allowing a young girl to ride with her in the Monroe Fair Days parade.

“I tried to set an example for the younger kids,” Walser said. 

Her time in office was not without challenges, and Walser was not afraid to play hardball if necessary. Just three months into her term she was faced with having to fire former Monroe Police Chief Colleen Wilson. The situation was tense, and at least one member of the Monroe Police Department spoke in front of council on Wilson’s behalf.  In the end, firing Wilson and hiring Chief Tim Quenzer was the right decision, Walser said.

“The best decision I made was hiring him,” Walser said. “His credentials were unbelievable.”

She took on the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2007, seeking compensation for a water leak that occurred at the Monroe Correctional Complex between September 2006 and May 2007. Roughly 20 million gallons of water had spilled and the prison refused to pay the $220,000 bill.

Months of failed negotiations had occurred when Walser, who was hosting Gov. Christine Gregoire for a tour of U.S. 2, happened to show her the bill. The prison paid it shortly thereafter, but that wasn’t the end of water issues between the city and prison.

The Monroe Correctional Complex was paying approximately half of what was normally charged for city water, due to contract negotiations that had occurred years earlier. Walser had been working to renegotiate, so the city was more fairly compensated, but the prison wasn’t willing to yield.

And then one day, a prison staffer came to city hall for a building permit and Walser happened to see him in the lobby.

“I went in and told staff, ‘Whatever you do, don’t issue a building permit,’ ” Walser said. “They said ‘We have to, he’s got everything.’ I said ‘Don’t do it.’ ”

Years of debate ensued.

In 2009, after appointing Quenzer as the interim city administrator, the two traveled to Olympia for further negotiations. She and Quenzer were finally successful in negotiating a new contract with the prison, providing the city adequate payment for its water.  

“Before we were through, every prison superintendent in the state knew me by my first name,” Walser said. “These were some important issues, and it saved the ratepayers an enormous amount.”

Quenzer recalled a few of the water-issue meetings were highly contentious, saying Walser should be commended for giving more than 30 years of her life to serving the city of Monroe.

“It is very apparent that Monroe has benefited greatly from Mayor Walser’s service,” Quenzer said. “She is truly a wonderful leader who always put forward what was best for the city and its citizens.”

Other notable accomplishments on Walser’s resume include acquiring the property for Monroe’s parks and public works building, facilitating transportation improvements along U.S. 2 and securing funding for Monroe’s Rotary Field, the city’s one-of-a-kind baseball field for children with disabilities. Walser zeroed in on funding for the Rotary Field project in 2007, collaborating with the Monroe Rotary Club.

She obtained a $500,000 grant from state legislators, finessing lawmakers with a clever strategy: she showed them photos of the kids who would be using the field.

While her achievements in politics have had lasting impact, it’s her impact as a teacher that she truly cherishes. Throughout her career as an educator, Walser taught English, journalism, speech, drama, business and one year of health. She started out at Monroe High School, soon receiving accolades from Washington State University. The college told Walser students who had taken her course prevailed in freshman English, and that they were going to start offering advanced placement to graduates of her curriculum.

Walser later taught at Monroe Junior High, which is no longer in existence since the district implemented a middle school system. She started there when her youngest son was in the first grade, teaching there for the rest of her career. 

“In junior high I taught business, which I loved,” Walser said. “And the kids, they still thank me.”

Perhaps the most meaningful were her final two years with the district, which were spent overseeing a grant-funded program for at-risk youth. The kids were funneled into the program based on failing grades, poor attendance and various other issues. But Walser didn’t see the kids as problems. She thought they were remarkable.

“No one would believe me,” Walser said. “I had three gifted kids in this class.”

Some had drug-addicted parents, some didn’t have enough food and some had unaddressed medical issues.

“I had one girl that was pregnant,” Walser said. “She was one of the gifted ones. She’d read all the Russian classics. She spent time at the library rather than school.”

Another boy was gifted in computers, she said, while another was a strong athlete. She took them all to REI’s rock climbing wall in Seattle one day.

“It was quite an adventure,” Walser said. “And then on our way home we stopped at McDonald’s and I personally paid for their lunches because most of them didn’t have food.”

Walser became an advocate for the kids, imploring the principal to add them to the school’s free and reduced lunch program. The problem was that the free and reduced lunch program required a parent’s signature, and many of the kids simply didn’t have anyone willing to sign for them.

“I got to know these kids really well,” Walser said. “I loved it.”

Once the program ended, Walser retired from the district and ran for mayor. 

To Fred Walser, one of his wife’s greatest legacies is her tireless work to facilitate U.S. 2 safety improvements. It was Donnetta Walser who discovered that U.S. 2 was a federally funded highway, which resulted in the two taking a trip to Washington, D.C., to request funding for a Route Development Plan (RDP). There was no existing RDP for U.S. 2, and safety improvements could not be funded until a plan was in place.

“You couldn’t get funding without the plan, yet they wouldn’t pay for the plan,” Walser said.

She eventually prevailed, securing an appropriation of $500,000 in federal funding for the RDP.

Her husband is admittedly her greatest supporter.

“Because of her political abilities and contacts, U.S. 2 has benefited directly,” Fred Walser said. “And that should be part of her legacy.”


Photo by Chris Hendrickson Donnetta Walser was honored in December at MonroeGÇÖs parks and public works building, where Mayor Geoffrey Thomas renamed the building for Walser, to recogize her contributions to the community. Left to right, Monroe City Coucilmember Jeff Rasmussen, Sen. Kirk Pearson, Walser, Thomas, Councilmember Kevin Hanford and Councilmember Patsy Cudaback.


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