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Tony Lashbrook and Pete Bansen reflect on decades of public service
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For nearly 30 years, neither of them has taken a real vacation. They’ve sacrificed time with their families for their jobs and spent their adult lives guiding a fledging town and a barebones fire department into thriving entities. Now on the eve of retirement, they’re leaving a legacy of solid accomplishments and impacts on the community that will easily outlast their retirement years. But in their minds, they were both just “regular guys doing a complicated job,” in the right place at the right time.

Pete Bansen, 61, worked 36 years with the Squaw Valley Fire Department — first as a volunteer, then eventually as its fire chief for 24 years. Pete says he landed in Tahoe in 1978 because he knew how to drive a Zamboni, and after a stint at Squaw Valley ski resort he started at the fire department when it was mostly volunteer-run. Over his tenure, he has guided the department through doubling the on-duty staff, handling a four-times increase in calls, and stepping up from basic life support to advanced life support. The department’s fleet has gone through two generations of new apparatus, and it now has a new building, which Pete says should suit the department’s needs for at least the next 40 or 50 years. Perhaps most enviable is the dramatic increase in an important national rating system, the Public Protection Classification, that helps communities evaluate their public fire-protection services on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being best. When Pete started, SVFD’s rating was 6. It is currently at 2.

“For a small community, for a small department, that was a really significant achievement,” Pete said.

Pete officially retired June 27 and was replaced by Captain Allen Riley. Riley’s replacement was hired from within, and so was that replacement — Pete says this succession plan was one of his accomplishments.

A newspaper clipping sent to him by his mother brought a young, fresh-out-of-college Tony Lashbrook, now 59, to an assistant planner job with Mariposa County. He stayed there for 13 years, rising rapidly. With a love for small outdoor-oriented towns, he dug where he was, but in a premonition unusual in someone early in his career, he identified Truckee as a place where he also could live, and foresaw that the town would likely incorporate. He knew he had to be here. A year after the town incorporated, he was hired in 1994 as its first community development director, then 11 years later, he replaced the first town manager.

There from nearly the very beginning, Tony has overseen the literal building of a new town — everything from roads to a corporate yard, from trails to a town hall, and most importantly, the development of a town culture, of the “long-range policies and plans that people believed in, that actually could be used,” he says.

But of course it wasn’t just the style of governance, the Town had to have infrastructure. When Truckee incorporated, LAFCO identified a $32 million (in 1992 dollars) unfunded road maintenance liability, inherited from Nevada County, and kind of said, “Good luck with that,” Tony recalled.

“When Truckee incorporated, we didn’t get anything from the county other than a slice of revenue. There was no town hall, we didn’t get a chunk of the county government center, we didn’t get a corp yard, we didn’t get anything. We got some old equipment that was kinda strapped together with baling wire and duct tape,” Tony said. “There was maybe a half-mile of sidewalk and zero trails, literally. Now there’s 20 miles of Class 1 trails, 40 miles of Class 2 bike lanes. So out of nothing has come a lot.”

Tony retires July 15 and will be replaced by his Community Development Director Jeff Loux.

Tony and Pete’s legacies speak to the power of longevity, hard work, an optimistic spirit, and the grit to say what needs to be said. Moonshine Ink sat down with the two men together to reflect on their decades of public service.

Could you reflect on working in the public sector?

Pete: For me, it was kind of a relief because the way I grew up, my folks were very oriented to being responsible members of the community — my dad worked for the city of Philadelphia for his whole career and my mom was a teacher at a little Quaker school. I grew up Quaker, so a big value in my family was that you should be a responsible citizen, that you had a responsibility to give back and make the world a better place.

I worked at Squaw Valley resort for a number of years, basically a job working for recreation. It kind of bothered me that I wasn’t doing something more socially responsible, but getting public employment was more responsible and productive in terms of societal needs. Recreation is fine. People need recreation. But [this job] was a fulfillment for me, of a value that’s been there virtually all my life.

Tony: Most of my formative years were in a small town in the central Mother-Lode-part of Calaveras County. I went away to school, got my degree in natural resources. I pictured myself working in the Forest Service, Park Service, something along those lines. I wasn’t planning to go into the private sector. I was just a kid that went through college to primarily work outdoors.

[When my mom sent me the Mariposa County classified ad] I applied, it was my first job interview. I got it, and took a pay cut from where I was working at the lumber mill. I was planning to go to graduate school. [Mariposa] was also kind of a startup; they were just wrapping up their first general plan, which was a pioneering thought in a rural county. I guess what happened is that I was very successful. I was promoted rapidly and was a department head by the time I was 29 years old. And so it stuck.

What about the future of your agencies? Do you have advice for the people you’re leaving behind?

Tony: People have asked, “What’s going to happen when you leave?” I say, “It’s going to be okay, the course is charted pretty solid.”

First, you can take all our planning work and it boils down to a couple of sentences — preserving our small town character and our natural environment is our long-term economic future. Whatever we do has to embrace that.

Topic two, which can put tension to [the above], is we got a housing and underemployment crisis. Equally important to small town character and protecting our natural environment is maintaining this place as a real town.

Working on all those things, without spoiling what we have, is the key. It’s all going to be incremental, small victories, and avoiding big defeats.

Pete: I have the same sense that things in the agency are going to be great. I have total confidence in Allan Riley. He knows so much more than I did when I started and he has great leadership skills.

The most important thing we’ve always looked to improve is the level of service to the community while being fiscally responsible. We need to continue to do this.

There are a couple of things that have hit me over the head. A lot of people have lived [in Squaw] a long time, and we’re getting to the point where their physical or mental capabilities are in decline as they’re aging. In some cases it’s really hard for them to find the help that they need.

Since we’re the agency of last resort, we have to come. We always do and we try to find a way to make it better. Going forward, for the fire service, a challenge is we’re going to be faced with situations that we aren’t specifically charged with addressing but we feel a moral obligation to address. It’s an opportunity to address the community’s needs, but it’s going to be a challenge.

What about the community as a whole? How has it changed? What advice would you give it?

Pete: When I first got to Squaw Valley in 1978, it was really a very sleepy place, other than during ski season. It’s a different place today — it’s much more fun and exciting, many more things to do and places to work. We had a housing crisis even back then. But now, there’s a lot more employees. The problem has been compounded, on a bigger scale.

The traffic has certainly gotten worse and we need to come up with some answers. It’s affecting our lifestyles as residents. I think it will eventually have a ripple effect on the tourist business, but it’s hard to tell how much, how soon, and to what extent.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. But in other ways, we have issues and challenges now that we never dreamed of in the ’70s or ’80s. People need to work together, instead of against one another. At the end of the day, there’s going to be compromise. You might as well start at the beginning understanding that.

Tony: One of the challenges of this region is the geographic boundaries — the Town, Placer County, Nevada County, all the special districts. I think we can achieve a lot locally through collaboration. I haven’t always been bullish on collaboration in particular between the Town and Placer County — it’s kind of ebbed and flowed over time. Sometimes we maybe stick our nose in their business a little too far and they don’t like that, and I sometimes don’t blame them. But I am optimistic about the regional Mountain Housing Council and I think that could be a model for other efforts if it’s successful, so keeping momentum on that is a big deal.

Related to that, this construction engine is going to start slowing down. Probably a good thing, because there’s a carrying capacity here. So we need to start thinking, what is it that supports someone spending $700,000 to buy a house? I’m not sure that we’re thinking beyond our economy of today. It’s not [me and Pete]. It’s the next “us.” At some point, I’m out, and somebody else needs to come in, otherwise it’ll become a second home ghost town. What is that? What supports that? That’s what always has kept me up at night in Truckee. How do you keep this place a real place?

From what I’ve seen, you both tend toward optimism. Where does that come from?

Tony: It’s my basic human nature.

Pete: I agree, I just had this conversation with someone. I said virtually the same thing. I guess I just don’t know another way to look at things.

Tony: Life is too short for the alternative.

Pete: I have a relatively short memory for the things that are difficult or painful, and I have a longer memory for things I am happy about.

Tony: I would say that’s an important trait for success in jobs like ours. Look forward, not back. Learn, but don’t dwell.
Say something now that you couldn’t say before?

Tony: For me, what I want to say about this retirement is, “Wow, thanks.” I feel super lucky to have maybe been the right person at the right time for the era of this town and community. Did every decision go the way I wanted it to? No. But you gotta forget about that stuff and move on. It’s been incredible. Part of my speech about how to be successful is you gotta love where you are. Otherwise it’s going to impact your success. I’m a huge fan of this place. That’s kind of a boring answer to your question.

Well, not really. I’ve seen that throughout your careers, you’ve been able to say what you mean. I didn’t really think you’d be harboring anything, just thought it was a fun question.

Pete: I think I’m kind of stupid that way. I do tend to blurt things out. And I don’t necessarily think carefully about the repercussions. I think I was the right person, in the right place at the right time. I feel really privileged to have had the opportunities I’ve had. To have the trust from the community and the phenomenal board. People have been saying over the last couple of months, “Thank you so much.” And I’m like, “You know, I really had a lot of fun.” It’s a fun job. It’s a job where no two days are the same. Any minute, you can be thrown into a situation that’s totally unexpected. You never know. It’s a huge responsibility. But it’s a huge honor to be trusted in that way.

Tony: I do think it’s important when you’re in our roles that you actually say stuff. You don’t just sit back. People are relying on you for information and advice.

Pete: You have to be yourself. I would stop short of saying, “oh, you shouldn’t be politically correct,” because that’s such a loaded phrase. But I think you’re exactly right, you have to take a position that you believe in, that you’re prepared to defend.

Tony: You have to be able to talk about things in ways that people can relate to. I see myself as a regular guy doing a complicated job and enjoying it.

Pete: Me too.

What has you champing at the bit during retirement plans?

Pete: There are volunteer things I do that I’m looking forward to spending time on — Lake Tahoe Music Festival is something I’ve been involved with for a while. I’ve been on the Arts for the Schools board for a decade, I’m going to go off the board and help them with production. I’d like to travel. Otherwise, just relax and have some days off.

Tony: I just want to be able to love this place. Personally, both our daughters are engaged. They are going to be married over the next 12 to 14 months. I get to focus on this rather than, “Yea, I can pop in and do that, then, pfewww, head back to work.” To be able to really be there. You sacrifice a lot with your family when you have a big job. You never get those times back. In this important time of their life, I’ll be able to be there.

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November 8, 2018