Gentle leader: go where people go

Mill Valley mayor governs contemplatively

Some politicians adopt a quiet route to leadership. They rarely charge ahead of the crowd or hard-sell ideas. More contemplative, they prefer to observe where folks want to go then gently guide them along. Their power appears soft, yielding, never abrasive. Attack ads? Not for them.

Stephanie Moulton-Peters, 2010 mayor of Mill Valley, carries her clout graciously. "I shepherd the community along toward its own goals," she says. "Then I get out of the way. I'm a facilitator and helper, relationship-based." In the 2007 election, she won the largest number of votes in a field of seven.

Stephanie Moulton-Peters

Moulton-Peters has calm eyes—you would trust her in an emergency. She has meditated for some 20 years and tends to listen more than jam forth an agenda.

"It's a coveted leadership role," Moulton-Peters says of her mayor position. "You're captain of the ship. You set the city agenda. You shape and run meetings."

Mill Valley, a town of 14,000 nestled in redwood-studded hills north of the Golden Gate, shimmers with affluence. Its residents tend to be creative, socially progressive and fiscally conservative. Mayor Moulton-Peters helps keep the town within its $25 million budget while fostering bike paths and alternative energy. Including another 10,000 residents of unincorporated areas, the city weighs in at third after San Rafael and Novato in terms of county influence.

In summer 2010 she presided over the hiring of city manager Jim McCann, who managed Calistoga for years. "It was rewarding," Moulton-Peters says of the hiring. "He is personable and gregarious, not afraid of dialogue. In Mill Valley, we chew everything up."

Politics is a second career for Moulton-Peters, who worked 13 years as environmental coordinator for PG&E. "I worked with a lot of men," including engineers and financial employees, she recalls.

She serves on the five-member council with one other woman. Growing up in Los Angeles, she attended an all-girls school then earned a bachelor's degree at Stanford. "Girls can do whatever they want," Moulton-Peters says. "In Mill Valley elections women always do better. Women are seen as more credible and trustworthy, caretakers of the issues local people care about. I got elected because I wanted our town to be more walkable and bike-able. I am determined that we have bike lanes so people can get out of their cars."

"In council meetings, dealing with conflict in public discourse has been very challenging. I get my armor on and hone my collaboration skills."

Elected during a time when Mill Valley was redesigning the look of Miller Avenue, its primary ingress route, Moulton-Peters inherited an uproar. Many residents vociferously resisted development. "That process was difficult," she says, and required massive doses of listening.

"In council meetings, dealing with conflict in public discourse has been very challenging," she says. "Conflict wears me down. I get my armor on and hone my collaboration skills, hear what everybody has to say. I was not used to being in the fishbowl. Issues are more complicated than they appear. Sometimes there is not a simple solution."

During a year as mayor she attended more than 25 events. Her retired husband had time to co-parent their two teenaged sons while she went to local functions. "I need my reflective time. That's the downside of being mayor," Moulton-Peters says. "How do I maintain balance and equanimity? I was out there an awful lot." She'll go back to being a regular council member before running to be reelected for 2012.

—James Dunn
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