Women mayors rule in two foothills towns

December 20, 2002 12:00 am

By SUNNY LOCKWOOD

and JASON ECK

They are separated by a river and a bridge, live in different counties and are a generation apart.

But it's what the mayors of Sonora and Angels Camp share — they are only the second women to serve as mayor in their respective small cities — that together makes them part of The Union Democrat's Top 10 newsmakers of 2002.

Sonora Mayor Marlee Powell and her counterpart, Angels Camp Mayor Debbie Ponte, both lead their city councils in the only incorporated cities in either county.

And both got into politics in different ways.

Marlee Powell, Sonora mayor

Age: 70

Family: Widowed in 1983; three children, Kate Powell-Segerstrom, Lindsey Fish and Tony Powell; four grandchildren.

Education: Bachelor's degree in political science, Stanford University.

Hobbies: Watching college, high school sports; reading.

Sonora Mayor Marlee Powell kind of slid into politics — all the way to a spot on the City Council.

"When I got here, they were scraping off the hillside," Powell said of the work on the Sunrise Hills subdivision that was dramatically changing Sonora's landscape after she moved here in 1992. "You could hear the oak trees being ripped out."

The hillside, between Greenley Road and the east side of downtown Sonora, became the center of a contentious debate over the balance of development and environmental protection after developers cut down oaks, pines and all kinds of bushes, leaving a large plot of shaved hillside.

Powell, who had never held public office before, was shocked. But she didn't let her anger fester. Instead, her shock over the stripped hillside led her to join a special committee that was formed to develop a hillside preservation ordinance.

She attended meetings, researched the issue and ultimately helped shape what is now the city's Hillside Preservation Ordinance. It was adopted by the City Council in 1996.

Her work on the hillside ordinance led to a stint on the Sonora Planning Commission. She was appointed to fill a vacancy on the commission. Her service on the planning commission led to her becoming a candidate for City Council in 1996.