Marlee Powell, the second woman to serve as the City of Sonora’s mayor, was described by family, friends and former colleagues as a quiet powerhouse who always took the time to listen and consider all points of view.
Powell died in her sleep at home Wednesday morning due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 85.
Her daughter, Kate Powell Segerstrom, said her mother was shy by nature but “got to shine” through her public service to the city.
Powell was elected to the council in 1996 and won reelection twice before stepping down in 2005 to spend more time with family and pursue other social issues that were near to her heart.
“None of us ever would have predicted it,” Segerstrom said of her mother’s third act in life as a dedicated public servant. “She was always content to be behind the scenes, and then to be front and center took some adjusting, but she was great at it.”
Born Nov. 25, 1932, Powell grew up in Pasadena where her parents, Walter and Wilma Garbett, owned a flower shop and were involved in designing and building floats for the annual Rose Parade.
Powell graduated from South Pasadena High School in 1950 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science from Stanford University. Her husband, Owen, was a lineman for the college’s football team and played in the 1952 Rose Bowl.
“She was his biggest fan, of course,” Segerstrom said.
The couple moved back to South Pasadena after college and had three children: Kate, Lindsey and Anthony Owen.
Segerstrom described her mother as a “supermom” who was involved in the local Parent Teachers Association, Girl Scouts, Little League, and the YMCA swim team.
Powell, who grew up as an Orange County Republican, became more progressive in her political views as she turned to activism following the untimely death of her husband in 1983 due to complications from surgery.
“She was never dogmatic about anything, but her political leanings became more liberal as she progressed through the third chapter in her life,” Segerstrom said.
In the 1980s, Powell became involved with a movement called Beyond War that sought to bring an end to the nuclear arms race at the time. She met former President Ronald Reagan in 1988 when the group presented him with an award for his efforts in avoiding conflict and ending the Cold War.
Powell moved to Sonora in the early 1990s because she wanted to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren.
Segerstrom, who now serves as a Tuolumne County Superior Court judge, had moved to the area after law school while working for the Sonora branch of a Stockton-based law firm from 1984 to 2000. She has two sons with her husband, Charles Segerstrom.
After moving to the city, Powell was prompted to become involved in local government due to the highly visible and controversial grading work being done along the slopes of Bald Mountain for the future Sunrise Hills subdivision.
She joined a special committee that helped craft the city’s Hillside Preservation Ordinance that was adopted by the Sonora City Council in 1996 to provide more controls on the density of development along hillside areas and other visual impacts.
Powell served for a time on the Sonora Planning Commission before running for a seat on the council in 1996, which she won.
Former City Administrator Greg Applegate, who now lives in Idaho, has fond memories of working with Powell while she was on the council.
Applegate said she utilized her contacts to help the city accomplish goals and projects, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was Powell’s roommate in college. When the city was looking for money to help renovate the Sonora Police Department’s station on South Green Street, Powell wrote to Feinstein and managed to acquire federal funding for the work.
“Whenever we went out for federal funding, we would go to all of our representatives that Marlee could contact,” Applegate said.
City Historian Pat Perry, who served as the city’s finance director during Powell’s tenure on the council, said Powell was recognized for her work in groups that were trying to find ways to make rural communities in the Sierra Nevada more economically viable.
Perry said she was also very interested in preserving the history of the city and was highly involved in planning celebrations for Sonora’s sesquicentennial in 2001.
Bill Seldon, who retired last year as the city’s public works supervisor, said Powell was the finest member of the council he ever worked with in his 27-year career with the city’s Public Works Department. He visited her last weekend.
“She worked well in negotiations with all of the different groups within the city, including police, fire and public works,” Seldon said. “She never stood her ground and said, ‘This is absolutely the way it’s going to be,’ she listened and worked through problems and was very good at finding middle ground.”
Despite coming from different sides of the aisle politically, Seldon said he and Powell saw eye-to-eye on ways of approaching beautification. He said she loved trees, landscaping and parks, much like himself.
“We really weren’t looking at reinventing Sonora and turning it into a different place,” he said. “Our goal was just to beautify the city and make it a better place to visit.”
In 2002, Powell was elected mayor by the council, accepting the gavel from Liz Bass, the first female mayor. In 2016, current Mayor Connie Williams became the third woman to serve in the position.
Segerstrom said her mother and Bass were often referred to on the council as the “ladies on the left.” Bass was later elected to represent District 1 on the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors.
Powell assisted the city with numerous projects during her two-year term as mayor, including an expansion of the Sonora Opera Hall, completion of the Fire Museum at Rother’s Corner, and purchasing the property that later became the popular Dragoon Gulch Trail.
Outside of politics, Powell was also involved with numerous causes and community organizations such as the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency, Motherlode Martin Luther King Jr. Committee, Sierra Business Council, and AFS foreign exchange student program.
She is survived by her children, Kate Powell Segerstrom, Lindsey Fish, and Anthony Owen Powell, four grandsons and two great-grandsons.
In-lieu of flowers, Segerstrom said people wishing to honor her memory can make a donation in her name to ATCAA, the Motherlode Martin Luther King Jr. Committee, or the Columbia College Foundation.
A celebration of life will take place after Powell’s son, who lives in Italy, returns to the state.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.