Reminiscing about Plumas County’s departing leaders

By Debra Moore

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This month saw a flurry of retirements from some of our county’s top leaders. I’m not sure that most residents understand what this means to all of us — County Administrator Gabriel Hydrick might have described it most aptly when he called it a “brain drain.” They take with them decades of historical knowledge and on-the-job experience. For me personally, they take with them the relationships we have forged over the years — one of trust and respect for the other’s work — and, in some cases, friendships. Here is a rundown of some notable retirements:

Agriculture Commissioner Tim Gibson

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Environmental Health Director Jerry Sipe

County Museum Director Scott Lawson

Count Counsel Craig Settlemire

Assessor Chuck Leonhardt

Clerk Recorder Kathy Williams

District 4 Supervisor Lori Simpson

I remember the first time I interviewed Tim Gibson. It was 19 years ago and I was writing a profile on him to introduce him to the community as the new ag commissioner. He was sharing his story and showing me some of the tools of the trade. I remember him opening a box with tiny silver objects in them. I reached out to touch one, and a look of horror passed over his face. They were used to ensure precise measurement, and my fingerprint would jeopardize that accuracy. It was my turn to be horrified, but he handled it with grace and our interview continued. He probably doesn’t even remember, but I always will.

Working with Environmental Health Director Jerry Sipe was a joy. He was accessible, candid, thoughtful, personable and always the consummate professional. Let’s face it when one needs to talk to the environmental health director, it’s not usually because all is perfect in our corner of the world. But whether it was contaminated drinking water, oil in the Feather River, or COVID complaints — to name just a few of the myriad topics we discussed over the years — he always made time to ensure that the newspaper had the information that it needed.

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Scott Lawson — what are we going to do without him? He is a vast repository of information and not just historical. As the director of the Plumas County Museum he has amassed and preserved objects and documents that can’t be found anywhere else. Throughout my career with Feather Publishing I have called on him countless times to provide a photo or background information for whatever story that I or my staff was working on. If he didn’t have what I needed readily available, he found it. And he always made me laugh. I will miss his upbeat personality and enthusiasm for his work.

Another individual who fielded a number of calls or emails from me over the years was County Counsel Craig Settlemire. Much as with Jerry Sipe, my calls to Craig for more information usually weren’t because of features or light-hearted stories. But I could always count on Craig to provide well-written, researched responses to my requests. He was always personable with a sardonic wit.

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Assessor Chuck Leonhardt still has a few more weeks on the job so I need to round up all of the questions that I can ply him with one last time. Chuck is another official who really seems to enjoy his job and does it well. You might think that the office of assessor is rather benign, but it isn’t. In my early tenure covering the board and county government there was tension between the supervisors and the assessor. There has been no drama under Chuck — at least none that I’ve been privy to. I will miss being able to call him up, hear his friendly voice and never feel like I’m putting him out of his way when I ask for something.

One of the people that I worked with most closely was Kathy Williams — especially in her role as chief elections official. This year in particular it seemed we were in constant communication — not only was it a presidential election year, it was in the middle of a pandemic. As a political science major, maybe it’s a natural that I would be drawn to reporting on elections and by association, the person who ran the county’s elections office, but it was more than that and we became friends. When I left the newspaper in 2006 for a stint away, she gifted me with a little teddy bear with a scarf and camera draped around her neck. I took that bear with me when I worked at the Record Searchlight and it sits on the shelf behind me back here at Feather Publishing. It was such a sweet gift and indicative of her nature. During her going away comments at the Board of Supervisors meeting, she talked about her ability to shoot and skin a buck, and run a backhoe. I don’t share those skills, but I do share a love of family and rural living. I will miss being able to call her for the latest voter info, and talk about county happenings and personalities, but mostly I will miss talking to a friend.

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When it came time to interview Lori Simpson, I decided to make the call from home rather than my desk because I knew we would talk for hours and we did. In non-virus times, we would have met for coffee or lunch and tied up a table. I have known Lori for decades and we tend to digress. When she reminisced during the board of supervisors meeting about her history with the county and her habitual “letter to the editor” writing, I had to smile. That’s how we initially became acquainted. And she did write a great letter — full of candor and passion. Working with Lori the supervisor was always interesting. Quoting her was difficult because she would get half way through a sentence and then passionately head off in another direction. During her tenure, Lori was always accessible and gladly provided whatever information was needed. I think if she weren’t in county government, she might have made a good reporter. It often felt like we tag-teamed stories, particularly during emergency situations such as the fires this past summer. Between the two of us we could track down critical information. Lori was a dedicated supervisor and worked as diligently as anyone I have worked with since 1993 when I first began covering the board of supervisors. I expect that next year it will be a little quieter on the third floor of the county courthouse and she will be missed.

Looking ahead to 2021 without these leaders seems a bit daunting, but there will be one familiar face among the newcomers — former Sheriff Greg Hagwood will succeed Lori Simpson. During his tenure as sheriff — through fires, floods, murders, missing persons, and the list goes on — he was accessible and always willing to supply the information needed. The years have forged a bond of trust and respect, and that’s what I will miss most about all of those retiring this year. Thank you for your service and our relationships. You will be missed.