Elk feeding is a hot topic at the Stanley, Idaho, town council meeting today. That, and the fact that a quarter of this small mountain town has just been put up for sale.
You’d never suspect that the young blue-eyed blonde with a ponytail and gold-colored nose ring driving up in her 1969 Ford pickup is the mayor who will run the meeting. In fact, Hannah Stauts, now 23, is the youngest female mayor in the United States. She was only 22 when she was elected, by a 39-31 vote, of the small populace of Stanley.
With the Sawtooth Mountains as magnificent backdrop, Stanley has only a small population of 100 hardy individuals who survive the challenging winters to earn the label “local.” But Stanley draws thousands of visitors every summer, who come to raft, hike, bike, fish, horseback ride or just enjoy the area’s beautiful rivers, mountains and lakes. And “Miss Mayor” (Stauts’ ‘MySpace’ moniker) needs to make sure everything runs smoothly.
“My first memory of Stanley was when I was four years old and rafted on an inflatable alligator down Valley Creek,” says Stauts. “I was christened by the river at a young age when I fell out into the rapids of the Payette River.” Her father is an outdoorsman, so the family, although living in Boise, spent many summers here rafting, hiking, fishing and camping.
Still, she did not grow up envisioning running the town. But then she got the civic government bug.
“The change started for me when I was 16. I applied probably younger than anyone else in Boise to a program called Youth Commissioners. It was an opportunity created by Mayor [Brent] Coles to have youth representatives appointed to various commissions in Boise. I had never been at a formal meeting before and all of a sudden I was appointed by the mayor to represent youth on the Arts Commission. It was an amazing experience. I learned how to speak well in front of a group, how to have my comments actually requested and regarded by a group of intelligent adults. I made some great connections with some really inspiring people and I liked having that civic involvement. It was fun. I think it made me feel important at a young age, feeling like my comments really meant something. That was really what started my involvement in things like that.”
“I felt the same thing about the role I held in club sports,” she continues. “In high school I was president of the ski racing club and then I continued that on into college. It was practicing and honing your leadership skills. Being able to see what a group of people, like my lacrosse team, wanted and help them get it. We wanted to go to a tournament in Oregon so I helped design a fund-raiser and we got to go. Being able to make things happen was the fun part.”
After graduating from Boise State University with a degree in political science and serving as an intern to the next Boise mayor, Stauts, like many graduates, was not sure what she wanted to do. During college summers, she had worked as a firefighter for the Forest Service in the Stanley area, so she decided to live in Stanley and continue that, at least for a while.
“My favorite part of the job is being outside. You spend every day outside in the woods and I loved it,” says Stauts with a smile. “The thing I really like is that I just got dirty. You wouldn’t shower for nine days and you’d be out on this fire with soot and ash and mud and dirt and you’d be sweaty and there’d be no showers. It was such a real experience just being out there in the woods and not having all these amenities that you’re used to. It’s just such a different experience that not a lot of people get to have.” >>>
Then fate, preparation and a perceptive mentor converged to ignite a new chapter in Stauts’ life and in Stanley’s history. This part of the story happens where a lot of Stanley stories begin—in the local bar. Stauts had a casual conversation on political issues with James Denhart, Stanley’s town maintenance manager. As she walked back to her friends, Denhart suddenly turned his head as if he’d had an epiphany and said, “You should run for the mayor of Stanley.” She just started laughing in disbelief, but he was serious. “You’ve got the education,” he said. “You’re a political science major. You’re young. You’re energetic. You’re exactly what Stanley needs right now.” He pulled a set of keys from his pocket and said, “These are the keys to the city of Stanley. These could be yours. Just think about it.” And she did.
After getting encouragement from the former mayor, Stauts got the 10 signatures necessary to place her name on the ballot and started introducing herself around town. “My grandpa sent me a campaign contribution of $100 that covered well and above my campaign costs,” says Stauts, smiling. “I sent a letter to every post office box in town explaining who I was and what my experience was and what I hoped to do and letting them know I looked forward to meeting them. And I started going door-to-door to meet people.”
Then she did something that had never been done before in Stanley. She organized a candidate’s forum to debate questions presented by the public. Although she remembers her voice was shaking, her answers helped her realize why she was running. “I really actually did believe in the things I was saying. I did want to be a part of the changes in Stanley—to help preserve this area and the lifestyle it creates.”
And sure enough, on November 8, 2005, she was elected by an eight-vote margin. (Two previous elections had been decided by a coin toss.)
What is a day like in the life of the youngest American female mayor? Her pickup truck pulls up to the town community center where there are always a few shelves full of books outside for people to swap. As Stauts (nose ring no longer in place) enters the town office, she is greeted by the clerk treasurer and heads into her office, where pictures of the Sawtooths decorate every wall. She answers the messages of locals who want to make appointments with her to discuss issues. On the second Wednesday of each month, she heads off to a council meeting in the big community room next to her office.
The council at this time is composed of all men, mostly much older than the mayor. Stauts sits at the center of a long table and runs the meeting with grace. Today the meeting focuses on revising the town’s comprehensive plan—the plan for how the town will look in the future. It is especially important now to have this plan and ordinances in place to support it because a land trust is seeking to sell the land that houses most of the town businesses (including the supermarket and that friendly bar where the new mayor’s future was changed). Stauts and the council have been researching advice from experts to prepare the town for the future sale.
“I want to make sure that the City of Stanley has done everything it can to prepare for change,” says Stauts. “Development will eventually come to Stanley, but rather than sitting back and waiting to see where the cards fall, I want us to direct our town’s destiny. We don’t have to become another small rural Idaho town that fell victim to rapid growth and overdevelopment struggling to hold on to their original ‘small town charm.’ Stanley has the opportunity to take actions now that will help preserve the characteristics of the town that we all hold dear.”
She is hoping for “community-minded and forward-thinking buyers” who will work together with them on Stanley’s future potential while preserving that small town charm.
Some of the issues discussed at the meeting include commercial zoning, a possible Dark Sky ordinance, setting up wireless communications in town, and even the colors of the community’s homes. Earth tones? “We want to keep with our rustic character,” states the mayor. At the end of each discussion, Stauts sums up and assigns everyone, including herself, research to do on different aspects of the issue. When another councilman speaks, she says, “We appreciate the comment.” Her neutrality belies any opinion of her own. She wants all to have a fair say.
Then there is the issue of elk feeding. Stauts suggests a public educational meeting on the matter. Apparently, someone has been feeding the elk, causing them to gather in town and eat trees as well. But the concern is much more complicated and epitomizes the many varied opinions that exist within this small town. The elk feeder is actually an anti-wolf person who says the elk are starving because wolves are keeping them from their natural habitat. >>>
“You’ve got the ranchers versus the conservationists. You’ve got the elk people versus the wolf people,” explains clerk treasurer Rocky James after the meeting. “Sportsmen versus the people that are not sportsmen; you’ve got the snowmobilers versus people that don’t want motorized traffic. It’s all in this area and everybody has a really loud voice because we’re such a small community and we all know one another. It’s really easy to confront someone. It’s like a large family. It takes very strong people to live here but Stauts has become the moderator. She listens to both sides of the story and finds how to get them to meet in the middle. She’s a real mediator.”
Such praise doesn’t fall lightly on Stauts, who has come to recognize her election symbolizes how times have changed for women.
“I’ve never thought of being female as a big deal,” she declares. “I guess I’ve had the fortune of growing up in a generation where it wasn’t as big a deal. That’s one thing my mom is really proud of.” (Her mother is a successful businesswoman and is also the person who taught Stauts the respectful manners necessary to run a meeting.)
“If you just look at the sports I’ve been involved in, or even being a Forest Service firefighter, being a female was never anything that was at the forefront of my mind when I saw things that I wanted to do. And so when I ran and got elected, I had no idea that my age and gender would be such a big deal. But then I found out that I was the youngest female mayor in the United States. I had no idea. I wasn’t expecting that and I didn’t even know that for a couple of months after I was elected.”
She was surprised to hear her name mentioned on the national news. “They reported Stanley as the coldest spot in the nation and then said ‘Well, we hope Mayor Hannah is doing all right and keeping the town running.’ I was pretty shocked to hear that.”
But how does a mayor survive on a $250 a month salary? Besides having been a firefighter, Stauts has worked as a dishwasher, hotel cleaning woman, cashier, and now as a teacher’s assistant as well as bartender and waitress at that same bar where her Stanley mayoral story began.
As far as a future in politics, Miss Mayor is not quite sure. “I don’t know. Initially, when I got into this position, I thought this is a world of possibilities.
Just imagine. I’m 22. My tenure will expire when I’m 26 and then I can run for state legislature and then maybe I can be governor. But now I don’t know. I’m not canceling that out, but I’d also like to go back to school, maybe live in another state in a bigger city and have that experience and then come back. I know that inevitably I want to establish my roots in Idaho. I love the state, I really do. But there are some experiences I want to have outside of politics before I really make the decision to dedicate my life to it.”
Stauts greets her old mentor, James Denhart, as she scurries out of the office to walk the streets of town with a contractor to devise a better snow removal plan. As Denhart works outside, he sums it all up, “She seems to have the spirit of achievement about her and the spirit of America is the spirit of achievement. She saw the challenge and stepped up.”