When Don Persson joined the city as a police officer in 1966, the population was around 12,000. He never could’ve anticipated leading over 100,000 residents.
Persson’s law enforcement interest started in Renton grade school as a crosswalk enforcement boy. When he came home from being in the Army, he was offered jobs at both Renton Police Department and Washington State Patrol on the same day. But he didn’t want to move away from home, so he chose Renton.
As an officer, he became involved in volunteering. He said that was the best thing that happened to him. Police don’t always deal with the nicest people, so getting involved helped him meet the “wonderful, gracious” folks in Renton, to give him perspective. And through the work, he said he made lifelong friends.
Police Chief Ed VanValey said when he began as a parks department employee, he always saw Persson cooking at the city barbecues. When he started as an officer, he met him during the interview process. Persson was always friendly and welcoming, even as he was several steps above VanValey in rank.
Persson said his parents taught him that if somebody needed help, you helped them. Throughout Persson’s 53 years at city hall, it was also encouraged to get involved with the community. Colleagues say Persson worked quietly, under the radar, to support Renton events.
Once a year, Persson would go to SCORE Jail and Valley Communications Center and host barbecues for employees, he also did similar small events, such as cooking for employees working on holidays. He started the annual Thanksgiving Meal for seniors at Renton Senior Activity Center. The list goes on; Persson was also a founder of Renton River Days, board member of Communities in Schools, donated to the Renton Ecumenical Association of Churches (REACH) Center of Hope and he’s rang the bell for Salvation Army.
On Thursday, Dec. 19, he had just gotten back from a maintenance shop holiday celebration and told Renton Reporter that Renton has a workforce that cares about the city, with many employees here for 30-plus years. A police officer Persson hired, for example, has been with the department for 42 years.
Public Works Administrator Gregg Zimmerman has worked with Persson since his police days when he served as officer representation on a public works board.
To Zimmerman, Persson was a chief model of providing excellent service to the public, and it wasn’t always that way. Persson will also leave a legacy of being a gregarious community guy.
Persson then went on to be deputy chief, and one of his roles was to attend city council meetings. Sitting in on the meetings made him close to councilmembers and gave him a front-row seat to the council process. They encouraged him to apply when a vacancy came up, as he retired from the police department.
“It was just a natural progression, I think,” Persson said. “I had this knowledge not every councilmember has of the city.”
Councilmember Randy Corman was already on council when Persson joined. He remembers seeing Persson at the meetings as an officer, and once he joined council they became allies and friends. They had different election years and, in fact, served as each other’s campaign managers, Corman said.
Incoming Mayor Armondo Pavone knew Persson growing up— his father worked with him at the Renton Police Department. They were also next-door neighbors, but he got to know him through his role as a councilmember. Persson actually encouraged Pavone to run for council.
“The reason I am sitting here today is because of Don,” Pavone said. “He has done more things he won’t get credit for, than the things he’s done that he will get credit for.”
Going from city staff to council, Persson said he came in with a full understanding of city facilities and how things were run. He tries to offer that to other councilmembers, fellow members refer to it as the “Don Tour” of the city, which ranges from three to four hours but gives attendees a lot of knowledge of the city and its employees.
Councilmember Ed Prince said Persson was a mentor and guide for him as he started council, and as he sat next to him in council chambers. Especially for new councilmembers, he was always the one to reach out.
Councilmember Ruth Pérez also said Persson offered a lot of help starting out, and patience while she was in training. Persson nominated Pérez to be appointed to the council for her first term.
“He’s not your average councilmember,” Pérez said. “
Persson’s last council meeting was Monday, Dec. 9. He served for 20 years on the city council and 33 years in the Renton Police Department. At the meeting, Persson was read a proclamation for Don Persson Day, offered well wishes from department heads and councilmembers in a video, an hour-long version of which will be available online. The way Persson was honored at that meeting nearly made him cry, he said, and he felt very grateful.
Despite the goodbyes at that meeting, Persson is still wrapping up his council work. He is offering new councilmembers Valerie O’Halloran and Kim-Khanh Van the “Don Tour.”
His experience as an officer made him carefully scrutinize all the items presented to the council. He said in some ways he has a “sixth sense” of what to ask and where to look, especially in the finance committee. Zimmerman agreed he had an intuitive sense of what the right thing was for the city.
He’s always been a watchdog to make sure the council was fiscally responsible, and doing the right thing, Pavone said. Prince said Persson was a “hawk” and will miss his eagle eye on the finance committee, and their collaboration on the public safety committee.
“I hope the willingness to ask tough questions on council, even if it’s uncomfortable, will continue,” Prince said.
As an administrator during Persson’s tenure on council, Zimmerman said if he had something to ask, you better sit up and listen. He had strong opinions on council, Zimmerman said, and those opinions were usually right.
Staff needed to come prepared to answer any questions on any detail, from alleys to paving projects. Zimmerman said Persson also emphasized his council priorities, for example, he always pushed for alley projects in every budget.
“He knows just about every nook and cranny in this city,” Zimmerman said. “He understands the lay of the land, but also how other residents think.”
His big goals on the council were to make sure departments received any equipment they needed in public works and parks and recreation. But his proudest accomplishments he said were the take-home cars program and the new virtual training simulator for the police department. He said they were needed and he’s happy to go out with getting those paid for.
“He wants our folks to have the best,” VanValey said. “He’s never wavered.”
Persson also is always ready to reach out to VanValey for a crime or nuisance to see if it can be handled for the community, as well as checking on the welfare of the police department.
Persson hopes the council will continue to think of what’s best for residents and not carry personal agendas like other city councils. Corman and other councilmembers said Persson always let go of disagreements after the votes were cast.
“I never saw a guy that had an ego or personal agenda,” Pérez said. “In my hardest times on council over the last six years, he was always there for me no matter what. I will always look up to him.”
As Persson rides off into the sunset (AKA his home on Renton Hill with wife Vicky) he hopes the council stays a team with the next mayor.
“We’ve had our growing pains over the years, but we handled them well. I’m extremely excited for our new mayor and new council. I think they will continue to work as a team and take the city the next step forward,” Persson said.
Corman said it will be hard to replace Persson’s special role in community volunteering. Persson is trying to pass off some of the events he spearheads as he hopes to do some traveling with Vicky Persson, but for now, he remains involved.
“Things will change. It’s been a long ride, but a good ride, and it feels like 20 years instead of 53. The most important thing I’d like to tell anybody is, I love this city and the people in it,” Persson said.
Persson’s retirement video is at rentonwa.gov.