Young man with big job
Hewitt Mayor Luke Mitchell, 25, drives a big truck, is transforming an old school bus into a camper and loves riding his four-wheeler, but it is his position as one of the youngest mayors in the history of Hewitt, population 268, that has taken him on the ride of his life.
"I figured I would learn a whole lot, and I have learned a lot," Mitchell said about his experience since becoming mayor when he was the ripe old age of 23. "You really get to know the community. You get to see how something major operates."
Mitchell may have been young when he ran for office, but he knew enough about politics to be careful about what he said to the voting public.
"I didn't really promise anybody anything," he said about his campaign.
However, Mitchell's lack of promises hasn't stopped him from having an active political career. His responsibility to preside over the city council meetings is only the key in the ignition to his small-town mayoral duties.
"The basic expectation is you're supposed to come there and run the meetings," he said. "Obviously there's other duties that come with that, but they're not written in stone."
Since his election as mayor in November 2004, Mitchell has listened to complaints about snowmobile rides through residents' lawns, had his four-wheeler sabotaged during his volunteer efforts at the annual Hewitt Pickle Days Festival and worked on cleaning up the town.
Mitchell's phone frequently rings with calls from concerned citizens who have witnessed fences being built without permits and cars parked on someone else's property. He said he also receives some calls more suitable for the sheriff's department.
"In a small town you call the mayor first and get their thinking on it, I guess," he said. "They figure it's their tax money paying for you to be there so you should do something about it."
He does admit that he probably has himself to blame for some of the calls. Mitchell said he encourages Hewitt citizens to come to him for help.
"If you have a question on something or need help, I'll help you," he said to his constituents. "To the best of my ability, that's what I've tried to do."
He said the city created a complaint form that has lowered some of the calls he receives.
One of Mitchell's contributions to the city of Hewitt that he gets the most excited about is being an active member of the planning committee for the Pickle Festival.
"The whole weekend was a big success," he said about this year's festival. "We had a lot of people. We had 50 entries for our parade, which was huge."
Mitchell dragged the softball field in preparation for Friday night's game, set up bleachers for the truck and tractors pulls and helped run the ATV pull. However, the only payment he received for his festival work was a badly bruised leg during an accident with his four-wheeler.
Mitchell, a volunteer firefighter, used the fire truck to wet down the track for the ATV pull so that spectators wouldn't get dusty. He got on his four-wheeler after returning the truck to the fire hall.
"I was standing on it when it started and it just took off and threw me off," Mitchell said.
He made a permanent mark on the city when his four-wheeler crashed into the city office building and left a dent. Mitchell said someone cut the throttle cable, but he does not know who did it or why. He said the incident hurt his leg and prevented him from helping with the cleanup after the festival.
Cleaning up Hewitt is one of Mitchell's main goals for the town. He said a government grant encouraging low income homeowners to fix up their residences has helped spruce up the town.
"We had a lot of houses that looked really bad," he said. "And there's been a huge majority of those that have gotten changed."
Mitchell said an annual clean up day has also made a difference in the appearance of the town over the past few years.
"I wouldn't say that it's all me or anything," he said about the efforts that began before his term. "My biggest thing is to take pride in what you have ... regardless of whether it's new or old."
The money isn't what motivates Mitchell's government involvement--he makes $1,200 a year as mayor. Instead, Mitchell credited his father with instilling in him a desire to help other people. He said he has watched his dad help anyone who needed help.
"It's not something you're born with," Mitchell said about civic responsibility. "It think it's something that you see as you're growing up."
Mitchell sacrificed a good-paying job at Arlee RV in Alexandria in order to work closer to home as a mechanic in Staples. He said he felt he had to give up his Alexandria job in order to be available for meetings--a decision he said he has never regretted.
Being mayor is very time-consuming, and Mitchell said he is undecided as to whether he will run again. He would like to spend more time with his wife Kellie, 22, and children Cameron, 2, and Taylor, a month and a half.
Kellie said she was surprised when Mitchell paid his $3 filing fee and joined the mayoral race because he is so young.
Mitchell said there is an unexpectedly large population of young families in Hewitt.
"There's probably six, seven different families I can think of off the top of my head that are under 30, 30 and 30ish," he said.
It took some time to gain the respect of some of the older members of the government and community, Mitchell said.
"They didn't all give me the time of day at first, you know," he said. "But as time went on I felt that I have maybe gained a little respect from them. I didn't just do it as a joke. I [ran] because I knew what the responsibility was and tried to take it upon myself to fulfill that responsibility."
The proud mayor admires the city of Hewitt and said he is glad he and his wife chose it to begin their life together after their 2002 marriage.
"My favorite thing about Hewitt is that you're still able to walk to the neighbor's or take your kids to the park or ride your bike around town ... and I don't feel as if I have to look over my shoulder constantly," he said. "For the most part it feels very safe. There's a lot of places not very far away [that] you can't do that anymore."