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Jack Balshaw remembered as effective city leader

Published: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 11:20 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 11:20 a.m.

Jack Balshaw, a three-term City Councilmember whose contributions helped shape Petaluma as it is today, died on May 8, 2013 after a two-year battle with cancer, worsened by the delayed detection of a melanoma. He was 78.

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Jack Balshaw

Born and raised in Rhode Island, Mr. Balshaw served in U.S. Army. The GI Bill allowed him to be the first of his family to go to college.

“He was always very thankful for that,” said his son, Jim Balshaw.

After graduating from college as a civil engineer, he joined the Federal Highway Department during the early days of constructing the national interstate highway system.

“He was one of the first proponents of commuting,” said Jim. “He did a lot in this area to get carpooling going.”

A promotion provided Mr. Balshaw with the opportunity to transfer out to California. He and his family lived in Novato for a brief period of time before settling in Petaluma in the late 1960s.

He became involved in politics in the 1970s and served on the Petaluma Planning Commission during a time when the city was in turmoil over high-speed growth and the city’s inability to provide services to keep pace with that growth.

While on the commission, Mr. Balshaw aided Petaluma in the creation of a growth control plan and was author of several elements of it, including limiting annual growth to no more than 5 percent.

After his term on the Planning Commission ended, he was not reappointed, so Mr. Balshaw ran for City Council. He won.

“He worked during a time of a divisive City Council,” said Brian Sobel, who served as a City Councilmember alongside Mr. Balshaw during the mid-1980s. He explained that the council was torn between an “old guard” that wanted to see Petaluma operate the same way it always had and another contingency that thought Petaluma would benefit from new policies. Balshaw was part of that new guard.

“He was on the losing end of a lot of votes at that time,” Sobel said. “He was kind of a lone voice. Then people like Lynn Woolsey, Michael Davis, and I came along, and he found himself on a completely different council that got along very well. Many projects around the community happened because the council got along very well, and Jack Balshaw was the leader in that.”

One of the policies to come out of this era was the notion of adopting a number of development fees to pay for community improvements. Lucchesi Park and the Petaluma Community Center were built primarily with these fees. A specific plan was also created for the northeast quadrant of the city, assuring that all of the infrastructure for future growth would be provided as growth continued.

Described as someone who knew how to deal with bureaucracy and was impatient about progress, Mr. Balshaw never held a grudge against those who disagreed with him.

“We would have a rigorous City Council meeting, but nothing was held against anyone when the meeting ended,” said Sobel. “He didn’t spend time disliking people.”

“He never took politics personally,” added Jim Balshaw. “He would state his opinion and never had a problem with people not agreeing with him. He was there to contribute what he knew and believed. Nothing about any of the politics was taken personally.”

Mr. Balshaw’s service to the community didn’t end with City Council. He was involved in the beginnings of the Petaluma Downtown Association and Petaluma Ecumenical Projects (PEP Housing). He also wrote an opinion column for the Petaluma Argus-Courier for many years.

In 1989, the pedestrian river bridge downtown, which Mr. Balshaw proposed and was instrumental in having built, was named after him.

Mr. Balshaw was an amateur pilot who flew his own plane for decades out of the Petaluma Municipal Airport. He took a lot of day trips and once flew with his family to San Diego.

“He just loved being up there and seeing the world that way,” said Jim Balshaw.

He is survived by his wife, Janet Otis Balshaw; and sons David Balshaw and Jim Balshaw. The family will have a small private memorial in June.

In lieu of flowers the family prefers contributions be made to Hospice of Petaluma, 416 Payran St. Petaluma, CA 94952, or the Yosemite Conservancy, 101 Montgomery Suite 1700, San Francisco 94129.

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