Donna Nasmyth: From Cheerleader to Leader

June 14, 2009
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Councilmember Donna Nasmyth

Councilmember Donna Nasmyth

Forgive Councilwoman Donna Nasmyth if she’s tongue-tied at the moment. Thanks to the Brown Act, which limits informal, undisclosed meetings held by local city officials, she, nor any other council member, can discuss city business unless it’s conducted in a public forum. In other words, no backyard barbecue talk with Robin Carder, Don Kendrick, Steve Johnson, or Robert Rodriguez on, say, whether the city should hire a consultant to help lure a Cheesecake Factory or other high-profile restaurant to the corner vacated by Michael J’s.

Similarly, at home she can’t talk to her husband Peter Nasmyth, a lawyer, about any of his pending cases. For example, only this week the media reported that Nasmyth was representing a Roynon Elementary School teacher who has claimed that a Kaiser Permanente nurse had violated her private medical records.

“I read the paper,” Donna said, “but I didn’t ask him about it. He had to leave early. I didn’t even see him this morning, but my daughter saw it. She said, ‘Hey, dad’s name is in the news,’ and she was going to cut it out. And I go, ‘You know, he’s not going to tell you about it.’ Tonight, I’ll probably say, ‘I saw you were in the paper,’ but he’s not going to give me any information.

“My husband takes his issues of confidentiality extremely seriously,” Nasmyth added. “That means we’re not talking about anything. If it happens at the office or in court, we’re not talking about it.”

Even with the conversational restraints that Nasmyth faces, she still has her public opportunities. She was appointed to a seat on the city council when Dan Harden announced his retirement in 2007. Earlier, she was a planning commissioner for La Verne for three years. She also served on the Youth and Family Action Committee.

History Calls

The appointment also made her the first woman ever to serve on the council, of which she was constantly reminded. “When I was appointed, there was a lot of talk and hype that I was the first woman appointed in the town’s history,” Nasmyth said. “Although it was an honor, I would continually tell people that’s not why they appointed me.”

She makes an irrefutable point. Her qualities and qualifications made her the council’s unanimous choice. Nasmyth is Dr. Nasmyth, holding a doctorate in organizational leadership from the University of La Verne where she also chairs the Liberal Studies department. Additionally, she is an assistant professor, teaching two classes, during both the fall and spring semesters, plus a community services class. 

“When I found out about the community service class, I was thrilled because this is what I do,” Nasmyth said. “It’s right on target with my council work and volunteerism. To be able to teach kids in their undergrad years how important it is to contribute to their community is extremely fulfilling.”

Nasmyth is hardly a janey-come-lately to volunteerism. She was baptised in public service. Her father served for 25 years as a reserve police officer in La Verne. Her mother, Peggy Redman, has been the longtime director of the University of La Verne’s Teacher Education program after teaching for many years in the Bonita Unified School District. Redman retires at the end of June.

“Having her as a role model has really served me well, not only in my professional capacity, but also in my volunteerism and leadership,” Nasmyth said. “She is a leader.”

Political Interest Came Later

Although community service was clearly part of her future from the start, Nasmyth’s political path was less apparent.

“I haven’t always had an interest in politics,” Nasmyth said. “I did do some student government. I was never president, though. I was the secretary to Pep. I mean I was a cheerleader and an athlete (tennis).”

She always bled green and later green and orange, however, attending Roynon, Ramona, Bonita and eventually the University of La Verne where she majored in English as an undergrad and received her Master’s in leadership and management before going on to obtain her doctorate.

It was as an undergrad that she met Peter, but they never dated. It was only at a party at a mutual friend’s house a decade later that they became reacquainted and started dating, which led to a trip to the altar. That was about 15 years ago. They have two children, Summer 19, a second-year student at ULV, and Chloe, 9, who attends Roynon, the circle of life spinning in perfect symmetry.

Leading up to this March’s election, campaigning for a seat on her own, Nasmyth wasn’t defined by any hot-button or red-meat issues. Her priority, then as it is now, is to “make the best decisions for the city.”

At some point, when the economy improves, she said she would like to get young people more involved in the political process, having them make real decisions as part of advisory boards and committees. “These kids could give input on programs and take leadership roles that will teach them skills about leadership and teamwork and collaboration that you can never learn too early in life,” Nasmyth said.

It’s probably a good cause to take up, given so few people actually vote, especially in local elections. She was elected with 1,820 votes. Robin Carder was elected with 1,286 votes.

“It always surprises me,” Nasmyth said, in response to the low voter turnout. “The numbers are so small, yet local government is the one elected body that affects you the most. We make decisions that affect you on a daily basis. We wield more control over La Verne than either the state or federal government does. You would hope that residents would want to be part of the process that selects the people who run their city. I don’t understand it.”

Voter apathy may nonplus Nasmyth, but little else seems to. Since becoming a council member, she said she has been impressed by the quality and commitment of the city staff. “They do a top job to make sure we are well prepared and well informed,” she said. “I never go into a meeting without knowing the full history of anything.”

Barking Dogs and Budgets

In between managing her family and her work, she handles a steady flow of mundane calls and emails about overgrown trees, barking dogs and the burning topic du jour, parking tickets and parking enforcement. “I don’t get people knocking on my door,” Nasmyth said. “For the most part they email me. It’s not a flood, it’s very manageable.”

A more looming problem – a potential shortfall in local revenues based on the state’s fiscal crisis — also is manageable, Nasmyth believes. “We’ve always been fiscally conservative,” Nasmyth said, “and because of that we’re in a decent position. Our reserve is healthy, but we’re going to have to use some of that. It’s going to protect us for the next year. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that, based on the uncertainties within the state. But as far as the circumstances within our control, we’re going to be fine, without having to make any reductions in services, without having to reduce positions, without having to cut back hours.”

Nasmyth’s confidence stems from “the good work that’s been done so far,” and her optimism that the council will continue its judicious, level-headed decision-making. “I don’t know what the decisions will be, but I do know that we work well together, and if we have to make difficult decisions, we’re going to make the right ones.”

As for the decisions in her personal life, Nasmyth feels she has a found a good balance between family, work, city and a new Pasadena restaurant, POP, in which she and her husband are investors.

Of course, finding balance is more art than science. Instead of a carefree July and August, free of teaching assignments, Nasmyth will be hunkered down in her downtown La Verne office laden with more responsibilities from her new departmental promotion that has her overseeing the Liberal Studies program at six different ULV campuses. Consequently, summer vacation most likely will consist of two- or three-day getaways. She and Peter also like to golf. “When we want to put it all behind us, we all go golfing,” she said.

But as someone with a doctorate in organizational leadership, Nasmyth is more in the habit of looking ahead, including surveying the political landscape.

“Everybody asks me where this (her council position) is taking me,” Nasmyth said. “Do you have larger aspirations? Are you looking at the Assembly? I answer the same way every time. Right now is where I want to be. I can’t even think of five years from now.”

Asked to complete the sentence that begins “Donna Nasmyth is,” she replied, “Donna Nasmyth is very busy, extremely fulfilled, and I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.”

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