Born in the Catskills
Gale was born in Liberty, New York, on November 7, 1941. Her father was an admiral in the Navy, and also served as the town's postmaster. In high school, Gale was chosen as her class valedictorian, the first of a long list of accomplishments in her life.
From there she went on to Wellesley College in Massachusetts and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Political Science. After graduation, she taught high school classes in Panama and Taiwan, and also served as a legislative assistant for Senator Ted Kennedy.
In the late 1960s, she moved to Seattle with her husband, Dr. James Gale, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington. At the University, Gale earned a master’s degree in urban planning, and later received a doctorate in the same field with an emphasis in school finance reform. The couple divorced amicably years later.
Gale has noted that her master’s and doctoral work dealt with change. “How do you make it happen, so that people who are affected are empowered to make those decisions.” In many of her speeches and writings, she has noted that the Chinese character for crisis is made up of two characters – one is for danger and the other for opportunity. She points out that both elements are present in any change situation.
Serving the Public
As a parent activist in the late 1970s, Gale helped develop a school finance reform proposal that was successfully lobbied into legislation in the State of Washington. This system has since become a national model for full funding of education at the state level.
In 1977 she entered public service in the City of Seattle as a legislative assistant for the Utilities Committee. From 1978 to 1980, Gale worked as a legislative analyst for the city, and dealt with many civic issues such as sewer and surface water facilities, long range energy forecasting, energy conservation, and budget analysis.
In 1980, she became the Legislative Department’s Policy Director, and three years later, its Executive Director, overseeing 53 city employees. In this capacity, she developed the City Council’s annual Work Program, and balanced the City’s budget once legislative actions were taken. Gale managed all work done on major City policy and finance decisions.
It Pays to Recycle
From there she moved on to become director of the City’s Solid Waste Utility, with a staff of 165. Within a year, she streamlined the city’s trash-handling system by making it easier for the public to recycle their garbage. At the time, protesters were fighting a proposed garbage incinerator, and the community was looking for “greener” ways of dealing with waste. Gale implemented a curbside recycling program that has since become one of the most successful in the country.
She also led the way for a “pay as you toss” garbage contract that put an end to the flat-rate, unlimited garbage service that had been in place for years. Wasteful households saw their collection charges escalate dramatically, while households that recycled received big breaks. Some predicted a ratepayer revolt, but in the end city residents embraced the changes. Seattle significantly decreased the amount of trash that would have gone to public landfills.
The end result was that from 1988 to 1995, Seattle’s population grew by 5 percent, while the amount of solid waste sent to landfills decreased by 8.5 percent annually. Through the efforts of Gale and her management team, the city of Seattle became a nationwide model for how municipalities could deal with solid waste problems.
Water and More
In 1992, Seattle Mayor Norm Rice appointed Gale city budget director, where she developed the annual city budget exceeding $1.5 billion from all fund sources. In 1995, Gale became the superintendent of the Seattle Water Department where she developed a long range plan for the water infrastructure to serve the needs of the region for 25 years.
In 1996, the City of Seattle merged the Solid Waste Utility, the Drainage and Wastewater Utility, the Water Department, and the customer services functions of Seattle City Light. Gale was the logical choice to head the newly formed Seattle Public Utilities. Although the merging of diverse government services might have been an uphill battle, Gale’s team-building skills made SPU one of the most successful municipal programs in the history of Seattle.
A Life Well-Lived
Even with such a busy career, Diana Gale made time for her family and her many outside interests. The Gales raised four children -- Chloe, Geoff, Ming, and Justin -- all of whom shared Diana’s love of the outdoors. Among their many adventures, Gale and her family enjoyed a 75-mile hike from Snoqualmie Pass to Stevens Pass in 1987. Gale married Seattle land-use attorney Jerry Hillis in 2001.
Gale also has been extensively involved in the arts and the environment. She has served on the Board of the Seattle Opera, Intiman Theatre, the Seattle Chamber Music Festival, Long Live The Kings (a salmon restoration organization), and the International Water Management Council. She is also active at St. Mark’s Cathedral, having once served on the parish vestry.
During her many years of public service, Gale has received many honors and accolades. For Seattle’s Solid Waste Program alone, she received over a dozen awards, both locally and nationally. In 1998, Governing Magazine named her one of America’s Public Officials of the Year, and in 1999 Engineering News-Record named her one of that year’s 25 Top Newsmakers.