She logged perhaps more volunteer hours than anyone in Orange County history.
Starting with the Girl Scouts in the 1950s in Newport Beach, Jean Watt went on to become one of Orange County’s most active and effective grassroots community leaders, becoming an environmental activist over Back Bay clean up issues in the 1970s and eventually serving two terms on the city council in the 1980s.
As a retiree, she helped save Orange County’s county park system along with leading countless ballot measures over the years that created a robust collection of protected open space public lands across the region.
Watt passed peacefully at age 96 in her Newport Beach home at noon on Sunday.
Known for her quiet demeanor and polite persistence when it came to public policy, Watt continually helped bring large, diverse coalitions of residents together and mentor them to do great things.
She was especially known for getting things done.
The kind of neighbor that active residents went to visit when they were taking on big interests against all odds and needed a good dose of resolve and inspiration.
She was an avid listener, welcomed diverse perspectives and didn’t shy away from hard policy challenges, instead championing the perspective that it’s always possible to think through complex challenges, find consensus, even progress by bringing people together.
Most importantly, she led by example.
And that made everyone want to help her.
To be on her team.
“She’s proof positive that one person can make a huge difference,” said close friend, mentee and longtime OC environmental activist Melanie Schlotterbeck.
“And she did, time and time again.”
The Path to Newport
Watt and her family came to Newport Beach from Pasadena, where as a child she grew up in the summers along the waterways of her second home on Harbor Island.
After getting a degree in Economic and Political Science from Stanford and becoming a registered nurse, Watt moved to Newport Beach after getting married in 1953.
She got her start as a volunteer with the Girl Scouts also being active on the local PTA, while raising four kids along the way.
Watt often credited her two decades as a Girl Scout leader as the place where she honed her leadership, community and mentoring skills.
Her focus on mentoring is what I keep hearing so many activists talk about.
She didn’t just focus on getting things done. She got others to get into getting things done.
Watt inspired action.
“If Jean Watt tells you that you can do it, you can,” said one of her many mentees, Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears, herself a longtime open government and environmental leader.
By the early 1970s, Watt added onto her Girl Scouts experience, taking aim at the waterways around her neighborhood, co-founding one of the county’s first environmental groups, SPON (Stop Polluting our Newport) with the aim of keeping the Upper Newport Beach undeveloped, clean and natural.
She ended up serving 14 years as SPON President and saw the group go beyond the bay and into issues like land use, traffic, building density and protection of open space.
After leading several successful referendums against Irvine Company developments, Watt organized activists and passed the Greenlight Initiative in 2000, which put major developments in Newport to a popular vote.
Watt was a strong advocate for direct democracy, understanding the real power of a clipboard and a card table.
Over the years and more than a half dozen successful land use initiatives, Watt became an expert in gathering signatures and recruiting volunteers to ensure citizen voices would be heard whether it be referendums or initiatives.
Her efforts and tactics became a model for citizen participation for many locals.
“Jean was our queen,” said Newport Beach resident and activist Susan Skinner, whose mom, Nancy, ran Watt’s Newport Beach City Council campaigns.
After nearing retirement, Watt was convinced by community members to run for office, serving two terms of the Newport Beach City Council, from 1988 to 1996.
“She was so effective all her friends thought she should be on city council,” said Nancy Skinner. “Newport Beach would be a different city without the input of Jean Watt.”
Always remaining a Republican despite being surrounded by partisans of other stripes in the countless open space campaigns she led, Watt was the very definition of big tent.
While some may have called her a RINO (Republican in name only), she never ran away from her party designation.
She once told me that local land use battles are always nonpartisan, and in fact, push diverse neighbors to work together, something she never got in the way of.
Watt also made great arguments about how conserving land, open space for future generations was as conservative as it gets, noting Teddy Roosevelt’s environmentalism as well as the fact that most major federal environmental regulations, things like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts all came under Republican administrations.
Most importantly, as a civic leader, Watt was known for a set of values.
Saving County Parks After the Bankruptcy
Those values were sought out after the county declared bankruptcy in 1994 and later set up the county parks department to share a large part of the debt burden.
Watt joined activists establishing a non-profit to help protect the OC parks department budget and gave birth to the Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, which today houses a wide coalition of local environmental and community groups that have become central in the county’s open space preservation efforts.
Green Vision Plan
Her grand legacy revolves around her most practical mission: documenting lands that local communities want to preserve and making that happen.
She walked around for years with a map of OC, and asked activists and residents to mark key properties that needed protection.
The map offers the county a complete list of every threatened landscape that has biological value and should be protected for future generations.
“If the state wants to invest in OC open space, we’re ready and that’s because of Jean,” said Schlotterbeck.
To see the Green Vision map, click here.
People Make a Difference
People like Jean Watt make you think about what your legacy will be.
Over such a long, active and meaningful life, she was the ultimate example of always expanding beyond her comfort zone.
And while her body is resting peacefully now, her spirit is clearly still with us, roaming the lands she helped protect and inspiring many others to take up her example.
Watt is survived by a huge, vibrant family including her daughters Tamara, Terrell and Lorna and her son, Jay Michael along with five grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
Memorial services are still being planned.
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