Robin Sweeny: The Making of an Activist

By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

Sausalito’s first woman mayor, Robin Sweeny, was a pioneering eco-warrior before getting into politics.

Robin, who passed away last month at age 93, served for 28 years on the city council, and ended up serving as mayor four times. She first moved to Sausalito in 1953 and raised her family on a hillside home before moving to an ark in Waldo Point Harbor.

In a 1992 oral history, Robin explained how she first got involved in community activism.  Here’s that story, edited for length and clarity:

Back in the early sixties my husband felt that all of the development after the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge was taking place further north, and that Sausalito was the “sleepy little village under the bridge” and there was something about that that appealed to him.

Over time we began to notice little things happening in Sausalito that indicated the rules were changing.  The first thing that really astonished and frightened us, particularly folks who cared about the bay and the environment – the word “environmentalist” hadn’t been coined quite yet -- we picked up through a newsletter being circulated around town by people called the Sausalito Citizens’ Council – kind of town watchers. It described a project that was beginning to work its way through the planning processes of our city, a thing called Sausalito Properties. That was around 1962 or 1963.

This proposal was to develop all waterfront property from Napa Street clear down past Johnson Street and outboard of the then Sausalito Yacht Harbor. There were some 40 acres, and a proposal to fill 20 acres. This was a horrifying concept that involved a hotel, some commercial and some lagoon-type condominium living. Condominiums were then in their infancy, too. A prominent architect, John Lord King, who had done a number of other projects in Southern Marin, and an engineer named Elmo Hutchinson were moving the Sausalito Properties project along.

The city was not turning their nose up at it, and we were surprised to hear it was going into planning commission hearings. A few of us formed a group called SOS (Save Our Shore) and became watchdogs of the project. We appealed to the city council to consider the impact of doing such a thing. We didn't have the environmental quality act in those days, we didn’t even have a design review board. The BCDC wasn't there. Bay fill was a fact of life, happened all the time. No one was flustered by that, particularly, as we began to bring it to the attention of the town through petitions and what have you – we were very bold.  We called a press conference and the newspaper said “We won’t come to someone’s house for a press conference.  We’ll only acknowledge a press conference for an organization.”  And at that point we became an organization.

After a lot of machinations, we got to the place where the city council put a three-year moratorium on bay fill along the entire waterfront, which was very bold thing to do at that time. That was later challenged in court and I seem to recall we didn’t win the case. But in the meantime, the MacAteer-Petris Act came along, and as a result of that the Bay Area Conservation and Development Commission got jurisdiction over the bay and control of fill, and they superimposed a moratorium of their own for the entire San Francisco Bay.

Robin continued to be a voice for reason in the face of numerous development schemes, and recalled, “All of that led to people suggesting I run for public office.”  She was elected to the city council in 1968, and first became mayor in 1972.

During and after her time on the city council, Robin was active in several community organizations, including the Sausalito Woman’s Club, the Rotary Club, the Sausalito Historical Society, the Sausalito Cruising Club, the Sausalito Foundation, the Friends of the Sausalito Library, Chamber of Commerce and Marin Conservation League to name a few

I first met Robin in 1990 when I volunteered for the Mayor’s Select Blue Ribbon Garbage Committee, which she ran for the Sausalito Art Festival. Robin worked tirelessly yet cheerfully every day of the Festival for many years. Her efforts were rewarded when one visitor commented, “This place is cleaner than Disneyland.”

Robin is survived by her two daughters, Tara Sotter and Sarah Sweeny, and one granddaughter. No memorial service is scheduled.

For a look at similar ill-conceived developments and other wacky concepts that almost but never quite happened here, visit the Historical Society’s new exhibit, “The Sausalito That Never Was.” It is open to the public Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10 AM to 1 PM on the top floor of City Hall.

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