The death of a teenage boy in Gilbert in 1990 sparked a controversial fight to create a town fire department — and prompted one concerned resident to run for elected office.
The tragedy was blamed on a lack of paramedics on area fire trucks that responded to an accident in a town park.
“All they could do,” Town Councilman Larry Morrison said of the Rural/Metro firefighters at the scene of the park accident, “was arrive and comfort, and wait for the ambulance. There was a large outcry from the community.”
The incident convinced Morrison, a member of the Planning Commission at the time and the father of five daughters, to run for Town Council.
He now ties the record as the longest-serving council member in the town’s history as he prepares to finish his 16th year of work in helping design a town that’s grown from about 24,000 when he was first elected to nearly 190,000 today. Morrison is not seeking re-election in March.
Looking back, Morrison, 63, said he never realized when he first moved to Gilbert from Seattle in 1987 that his thumbprint would be embedded on his new hometown forever.
Once Morrison took office, it took a year and a public initiative for town officials to form the Gilbert Fire Department, which now has paramedics on every truck.
After that, he said, it seemed like there was more to be done to ensure the town was developed as residents wanted, as growth spiraled to levels no one could have imagined.
“Most towns add 1,000 people a year,” he said. “Not 400 to 500 a month.”
Morrison’s run for office in 1991 wasn’t his first. He sought a seat on the Town Council in 1989, after his family was charged $3,000 for landscaping fees in their parkway improvement district for two years before they even moved in — a problem caused by a decline in the housing market which left few people to pay for landscaping. Morrison didn’t win, but a year later was appointed to the Planning Commission.
“There was a vision of what the town of Gilbert should be,” he said. “At the time, everyone thought it should be a fairly upscale community, with tile roofs and nicely built streets so you can see the landscaping down the streets — a place you want to live.”
Over the years, he said, his priority has been on maintaining a small-town feel in Gilbert. In the 1990s, he succeeded in bringing bus service to town as well as a recycling program.
He supported regulations that ensured homes in Gilbert aren’t built in cookie-cutter fashion, helped set aside land for future parks and shopping centers, and opposed a decision to build homes around a Salt River Project generating station, a decision that since became controversial when the plant expanded.
He’s often mistaken as a member of the former farm family that developed Morrison Ranch. Rather, he was raised by a teacher and U.S. Army father, and married his wife, Virginia, more than 40 years ago, after the two worked at a restaurant to put themselves through the University of Washington. He lived throughout the country in his childhood, but plans to retire here and even run for another office in the future.
A photography buff, he owns a small motor home and likes to travel to northern Arizona and other states. He often travels overnight for business meetings as a lubrication engineer for ConocoPhillips. He said he decided not to seek reelection because an increase in mineral values was causing a spiked need for oil and lubrication services.
Soft-spoken and polite, Morrison doesn’t hold back his opinions, and is quick with fiscal analyses.
Fellow council members turn to him for his institutional memory of the town, said Vice Mayor Dave Crozier, who this year finishes his 12th consecutive year in office.
“Larry’s a very compassionate person, and always kind of looked out and tried to be there for the other guy,” Crozier said. “He’s very thoughtful, intelligent. And so, looking at the crystal ball 10 years ago, he foresaw what we were going to be today. He’s kind of like the wise council member you can go to, who’s seen this before.”
Though he plans to remain active in St. Anne’s Catholic Church, the Rotary Club and in town, he won’t be on the council as officials make final buildout plans. But he wants the future councils to begin planning now to ensure the town, once done booming, doesn’t decline and form blighted areas.
Fire service is again a hot issue, but this time it’s about providing service to county island residents who don’t want to be part of town.
“The bottom line is, it’s about what the people of Gilbert want,” he said. “It comes down to, we represent the people, not ourselves.”