Called Mel by those who know her and those who think they know her, she never imagined herself as First Lady of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Born and raised in Oklahoma, Melissa Burnett started her studies in architecture, but a course on the history of costume turned her attention to 20th century clothing and furnishings. After completing her graduate work at Parsons School of Design in New York, she moved to Washington, D.C. to work at The Textile Museum and complete research for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
It was in the nation’s capital that she met Jason Burnett, a Peninsula native, born at Community Hospital, raised in Carmel Valley, educated at Stanford, and working in Washington. During their 10 years on the opposite coast, Burnett talked about moving back to his hometown, and his new wife “very quickly bought into the idea.” The couple moved to Carmel in 2008, where they bought a mid-century bungalow and remodeled it into an eco-friendly home, which earned them the first Platinum LEED certification for energy efficiency.
Mrs. Burnett took a position at the Monterey Maritime and History Museum – now The Museum of Monterey – curating an extensive costume collection. In 2011, with the pending arrival of the couple’s first child, Sebastian, she stepped down to focus on family. A year later, her husband who was sworn in as Council Member in 2010, was elected Mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
“I am really proud of Jason,” she explains. “I’ve always been proud of him, but now, in this role, as I see what he’s doing for the community and how he’s handling his job, which is a totally new thing for him, it fills me with pride. I also feel like I have to live up to that. The challenge for me is to make sure I am representing Carmel, too. I have to remember that. We all know who Jason is, and by default who I am as well. I keep that in mind as I go through my day and try in every way to honor and support that.”
Burnett had never lived in a community the size of Carmel, where everybody knows your name. This required an adjustment from her. Now, as First Lady her degree of exposure has been exponential.
“I was at the Monterey Bay Aquarium,” she says, “and Sebastian got a little ahead of me. As I approached him, two people turned around and greeted him by name. There I was, in my family moment, and all of a sudden I was lifted out of it into that public element. But you know, it’s always pleasant. This certainly is a charming place to raise a family.”
As Sebastian gets older, the Mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea has invited his First Lady to get more involved in the community. While she recognizes a lot of excellent opportunities to volunteer, and she attends the community picnics, parties and fundraising events, her time still remains at a premium. Particularly since, nine months ago she returned to her field by becoming chairman of the board for the Monterey Museum of Art.
“I’m really excited to be working with the art museum,” she says. “It presents an interesting opportunity. Carmel has such a rich art heritage, so it’s a chance to bridge the art organizations in Carmel with the art museum. People know and trust Jason, and are willing to take a chance on me and do some nice collaborations. Those projects feel like unique opportunities, and Jason’s reputation has to be a part of that. I’ll take it and run with it.”
A few months ago, the last thing Hilary Bryant might have pictured for herself was becoming the Mayor of Santa Cruz. In December 2012 when she was sworn in to her new role, she never imagined she would be helping to heal her community following the tragic shooting of two police officers in February.
It all started when she got mad. The real estate broker and mother of two was just trying to have her voice heard about a local issue, when she called her mother, who had been a state legislator in her hometown in New Hampshire.
“My mother said, ‘Don’t complain to me; run for office and go fix it.’ It was about the future of a community center,” says Bryant, “which was resolved by the time I got into office. I wanted to see government run more like a business. Once I got into this position, I realized that’s not reality. Government can be more businesslike, but it is not a business; that model doesn’t translate.”
During the past months, Bryant’s focus has shifted from policy to protecting her community and to remaining present and available in the aftermath of violence.
“This is one of those moments in leadership,” says Bryant, “best led by saying, ‘I am here and will follow your direction and be as present as I can.’ There are so many facets to what happened to our community. When friends and neighbors are gunned down in the line of duty, it is a crisis for the whole community. I know there is a huge responsibility when you run for office, but I actually have felt the weight of it like I’d never imagined. I need to honor the sacrifices made on behalf of all of us.”
Born and raised in New Hampshire, Bryant graduated from UC Santa Cruz and never left, having fallen in love with the area, with surfing and with molecular, cellular biology. Her plan was to go to medical school, but she was unwilling to leave Santa Cruz. She decided the best way to stay, work, and invest in the community she loved was to become a real estate broker. She had no idea that in learning the lay of the land she was preparing herself to become Mayor.
“Getting into real estate,” says Bryant, “gave me a real knowledge of the neighborhoods, of the community, of the entire county. I wanted a flexible job that would allow me to surf and make money before I went away to medical school. I’d had my license for three hours, and I sold my first house. I was hooked. And I don’t regret my decision, which turned out, for a lot of reasons, to be a good one.”
Hilary’s husband, David Shuman, is a Veterinarian in town, who owns Westside Animal Hospital. She acknowledges that he is a very tolerant person and supportive husband, which makes it possible for her to work long hours and juggle her real estate job, her children’s needs, and her community responsibilities as Mayor.
“It has been incredibly challenging,” Bryant says. “I want to give the community as much time as it needs and do the best job I can, and I also don’t want others to raise my children. My life’s been changed forever by this moment. I will carry it with me, hoping to be a good role model for my children, and responsible to my community as well. I learn something new every day in this job. I will be an amazing community member by the time I go back to my private life.”
She met her husband, Joe Gunter, at a murder scene. She was the defense investigator; he was the lead homicide investigator for the Salinas Police Department. She never won a case against him, but she won his heart. Once they were married, she finally won a debate – at home.
The first to admit she has multiple personalities, Lisa Eisemann would never call it a disorder. In fact, it’s what enables her to lead such a dynamic life. A devoted dancer from age 2 all the way through her teens, she actually had her heart set on becoming a police officer. She attended Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and finished her bachelor’s degree in criminology at San Jose State. She later went on to do graduate work in Criminalistics at UC Berkeley. But the tiny dancer couldn’t pass the physical agility test.
In 1980, Lisa bought the Salinas School of Dance, which she still directs, along with the Salinas Valley Civic Ballet and the Spirit of Salinas Irish Dance Company.
“This wasn’t what I wanted to do,” says Eisemann, “but I needed a job, and my teacher wanted to retire. I said I’d do it for two years, but I love it and can’t give it up. And now our daughter, Tarrin Eisemann-Gunter, 22, dances and teaches there.”
The other side of Eisemann has a deep desire to delve into criminal behavior to figure out what happened and why and how. So, 10 years later she became one of the first female licensed private investigators in Monterey County. She quickly established her reputation as a court-certified gang expert, working on gang-related homicide cases.
In 1995, Lisa established Eisemann Investigations, a civil and criminal investigations firm, which became Eisemann & Gunter Investigations once her husband retired from the police department in 2002.
Since then, Eisemann has become the research historian and archivist for two large departments – the Salinas PD and the Correctional Training Facility at Soledad State Prison. In her first book, The First PoliceWoman: A history of the Salinas Police Department, she wrote about her grandmother, Mae Eisemann, who paved a path for other female police officers. Eisemann later published Murder, Salinas Style, in which she chronicles in graphic detail the stories of 54 murder victims since 1903. She found the stories sufficiently prolific and compelling enough to publish a second edition in 2008.
“My grandmother was the first female police officer at Soledad State Prison,” says Eisemann, “and her father worked there the first summer there was an escape. My own father was a penology student at San Jose State but after the escape, he decided he didn’t want to do law enforcement. He became a teacher instead, and he writes children’s books. Everyone in our family does more than one thing.”
Eisemann is just about to release her latest book, a historical work chronicling the mayors of Salinas. After 32 years on the Salinas Police Force, plus another dozen years serving the department as a certified background investigator, in November 2012, Joe Gunter became the 33rd mayor of Salinas.
“The big surprise for me,” says Eisemann, “is how much time it takes to be a good mayor. It’s a fulltime job. Even I don’t know how someone could have a second job. Our lives were already busy, so it doesn’t feel like a big change; everyone is independent and self-motivated. Besides, my dance studio is kitty-corner from City Hall so Joe and I can meet for coffee.”
She could have guessed her high school sweetheart, Chuck Della Sala, would someday become Mayor of Monterey. Born in Hartford, CT but raised amongst three sisters on the Peninsula, Sandy Della Sala fell in love with Chuck when she was in high school, while he was studying business at Santa Clara University.
“Chuck loves Monterey; he’s such a home boy,” Della Sala says. “He grew up there and always wanted to make sure the city would move in the right direction. He started getting into politics when he got out of college, first becoming the youngest president of the Chamber of Commerce. After that, he became the Planning Commissioner, which lasted six to eight years. It was my job to hold down the fort.”
After graduating from high school, she attended Cypress Community College in Southern California, near her father’s home. Once she returned to the Peninsula, she went into real estate and joined her future husband at Pacific Street Real Estate in Monterey, a family-owned-and-operated firm established by his parents.
The Della Salas married in the late ‘70s and raised two children; Alexandria Della Sala Neff, who holds a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, also from Santa Clara University; and Charles III, or Chaz, who earned a degree in Business Agriculture at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. The Della Salas also enjoy two young grandsons, Hudson and Graham.
While her husband pursued politics, she participated in the children’s activities, volunteering in various capacities at Santa Catalina School when the children were young, and serving on the Palma Athletic Board when Chaz was in high school. Both parents became very involved in the Monterey PONY Baseball Board, and the annual PONY Bronco World Series in Monterey, which ended with its 20th anniversary in 2012.
In 2007, with outgoing Mayor Dan Albert’s endorsement, along with the greater Italian community and most of Monterey, Della Sala began his first term as Mayor. He is currently serving his third.
“It has been a whirlwind and wonderful,” says Mrs. Della Sala. “The first two terms, I was going to every single thing with Chuck. Joanne Albert used to call it the ‘rubber chicken circuit,’ because we were always served chicken at these events. Now it’s called the salmon circuit.
“It’s a busy life, and the time it takes to be mayor requires a sacrifice from our family, but after 35 years, we have a strong marriage and know how to keep ourselves complete. It works because we stand together as a team. I’ve always encouraged Chuck to do whatever he needs to do, and I support him. He discusses things with me. He respects my opinion, knowing I can bring a women’s perspective to the conversation.”
Sandy sees herself as outgoing – more so than her husband – passionate, compassionate, empathic, and thin skinned on behalf of her husband. Which tells her she would not put herself on the front line.
“Chuck tells me he could never have done this without my support,” she says. “It really is such a special opportunity for each of us in this position. We have experienced so many things, and have met so many interesting people from so many different cultures. It has been a richly rewarding ride.”