Another Voice: The Beauty of Local Government
Four women and one man now govern rural Trinity County, a first in the history of the Rhode Island-sized, forested mountain county of 14,000 people, in far Northern California. One of the original 27 counties in the state, Trinity County was also the only county in California that Ross Perot won in the 1992 election. That same 1992 election is also known as the “Year of the Woman”, signifying the fact that a number women were elected to significant public offices. This included the election of two women as U.S. Senators from California, a national first for a single state.
As the newly seated chair for the Trinity County Board of Supervisors, I’m proud of this moment especially because I have a unique connection to its occurrence. My mother-in-law, Susanne Twight was elected to the same seat that I now hold in 1984 and was seated on the first board in county history with two women. When I was elected in 2008, I was the 3rd woman on the ensuing board, another county first. Now with the election of 4th District Supervisor Deborah Chapman, we have four women on the board with Supervisors Wendy Otto (District 5), Judy Pflueger (District 1) and myself completing the roster. Supervisor Roger Jaegel (District 3) is the lone male representative on the board and has just started the 3rd year of his second 4-year term. He has been a great sport and I think he’s actually enjoying his own new uniqueness.
Unfortunately Trinity County is blazing a trail that contradicts national trends. According to research done by Rutger’s University, women’s national participation in political life has been flat-lining since 1992’s “Year of the Woman”. Nationwide the 2010 election cycle was shaping up to break the trend with a record number of women running for office but when the results were tallied a record number also did not win their elections. The number of women in Congress decreased for the first time in 30 years and similar declines were recorded in state legislatures across the country.
Although I don’t have the national data on how women fared at the local government level, I do know that in Trinity County the voters are more concerned about performance than about gender or even political affiliation. Good governance and trustworthy leadership is what is needed in these challenging times and local government is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to delivery of state and federally funded services. Whether you’re male or female, if you can deliver the goods, people will support you. To paraphrase Peter Drucker, “the best measure of success is results”.
Even though we are a rural and economically challenged county, our Board of Supervisors has recently lead the organization and our communities to a number of successes. In January of 2005 the county was close to bankruptcy, the county run hospital was failing and the situation looked grim. In the last six years the board has restored the county’s bond rating, transitioned the hospital into an independent health care district and made significant operational cuts that, while painful, have strengthened the ability of the organization to adapt.
Just as significant is our Weaverville Community Forest, a sustainable forest stewardship project, that includes 13,000 acres of public lands that are locally managed by our Resource Conservation District. The forest has begun to be an economic driver for our community, acting as both a living laboratory for fuels reduction and forest health activities while sending logs to our local timber mill. In the spring of 2009 this citizen driven project received the Department of Interior’s Partners in Conservation award and continues to work with the community in achieving economic and ecological goals.
These are the wins that keep you going as a local elected official when you know that tomorrows phone calls, emails and public meetings hold news and events that are less than positive and that are also your responsibility to manage. Trinity County is still facing high unemployment, a rapidly aging population, significant natural resource management challenges and an impending recruitment for a new County Administrative Officer. There is certainly plenty of work ahead and local government will be there to carry the weight for our constituents who truly want us to succeed.
This was driven home for me recently when a volunteer that I was working with on a “shop local” campaign came to a board meeting reporting that when they took some promotional materials into a local retail store owner, the owner broke out in tears. My first thought was, “Great, how did we upset someone when I thought we were doing a good thing….”, mostly because the events of my day had been feeding the cynic in me. But the volunteer elaborated, “The owner said she didn’t realize that the county actually cared”. In these tough economic times, and especially coming from an independent retail business owner in rural California, those words can keep this local elected official going for the months ahead.
I believe that the beauty of local government is that you see democracy at work first hand: its difficulties, its growing pains and, if you’re lucky, its successes. Even though we have challenging times ahead in Trinity County, in California, and in our country as a whole, I remain optimistic that local government, and governance, will continue to break the trail for innovation throughout our democratic republic. I believe that local government is beautiful and now especially so in Trinity County.