Leadership roles: Truckee women share stories | SierraSun.com
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Leadership roles: Truckee women share stories

ABHUTCHISON, Sierra Sun

From town mayor and county board of supervisors to school and hospital board presidents to multiple-term special district board members, the number of women serving the community in elected positions has been growing over the years.

These women all have a variety of different backgrounds and busy lifestyles, but have built political participation into their personal schedules. They are from all walks of life: some are former city folk, some are retired or have grown children, some have young children and full-time jobs, some are single. They all contribute to our community in a variety of ways and bring an interesting perspective to the table.

Last week, the Association of American University (AAUW) Women Truckee Chapter, held a Women in Local Politics forum, where a number of these women shared their experiences and gave advice to other women interested in running for local office.

Part of AAUW’s mission is to promote positive societal change and get more women involved in the political process – whether it’s voting or taking leadership roles in the community.

“It’s to promote mentoring among women and encourage women to stretch their abilities,” said Karen Sessler, AAUW’s Public Policy Officer.

The Sierra Sun will feature Truckee women elected to office over the next few weeks in a series on women in local politics.

There are a number of positions and board seats open for the November 2000 election, and AAUW members are encouraging interested women to consider running.

— Pat Sutton, Truckee-Donner Public Utility District board member

It was 1963, when Interstate 80 was being finished, and when Pat Sutton arrived in Truckee with her husband and four children.

Soon after her family became settled, she and her husband, Robert, attended a Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District board meeting. They were the only members in the audience at the meeting.

“They stopped the meeting and asked us what we wanted,” Pat Sutton said, recalling the incident. “We said we were interested.”

Those days were different, she said. Members of the public just didn’t go to government agency board meetings, especially out of “pure interest” of getting involved.

“At the time we came to Truckee, the community wasn’t very sophisticated,” she said, “and people were not active in government. Boards were uneasy about members of the public being at their meetings.”

Just a few years later, she ran for the school board and lost. As she became interested in water and planning issues in Truckee, she ran and won election to a Truckee-Donner Public Utility District board seat in 1973.

“We’d been attending PUD meetings for a year or so because we had some concerns with what was happening in the district,” Sutton said. The main issue at the time was the pipeline put into Donner Lake to supply water to the Tahoe Donner subdivision.

“We thought that might have a big impact on the lake level,” she said. “There was a lot of controversy on the issue at that time. That’s the main reason I ran.”

She served on the PUD board until 1981, when she lost reelection. In 1985, she was again elected to the board, and has maintained her seat for the past 15 years. Since living in Truckee she has served on four boards, won eight elections and lost three.

In 1980 she ran for the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, and served on that board from 1981 to 1985. Two large subdivisions, Tahoe Donner and Glenshire, had been approved by the Board of Supervisors (before she was elected) without much community awareness, she said.

“I was concerned mostly about planning issues and environmental issues.”

In the early ’80s, she started with her husband an Environmental Impact Committee.

“We kind of helped to start the movement toward environmental assessment,” she said.

From 1982 to 1986, Sutton served on the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board as a public member, and traveled all over the western slope to attend meetings. She was the first person from Truckee to serve on that board.

By the time Sutton was really active in the 80s, serving on multiple boards and helping out at her husband’s paving company, her children were grown. Balancing her political involvement and the rest of her life just came naturally, she said.

For the past four years, Sutton has also served a term as a Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo.) commissioner.

Being the only woman on some of the boards she served, was like a “two-edged sword,” she said.

“In some ways a woman can be treated with chivalry by the men on the board and staff …. Other times there is obviously more contact between the men on the board than between the woman board member and the men on the board.”

She added, “Sometimes you feel out of the loop. It also depends on the people. Some men try to make sure a woman isn’t excluded on the board. Sometimes a woman will ask a question men aren’t interested in finding an answer to. It has to do with the way of thinking sometimes.”

Sutton said she’s always felt that people serving on boards should learn to not take things personally when another board member doesn’t agree.

“I try not to hold a grudge,” she said.

Sutton first became interested in participating in the democratic process as a high school sophomore, when she attended a summer school Junior Statesman program for girls, learning about how government works and the ethics and philosophy of responsible government.

She also was active with the League of Woman Voters as a young mother.

“Being on a board, even a local board, has a lot of responsibility, but it can be a very rewarding experience, even when people don’t agree all the time,” she said.

Maia Schneider, Truckee Town Mayor

Town of Truckee Mayor Maia Schneider was a child of the ’60s.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Schneider said she was surrounded and influenced by her parents’ political activism and participation.

“I grew up in a political environment,” she said. “I was raised in an environment that taught me that participating in the democratic process is not just a privilege, it’s an obligation.”

But becoming town mayor was not a job Schneider ever saw herself doing. She moved to Truckee full-time seven years ago, and became active with the Truckee-Donner Chamber of Commerce and other community organizations and events.

A friend’s coaxing over a round of drinks really sparked her interest in serving on town council.

“I just always imagined I’d be on the periphery,” she said. “I was really scared when I was first appointed (to town council) … I really didn’t know what to expect. And I was sure I never wanted to be mayor.”

When she was appointed in 1997 and elected in 1998, she was only the second woman to serve on town council since incorporation. Kathleen Eagan was the first Truckee Mayor in 1993 and served a four-year term on council.

Schneider said that the help and support of friends, fellow council members and town staff made the transition easier.

“I don’t think I was appointed or elected because I am a woman,” she said. “But I think it’s a contributing factor why people voted, both positively and negatively.”

Of course she gets picked on by her fellow male councilmembers, something for which she is grateful.

“We have a great camaraderie on the council; we’re very lucky. But yeah, I take a lot of grief,” she said smiling. “If it really bothered me, they’d stop. But I can take it and we’re lucky to share that.”

She said being a woman in her position has both advantages and disadvantages. For example, if councilmembers are out of town, at a conference or workshop where people do not know Schneider, others often automatically assume a male councilmember is the mayor.

“I have to assert myself when we’re in a place where people don’t know,” she said. “My comeback is, ‘Yeah, there’s no height requirement for the job’ … because I don’t want to make it a gender issue.”

On the other hand, she said people may be more willing to have an intimate or detailed conversation with her than they would with one of the guys.

“People might find me more approachable because I am a woman. We (men and women) really do approach things differently I think,” she added. “I think my speaking and thinking style comes from being a woman. Whether it’s an asset or a liability depends on with whom I’m speaking.”

She jokes that one thing that helps her with the job is the fact that she’s a ham; it’s simply in her nature.

“I’ve always been a ham,” she said. “I’ve always been the center of attention.”

But for being a ham, Schneider takes issues in our community very seriously and approaches them with both passion and rationality. The biggest issues for Truckee right now are land use and growth – how to do it well and if at all, she said.

“The most frightening thing to me is Truckee is at a cross-roads where it could possibly lose its soul,” Schneider said. “The working class is getting squeezed out of the community. If the working class has to live elsewhere to commute to their jobs here, Truckee will lose its soul.”

She said a major problem is the economy in the Bay Area is cultivating a generation of people who have more money than any other generation. People are buying second homes when they have no ties to the community.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have an influx of people, but it’s this reckless spending and the impact it has,” she said. “It’s going to take some creative solutions … the ‘Aspenization’ of Truckee is already a reality.”

Besides her involvement with town council, Schneider holds a full-time job as the Capital Campaign Director for the Tahoe Forest Auxiliary, and heads up the fund-raising for Tahoe Forest Hospital’s expansion project.

Her mom, who lives in Truckee, doesn’t miss a town council meeting.

“My mom is the coolest chick in the world,” she said.

Kathleen Eagan, first Truckee Town Mayor

Like Maia Schneider, Kathleen Eagan came to Truckee from San Francisco, where she lived and worked for 16 years. But she hadn’t been active in her community or taken an interest in political participation.

“All my energy had gone into a career and into business,” Eagan said. “When I came to Truckee, I wanted a real change of pace. I wanted to put energy into giving back to the community.”

In her free time, Eagan and her husband Jim Duffey had been coming to the Truckee-Tahoe area for back-packing, fishing and skiing for many years. It was a special place for them.

By the time Eagan moved here in 1986, she was retired and desired a lifestyle change.

“I’ve never been particularly interested in politics as far as a way to put what energy I have to use,” she said. “But when I first moved here, I told a friend I really wanted to get involved in the community.”

She became involved in various things, but when incorporation analysis started up again, she said she had a strong gut feeling that with all of the talent in the Truckee community, incorporation was a good thing.

“Even with all of our differences, we would be able to manage our destination better than any other government could,” she said.

She became actively involved with incorporation analysis, and helped a team of others look at whether it would be financially viable.

It was a three-year analysis process, and after a conservative financial analysis showed positive results, Truckee was ready for incorporation. Eagan said she ran for the first town council because she had gained much knowledge and experience from the analysis. Twenty-six candidates ran for council in 1993. Kathleen Eagan had more votes than any other candidate and was chosen to be the first mayor of Truckee.

What was most important to her was helping incorporation get off on the right foot because it was for the good of the community, she said.

“It was very challenging because it was like starting a brand new business,” she said. There were five people elected to council and no town staff at the very beginning. “We all believed so strongly in the community and what we could do that was best for the community.”

She was prepared for her job as mayor, she said, based on her experience in leadership roles and knowledge of incorporation. That fact that she was a woman holding that position never really entered her mind.

“All my life I was brought up believing I could do anything anyone else could do. Gender just never entered the picture. That’s not true for everyone, but that’s true for me,” she said.

She accepted her role as mayor like she would accept a position at any other job.

“For me it wasn’t a challenge. I have a remarkably supportive husband,” she said. “In a lot of ways I had it very easy. I was very fortunate . Balance in the traditional sense – job, raising a family – wasn’t as big a challenge for me as it was for other folks.”

Eagan served one four-year term on town council and didn’t run again.

“I felt the reason I ran was to bring the information to the start-up process,” she said. “The information wasn’t as critical as soon as town staff started to roll. I really believed that there is so much talent in this town. The only way those people can bring what they have to offer to the job is by me getting out of the way.”

As for politics, that’s about it.

“My passion is the community,” she said. “I don’t want to diffuse anything I have to offer by going on to a larger venue.”

Her other passion is the river system in the Tahoe Basin. She is president of the Truckee River Habitat Restoration Group, which was founded in 1997 to promote watershed restoration in the area.

She also works with the Truckee River Watershed Coordination Resource Management and Planning group, an effort get everyone coordinated to actively restore the watershed.

Her involvement with Legacy Trail project is a perfect combination of her two passions: the community and the river.

She also serves on the board of directors for the Truckee-Tahoe Community Foundation, which she said will allow all organizations in the community and the community as a whole to rise to the next level.


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