In the grand scheme of things, the League of Women Voters of Thurston County was a relative latecomer, forming 50 years ago this year, more than 40 years after the national group was born out of the women’s suffrage movement.
But this motivated group of women – and, more recently, men – made up for lost time in its quest to inform and encourage citizens to get involved in how, and what, decisions are made by government officials.
Do you enjoy a stroll on Percival Landing, a visit to Thurston County’s Burfoot Park or wildlife watching at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge? Thank the league’s early members for their hard work to help create and preserve these great public places and open spaces.
Would you agree that the switch in 1982 from a three-member commission to a seven-member council-manager form of government in Olympia was a move toward more representative and transparent city government? Again, the league was instrumental in the change, lobbying long and hard for city voters to approve it.
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Before there were well-established environmental groups and legislation to push for the cleanup and protection of Puget Sound, league members took interest in Budd Inlet water quality, supporting federal grants available in the late 1960s to upgrade the Olympia wastewater-treatment plant.
These accomplishments and more are chronicled in a 25-page booklet just published by the Thurston County League members to celebrate their 50-year anniversary.
Margie Reeves, a founding member of the Thurston County League, recalled the challenges progressive-minded women in Olympia had getting the chapter off the ground.
The seat of state government, Olympia, was perceived as too partisan of a place, shaped by political patronage and averse to the strong, nonpartisan approach the League of Women Voters brought to issues, Reeves said.
That began to change in 1960 when voters approved Initiative 207, creating a merit-based civil service system for state employees.
Asked to recall her proudest league moment, Reeves said it was getting the league chapter started.
“I stuck with it,” she said with a laugh. “My kids remember me as someone who was on the phone all the time.”
Reeves is still active in league issues. She’ll be at the state Capitol on the first day of the special session Monday, meeting with state Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, to lobby on behalf of early-childhood learning programs.
The first requirement of any new local league is to study its local government and publish a booklet on what it’s learned, noted Marie Cameron, a league member since 1965 and project director for the 50-year anniversary publication.
League members learned that the unincorporated county lacked a planning department, planning commission, land-use zoning or building codes. So the league, in concert with other supporters of better land-use planning, went to work to change that.
In the early years, the league also sponsored candidates forums, a practice that continues to this day.
“We never endorse candidates,” said Thurston County League president Clydia Cuykendall. “But we do take positions on initiatives after studying the issue.”
Cuykendall is a second-generation league member. Her mother, Vivian Cuykendall, who died in 2001, was a league board member for years, served on the Thurston County Parks Board and was instrumental in the creation of Burfoot Park.
The younger Cuykendall returned to Olympia in 2005 after a career as a corporate attorney in Houston and Saudi Arabia.
“I’m super-proud of my mother, but joining the League of Women Voters was not one of my goals,” she said. However, a friend of her mother’s and longtime league member Mary Lux talked her into getting involved.
Today, Cuykendall is fully engaged in league activities, including another look at a county charter, which, if approved, could turn the three-member county commission into a larger county council.
The league has supported two previous attempts at a county charter, once in 1979 and again in 1989. They were rejected by the voters each time, marking perhaps the league’s two biggest disappointments.
The League of Women Voters of Thurston County reached its low point in the mid-1980s, when membership declined as former members found themselves busy in elected office and professional and government-appointed jobs.
“We were a victim of our own success,” Cameron said, referring to the league’s role in fighting job discrimination against women and minorities.
With not enough members to fill board vacancies, the remaining league members considered disbanding in 1989, but enough of the old activists stepped up to keep the group alive.
In 1974, delegates to the league’s national convention voted to give men full voting memberships in the league. Today, the Thurston chapter’s 107 members include 17 men, including the chapter’s first male board member, Tumwater City Council member Ed Stanley.
The Olympia City Council approved a proclamation last week, recognizing the league’s 50 years of work in the community. The Lacey City Council is expected to do the same Dec. 1, followed by the Thurston County commissioners Dec. 6 and Tumwater City Council on Dec. 20.
Check out the 50-year history of the League of Women Voters of Thurston County for yourself at www.lwvthurston.org.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444