The voice on the phone is distinctive and familiar to civic leaders, politicians and newspaper reporters.
The caller wants to bring attention to something that’s not quite right with public process.
It’s Rob Kavanaugh, a citizen activist who says his decades of involvement come from his concern for the future of the community. He doesn’t stop with phone calls; he goes to council meetings, talks to county and city workers, and researches the issue. And he doesn’t give up.
“I take them on in the spirit of contributing to the public good as best I can,” Kavanaugh said.
The natural world, parks and animal welfare are high on his priority list. His lot outside the Lacey city limits is full of trees and four Buddhist shrines where he meditates every day. Kavanaugh, who served three tours in Vietnam, spent time in a Buddhist monastery there. He also speaks Vietnamese and in 2002 helped students at South Puget Sound Community College when they were protesting the display of the flag of communist Vietnam.
Kavanaugh’s drive to activism came early. He credits his mother.
“She stopped a nuclear power plant in Bodega Bay, California, in the 1950s,” he said. She was also active with Lady Bird Johnson and the redwoods. He described his mother as an active environmentalist, real estate agent and political conservative.
He labels his own politics “conservative independent.”
Kavanaugh, 78, said, “I never retired. I employ myself,” but said he stopped working for wages in 1989.
That leaves a lot of time for activism.
One of Kavanaugh’s campaigns this year concerned the cutting of trees for a development at Lacey Corporate Center, a business park at College Street and Yelm Highway. Kavanaugh said the city violated its tree tract requirements.
City Manager Scott Spence saw it differently.
“Trees were being taken out. We met our code, met with Rob, and could not convince him that the community standard had been met. We agreed to disagree,” Spence said.
Kavanaugh said the issue is similar to problems throughout the region.
“Developers come to semirural areas and create South Seattle,” he said. “Counties and cities are desperate for tax-based development revenue.”
Regardless, community activists have an important voice, Spence said. “They sometimes lead a sentiment that may not represent a majority of the community, yet.”
That’s not to say there’s no conflict.
A 2 1/2-page letter from the Oregon Attorney General’s office in 2006 chided Kavanaugh for excessive records requests — five in four months concerning upland game birds. Oregon officials said the requests were formulated to avoid payment of fees by addressing “essentially the same subject” but in two different names (as Rob Kavanaugh and “Solo Sapiens.”)
The attorney general’s office determined that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife was within its rights to impose prepayment of fees as permitted by the Public Records Law.
Over the years, he’s contacted me about a wide variety of issues. He’s prompted me to have some good educational experiences. … He’s quite the researcher, and he’s energetic about what would be better.
State Sen. Karen Fraser, on Rob Kavanaugh
But sometimes Kavanaugh’s persistence pays off.
State Sen. Karen Fraser, whom Kavanaugh admires, said, “Over the years, he’s contacted me about a wide variety of issues. He’s prompted me to have some good educational experiences. … He’s quite the researcher, and he’s energetic about what would be better.”
Fraser has worked with Kavanaugh on environmental legislation, he said. She was chairwoman of the Nisqually River Basin Task Force, which disbanded in 1988 when the Nisqually River Council formed, which she also chaired.
“Citizen activism plays a huge role in public accountability,” Fraser said. “One way is to keep government accountable, another is to propose policy adjustments.”
Kavanaugh said that the younger generation is “really, really busy trying to make a living.” It’s part of the reason he takes time to tackle so many issues.
“You’re only as old as you want to be,” he said. “I try and not think of normal limitations.”
His personal passions are also eclectic. At home, he drinks herbal tea and shares his chair with his rat terrier, Cezar. “He thinks he’s a human being,” Kavanaugh said. “We’ve always told him he’s a real boy.”
He’s a conservationist who also enjoys duck hunting. He practices Zen archery, which he learned in Japan.
He is fond of a quote from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”
“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”
“It’s so appropriate for today,” he said. “Government is our stage, and we are the players.”