Thurston County Commissioners Cathy Wolfe and Sandra Romero packed up their offices last week.
Though both Democrats announced their plans for retirement months ago, those last few weeks — the last couple of hours on the job — came with some emotion.
Romero compared leaving public office to marriage, death of a family member, pregnancy and birth all rolled into one.
“It’s one of those life-changing experiences,” she said. “It’s a major transition.”
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Wolfe said she was finding it difficult to walk away from some projects.
“I really care deeply about the things I’ve been working on,” she said. “I am a little sad that there are (more) things I could have accomplished.”
On Wednesday, retired Thurston County Sheriff Gary Edwards and former Tenino Police Chief John Hutchings will be sworn in to replace Wolfe and Romero on the three-member Board of County Commissioners. They’ll join Bud Blake, who was elected two years ago to represent District 3, which includes Olympia’s west side, Tumwater and Bucoda.
After years of being controlled by Democrats, Thurston County will soon have an all politically independent commission.
Though he was outvoted on several of the board’s more contentious decisions, Blake said, he’s enjoyed working with Wolfe and Romero and wishes them the best in retirement.
“They are very bright leaders, and they have done a lot of great things,” he said. “We might disagree on some issues, but that’s part of the process. … They’re great leaders, and I will miss them greatly.”
Olympia City CouncilwomanJeannine Roe described Wolfe, 72, and Romero, 68, as role models. She said she’s going to miss having strong female leadership at the county’s helm.
“They really made a path for the rest of us to continue on,” Roe said.
She said she thinks they’ll be remembered as “real people” and straightforward leaders, and she singled out Romero’s work on environmental issues and Wolfe’s work on human services.
“They both put their heart and soul into serving the public and trying to do what’s best for the community,” Roe said.
Wolfe served four terms on the Thurston County Commission, representing District 1, which runs through the central portion of the county and includes Tenino, rural Rainier, Olympia and Johnson Point. Before that, she served as a state legislator for eight years.
During the next few months, Wolfe plans to move back to Tacoma, where she grew up and where most of her family lives. She said she wants to get involved with Community Youth Services in Tacoma, and spend time with her kids and grandkids.
While at the county, Wolfe was chairwoman of the Thurston County HOME Consortium, voted to approve creation of the county’s Treatment Sales Tax in 2009 and was instrumental in working with county leaders to create Quixote Village, a community of cottages that serves homeless adults.
“She has a heart for the less fortunate,” said Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza.
Several programs that Wolfe supported were aimed at keeping people out of jail by addressing drug and alcohol treatment, mental health services and housing.
“We’re rethinking who’s in jail,” Wolfe said. “And we’re trying to use it for the most serious crimes.”
Romero has represented District 2 — which includes Lacey, Yelm and Rainier and the eastern portion of Thurston County — since 2009. Before that, she was a state legislator for 12 years. She served on the Olympia City Council from 1989 to 1991.
She said she’s looking forward to sleeping in, traveling, and spending more time with her kids and grandkids.
Romero served as president of the LOTT Clean Water Alliance board of directors, championed local agritourism efforts such as the 62-mile Bountiful Byway and helped lead the way for the county’s first (and now only) off-leash dog park to open.
Yelm Mayor JW Foster said Romero has kept residents in his city engaged through her monthly Coffee Chats. He described her as “very open to communication.”
“Sandra’s work on the Bountiful Byway and some other projects indicated she realized that the county was comprised of more than just the three big cities,” he said.
While on the Olympia City Council, Romero helped establish Heritage Park and led the Heritage Commission and the Main Street program.
Throughout her career in public service, she said, she’s worked hard on the Chehalis-Western Trail, and was happy to see the converted bicycle and walking trail on a historic railroad corridor become a regional recreational asset. She’s also been involved with the Nisqually Land Trust.
Wolfe and Romero’s legislative experience served the county well, several county elected officials said.
“I think they were great stewards of county resources,” said Treasurer Shawn Myers. “They led the county through a critical economic time.”
The county’s bond rating was recently upgraded, and it’s expected to end the year close to a “healthy” fund balance, she said.
“They were tasked with making tough budget decisions that didn’t always sit well with everyone,” Myers said. “I was the recipient of that, along with other county elected officials.”
Thurston County Clerk Linda Myhre Enlow said the commissioners have been supportive of her office.
“One thing they were onboard with was the implementation of our new case management system,” she said. “With that came a large savings of money.”
Snaza said, he didn’t always agree with the commissioners’ decisions, but he feels their biggest accomplishment was the August 2015 opening of the county’s new jail, the Accountability and Restitution Center, or ARC. And now, the county is planning to begin an expansion project for the jail, which will help relieve overcrowding and save money that’s used to contract for beds in other counties, Snaza said.
“Even if you put politics aside, and I’m very sincere about this, you always knew they really cared about people,” he said. “… I believe that every decision they made was because they believed it was the right decision for the people who needed a louder voice.”
Wolfe and Romero were part of an all-female, all-Democrat streak on the commission, which ended two years ago when Blake was elected. The three commissioners found consensus more often than they expected.
“I would say working with him has been one of the biggest surprises of my political career,” Wolfe said. “He’s actually made for this kind of job. He has the personality. He has the demeanor.”
“We’re very different philosophically, but he’s a professional, and I’ve enjoyed working with him,” Romero said.
Both retiring commissioners say they won’t miss the long work days. But they’ll miss the county staff and the people they worked with on various issues.
Romero said technology, open houses and other efforts helped increase public outreach, but she wishes they could have done more.
Both say they don’t regret past decisions because those actions were taken with the best information they had at the time, after much research and deliberation.
So what’s their advice for their successors?
“I would say listen, ask questions, take your time, and be fair and even handed,” Romero said.
“Don’t get mad, don’t carry grudges — that will kill you faster than anything,” Wolfe said. “Keep your sense of humor and have fun.”