By the time the Jan. 25, 2023, board meeting rolled around — after a year of major staff departures, claims of an anti-aviation mindset lobbied from the public, and a hostile 2022 General Election — the directors of the Truckee Tahoe Airport District were a firmly divided bunch.

At that Wednesday meeting, the line in the sand remained true: It took three tries to select a board president for the year. Both Mary Hetherington and David Diamond attempted to nominate each other, twice failing 3-2 against the votes of Kathryn Rohlf, Rick Stephens, and Theresa Odette. Ultimately, Rohlf was selected — this time with the 3-2 majority in her favor.

Rohlf told Moonshine Ink she still cringes thinking about that meeting. “Staff was shocked,” she recalled. “Some of their eyes were wide, like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it’s happening.’”

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The strains of the 2022 General Election pushed the airport district’s board to its breaking point. Other jurisdictions faced their own hurdles and in the school board race, the community became increasingly divided over opinions about Covid-19. Division stewed. Things got ugly.

Now, it’s another election year.

In anticipation, this month, the Ink takes a step back to consider what happened in recent contentious local elections and learn how healing has been found. With a lens on 2022 in particular, we spoke to some of those who’ve waded through the trenches.

‘Covid accelerated the meanness’

Political divisiveness is not contained to national races. Former town clerk Judy Price, who held the role for more than two decades, believes Truckee and North Tahoe’s candidate races have become more contentious than ever. While some negativity was noticeable before the Covid-19 pandemic, “Covid accelerated the meanness,” Price said. “I was shocked at how divisive and uncompromising and angry [people were] … It didn’t matter which side you were on, they felt like their lives were being threatened. It was very visceral reactions.”

While it’s a county’s role to administer and fund elections on a local level, Nevada County has utilized the Town of Truckee for about two decades to oversee candidate filing and run polls on the encompassing jurisdiction’s behalf.

When you put us in these positions of authority or leadership … somehow we have this expectation as a culture that feelings aren’t going to be a part of this anymore. The fact is, nobody can get anything done if their feelings are not okay.” 

~ Sarah Coolidge

Price’s position made her the point person for the town, and she spent a lot of time dispelling misconceptions surrounding candidate races before she retired at the end of 2023. Presenting to service and leadership groups, she’d break down time commitments, the cost of running, payment incentives, and more regarding board and council positions.

She found that some boards are easier to find volunteers for than others, especially when topics surrounding a district are hot at hand.

“When people feel strongly about the stories that are put out in the press or the community’s talking about something, then they start spiking interest and rallying people to run and that type of thing,” Price said. “You see the number of candidates running for office significantly impacted by the awareness that’s being brought to those organizations, positive or negative. I think we’ve only had one race in in the history of the town where they appointed candidates in lieu of an election (editor’s note: appointments of David Tirman and Jessica Abrams in 2016); they only had the same number of candidates as they had seats. It happened once.”

On the other hand, she added, there are some special districts that go through a contested candidate race only once every six years.

Though Price was first hired a decade after the Town of Truckee was incorporated, she spoke to the unique circumstances of the town’s early days. Such as 27 candidates running for the first council. Or the fact that because the town incorporated after most area special districts already existed, the established power was not easily relinquished.

“Several failures of incorporation occurred because they wanted to consolidate special districts, and everybody wanted [to keep theirs],” Price recalled. “‘Nope, nope, nope. These are running great. We don’t need to mess with this.’ They literally had to consolidate law enforcement, land use, and roads and snow without involving any other of the districts.”

Because of that special district stronghold, Price views the competing interest as an additional challenge when it comes to people filling candidate seats: “The fact that there are [so many] seats in our little teeny area of governance, and all of those organizations have their own leadership and their own boards and their own missions and their own very, very specific goals, it’s not always helpful for our community.”

In our schools

The midterm election in 2022 bore the brunt of Covid-related concerns. Locally that heat centered on the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District board of trustees, reflecting a national trend.

“Throughout the past several years, particularly during the Covid pandemic, traditionally nonpartisan school boards across the country — including here in the Tahoe/Truckee region — have become battlegrounds, venues for frustrated citizens to air their grievances,” reported Megan Michelson for Moonshine Ink in October 2022. “At normally quiet and under-attended school board meetings, there has been public outcry over how school districts have handled certain issues, including mask mandates, remote learning, and vaccine requirements.”

SCHOOLED: The local 2022 election’s most-watched race was the Tahoe Truckee Unified School district board. Lingering Covid-related frustrations boiled to the surface in community commentary. Pictured above are (from left) Trustee Denyelle Nishimori, Kerstin Kramer (superintendent), and Trustee Deanna Driller. Nishimori and Driller won their races in 2022. Photo by Ted Coakley III/Moonshine Ink

Pat Mooney, one of the ultimately victorious candidates that year, recalled, “[The school board race] was on people’s minds. Some people mentioned it as being the most important race in Truckee that year. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but it was definitely one that was in the news.”

Contrary to the idea that two candidate groupings were pitted against each other, Mooney said most of the fervor came from community members. “We all read the social media,” he said. “We all read the criticisms that were written about all the candidates, not just myself and Deedee [Driller] and Denyelle [Nishimori], but of the other candidates, too. And at times it got kind of nasty — things that were said by people who were not candidates [but] members of the public.”

Since the November 2022 election, Mooney said public comment and concern around TTUSD’s handling of Covid-19 has dwindled to nothing at trustee meetings. More recently, meetings are attended by those concerned about school calendars and sports participation.

Mooney isn’t up for reelection until 2026, should he choose to run, but two of his fellow trustees are. Still, he encouraged potential candidates to remember that “a school board race is a nonpartisan race. And it should be nonpolitical in the sense of national political parties. The bottom line is that you’re running because you have a great care for the students of the district and you have a great care for public education, and you want to participate in the process of making it as best as it can possibly be. I think that goes beyond political affiliations and party preferences.”

In the skies

While the 2022 school board race carried on too much fanfare, a quieter but no less discordant standoff ensued for the Truckee Tahoe Airport District board. Mary Hetherington and Kathryn Rohlf’s seats were up for election and both incumbents sought to remain.

Earlier that year, both airport district general manager Kevin Smith and director of aviation and community services Hardy Bullock left within a month and a half of each other. “There was a lot of ill will amongst board members, finger-pointing,” Rohlf said, after those departures. This was on top of a few critical 3-2 board votes that left board member interrelationships suffering.

Around the same time as Smith’s and Bullock’s exits, Chris Henderson announced his intent to run for the board, and his campaign was being advised on and branded by Director David Diamond, who did the same for Hetherington’s campaign. As newbie board members together in 2020, Rohlf said she and Diamond had bonded, and his support of Henderson to take over her seat was a gut punch.

“That was the beginning of a really, really difficult five months until the election was over,” Rohlf said. “And it completely divided our board. Theresa [Odette] and Rick [Stephens] were 100% behind me. Mary was doing her own thing, but she was supporting David and Chris.”

BREAKING POINT: At the Jan. 23, 2023, airport district board meeting it took three attempts to select a board president for the year because the directors were locked in a stalemate: Kathryn Rohlf, Theresa Odette, and Rick Stephens on one side; Mary Hetherington and David Diamond on the other. Pictured above are Hetherington (left) and Rohlf. The other three attended via video conferencing. Screenshot

Rohlf and Hetherington ultimately retained their seats, and the board started off 2023 as divided as ever.

It was clear that something needed to be fixed … yesterday.

Healing the fractured board came from an outside source. Seana Doherty, former housing program manager at the Town of Truckee and now senior manager with Agnew Beck Consulting, had been hired to guide the airport district’s strategic plan update beginning January 2023. According to Rohlf, Doherty was alarmed both by how dysfunctional board meetings had become and her private conversations with individual directors.

“[At] our first strategic plan workshop,” Rohlf said, “she laid it out and she said, ‘Look, you guys are grownups. You need to figure this out. It’s not my job to put this board back together.’” What followed was four hours of finding common ground and aligning values over the directors’ roles as public servants.

Speaking to Moonshine one year and a day after the fateful Jan. 25 board meeting, Rohlf said she feels like the strategic plan process was extremely healing for the board. “We’re working so well together; everybody’s listening to each other,” she said. “A lot of things came together this year.”

Diamond echoed Rohlf’s sentiment, describing the board as now firing on all cylinders alongside the new GM, Robb Etnyre. “There was a period after the election in which things were tough,” he wrote in an email. “But I think everyone realized we are there for a purpose, and that purpose is what’s best for the residents of the district. We remain steadfastly committed to community investment, which makes me very happy. In fact, we just approved a $2-million investment into fire mitigation throughout the district. I asked for this during our budget planning, and I was thrilled to see unanimous support for the idea. A year ago, this might have been a different outcome.”

ONE YEAR LATER: After an important reassessment among board members via the strategic plan process, the Truckee Tahoe Airport District board is functioning better than ever. This fall, three seats are up for election. Photo by Jared Alden/Moonshine Ink

In our conversations

Sarah Coolidge has served as a board member for the North Tahoe Public Utility District since 2016. Her seat is up this year, and she has not yet announced whether she’s running again. Beyond her board position, however, Coolidge also works as a consultant, in part teaching leaders how to utilize nonviolent (or compassionate) communication.

The concept, created by American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, encourages people to positively communicate from the get-go, leading to less verbal violence. Essentially, when people feel heard, they’ll be more willing to have conversations.

“When you put us in these positions of authority or leadership … somehow we have this expectation as a culture that feelings aren’t going to be a part of this anymore,” Coolidge explained. “The fact is, nobody can get anything done if their feelings are not okay. Because what happens is you go into fight or flight, which is the reptilian brain. And it takes over. You are no longer creative. You are no longer compassionate. You don’t have access to your language centers of your brain. You just shut down. You can’t be an effective leader if you’ve been derailed by that fight or flight. And yet that’s what we all try to do. We try to white-knuckle through it.”

Compassionate communication is something Coolidge has applied during her time on the NTPUD board — and it seems to be well received: She’s served as board president since December 2019, voted each year by her fellow directors to continue with her leadership. While she wouldn’t disclose client names, she did say she’s worked with local leaders to adopt this approach.

“I believe that we have boards, we have brain trusts of various kinds because on some level we know that one brain can come up with some great ideas, but when you bring two or three or four or five of them together, we usually get better solutions,” Coolidge said.

Rohlf on the airport board shared that she worked with Coolidge to apply better communication methods to her meetings: “My biggest takeaway from the year I spent working with [Coolidge] was, there’s a really strong need for everybody, but also particularly elected officials and the way their personalities tend to be, [to be] listened to. And even if you don’t agree with somebody, if you can give that person all the time they need to explain themselves and make sure that they don’t leave the conversation thinking, ‘nobody was listening to me,’ or ‘nobody was understanding what I said,’ or ‘maybe I didn’t say it right’ — it calms everybody down.”

In our mountains

To live in the Sierra Nevada requires no small amount of grit. “A different breed,” Mooney called the locals. “The people of this community take care of each other. Not just by taking care of their neighbors, but also by taking care of things that matter to the community.”

That said, the tight-knit social and family circles is making it tougher for candidates to run.

“They get verbally attacked in the grocery store,” Price said. “That’s so unfortunate. And when they make decisions that are unpopular, people feel more … apt when they’re disguised behind social [media] or whatever to express those opinions and personalize them. You’re going to have to have tough skin to run for office.”

Not only during the candidate race itself, but throughout the full term.

“Mud-slinging — I don’t think it’s very attractive,” Coolidge said. “You’re going to have to clean up the mud later, and if you don’t, you’re going to have years and years of ineffective governance, which is what we also see at the federal level.”

She added that to shift the negativity around running for office will take in part an adoption of compassionate communication before someone is even seated: train candidates before they’re formally elected, and once they’re in, train them to stay.

“In the end, most of us really care about a lot of the same things,” Coolidge said. “We really care about our children and our families. We really care, if we live here, about our lake and our mountains and our snow and our animals. A lot of people really care about stability and security, which translates to money and jobs, and there’s a lot of upset about that because that’s shifting.”


The charts on this page are election dates and available candidate lists for local races in our coverage area. These are not the full accounting of what will be on your ballots.

MARCH 5, 2024 CALIFORNIA PRIMARY ELECTION | Local Candidate Positions

PLACER COUNTY DISTRICT 5 SUPERVISOR

Cindy Gustafson
(incumbent)

Jim Holmes
(incumbent for District 3, since realigned)

Wayne Nader

Rick Chowdry

NEVADA COUNTY DISTRICT 5 SUPERVISOR

Hardy Bullock (incumbent)

 

JUNE 11, 2024 NEVADA PRIMARY ELECTION | Local Candidate Positions

District

Seats
Available

Term

Incline Village General
Improvement District

3

4-year

 

NOVEMBER 5, 2024 GENERAL ELECTION | Local Candidate Positions

District

Seats
Available

Term

Donner Summit Public Utility District

3

4-year

El Dorado County Board of Education

3

4-year

North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District

3

4-year

North Tahoe Fire Protection District

3

4-year

North Tahoe Public Utility District

2

4-year

Northstar Community Services District

3

4-year

Olympic Valley Public Service District

3

4-year

Placer County Board of Education

4

4-year

Tahoe City Public Utility District

3

4-year

Tahoe Forest Hospital District

2

4-year

Tahoe Truckee Unified School District

2

4-year

Town of Truckee Council

2

4-year

Truckee Donner Public Utility District

3

4-year

Truckee-Donner Recreation and Park District

2

4-year

Truckee Fire Protection District

2

4-year

Truckee Sanitary District

3

(1) 2-year,
(2) 4-year

Truckee Tahoe Airport District

3

4-YEAR

Author

  • Alex Hoeft

    Alex Hoeft joined Moonshine staff in May 2019, happy to return to the world of journalism after a few years in community outreach. She has both her bachelor's and Master's in journalism, from Brigham Young University and University of Nevada, Reno, respectively. When she's not journalism-ing, she's wrangling her toddler or reading a book — or doing both at the same time.

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