Placerville City Councilwoman Wendy Thomas was named Woman of the Year for the 5th District by Assemblyman Frank Bigelow. Bigelow, who represents the 5th District, composed of Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Madera, Mariposa, Mono, Placer and Tuolumne counties, made the announcement Feb. 25.
Assemblyman Bigelow recognized Thomas for her work on the Placerville City Council and efforts to revitalize Main Street as well as her dedication to making sure cities and counties work hand in hand.
“Time and time again, Wendy has put the needs of our neighborhoods and communities ahead of her own,” said Bigelow. “Her commitment to our community is endless.
“In my time as a state Assembly member, I can’t tell you the number of people who I’ve heard from who have been inspired by Wendy’s commitment to her community and her family. It is rare to find someone who puts such high priority on the success of their community and I’m honored to recognize Wendy for all of her efforts.”
Thomas, born in Placerville, is a seventh generation resident and proud of her family roots in the county. Her family has been in El Dorado County since 1850. Her great-great grandfather was on Placerville’s City Council and her great-great grandmother was the first woman to own and drive a car in Placerville. Grandparents Vince and Carol Waldron were charter members of Placerville Kiwanis and the Soroptomists and owned the Workingman’s Store on Broadway. Thomas and her husband Dennis, owner of Robinson’s Pharmacy, live in her grandparents’ home where she spent summers and holidays growing up.
“Placerville is where I feel so deeply rooted and connected. I still hear stories about my grandparents when I walk down the street,” said Thomas. “I moved to El Dorado County in 1986, as soon as I graduated from college and I could decide for myself where I wanted to build my life.” She became a business owner in the community and a professional artist, but said she always had the desire inside be part of local government and use her abilities to benefit the community.
After her two daughters were grown and had left home, Thomas said she had to look at what was important to her and what she wanted to do. “I wanted to dedicate my time and myself to my community.”
In 2010, she was elected to a four-year term on the Placerville City Council. She served as mayor in 2013 and plans to run for City Council again in 2014. “I feel I’m just getting my feet wet. No matter how much you think you know, there’s so much more to learn,” she said.
Thomas, 49, has been described as “perky” and “effervescent,” sometimes in a critical manner by detractors, but that’s who she is.
“I’m willing to fail and to keep trying,” said Thomas, “and to keep asking questions.”
One of the many questions she asked, first as a member of the community, and then as a newly elected City Council member in 2010, was what could be done to help the city’s homeless community. The answers led to a nationally recognized experiment with a legal encampment, Hangtown Haven, and with engagement by City Council, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors, the faith-based community, community non-profit organizations and the homeless community to look at long-term options to the challenge of homelessness.
“I was proud of us as a community that we got creative and tried ways to deal with the challenge,” said Thomas. “What worked for Hangtown Haven was so beautiful, but you can’t ignore that it was also an attractant.” Thomas admits that the success of the legal camp brought more transients who caused problems for the community. The legal camp was dissolved in 2013 after a successful year of operation and efforts are under way to look for other housing and resource options.
“How do you support people in transition during hard times and yet not tolerate situations that are bad for the community?” asked Thomas. “It’s a tough challenge, but we can’t be afraid of addressing it. I hope all the effort and success of the Haven is a catalyst for the county to look at the next steps for being a resource for people going through these transitional situations.”
Another question was how the City Council could better meet the needs of the community. Thomas’ first year on City Council was an embattled one with a former Placerville mayor being indicted on felony charges, a lawsuit against the city over a proposed roundabout and a furor over redevelopment.
“It was a tough year and we learned how important it was to have clear, consistent communication — we weren’t doing well with that,” said Thomas. She worked with city staff to institute Neighborhood Chats — informal forums where members of the community, City Council members and city staff could come together in an open, free-flowing process to talk about the issues and concerns of the community.
Part of better communication was collaboration with the county. “Our little city is surrounded by unincorporated areas of El Dorado County and we needed to work with the county, to rely on each other and to make better land-use decisions,” said Thomas.
She brought about monthly 2×2 meetings with two members of City Council, two members of the Board of Supervisors, the Placerville City Manager and the County Chief Administrative Officer, which has reportedly resulted in increased collaboration in road projects, shared service agreements and public safety.
“We don’t want to be fighting for the same pot,” said Thomas, “and we can work together to make the community better.”
The next question Thomas will be working to answer is how to shore up revenue streams and support economic development in the city.
“I think the worst is over and we are poised to move on,” said Thomas. “We need to foster an environment for good job creation that allows small businesses to flourish. We have so many creative people here. How can we capitalize on this?”
For now, Thomas has taken a break from her art to focus on involvement with the city.
“I’m trying to be who I am and that’s my goal — to show up and show who I am and be vulnerable,” said Thomas.
To her goal of transparent leadership, Thomas will be adding a weekly blog.
“I wrestle with ideas and inspiration. If people are interested, this will be a way to see who I am as their representative. It can be hard to know who is making a decision and why. People might not agree with me, but at least they’ll understand my thinking,” she said.
About being named the 5th District Woman of the Year, Thomas said, “I am blown away by this honor and grateful for Assemblyman Bigelow’s involvement in our community. Our City Council and Board of Supervisors have had the opportunity to meet with him many times even though he has a nine-county area to serve. This honor is really about taking notice of Placerville and I’m proud of that.”
Thomas and the other women recognized for their committment to their communities in districts in California will be honored at a brunch on March 10 and recognized on the floor of the state Legislature. The event is sponsored and hosted by the California Women’s Legislative Caucus. “We can bring one guest and I’ll be bringing my husband, Dennis,” said Thomas.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.