After an orchestrated rotation of the guard and a choreographed swapping of seats, computers and name plates, Supervisor Robert Rivas was solely and unanimously voted to be the chair at the special meeting Jan. 12 of the San Benito County Board of Supervisors. Through the same rote procedure, Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz assumed the duties of vice chair.
Rivas quickly displayed his oratory skills in a 25-minute state-of-the-county speech that concentrated on his three-point vision for the next 12 months.
He started off with a light touch, saying the meeting was terribly timed because it was competing the President Barack Obama’s state of the union speech. After thanking county staff, elected officials, appointed officials and the public for attending the meeting, Rivas recognized outgoing chair and retiring supervisor Margie Barrios, who was applauded warmly.
“This is the first time that we’ve held a special meeting to highlight the state of county,” he began. “Our gathering here tonight serves two purposes: The first to summarize the current health and direction of our local government. The second is to outline a plan and vision for San Benito County for the next 12 months and, hopefully, beyond.”
Rivas said what was taking place at the meeting was a new idea to outline bold initiatives at the start of the calendar year in order to debate and fine-tune them over the following year. He said he believes the “fundamentals” of the county government are working, but qualified his remarks by saying there was a lack of short- and long-term innovative vision in order to go beyond the status quo.
To establish these goals, he presented his three ideas that he said, “may or may not come to fruition.” What was important, he said, was to begin the discussion between supervisors and local residents. He said the purpose of the board of supervisors is more than just saying yes to development projects or “rubber stamping the annual budget.” He said there is a need to think “bigger and bolder,” while continuing to provide high-level services and new opportunities to move into the future.
“This county and city may be known as the ‘Home of the American biker,’ but I want it to be known as a trend-setter,” Rivas said. “We can only become a trend-setter and a place of innovation if we lead the way. The old ways of running this county just aren’t going to cut it.”
Rivas said the current state of the county is strong, even stronger than before 2008, which was the beginning of what became known as the Great Recession that resulted in the loss of 100 full-time county positions and reductions in services. County reserves were reduced by 71 percent, he said. The lost revenue was catastrophic, but he said budgets were balanced and the streets kept safe.
“Moving forward, we should not forget what the great recession taught all of us,” he continued. “The economy is often unpredictable and we should always be prepared for another downturn. We can’t rush to expand our level of services when times are good without knowing for certain that revenues will remain consistent into the future.”
To better prepare for the future, Rivas said he intends to focus on three key areas—transparency in local government, a new county library and community center, and recognizing the county’s agricultural heritage.
He said the county, in his opinion, lags behind other California cities’ and counties’ efforts at guarantying transparency. Paramount in assuring transparency, he said, is to control “overzealous lobbyists.”
“We’ve seen outside interests come into our county and try to influence the decision-making process,” Rivas said, adding that he thinks it is important to hear other views before making decisions. “The problem is some of the special interest people who have moved into our community do not act in good faith and are not always honest with us. Their only interest seems to be making money off our beautiful community without any regard to the sometimes severe consequences of their actions. That’s why we have to shine a bright light on county government and our local politics so our residents can see the inner workings of government, campaigns and overall decision-making.”
He said the board needed to discuss and adopt a new "sunshine ordinance" that would require anyone lobbying the board to register with the county clerk and undergo annual ethics training. Equally as important, he said the county does not have limits on campaign contributions for local elections, pointing out how in 2014 tobacco interests contributed extensively in order to influence the supervisor race. He said there needs to be funding limits and finance laws to protect residents.
Rivas’s second recommendation was to challenge his fellow board members to quickly move forward on a new county library and community center, describing it as a place of “learning and discussion that would be a model for the rest of the state.”
“This should not just be a library with bookshelves, but an interactive place where people will gather and share ideas in a place where one can experience a sense of community,” he said. “It should be a beautiful building that will be the epicenter of our community.”
Rivas said that if new sales taxes have to be levied to pay for the facility, the board needs to consider how it can be done.
“Our county board has not asked residents for a tax increase in over a decade,” he said emphatically. “We should do this and do so quickly. We cannot simply brush this aside and say it can’t be done. I say it can be done. It will be done, but that work has got to begin now.”
His last area of concern is recognizing the county’s agricultural heritage and its importance as the “engine of our economy.”
“Agriculture defines who we are,” Rivas said, “encouraging the embracing of it and to market the area as an agricultural hub of California and the entire country.”
He said residents agree with his assessment, proving so by having passed Measure J, the anti-fracking initiative. Some in the audience enthusiastically applauded this. He said the county showed its unity with a 58 percent voting turnout, with 59 percent of those voting to pass the initiative. He said the oil industry spent more than $2 million to defeat it, but “the people rejected the barrage of TV and radio commercials the likes of which this county has never seen.”
Rivas said the people of the county chose instead to protect its real assets—its natural beauty, vibrant agriculture, and the historical and livable communities. He said the county is known throughout the state and the nation as a place where the people determine their future. Not the oil industry.
He reminded those present of the rich agriculture resources with abundant organic production, as well as wineries.
“We need to protect these assets and use them to make San Benito County a tourism destination,” Rivas said. “Combined with the draw of Pinnacles National Park, state parks, and our proximity to Silicon Valley, we should be targeting the folks who may be tired of the driving south on the 101 each weekend. We should encourage them, instead, to turn east to our greener pastures, which would be a boost for our economy.”
In the spirit of recognizing the agricultural heritage of the county, Rivas proposed that more effort be made to make it a "green" — or environmentally-friendly county — by using more renewable energy sources. He acknowledged that in discussing its agricultural heritage there had to be consideration of local developments.
“We need to make sure that the assets of our county are not destroyed by ill-conceived suburban sprawl,” he said. “Let us continue to build smart, compact, walkable communities that embrace our agricultural heritage instead of detracting from it.”
Rivas added that there needs to be a concerted effort to plant more trees.
“The vast majority of the most healthy, enjoyable places to live in the world have this designation of ‘tree cities,’” he said. “Let’s do the same here so our children can enjoy a more beautiful city.”
Rivas said in spirit of the county’s agricultural history no one should forget past struggles to make the community a fair and just place to live. He said the county was the epicenter of the farmworkers’ civil rights movement.
“We ought to remember the struggles of these trailblazers and dreamers who dared to believe against all odds that they could fight for a better future for their families,” he said. “These freedom fighters—and my grandfather was one of them—are leaving us every day through old age and illness. We owe it to them to pay tribute and have a day of remembrance in honor of their accomplishments.”
Rivas said that in the coming weeks, the board should consider granting county workers a paid holiday in honor of Cesar Chavez’ birthday so they might have the opportunity to give back to the community through volunteerism, if they should chose to do so.
“This is our history and we should honor it,” he said. “This is not about a debate to rehash the past. This is about recognizing an important part of this county’s history.”
After Rivas delivered his speech, Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez said he was pleased to hear that Rivas supports the concept of the library and community center.
“That’s going to be exciting to get the county fully onboard with the city and hopefully the school board will do likewise so we can build it for our young people and our community can come together to use the facilities and learn,” Velazquez said.
The mayor was a little more cautious about Rivas’s greening of the community.
“Being in that business, I know you have to be very careful about paying too much,” he said. “Government has to be very careful when considering alternative energies. The city and the school district learned that lesson by paying way too much for their green energy.”
Scott Fuller, general manager of San Juan Oaks, said he thought the speech had well-defined goals and agreed with Rivas’s statements on green energy.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for local businesses to partner with our government to work on that,” he said.
Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz found much to agree with in the speech.
“I think it will give the community lots of opportunity to move forward, especially in the partnership of education,” he said, adding that he was in favor of a paid holiday dedicated to Cesar Chavez.