The Fresno County Board of Supervisors will be a much different group with the departure of senior members Debbie Poochigian and Henry R. Perea starting this week.
The two veteran supervisors have been the political bookends of the board for the past eight years, with Poochigian holding down the conservative side and Perea on the moderate Democratic end.
Their departures mean the board will be more closely aligned politically, but for the first time in decades there will not be a woman on the dais.
Poochigian and Perea, both 64, diverged on such issues as employees’ pay and benefits, including pay cuts, but later agreed on some issues. In 2015, Perea pressed for restoring pay cuts. Eventually, both supported raises.
The two also teamed up to quash the sale of the old juvenile hall property near downtown, a plan that required four votes to pass. Poochigian opposed construction costs for the First 5 building and, eventually, Perea joined her in that opposition.
The political distinctions still remain, said Riley Talford, Fresno County chapter president for the Service Employees International Union, which represents about half the county’s workers.
“Henry was a supporter of the working people of Fresno County,” Talford said. “He was the champion for ensuring that we were treated fairly during the rough budget years.”
Talford said Poochigian was viewed unfavorably, especially after 2011 when 9 percent pay cuts were approved on a 3-2 vote.
“It seemed lost on her that employees were assets and needed to be taken care of in both the hard times and the good times,” he said.
In one of their last employee compensation votes, the two parted ways on giving county workers $50 per pay period to make up for a rise in insurance costs. Poochigian opposed it, saying that the county might not have the money next year.
When you have folks who are diametrically opposed on issues and then they agree on something, it’s usually out of their own self interest.
Jeffrey Cummins, Fresno State political science professor
Despite their political divisions, Poochigian supported Perea for his ill-fated Fresno mayoral run against Lee Brand, a Republican, which made for an intriguing endorsement that political observers couldn’t explain.
“When you have folks who are diametrically opposed on issues and then they agree on something, it’s usually out of their own self-interest,” said Jeffrey Cummins, a political science professor at Fresno State. “I still don’t know why Debbie Poochigian endorsed Perea over Brand.”
Poochigian says it’s not a question of partisanship.
“It’s not a surprise to anyone that we are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but we worked closely together the past eight years,” she said. “Henry works hard, he represents his constituents very well … I like him personally and I consider him a friend.”
She said she likes Brand, but “I saw the leadership qualities in Henry that I thought would have been good for the city of Fresno.”
Board of Supervisors’ Chairman Buddy Mendes said Perea’s insights were important as the board grappled with thorny personnel issues.
Perea was the go-to member on such issues, using his experience in human resources to offer fellow board members direction.
“It would be like me talking about water; his expertise in personnel is undeniable and it’s quite an asset to have on a board,” Mendes said.
Perea was skillful in bringing people together, and that extended beyond Fresno County, Mendes said.
While on the California State Association of Counties’ board of directors, Perea was known for his abilities as a mediator to keep the Valley’s contingent intact.
“Henry was really good at conflict resolution,” said Vito Chiesa, a Stanislaus County supervisor and past president of the CSAC board of directors. “If we didn’t stick together, we didn’t have much of a voice at the state level.”
Perea, he said, always was willing to negotiate, but not at the risk of selling out the Valley’s interest.
“He always had a line in the sand and if it wasn’t good enough for Henry, then we were not going to do it,” Chiesa said of the larger Valley contingent.
He always had a line in the sand and if it wasn’t good enough for Henry, then we were not going to do it.
Vito Chiesa, Stanislaus County supervisor, former California State Association of Counties board president
Perea also was a quick study, said Mario Santoyo, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Water Infrastructure Authority.
Santoyo, a former Friant Water Authority official, was first questioned by Perea about water nearly 20 years ago as Fresno City Council president. Perea was interested in the city’s allocation of 60,000 acre-feet from the Central Valley Project. Other Friant Water Users were dubious of urban involvement, but Perea was able to soothe frayed nerves, he said.
When Perea moved to the board of supervisors, he became a behind-the-scenes player on water policy for the Valley, Santoyo said.
“He never hesitated signing on to letters we thought were important,” he said. “Henry … was engaged, perhaps less visible than others, but always involved.”
Perea declined comment for this story, except to say, “I was honored to serve the residents of District 3 and the county.”
The minority vote
Since the start of 2015, when votes were 4-1 or 3-2, Poochigian most often was on the short end.
She was more frequently in the majority before Supervisors Phil Larson and Judy Case McNairy retired.
Poochigian didn’t worry about her loner status: “I hope somewhere down the road someone will say ‘maybe she was right.’ ”
Board Chairman Buddy Mendes said Poochigian was “a stickler for detail. She was a bulldog and once she got her teeth into a subject she wouldn’t let go.”
But in the past two years, Poochigian said, she was increasingly disappointed by a less civil tone.
I hope somewhere down the line someone will say ‘maybe she was right.’
Debbie Poochigian, retiring Fresno County supervisor
“The board has become much more political than it was in the years when I first joined,” she said. “The first board I served with, we did some tough stuff, we did some unpopular, tough things that needed to be done.”
Many of those were budget items, including the 9 percent pay cut for employees in 2011, she said.
Sharon Levy, the first woman elected as a Fresno County supervisor and who continues to observe the supervisors’ activities, has high praise for Poochigian.
“I’ve always admired how she thoroughly knew her material and she questioned every part of it and didn’t shy away from any controversy,” said Levy, who served from 1975 to 2000.
As important as those decisions were, Poochigian said she was most interested in serving her constituents.
“My job is to be the No. 1 advocate for the people in the district, and I’ve worked very hard to be a strong advocate for everyone,” she said.
After addressing the board of supervisors last month about fireplace rules, Lonnie Work, a Squaw Valley resident, described Poochigian as more conscientious than any other representative he has dealt with since becoming politically active in 1972.
“We owe a great debt of gratitude to Supervisor Poochigian,” he said. “There has never been any supervisor that has been more responsive, more available.”
There has never been any supervisor that has been more responsive, more available, whether she’s been down here or taking her time to meet with anybody who needed to meet in our area.
Lonnie Work, Squaw Valley resident
For a year, Poochigian fought against the assessments in four county subdivisions where residents paid fees for extra law enforcement patrols. The fees were approved by the developer, the lone property owner when the subdivision was approved. The developer’s support for the fee meant future residents paid $330 annually for the extra law enforcement coverage.
John Gates, a resident of Wildflower Village near Shaver Lake, asked supervisors to revoke the fee, but it took about a year to cobble majority support.
Poochigian repeatedly raised the issue until the board voted to rescind the fees in November.
“She stuck with it and tried to find an equitable, fair solution for both property owners and the county to resolve a misguided effort from 10 years ago,” Gates said.
Poochigian said those are the kinds of efforts she will miss.
“The ultimate backstop is the supervisors, and you want to make sure you study the issues.”
Poochigian, the sixth woman to serve as a Fresno County supervisor, will leave the board without a woman’s voice for the first time since Levy started in 1975. Levy once served on a board with a majority of women in the 1980s.
“I think it would be nice to have an effective woman on the board,” Levy said. “A woman brings some insights into certain issues that men aren’t keenly aware of.”
Case McNairy, the fourth woman elected as a Fresno County supervisor, said women process information differently than men, but their views don’t often reshape voting decisions.
6The number of women who have served as a Fresno County supervisor
“I think there’s a hard-wired political ideology we develop for ourselves,” she said. “I don’t know that it’s necessarily contained by gender.”
The new board
Quintero and Magsig aren’t newcomers to local government.
Quintero, 69, served 14 years as a Fresno City Council member and eight years as chief of staff for Fresno City Council Member Mike Dages, and Magsig has nearly 16 years as a Clovis City Council member.
The new members’ political leanings more closely align with the remaining members of the board, which has more of a moderate Republican tilt. Supervisors Mendes and Andreas Borgeas are both Republicans. Brian Pacheco, a conservative Democrat, is expected to be named board chairman.
It won’t be as conservative as we were, but it won’t go off the deep end politically.
Phil Larson, retired Fresno County supervisor
Magsig, 40, is considered a moderate Republican, replacing the conservative Poochigian, and Quintero, a moderate Democrat, was seen as someone who could compromise with those of different views while on the Fresno City Council.
Former Supervisor Phil Larson, who retired in 2014, sees the board’s political barometer shifting to slightly less conservative.
“I think the board will be solid and different,” he said. “It won’t be as conservative as we were (with Case McNairy and Poochigian), but it won’t go off the deep end politically.”
Quintero, who Larson describes as “a good friend,” will not be wedded to party doctrine.
“I think he evaluates things and has a reasonable approach to understanding the issue,” Larson said. “He’s probably not as aggressive as Debbie or Henry.”
Magsig, he said, is “going to be good because he has a lot of experience.”
Case McNairy envisions a group with more varied interests. She worked with Magsig on countywide boards and sees him as a “pragmatic consensus builder.”
She said she expects the board will strike a more conciliatory tone.
“I think there has been a fair amount of friction,” she said. “It’s been more politically charged than even when I was on the board.”
New Fresno County supervisors
What: Fresno County supervisors’ swearing-in of Nathan Magsig and Sal Quintero
When: 9 a.m. Jan. 9
Where: Fresno County Hall of Records, 2281 Tulare St., corner of M and Tulare streets.