Debbie Poochigian shocked friends and colleagues when she announced her decision not to seek a third term on Fresno County’s Board of Supervisors.
She declined to campaign for the 5th District seat despite a significant campaign treasury that would have deterred serious opponents. Poochigian, 64, has been linked to rumors for statewide offices, but she hasn’t announced her plans.
It didn’t take long to find interest in her post. The three candidates who stepped up, like Poochigian, are registered Republicans in the nonpartisan race and describe themselves as conservative.
Clovis City Councilman Nathan Magsig, whom Poochigian defeated by 10 points in 2008, announced his candidacy first. Magsig joined the Clovis council in 2001. He previously worked for the Coalition for Urban Renewal Excellence, an agency that helped build low-income housing, and now works for the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission overseeing home rehabilitation for low-income families.
Magsig’s endorsements include fellow City Council Members Bob Whalen and Jose Flores, as well as current Fresno County Supervisors Andreas Borgeas and Buddy Mendes and former Supervisors Susan Anderson, Judy Case McNairy and Bob Waterston. He also has the backing of Sheriff Margaret Mims and the Fresno Deputy Sheriff’s Association.
Alex Ott, a businessman and agricultural executive, is competing against Magsig. Ott’s political career also went through Clovis. He ran for a council seat in 2003 and finished fifth in a race of eight candidates (the top three won seats). He now lives in southeast Fresno. In addition to serving as president of the apple, blueberry and olive commissions, he runs a food-security firm and the Fresno Freeze women’s soccer team.
Ott’s endorsements include Poochigian, former Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson, Assemblyman Jim Patterson, former U.S. Rep. George Randanovich and former state Assemblyman Bill Maze. He also has support from Manuel Cunha of the Nisei Farmers League.
The big X-factor is whether you are going to see an influx of outside money coming into these elections.
Jeffrey Cummins, Fresno State political science professor
The third candidate is Lauren Stephens, who lost a U.S. congressional race against a Republican incumbent as a tea party candidate in 2012 in Wisconsin, where she ran a conservative political group. Her endorsements include Beverly Raine, director of communications, Kings View Behavioral Health; Amanda Arteno, an Auberry activist; Diana Orrock, a Republican National Committee member; and Michael and Linda Hovsepian, owners of Aloha Aircraft.
Magsig has built up about $300,000 for the campaign, of which about half was left over from his Clovis City Council campaign account. Ott has received about 40 percent of his money from Friends of Debbie Poochigian, and has raised about $110,000.
Stephens hasn’t reported any contributions to her campaign. Since she works in political campaign management, Stephens said she can do her own website and social media work, which is why she doesn’t have any donations to declare.
Endorsements could make a difference at election time. The most important endorsement is from Poochigian, said Jeffrey Cummins, a Fresno State political science professor.
“Those other board members are not going to be as familiar in the district,” Cummins said.
But Magsig’s endorsements could be potentially strong enough to offset Poochigian’s support for Ott, he said. Magsig has the edge in other areas, such as money and previous experience running in the district, Cummins said. He got 45 percent of the vote in 2008 against Poochigian and has a political track record as a City Council member and a mayor in the county’s second-largest city.
“The big X-factor is whether you are going to see an influx of outside money coming into these elections,” Cummins said.
Because many residents already are voting, it likely will mean that last-minute spending binges or revelations about candidates will have less effect than they once did, he said.
Magsig’s experience as a council member and work he has done in the private sector through housing rehabilitation programs, he said, gives him a background working with a variety of people and interests. And, his 15 years experience on the Clovis City Council taught him to spot potential pitfalls early in a political process and learn “who you need to talk to and what you have influence over.”
Whether it’s Clovis or Fresno County, he said, local government is the level that affects the lives of people most every day.
His high-priority issues are improving water opportunities in Fresno County, economic development, public safety and shoring up the county’s criminal justice system.
When the county lacks water for farming and land goes fallow, jobs are lost, Magsig said. For every 100,000 acres fallowed there are 18,000 jobs lost. Improving water supplies locally and regionally will enhance agriculture and economic development, he said.
The county, Magsig said, is woefully short on industrial land, and adding more will open more opportunity for business and economic development by improving the county’s revenue outlook.
“There hasn’t been enough dialogue between the county and cities on economic development issues, he said. “The county needs to be more engaged in attracting businesses and have shovel-ready sites.” He points out that Clovis attracted the California Health Sciences University on 70 acres in the city’s research and technology park near Clovis Community Medical Center because the site is ready to go.
When combined with the services of the nearby hospital, he said, it will create a “megacampus” for high-tech medical research.
Fresno County, he said, has many tourism opportunities, too, sites for recreation and events in the foothills and mountains that also can generate more revenue.
The county needs to be more engaged in attracting businesses and have shovel-ready sites.
Nathan Magsig, supervisorial candidate
“We need to magnify and promote the things we do well,” he said.
The county has fallen behind in technology and will require more modern or significantly modernized buildings, he said.
County employees will have their pay return to 2011 levels next year, but several hundred employees have left because of low wages compared with other areas.
Magsig said the county needs to keep employees with competitive pay and benefits to prevent them from leaving because it costs money to recruit and train new workers. And better technology will bring improved efficiency.
Supervisors are examining new facilities for the county recorder, libraries, animal control, information services, the district attorney and sheriff, but paying for the projects has been an obstacle.
Supervisors eliminated developer impact fees last year that could have helped pay for new facilities. The fees were charged on new construction in every city and county area. The fees were suspended in 2010 and a new study is necessary to restart them. But in the years they were suspended, the amount collected would have exceeded $20 million alone from single-family home construction.
He said he wouldn’t oppose development fees, but supervisors and staff should undertake an assessment to understand what is needed.
Ott is running for supervisor so he can bring more opportunities to Fresno County. By doing that, maybe his children will want to return after college.
He also said he is concerned about the potential direction of the board if it loses its agricultural-business majority.
“We are at a critical crossroads in the county,” he said. “For the first time, as long as I can remember, you could have a non-agriculture business majority on the board. Ag is the No. 1 industry here, so are you going to have a majority that is more government oriented, more government bent? That scares me because you’ll have more rules and more fees.”
When new supervisors take over in January, it will mark a changeover of all five supervisors in four years.
Ott views that as a positive opportunity to explore new ideas for providing county services. He wants Fresno County to focus on efficiency by becoming more technologically savvy, which could reduce the need for additional building space.
“We are going to have to do more with less, streamline, possibly use technology to where we can be more efficient with what we have,” he said. “The more efficient we get, the more money we save.”
He said his experience comes from the private sector perspective, not a public sector background.
Ott said Magsig’s 15 years in the public sector as a Clovis City Council member detracts from his ability to see issues through a private-sector prism.
“We need someone who has business experience and understands the private sector, lives and dies with what happens in the private sector and understands the need for innovation,” he said.
There are ways we can take some of the burden off the county and let nonprofits and private companies do what they do well.
Alex Ott, supervisorial candidate
He said the county should explore more options with the private sector providing services, such as Fresno County Jail’s medical services. In 2012, the county was under fire for insufficient medical and psychiatric care for inmates. Eventually, the county hired a private company, Corizon, to meet inmates’ health needs.
“There are ways we can take some of the burden off the county and let nonprofits and private companies do what they do well,” he said.
By concentrating on efficiency, he said, the county can keep its best talent, he said.
Ott said the county shouldn’t charge more fees to developers to pay for additional office space, jail space or libraries.
“We need to find out how we are we going to get more businesses more incentives to come to Fresno County,” Ott said. “More fees, more taxes, more regulations are always a concern for me. I want to walk through those issues first before we start putting into place more burdens.”
To bring more money into the county, he suggests reducing rules and regulations that are making people leave. He mentioned colleagues who had problems adding buildings to their farms.
Ott promises he will always have an open door for constituents and county officials, wants employees to never be ashamed of an idea and for leaders to admit mistakes when a program doesn’t work and seek solutions to continue innovation.
Stephens is a self-described conservative, but she draws distinctions between herself and her opponents.
She wants smaller communities to band together to oppose new development coming their way by incorporating to stave it off and make their own decisions.
Growth, she said, causes crime, traffic and noise problems for rural residents. She lives in a quickly growing rural area on the outskirts of Sunnyside, east of Fresno.
Stephens suggests that supervisors be paid the county’s median income, $44,000. Supervisors earn $114,000 and raises are attached to state increases that also are given to judges annually.
She said the supervisors’ employees should be paid more than supervisors. She also pledges to fight for all county workers.
“Despite the fact that my opponent (Magsig) is endorsed by the unions, I will be the strongest advocate for these county workers,” Stephens said. “I really think they’re doing a great job with the limited resources they have.”
The county should make customer service its main emphasis and the process should include a one-stop shop because “right now it’s ridiculous that you can’t go to one place and get the service you need.” She said modernizing the county’s website could help make that possible.
She doesn’t support using development fees to improve the county’s office space and technology problems because she doesn’t think enough money can be raised to cover the deficiencies.
Stephens has personal stakes in two areas: tree mortality and improving mental health programs.
Her family, she said, has 2,500 acres in the Shaver Lake area, where roads are limited and a significant fire would wipe out many people’s investments. She also said that air quality problems for the Valley could also pose a significant health threat.
“This is a very big problem,” Stephens said. “We just have to ask for state funding and federal funding and we have to get the community involved.”
Stephens also deals with county mental health agencies because of her son. She said she has seen improvements in recent years, but programs and more client space still are lacking.
Parents often are frustrated in dealing with their children and have no options for them to go outside of the home, Stephens said.
She recommends weekend “respite programs,” that allow children and teens to socialize with one another in a setting outside the home.