Politics & Government

Bob bows out

Calling it a decision grounded in family rather than politics or controversy, Bob Waterston on Wednesday said he would not seek a third term on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.

Waterston, 62, surprised colleagues and others with the announcement toward the end of his State of the County speech at downtown Fresno's Radisson Hotel. Appearing near tears, Waterston said he wanted to devote more time to his family and work one job rather than two after decades in public service.

"It's about nothing else," he said later in a brief telephone interview. "I don't run from anybody."

Waterston, the board chairman and a retired firefighter, was first elected in 2000. He ran unopposed in 2004 but was facing the prospect next year of formidable competition for his seat representing District 5, which includes Clovis and the foothills.

Waterston has been a plain-spoken board member who championed causes such as the expansion of Friant Road and public safety. But this year, he was dogged by conflict-of-interest questions.

In May, Waterston resigned from the Local Agency Formation Commission after The Bee reported that he voted in favor of six annexations that benefited a developer with whom he had a business relationship.

Other stories explored Waterston's purchase of a luxury car at an apparent discount from a local tribal official, his use of a shortcut given by county planning officials that allowed him to build a second house behind his own, and his use of a Sheriff's Department gun.

Waterston, who also owns a pool construction business, has consistently denied any conflicts of interest or special treatment. He said he did nothing as a supervisor for personal gain or to reward those with whom he did business.

Waterston would have faced a tough battle to hang onto his seat, two California State University, Fresno, political science professors said Wednesday.

They point to the series of controversies and the potential powerhouse clout of his opponents: Debbie Poochigian, a member of a longtime and well-known political family, and Nathan Magsig, a Clovis City Council member.

Assistant professor Jeff Cummins said challengers must make a case for change; the conflict-of-interest questions did that for two already well-financed candidates.

"His prospects for re-election were pretty low, and I think he saw the writing on the wall," he said.

Assistant professor Tom Holyoke agreed, saying Waterston had "made himself vulnerable" and would have been bruised by the campaign -- even if he won.

Waterston, however, bristled at the suggestion of other reasons for his decision. He said his polling numbers were favorable.

Waterston's announcement quickly rippled through the political community.

Magsig was among those who expressed surprise at the news. He said it won't change his strategy: "For myself, I'm very much focused on running an issues-based campaign."

Poochigian, who was scheduled to hold a fundraiser Wednesday night, said Waterston deserves thanks for his public service. She and others said they had heard rumors that Waterston might decide against a bid for re-election.

As recently as June, Waterston denied those rumors to The Bee and said he was "totally planning on running." In August, he said his opponents would have to debate him.

The race already was pretty expensive, according to campaign statements covering fundraising through June 30.

Waterston had more than $208,000 in his account, compared with about $214,000 for Magsig and $168,900 for Poochigian.

Waterston, a native of Fresno, was a fire captain when he first ran for supervisor in 1996. He lost to Stan Oken in a runoff; four months later, he won a seat on the Clovis City Council.

In 2000, Waterston prevailed against Mike Reynolds -- the father of the "Three Strikes and You're Out Law" -- to win election to the Board of Supervisors.

Wednesday, Waterston and the four other supervisors were shown in a 15-minute video about the county. Waterston's clips included a few light-hearted jokes with colleagues -- a contrast to his later bombshell.

Supervisor Phil Larson said Waterston told him before the speech that he wouldn't run for re-election. Larson praised Waterston for his service, describing him as a "very compatible colleague to work with."

Supervisor Judy Case said Waterston has helped the county make headway in areas such as fire protection, juvenile justice and foster care.

Jeff Roberts, president of the Millerton Lake Area Chamber of Commerce in Friant, called Waterston "a tireless worker" to expand the road that cuts through the small foothill town.

Supervisor Henry Perea agreed, saying drivers mainly have Waterston to thank for improvements on Friant Road. Perea said he was surprised by Waterston's decision not to seek re-election, partly because the two-term supervisor has built a strong record in office.

And, Perea said: "I look at the makeup of someone in elected office, there has to be a side of you that is a fighter, and Bob is a fighter ... as difficult as it has been for the last few months."

Supervisor Susan Anderson said she had seen signs over the past few months that Waterston wouldn't run again. While Anderson said she believed he could have won, "I think he made the right decision for his family."

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