Perez Served as Chairman of the Board of Supervisors in 2020 [Opinion]

V. Manuel Perez, represents the 10 cities of the Fourth District of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. In January of 2020 his colleagues elected him to serve as Chairman of the Board of Supervisors of a county with 2.5 million residents.

Perez became the first Latino to Chair the Board of Supervisors since the County was founded in 1893. He is the first Latino appointed and later elected to the board. Former Governor Brown appointed Perez to the vacant seat previously held by John Benoit. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had appointed Benoit to that seat following the death of Roy Wilson.

That Perez would be selected to serve as chair was procedural and what some called “automatic.” This is, in fact, the case as board members are almost always bound by precedent to rotate the chairmanship.

Three women held the post in years past. Each has long since passed away. Patricia “Corky” Larson, Melba Dunlap, and Kay Sandra Ceniceros. Each was all elected chair and all were tested by disasters such as fire, flood, and earthquake.

Th year 2020 began with Perez being seated as chair. The greatest challenge would be stopping the hemorrhage of red ink and an exploding deficit of $100 million.

Fears of another massive layoff of county employees, massive budget cuts, public safety staff reduction and more were all what Perez would inherit from his predecessor Kevin Jeffries. Perez took it all in stride.

Absolutely no one would could have predicted a pandemic was headed for America last January. Hit it did and the first flight of an aircraft from China, after the news of the killer virus spread, would be redirected to March Air Reserve Base.

That put Riverside County at the forefront of the Coronavirus pandemic.  It wasn’t long after that the first confirmed case of COVID-19 would be diagnosed at Eisenhower Medical Center. Now, the killer virus made Riverside County ground zero.

Any chair has at his or her disposal many resources from a staff of 19,000. However, the county team had never been tested like this.

Health officials were new and, for the most part, untested. Certainly none were battle-tested. The county CEO would be tested like none before. Despite the typical sniping and backstabbing, George Johnson served with distinction.

Perez with a staff of fewer than 10, would lead a health response like no other. Building temporary facilities to care for patients suffering from the disease required calling upon the California National Guard and its Adjutant General David Baldwin to send in troops. Baldwin sent in the soldiers and airman needed and Perez was impressed and relieved by the Guard’s work.

There were so many questions. How many body bags were on hand? Were there enough refrigeration trucks available to hold the projections of 20,000 dead? What would happen to hospitals overrun with Covid-19 patients? Would curfews be necessary? What were the impacts on jobs, schools, families, elderly, and, yes, the undocumented?

Perez, who once served as Majority Leader in the State Assembly, relied on his instincts. They told him that any approach to managing a response to the pandemic would be a team approach and that his four colleagues would play a key role in calling the shots. This was “all-hands-on-deck” time.

As the “two-week shut down to flatten the curve” of the nation evolved into weeks and months, the nation’s unemployment —and Riverside County’s — was skyrocketing.

Businesses were prevented from opening. The public was worried about an economic collapse similar to 1929 or 2008. The county deficit would be worse with property tax revenue perhaps going down or just flat.

Perez conducted meetings via phone, Zoom, and used social distancing.  While the county staff worked from home in many cases, Perez pressed on. You often saw him donning a mask or handkerchief. He called upon the public to wear a mask, wash hands, and social distance.

He worked with the business community to push back on a Governor, from his own party, to get our economy and businesses opened up. While not as successful as he would have hoped, many businesses applauded the effort and courage it took to confront state leaders.

While fighting the state, COVID-19,  and budget challenges, Perez presided over the dismantling of the Economic Development Agency, the dismissal of the DPSS & Economic Develop Agency Assistant CEOs, and the retooling of the housing department, workforce development, and community action.

It wasn’t a cake walk. He had his disagreements with labor leaders, fellow elected county leaders, and others. He worked to repair those relationships and managed to earn the respect and understanding of those he had clashed with.

The chair, in a good year  is a balancing act, sometimes operational, some ceremonial duties, and then all the work in the district. It’s a post that requires much effort by the individual county supervisor and his or her staff.

By any measure Chairman Perez was tested like no other chairperson before him. Serving in a district  that “went purple” and is almost solidly “blue” Perez has managed to anger his base because he wasn’t “left enough.” His critics on the center right have been “Surprised by Manny’s pro-job and pro-business stances.”

Medical professionals who lead hospitals in the private sector have said,  “impressed with Manny’s knowledge of health care, its limits, and the need for public and private partnerships especially during Covid-19.”

While COVID-19 has taken too many lives, hit our economy hard, and left so many in mourning, history will be kind to V. Manuel Perez.

When leadership in Washington, D.C. and Sacramento failed, Perez stood tall. He faced the challenges head on. He made the tough calls. He wasn’t afraid to do what was right even when it wasn’t popular. By any definition, measure, or however you slice it or dice it, that is leadership!

Perez will likely be succeeded by Supervisor Karen Spiegel. The Vice Chair will likely be Jeff Hewitt. Perez will continue to serve the Fourth District.  Manny Perez is to be congratulated for his leadership and fidelity.