Benoit

10:23 PM PST on Sunday, December 26, 2010

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

In his first year as a Riverside County supervisor, John Benoit has endured political warfare and personal tragedy.

He has cast difficult budget votes that have led to the layoffs of hundreds of employees, taken a firm stance on the need to make changes to the county’s pension plan and drawn the ire of some residents by reversing course on whether to allow medical-marijuana dispensaries.

Just as he was beginning his quest for election in June, Benoit’s campaign manager and longtime aide suddenly died. Then in September, his mother passed away.

Throughout it all, though, the former state lawmaker and retired California Highway Patrol officer has won praise from his colleagues as someone willing to take on a large workload and make tough choices.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Marion Ashley said he has been impressed with Benoit’s energy and drive.

“It is good to have a workhorse like him in our stable,” Ashley said.

On Nov. 4, 2009, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Benoit to fill the seat left vacant when Supervisor Roy Wilson resigned because of illness. Benoit took office Dec. 1 last year and was elected to a full four-year term on June 8.

Before his death on Aug. 26, 2009, Wilson had recommended Benoit to replace him in the 4th District, which covers the Coachella Valley and eastern Riverside County.

Benoit, a married father of two who lives in Bermuda Dunes, represented the 64th Assembly District from 2002 to 2008, when he was elected to represent the 37th Senate District. He resigned the senate post to become a county supervisor.

“It has been the most challenging year of my life,” Benoit said in a recent interview. “First of all, this is a very important, very big job with a lot of real-life consequences.”

Benoit said he was honored to serve in the Legislature but often found it difficult to accomplish his goals as a Republican, the minority party in Sacramento.

As a supervisor, he said he can get more done.

“It is just a fascinating position,” Benoit said.

LEARNING CURVE

From his Palm Desert office — adorned with photos of his time in the Legislature, plaques from community groups and a shelf full of history books — Benoit talked about the learning curve he had to navigate when he jumped into local government.

For one, rather than serving on a handful of Legislative committees, Benoit has a seat on 39 different local boards, commissions and authorities.

Then there were the politics and tragedy.

Although he took office in December last year, Benoit said it wasn’t until January that he started getting a handle on his new job. At the same time, he had to prepare for a campaign.

“As I am getting my feet wet, I am thrown the challenge of a very strong political rival and having to work my way through an election during that same six-month uphill curve,” Benoit said.

“And then in the middle of March, I lost my chief of staff, campaign coordinator and political adviser all in one,” Benoit said. “That added, obviously, to the challenges.”

Barry Nestande, Benoit’s longtime chief of staff, died March 19 after collapsing at a gym. He was 49.

Nestande’s death came as Benoit geared up for his first election as a supervisor. In the June primary, he faced former Palm Springs Police Chief Gary Jeandron, who had significant backing from the Riverside Sheriff’s Association.

The association has long been critical of Benoit, particularly over his stance on public-employee pensions, and contributed more than $275,000 toward defeating him.

Benoit won with 56 percent of the vote.

In September, Benoit’s mother, Joan, passed away.

And then, in the November election, Benoit supported Measure M, one of two pension-related items on the ballot. The sheriff’s association backed rival Measure L and spent more than $730,000 on the campaign.

During the campaign, the association accused Benoit of being anti-law enforcement. Benoit, as a retired CHP commander, receives an annual pension of more than $100,000 a year but has called the county’s current retirement system unsustainable.

Measure M, which allows supervisors to decrease retirement benefits for future public-safety workers without a public vote, won with 61 percent.

ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Benoit said he is proud of helping to secure funding for three Interstate 10 interchange projects, a new $33 million Palm Desert sheriff’s station and a $2.1 million animal shelter in Blythe.

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