Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, June 3, voters will decide if incumbent John J. Benoit or current Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez will represent the Fourth District on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. While both Benoit and Perez have been actively courting Eastern Coachella Valley (ECV) voters, a forum featuring both candidates was recently cancelled. In a statement, Benoit said, “Candidates should not have to be subjected to a debate sponsored by one side. That is entirely inappropriate. Based on their clear political agenda, I know ICUC and Building Healthy Communities would not conduct a fair and impartial forum.”
Perez’s response read, in part, “I am disappointed in John Benoit’s decision to decline an invitation to attend a candidate forum organized by various Coachella Valley community groups. As a result of his decision not to participate, the community is left without an opportunity to directly hear from the candidates for a very important office.”
Coachella Unincorporated was not involved in the cancelled forum; we are including the candidate statements above as context. However, we believe ECV residents have a right to hear both candidates address community issues before the election. Benoit and Perez agreed to sit down, separately, with reporter Ivan Valenzuela and answer questions specifically about the ECV.
The following is the first installment of the candidates’ complete answers. The second installment will be posted May 30.
Ivan Valenzuela, Coachella Unincorporated: What is the biggest issue facing the Eastern Coachella Valley?
John J. Benoit: Well there [are] several. The two that come to mind [are] insufficient safe and affordable housing and safe water. They’re two distinctly different but somewhat related quality of life issues, and they are the number one and two issues and challenges in the Eastern Coachella Valley.
V. Manuel Perez: The issue of poverty would be number one for me, and the lack of good paying jobs for folks. I think another one would have to be the issue of affordable housing, and the concerns that we have around mobile home parks, and the struggles that people have, because of the lack of resources, to be able to pay for a place in which living conditions are up to code. And so I would say that’s another concern that we face among our folks, and a third connected to that, I would say is the issue of infrastructure. Obviously resources are needed to make sure you put pipes underground, to make sure that the streets and the roads are paved, and we have streets and areas that don’t have them, and sidewalks for our kids to walk to school. I think that would be another, and the infrastructure connected to affordable housing, would be another piece of that puzzle.
And on a social front, it’s a combination of things, but on the social front, the issue of graduation rates and literacy, ensuring kids access to education, ensuring that our kids graduate at level, or when they’re moving on from one grade to the other, they’re up to speed, they’re up to par at that level, the way it should be. I think that’s another concern.
In a more general scheme of things, which is important to the issues of the Coachella Valley but overall, is the Salton Sea issue. I say the Salton Sea because it is in the Eastern Coachella Valley, but the fact [is] that we don’t have a lot of time left, but we need to restore and mitigate the Salton Sea. Those are beauty issues I would say. When we talk about the Salton Sea, I guess we could say it’s an environmental justice issue, overall. Like, the Salton Sea needs to be restored and mitigated but many times state government in the past didn’t care. Why? Because the Salton Sea doesn’t lie in an affluent area. Right? Like Lake Tahoe! Environmental justice in a way, like deciding in placement of different waste management type of businesses, many times those type of businesses are placed in areas like Mecca, or like Thermal, in areas where you have folks that are impoverished, underserved, and really lack a voice. Many times the placement of these industrial facilities is usually placed in areas like the Eastern Coachella Valley. So there’s a lot, but for sure, poverty is number one, and then from there you can take on other priorities.
CU: If elected/re-elected, what are some of the ways you will work with the community leaders to address, or fix, these issues?
Benoit: Well, you know, fixing is a strong word. A very bright man said many years ago that the poor you will always have amongst you. We will do the best we can to protect as many as we can and improve the life and living conditions of as many people as we can. And then there will still be more to be done. But in the meantime, we have had a pretty good success record. The county of Riverside has built over ninety-five hundred low to moderate income housing units since 1999 in the Eastern Coachella valley. I have developed with the staff’s assistance, an alternative loan program to try and help people who are willing to do polanco parks, and other smaller developments get very reasonable low cost financing. We are looking at USDA, particularly in other federal opportunities for grants, to try and still put together packages for low to moderate income housing. We’re looking to see where we can use county resources, in particular, properties that we might own to offer the properties as our contributions. So, there are all sorts of ways to skin a cat, and we’re trying to figure out new ones to offer low and moderate income housing.
On the water front, you know, there’s the big fix which is extremely expensive and it’s to bring city water to the entire region, and it’s going to be years away and many millions of dollars. I’m committed to trying to look, explore the possibility and figuring out a way with that and work with Congressman Ruiz and the federal government, particularly, to see if there is a way to accelerate the water and CVWD’s efforts to try and extend city water to the eastern lower portions of the eastern Coachella valley. Short of that, I’m pleased to work with Rotary and other non-profit organizations to do on-site filtration, primarily in the home for drinking water only, because that seems to be the most economical way to address that problem in the eastern valley.
Perez: Well look, I’ve always said it was important that we build policy from the ground up, right? So some of the things that we would have to do right away is ensure that we hold community forums and discussions and prioritize our issues, and as a result of prioritizing those issues, making sure that departments and agencies within the county are amenable and flexible and willing to work with the people to begin to fix some of these challenges. It has to be a partnership, you know, and it can’t be top-down either. Obviously, so meaning that ensuring that people have a voice and that they see that by figuring out what issues they want to tackle, that we’re in this together. It’ll take time, but we move on these things together.
I think that another piece of the puzzle is at the county level. I think that people need to think outside the box. I know that there are people within the county that are doing good work, but they sit behind a desk in an office. I think what we need to do is encourage our folks to come out to the community, and come to them, and have outdoor gatherings behind someone’s backyard. That’s what it takes, or at a nearby park if there’s a good group of people that want listen in and bring up their concerns. And so that’s the other side of the coin. I think that it’s government coming to you as opposed to the other way around. That would be a couple of ways. Obviously, policy ensuring that we’re creative, ensuring that we do our research, and we talk to the experts to figure out and look at other case studies and look at other areas that have done good work around alleviating poverty in underserved areas. It needs to be a lot of communication, there’s got to be grassroots meetings, there’s got to be town hall meetings, there’s got to be bottom-up policy making.
CU: Considering the income disparity in the Coachella Valley, how do you plan to bridge the gap between the affluent and the poor within the fourth district?
Benoit: Well I think the best thing that we can do is try and create jobs and opportunity for folks living in the fourth district. And in that regard, we have recently initiated a major construction phase in the eastern Coachella valley. Nine projects, and one of which is a new and much expanded detention center Indio, the east county detention facility, but the short term is that there [are] about 800 more people who have jobs working on that while they’re building it, and 400 permanent jobs afterwards at a $59 million a year payroll, and that generates more jobs. So, creating opportunities for people to better themselves by having decent employment is, I think, the most important thing we can do as a government, to try and spread the wealth, if you will.
Perez: Well, the disparity is there. You know, you have third world conditions in the east side that do not exist obviously on the west side and our motto, our campaign slogan is “bridging and building the Coachella Valley.” That means, as well [as] bridging and building both the east and the west, bringing them together. I think that what can happen is, and this is already somewhat going on in our schools, but you have people that are retiring here that come from other parts of the world, from other parts of the U.S., that are pretty well off. I know that there [are] ways that we could incorporate them more through programs, through Boys and Girls Clubs, through school systems, through training, and create a space for these folks to engage with folks on the east side. I think that’s one way in which we can bridge the gap, in which perhaps folks on the east side can learn a skill set, or be educated on a certain issue. That might alleviate some of that disparity, or alleviate some of that poverty. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we need to require, I think, resources. We’re going to have to try to tackle the issues by advocating for money, and money that could go specifically to projects that would improve the quality of life for people in the east side.
So a lot of stuff that I’ve done in the past has been around renewable energy. And we passed a lot of legislation that has helped create jobs. For the Salton Sea, for example, if we can build out more geo-thermal plants, that would mean that we could create jobs in the eastern Coachella Valley. If we could build out maybe some solar panels or solar gardens, rather, in the area out there, that would be another way we could create jobs. There’s a way in which we could bring in manufacturing to the area, like providing tax incentives and credits, or cheaper land and cheaper utilities as a way to bring them in. Then that’s another way that we could bring in manufacturing jobs. I think, overall, talking about the east side specifically, those are some of the ways in which we could help alleviate that disparity.
The second installment of these interviews will be posted May 30.