Editor’s Note: On 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. Both candidates have been actively courting Eastern Coachella Valley (ECV) residents. However, a recent candidate forum featuring Benoit and Perez 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 second installment of the candidates’ complete answers. The first installment was posted May 28.
Ivan Valenzuela, Coachella Unincorporated: What are the resources that are most needed in the unincorporated communities of the eastern Coachella Valley? How would you bring them here?
John J. Benoit: Well, again, housing and water we’ve talked about. Those are both important. We’ve already discussed how we’re approaching those two issues. The next most critical one is available medical care. We still have a significant shortage of doctors, and a bad doctor-patient ratio for health care in our Eastern Coachella valley. The Board of Supervisors stepped up in a big way to help make sure that we have a local medical school, and it’s not a quick solution; it’s going to take a few years, but we now have a medical school in our region, training doctors in our fourth district, at Eisenhower, at Desert [Regional Medical Center], and somewhat at [John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital] in Indio. More important than that is that the county’s investment allowed us to stipulate that 50 percent of the seats in that medical school be reserved for people coming from Inland Empire. So a student from Coachella Valley or Indio high school who is interested in becoming a doctor has a huge advantage in applying for positions in this medical school. And the ultimate goal, the reason we did that is, when you finish medical school, when you go through your training, the last part of which is on-the-job training in a hospital, it’s proven that you’re likely to stay there. Sixty, seventy, eighty percent of students stay where they did their residency at the end of the process. So, if you have a class that’s fifty percent from this area, that number will even go up higher. We hope in the long run that will help us. We’ve also built the Volunteers in Medicine clinic in Indio. I was directly involved in making sure that happened, and we have a place where people with no insurance, even with all the new programs where there’s people that fall through the cracks, they have a place to go.
We like to work with the non-profits. I’m there most of the time when they have the doctors that come and want to do the thing before the concerts or the flying doctors once a year down at Desert Mirage High School. I’m very sensitive to the fact that there are many people not getting premium health care, and we’re doing what we can to address that.
V. Manuel Perez: It goes back to policy. The reason why, for example, certain roads are being paved in Mecca, for example, monies were distributed for Mountain Views Estates, $10 million. It was through legislation that I passed. And so we passed legislation to build out a peaker plant, a natural gas peaker plant, in Desert Hot Springs, but within that, we were able to put money to mitigate air pollution, up to the amount of $53 million. Those $53 million were cut into thirds. One-third of that money, $15 million to $20 million was used for the Eastern Coachella Valley for different projects. So once again, it has to go back to policy and ensuring that there are resources in those policies that are targeted specifically for the Eastern Coachella valley. I think that’s a way.
Another way is going out to other areas [where] perhaps you have people that are willing to invest. The growth is going to continue to go that way, and so the hope is that, and this is going to start in Coachella, but the hope is that we find investors that are willing to invest out there because they see the potential for growth, and, quite frankly, they see the potential for profit. And so, part of my responsibility, as well, is to try and bring investment to the area. I think that would be another important element as to how we deal with the issues that are of concern out in the Eastern Coachella valley.
The school that we have out there could be expanded. I’d like to see that expanded, and that’s the College of the Desert campus. I understand that it’s already at capacity, and I’d like to work with the COD president to ensure that we’re able to do that. I think that would be helpful [so] so there are also education and also a work force.
And I think that another element that I’d like to see is the building of more clinics, and specific to mental health services. Mental health services would be important, but just clinics overall, just access to healthcare. And we have a couple out there. We have one in Mecca, we have one in Oasis, and we have one in Coachella. But I also understand that the Salton Sea area lacks services, out in the Blythe area, they lack services or specialty care services. And in the North Shore area, on the other side, behind Mecca, 50 miles south of Mecca, you know, they lack services out there as well, healthcare services. So you know, if we can’t build out a clinic, maybe there’s a mobile unit that goes out and provides that care. So that’s part of how I see that.
CU: What is the most important reason the residents of the Eastern Coachella Valley should vote for you?
Benoit: Well, I have now 43 years of public service with ever-increasing levels of competence and training, starting with the 19-year old police cadet, working my way through the California Highway Patrol, [with] multiple levels of managerial skills such as the FBI National Academy, and then, time on the [Desert Sands Unified School District] board, seven years in the [California State] legislature, and now four years, four very valuable years, learning how to do the job of the county supervisor.
I think that level of competence, proven by actual results, speaks well to the potential for me to continue to do that kind of good work in the future. And I expect and hope that the residents of the fourth district will appreciate and understand how much we’ve been able to accomplish, and to allow me the opportunity to continue to do that.
Perez: I think that I’ve always had the residents of the Coachella Valley in heart and mind, and I think that I’ve always looked at the role of public service as truly that people come before profit, that people come before one’s own ambition, before my own ambition. And so, I believe ultimately that because of the work that I’ve done over the course of years, whether it be a school teacher, a healthcare director, a [Coachella Valley Unified School District] board member, and [California] legislator, I’ve always worked to ensure the delivery of goods, if you will, for people who really need them; and we’ve been successful on many different fronts to ensure that many people’s needs are met. Have we done it all? No. Can we continue to do more? Yes. I’m born and raised here in the Coachella Valley, I live in Coachella, I still send my kids to the schools of the Eastern Coachella Valley because I believe in the people of the Eastern Coachella Valley. I also like to lead by example, and so I want people to know that I’m willing to continue to work hard and produce and that I still have that sense of responsibility and obligation to give back and I know, ultimately, that people see me as an individual [who] cares. So, I think my opponent might say similar things, but I feel like I demonstrate it very differently. I don’t just say it. I actually act it out, I actually do it. I live it, every single day.