Three incoming Merced County supervisors will take the oath of office Tuesday, marking the most significant power shift on the Merced County Board of Supervisors in decades.
District 1 Supervisor-elect Rodrigo Espinoza, District 2 Supervisor-elect Lee Lor and District 4 Supervisor-elect Lloyd Pareira will join District 3 Supervisor Daron McDaniel and District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion on the board. They begin work during their first regular meeting Jan. 10.
Espinoza and Lor unseated incumbents, while Pareira was elected to the District 4 seat after Deidre Kelsey announced she would not seek a sixth term. It’s the first time three seats have changed in one election cycle since 1987, county records show.
All three outgoing supervisors were known as political powerhouses in the county. Kelsey won re-election five times after being appointed to her seat. District 2 Supervisor Hub Walsh, before joining the county board, served on the Merced City Council and was elected as the city’s mayor. He also worked for the county’s Human Services Agency for years. District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo, a prominent farmer, served on the board for more than a decade. His son, Josh, serves on the Merced City Council.
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O’Banion remains the most experienced supervisor, with 26 years under his belt. He’s the second-longest-sitting supervisor in the state, the California State Association of Counties confirmed. In an interview with the Sun-Star, he said it’s the first time during his tenure that three seats have transitioned to new officials.
“They will have a lot of experiences that they’ve never had before in regards to making decisions on behalf of the employees and constituents of the county,” O’Banion said. “Their service is going to be very difficult at times. It’s not easy to make some of the difficult decisions, but I think they’re coming in at a good time economically. We’re on the best upswing that I’ve seen.”
McDaniel, who is in his first term, is next on the totem pole of experience. He served as vice chair to the board in 2016 and likely will be voted as board chairman.
As a relatively new supervisor, McDaniel said he understands the challenges confronting first-time supervisors, especially early on.
“When you run your campaign, you have this hallway view,” he said. “After you get the position and become supervisor, it’s no longer a hallway. It’s like being at the top of a building and seeing everything at once.”
The new board members are different from those who came before them in many ways.
Both Lor and Espinoza will bring diversity to the board.
According to 2014 Census Bureau figures, Merced County’s population was 57.5 percent Latino. The county also is 8 percent Asian and 4 percent black, the Census Bureau figures showed. The percentage of residents identifying as white without being Latino was 29.5 percent.
The outgoing Board of Supervisors included no ethnic or racial minorities. Kelsey was the highest-ranking woman to hold an elected office.
Lor says she is the first Hmong woman in the nation to serve as a county supervisor. Espinoza emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. as a child, speaking Spanish as his native language. As mayor of Livingston for six years, he was the only Latino to lead a city in the county. Espinoza also has 14 years of city government experience.
“That says a lot to the public that anybody can get into politics,” Espinoza said.
Pareira and Lor also bring backgrounds in education. Pareira served on the Merced River Schools governing board for 18 years, and Lor managed the Merced County Office of Education’s fundraising branch for now retired Superintendent Steve Gomes.
Espinoza and Pareira both have agricultural backgrounds. Espinoza farms almonds and peaches, and Pareira grew up and spent much of his adult life as a dairyman.
McDaniel predicts O’Banion will become a top resource for institutional knowledge.
“The (outgoing) board members all served for so long, I could get institutional knowledge from each of them,” McDaniel said. “I think that burden will now fall on Jerry. You need to tap into and know some history to make decisions.”
Each supervisor on the new board agrees economic development should be a priority for the county. While most acknowledge agriculture will remain a driving force for Merced County’s economy, all have expressed interest in attracting businesses that will provide residents with higher-paying jobs.
“Our ag economy is paramount to the lifeblood of Merced County,” Pareira said.
O’Banion agreed, adding, “Being a farmer, I’ve always felt the need to look into diversifying and getting other things in the basket to increase the quality of life.”
Pareira hopes to look at the county’s permitting process to ensure it’s as efficient as possible for businesses. Lor hopes to give residents opportunities to gain skills and bridge the divide between the poorer and wealthier parts of her district, which encompasses the city of Merced. Espinoza hopes to add more deputies to the Sheriff’s Office in an effort to lower crime rates.
The sooner the new supervisors understand the history and potential of Castle Commerce Center – formerly Castle Air Force Base – the better, O’Banion said. The county is working with a consulting firm to pursue a public-private partnership for Castle and bring a private investor on board in an effort to create an industrial hub.
O’Banion noted the outgoing board tended to vote unanimously on agenda items, rarely coming to a split vote on issues. He encouraged the new supervisors to vote independently and make decisions based on what they feel is best for the county.
“It does take three to change anything,” he said. “A lot of times on expenditures it takes four. It’s not going to take one to change anything.”
Mostly, each of the supervisors said they were excited about the changes to the board and the direction of the county.
“The board gets to look at the county with a fresh set of eyes,” Lor said.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477