Following an impactful 2016 that saw a new road tax passed and the lowest amount of debt the county has owed in eight years, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors are looking to continue their success in 2017 with help from newly-appointed Chairman Vito Chiesa and new supervisor Kristin Olsen.
Currently in his second term as Stanislaus County Supervisor for District 2, Chiesa has served the county in a myriad of ways during his time on the Board, from his previous two and a half year Chairmanship of the Stanislaus Council of Government to his current work on various committees, such as the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority.
"A main area I've focused on is transportation," said Chiesa, a Hughson farmer. "There are a few key components to economic development, and those are a safe, educated community and a first class infrastructure. Roads are such an important part of that; I can't affect education as a supervisor, so this is the one area I can have the most impact."
Now, as chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Chiesa is responsible for assigning the supervisors to various committee assignments as well as smaller tasks, like representing the Board at events.
"I don't have any power, per say, over the board," said Chiesa. "It's still one man, or woman, one vote. A lot of what I do is ceremonial."
Chiesa hopes that some of the beneficial work the board was able to accomplish in 2016 carries over into 2017, he said, such as the collaborative efforts the board underwent alongside various organizations throughout the county to bring new ideas to fruition. The board worked with the city of Modesto last year to bring the Stanislaus Veterans Center to the northern end of the city, providing the county with a one-stop veteran services center. Chiesa also cited the approval of Measure L - Local Roads First Transportation Funding - by county voters in November as another milestone for collaboration within the county.
"We got every single elected official in Stanislaus County, our state officials, our congressman, the taxpayers and the unions to agree on that tax," said Chiesa. "When we all agree on something, we can move a mountain and we proved that by getting the highest vote total since 1998 on a first-time measure."
The board plans to take that action and continue momentum into other areas this year, said Chiesa. Several key issues the board will tackle this year include negotiations with six county unions whose contracts expire at the end of June, a new jail that will open during the year's first quarter, dealing with the legalization of marijuana and the disbursement of Measure L funds to fix the county's roads.
"Some of these are big capital projects with big costs, but they're necessary."
Chiesa said that a meeting regarding the sale of marijuana in the county is planned for the first week of February. An ad hoc committee comprised of various cities' council members and a supervisor will be formed in order to begin exploring the idea of a county-wide regulation.
"In my idealistic world, everything would be county wide - nine cities doing everything together," said Chiesa. "Same zoning and revenue sharing, these are all things that make logical sense."
In addition to making headway with the county's marijuana issue, Chiesa hopes to work with state officials to bring transportation funding to the Stanislaus County.
"We did our part locally with Measure L, but the state is still siphoning off money and hasn't passed the bill it needs to for us to get more funding," he said.
State officials are also making a grab at the Valley's water, with the State Water Board recommending to require 40 percent unimpaired flows on the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers despite opposition from local farmers and legislators.
"That is a fluid situation, but we're fighting it," said Chiesa.
A new face on the Board of Supervisors, Olsen, is hoping that her previous experience and connections at the state level of government can contribute to the battle against the State Water Board.
"I have key relationships at the state level that hopefully will help us negotiate some really important settlements on the water issues," said Olsen.
Olsen was elected to the Board of Supervisors in June, and began her term in January after terming out of her seat in the California State Assembly, where she had served since 2010. Olsen served as Assembly Republican Leader from 2014 through early 2016, where she was the Caucus' lead negotiator on major policy and fiscal issues, led its political and campaign efforts and served as spokesperson.
Olsen's new position on the board is not her first time serving in local government, however, as she served five years on the Modesto City Council from 2005 to 2010.
"Even though people pay more attention to the federal and state level government, it's really the decisions made locally that affect our lives," said Olsen.
Her decision to return to local government came from a desire to not only spend more time with her three school-age children, but to also join a non-partisan environment where people are committed to delivering results on shared goals, she said.
"Having position at the city, state and now county level, I'm hoping I'll be positioned to improve working relationships between the three so that we're all working together to achieve results," said Olsen.
Transitioning from a position heavily rooted in partisan politics hasn't been a difficult task, she added. Rather than let her own opinions guide her decisions, Olsen hopes to be a contributing member on a collaborative Board.
"By personality in nature, I'm a consensus builder," she said. "I had to get used to the partisan environment - I feel much more at home in a non-partisan environment such as the Board of Supervisors, who are truly committed to the county."
During her time on the board, Olsen plans to spearhead the county's economic development by improving workforce training through not only working with area universities, but the local workforce alliance and business partnerships as well.
"It's about bringing all of these things together to make sure people growing up in Stanislaus County are prepared and qualified for the workforce," said Olsen. "I want Stanislaus County to be a place my kids can choose to live and prosper as adults."
Olsen is just the second woman in history to serve on the Board of Supervisors following Pat Paul, whose time on the Board ended when she was defeated by current District 1 Supervisor Bill O'Brien in 2004. Olsen hopes that she is able to bring a unique outlook to the Board as its only female.
"I think that outcomes are ultimately better when they're crafted from a variety of perspectives, including both male and female," said Olsen. "While my colleagues and I may agree on issues, I think women tend to offer unique perspectives and approaches to solving problems."
Chiesa anticipates that Olsen will have no trouble at all adjusting to her new position.
"This job is like climbing a mountain...the mountain gets higher and lower, but you can never reach the peak because the information is always changing. With her experience, she's starting higher on the mountain," he said. "She's going to be a great board member."
Chiesa is looking forward to the benefits of Olsen's state contacts as well, and sees her as a key component to continuing the Board's success.
"This board has been successful because we have a lot of trust in each other," said Chiesa. "There is 40 or 50 years of experience among us here, so you build up that trust like a family. When your vote loses 4-1, there's never any animosity - you move on and the next vote is the next vote."