Editor's Note: Redlands-Loma Linda Patch recently approached candidates seeking to represent the Third Supervisorial District of San Bernardino County. The incumbent responded first. Interviews with the challengers will be published in the next few days.
Third District Supervisor Neil Derry, who wants to represent Redlands and Loma Linda and a vast swath of San Bernardino County for four more years, exudes confidence, defiance of his critics, and a willingness to question his two opponents as the June 5 election approaches.
Derry met with Redlands-Loma Linda Patch in Redlands recently to discuss his background, his formative experiences, challenges he's faced in elected office, and his guilty plea to a misdemeanor in what he calls a politically-motivated investigation designed to derail his re-election chances.
Derry is running against James Ramos, former tribal chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, and Jim Bagley, former councilman and mayor of Twentynine Palms. During the interview, he criticized District Attorney Mike Ramos and his Third District predecessor, Dennis Hansberger.
Candidates James Ramos and Jim Bagley also met recently with Redlands-Loma Linda Patch to share their backgrounds and perspectives as election day nears. Stay with R-LL Patch for in-depth interviews with the challengers in coming days.
Redistricting has changed the Third District by excluding the Lake Arrowhead area, and including Lucerne Valley and Barstow. The re-drawn Third District is now home to about 407,000 residents and it covers roughly 2,700 square miles.
The Third District has 183,000 registered voters, including 75,000 registered Republicans, 62,000 registered Democrats, and 35,000 registered as non-partisan, according to the county elections office. Derry identifies himself as Republican.
The following interview with Derry was recorded at Greater Good Coffee Company on State Street in Redlands. Derry's remarks are quoted here verbatim.
Early Years and Marine Corps
"I grew up in San Bernardino up on Arden Avenue, which is just around the corner from the new, big, existing casino," Derry said. "So I actually grew up there, we moved there in '74. I went to Belvedere Elementary School, Serrano Junior High School, back before there were any casinos in town.
"I was 5. We moved from Whittier. I'm a native Californian. . . . We moved to San Bernardino because I had asthma and it was supposed to be better for me. (Laughs)
"I went to San Gorgonio High School. I graduated in 1987, and I went straight into the Marine Corps. I was one of 13 of my class to go into the Marine Corps . . . was the first in my class to sign up, for delayed entry. The recruiter kept using me as a punchline. 'Well Neil's joining the Marine Corps. He can make it, what's the problem with you football player?'
"I was still 17 at the time so I had to sing the papers. My mom wasn't very happy, but they signed. In the Marine Corps I served two overseas tours. I was an avionics technician. . . . I worked on Hueys, Cobras, helicopters basically. I served two tours overseas, one was WestPac, on board a ship in the Pacific. The other was the Gulf War.
"Avionics is anything with a wire attached to it. Small, electronics, navigation, communication, I worked also on forward looking infrared, FLIR, and also laser guidance. . . . I was stationed at Camp Pendleton, but every 18 months your unit would deploy, on a WestPac or Okinawa, so I did one tour, got to see the Philippines, Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, and a lot of Asia.
"Then came back from that trip . . . I was temporary assigned at San Onofre Beach for six months, where I worked on beach maintenance because there's a military campsite there, right next to the nuclear plant. . . . And then the Gulf War broke out and I was attached back to my unit and went straight over.
"Our squadron based in Saudi Arabia. My unit was the second helicopter squadron deployed . . . so we arrived in the end of August of 1990, and we were originally . . . only 40 miles from the border. Didn't see any direct combat. We all carried rifles, gas masks, full mountain gear, but most of my job was to make sure the aircraft were ready to fly.
"And once the war started out units were out deployed in the field and our pilots were doing 18 hours in the seat, which is 18 hours flying time straight, they were flying straight into Kuwait. We had over a hundred confirmed kills in our unit. Tanks, armored vehicles, they were sitting ducks. It was kind of sad. Our guys had night-vision goggles. In the desert when a helicopter flies in it's whop-whop-whop-whop, but if you've got no night vision you can't see a thing. It sounds like it's coming from everywhere.
"So it was sort of a shooting gallery for our guys. We lost one helicopter. That was a non-combat failure. We were doing low-level ops. Everything was about 50 feet off the ground. And one of the transmissions sheared at about 50 feet. The pilot was going about a hundred knots, the pilot banked and used the blades to auto-rotate. That's why helicopters don't crash, if they lose power they use the blades as a parachute. He banked it and slowed it down that way, and popped into the ground. The gear, the helicopter was trash, but they both walked away. . . .
"I was out of the Marine Corps in September of '91, discharged as a corporal. I was 22. Started college at Cal State San Bernardino. After my first quarter I knew I wanted to go into political science because I enjoyed it. . . . The biggest thing about going to college is getting your degree, so I figured I might as well enjoy what I'm studying. Finished my degree in four years.
Entering Politics and Private Sector
"In the meantime I volunteered in the county Republican party for the '92 elections," Derry said. "I ended up getting a paid position, part-time, running the voter registration program there. I was actually interim executive director for the county Republican party at 22. They needed somebody to do the job.
"And after the '92 elections where Bush got trounced, I was hired by a state assemblyman, Fred Aguiar, to clip newspapers at four bucks an hour, and then worked up to case worker, where I handled case work for constituents, up to field rep, then up to primary field rep, and I worked for five-and-a-half years. I was able to go to school full-time and work part-time which was great. My boss was great about it. Finished my degree and went full-time at that point.
"I was based out of Ontario. That would have been '97 when Fred was elected to the Board of Supervisors. I ran his last election, '97-'98, and then I went to the private sector, worked private public relations, public affairs for a private company."
The firm was Stoorza, Ziegas, and Metzger, based in San Diego, with satellite offices in Los Angeles and Riverside, Derry said. He said he worked out of Riverside.
"I covered San Bernardino County primarily, I had clients such as California Steel, California Speedway, Majestic Realty, the county of Riverside . . . I was part of their major expansion. I was the only San Bernardino County guy they had. I did that two years.
"I went from that company to the treasurer's office with the county. So I had two year's experience with the county treasurer's office. But that wasn't all it was cracked up to be. It was kind of slow. It really wasn't my forte.
"So I was hired by Southern California Edison as region manager, where I worked up until I had this position.
"While I was in the treasurer's office, I met my city councilman, San Bernardino, and he asked me if I wanted to be his planning commissioner. His planning commissioner had just resigned. He asked me because of my land use background in public affairs, and I said sure. So I served on the planning commission.
"I'd worked on four separate annexations, through LAFCO, both for and against annexations by the way, and I negotiated development agreements for corporations, I tried to build new facilities in Chino and Ontario. So it was a good fit for me, good training too. Frank Schnetz was the councilman at the time, and he appointed me to the planning commission.
"About halfway through that . . . I thought Frank wasn't going to run again and I asked him 'Well if you're not going to run again I'd like to run for city council.' He said 'Well that's good because I'm not running, and I need somebody to take my position.'
"So I ran for public office. I got police, fire, all the endorsements, I'm smart about that kind of stuff, I've run campaigns before. We raised about $37,000 to run for city council in the 4th Ward, which was pretty impressive. I had everything ready to go, I had no real opponents, and then Bob Holcombe threw his hat in the ring, the former mayor. . . .
"We ran a very spirited campaign and I ended up winning 3 to 1. Bob and I became friends. He's since passed.
Del Rosa + the 4th Ward
"The 4th Ward covers from the eastern edge of Cal State all the way long the foothills to past the . . . My home where I grew up was in it and is still in it.
"When I was growing up there were lots of kids, you could cross the street without heavy traffic. As a matter of fact the reservation . . . we had friends across the street, across the block, we all played baseball together, we played baseball with tribal members. We all went to Belvedere Elementary School.
"The Duros, Henry Duro who used to be tribal chairman coached by baby brother's Little League team. My parents and his family were friends for a long time. What I remember distinctly is there was so much open space in the foothills, where you could go up. There's a wash, there used to be a wash, up on Lynwood, that we used to go up, we could go up on tribal land, they didn't mind us at all, and we'd catch pollywogs . . . tadpoles, frogs, there was a lot of wildlife back then . . . and hike and do other things. We were only 10, 11, 12, and that was experience that I cherish. It's something that's no longer available.
"That was something distinctive for me growing up that no longer exists in north San Bernardino. Matter of fact you can't even ride your bike through Serrano Junior High School any more because of all the traffic to the casino. It's a tragedy.
"When I was growing up I rode my bicycle to Serrano Junior High School, it was not an issue. You didn't worry about your kids playing outside back then. There was no crime in north San Bernardino. I had a great experience growing up. Parents didn't supervise their kids like they do nowadays, getting them to baseball practice and all this other stuff. We just went. So it was a great place to grow up. San Bernardino Unified School District was a great school district at the time, and I got a great education. I probably could have done better if I'd worked a little harder, but you get burned out, at anything.
"I think that's what's most distinctive. My family we played baseball and soccer through Little League and AYSO, that's still there. Just a great family atmosphere and it's hard to find that any more."
Derry said he was elected to the San Bernardino city council in November 2001, and he took his oath of office in March 2002.
Dealing with Disaster
"A year and a half later the Old Fire hit and I represented and I still represent the Del Rosa neighborhood. I lost 350 homes in one day. That was probably my biggest learning experience. The city, unlike the county, which was a disaster after the last two fires - the '03 and '07 fires - the city took an aggressive stance. We waived building fees, we expedited people's building permits, and building inspections.
"Almost all the houses that were lost have been rebuilt, because we aggressively encouraged people to rebuild. We expedited the process for people so they could bring their building plans and we'd have it approved in two weeks. We didn't charge them for it. There were no building fees. That helped people not only rebuild their homes and lives, but also build nicer homes than they had before."
The Slide and Grass Valley fires of October 2007 also occurred in the county's Third District, Derry said.
"The Old Fire was a tragedy but it was a good learning experience for me. We had a very aggressive cleanup program in the city. The county's cleanup after the '07 fires was a disaster. It cost $12 million. $60,000 per lot is what the county got charged. In the city, I think the biggest one we did was removing a 2,000-foot slab and a pool, and that was $10,000. So we got ripped off up in the Slide and Grass Valley fires, in the cleanup program, and the county's never going to get that money back.
"The county took an action to sue the folks who were part of the program but didn't pay the county back the money they should have gotten back from their insurance companies, to clean up their properties. So I opposed that as well. These people went through enough. It's not their fault the county got ripped off and did a terrible program. So the county continues to make some very egregious mistakes.
"I'm very proud of the rebuilding in Del Rosa, but if you go up to some of the neighborhoods that burned in '07, they haven't rebuilt in some areas. Part of that is because they can't . . . Green Valley Lake, most of those properties have not been rebuilt. Most of the houses in the county area have not rebuilt.
"Lake Arrowhead, there's been some. Running Springs has had some rebuilding. But a lot of people just walked away. They lost some homes in '03 too. But the rebuilding has not been as as successful as the city has done."
Derry said he worked all three fires as a representative for Southern California Edison when he was city councilman. His position with Edison was his paying job.
"With the Old Fire, we had our crews in right after the fire crew left. We put up 200 poles and 200 miles of wire in the first week. We were very aggressive to get people back in their homes. . . .
"There's some rebuilding in the Lake Arrowhead area since '07 . . . Running Springs has had some but not a lot. And with the current economy, no one's rebuilding.
"The fires seem to happen every five years or so. But they used to be worse when I was growing up. I remember the mountains here catching on fire every two or three years, the foothills, the Panorama Fire.
"I was 12 years old on top of our shake roof in San Bernardino hosing down the roof while the ash was falling. The same place my mom still lives. That was scary.
"The Old Fire was scarier. It wasn't limited to one area. It was spreading everywhere. It literally started in Waterman Canyon and went both directions at once. We were going to the vet, taking a cat to the vet in Northpark and we saw this little puff of smoke at 9 a.m. And by the time we left it was moving straight through the canyons."
Derry said he cut taxes three times as city councilman.
"We cut the utility tax twice. Cut the business license tax once. It's not much, but it comes in increments.
"The Del Rosa neighborhood action group, DRNAG, is pretty prominent in the Del Rosa area. When my predecessor wouldn't show up for a meeting to talk with them, and wouldn't engage the community, I figured it was time for somebody else to take the position.
"He wouldn't meet with them, he cancelled meetings with them, he just wouldn't show up. There's a lot of unincorporated pockets in the neighborhood, that are in the Third District, that are county responsibility and have problems. He just refused to show up. If I'm invited by an organization, I go to speak to them. It doesn't matter who they are, as long as I can fit it into my calendar.
"The county's not that busy that you can't speak to the public."
Former Third District supervisor Dennis Hansberger, a five-term veteran on the board, could not be reached to comment for this report. In the wake of the contentious June 2008 campaign won by Derry, Hansberger's supporters called Derry a puppet of powerful unions that backed him. Hansberger has endorsed Third District challenger James Ramos in the coming election.
'What Wins Elections is Being in the Mailbox'
In the current race, Derry said he has attended four forums so far.
"There's a Latino organization that's scheduled one on the 21st, that I just got contacted about. I don't think I can make it. But you know it's a little late. . . .
"Mr. Ramos has skipped out on two, after he committed to them. So I've attended four, Jim Bagley's attended four. I'm open to the public, I have no problem debating. The more people see me, versus my opponents, the more they understand I know their issues, I know their concerns, and my opponents simply do not.
"I mean Jim Bagley has a good grasp of the issues, but he doesn't understand . . . but I welcome the opportunities. The more they know of my experience, the better. I mean Jim Bagley has some experience, but James Ramos has no experience in city government, county government, or any government, other than tribal government, and the college board does not transfer over to this kind of work. And people see that in the debates.
"I attended the Democrat debate, the first one, and James' supporters were a little bit embarrassed. They told me and I was at the Democrat Club. The Tea Party sponsored two debates. James cancelled on both of those. I thought that was a disservice because they're very polite. This weekend the Occupy movement has invited me to a meet-and-greet at a park here in Redlands and I'm going to attend that.
"I'm getting a lot of support from those folks too. Because I'm out in the public, I do town hall meetings, I'm not hiding in my office. I'm not hiding behind spokespeople like my opponent is. I'm out in the public. I've put over a hundred thousand miles on my county vehicle in three years because I'm out in the ditrict. I't important to be out in the district because you can't understand their needs if you're not talking to them."
Derry's efforts to unseat incumbent Hansberger to June 2008 revolved in part around aggressive mailbox campaigning, Derry said.
"I think we surprised a lot of people. We raised a lot of money, we sent a lot of mail. And we're doing the same thing right now. My consultant was Chris Jones out of Sacramento. I've known him since 1994, on Fred Aguiar's campaign. Chris is a good guy. He's very good on a shoestring budget. With the resources I have, with Chris on board and his capabilities, we're able to send out twice as much mail as my opponent can for the same dollar. . . .
"We ran a good campaign. That's why we won. It was sort of a shock-and-awe type of campaign. We came in with . . . four pieces in the mailbox before Dennis Hansberger had anything in the mailbox. And by then it was too late. We won the absentee voters by 9 percent. And ended winning the election by 4 percent.
"This time there's three people in the race so we're probably going to run-off. But we're getting good news out there in the communities we serve. I've got high name ID. My opponent seems to have peaked, at a little over 30 percent and can't seem to go above that. He's spent a million dollars, at least a million dollars. He's on radio, he's on the L.A. television stations. But that's all name ID stuff, it doesn't win you elections.
"What wins elections is being in the mailbox. And we're matching James easily one-to-one, if not one-and-a-half to one on our mail. And we're very pleased with our campaign to high-propensity to medium-propensity voters. The people who are going to show up in June. And if we have to we'll run a similar campaign in November and we'll win. That's the goal."
"The biggest issue in the campaign is my experience, my background, what's occurred in the last four years as supervisor. But also for my opponent, his biggest issue is, once people find out he's from a sovereign nation and he doesn't pay state income taxes, on his casino money, he makes over a hundred thousand dollars a month from the casino.
"If he was elected county supervisor he wouldn't have to follow the same laws you and I have to follow because he lives on a sovereign nation. I think that is a big issue for the public out there. I think it's a big concern. If you're elected to public office and let's say you own a major corporation, not even a casino, and you get elected to public office, with your jurisdiction over that facility, who do you think you're going to serve? You're making a million-plus bucks a year. I think it's a good question.
"I make my income from the county. The public pays me to work in office. I have some outside resources because I have some rental property, but this is what I do, I serve the public. I'm answerable to them and them alone.
"I don't have a million bucks of my own to drop on an election. I am responsible to the public. If I own a major casino, who do you think I'm responsible to? Myself, my casino. I'm going to protect my assets. And I think that's a huge issue in the campaign and the people, the public is very concerned about that."
'That's All They've Got on Me. I'm Pretty Much a Boy Scout.'
Derry said his political opponents have already done their worst.
"They prosecuted me for a bogus campaign finance charge. It wasn't true. When the judge heard it for the first time, he forced it to a conclusion. . . . Basically he said this is ridiculous. We pled to a misdemeanor and a fine.
"They claim that I funneled $5,000 through a political action committee that was going to come back to me, and that political action committee was controlled by Bill Postmus. I found out later it wasn't. I never talked to Bill about it. I never had any discussions. The check went to the PAC, and they ended up giving me $10,000, not $5,000, and there was no communication."
Redlands-Loma Linda Patch asked Derry if the claims were bogus, why did he enter a plea?
"Their goal, Mike Ramos' goal, the district attorney has endorsed my opponent, by the way I forced a sexual harassment investigation of him, which was a true sexual harassment claim. I forced an investigation of him, so this was political payback. Their goal was to have me in court all the way through the election cycle.
"That was late '09. You've got to remember the district attorney is good friends with Dennis Hansberger, who I defeated. He's also good friends with James Ramos. They dug on me for three years and this is the best they could come up with."
Redlands-Loma Linda Patch again asked Derry if the claims were bogus, why did he enter a plea?
"You see the other cases moving through court right now? They're still in court. It's been two years since they've been charged. Their goal was to drag this out all the way through my election cycle to make sure I was defeated. That was their goal. That was what they had in mind. The judge put a stop to it. Basically said, if you take a misdemeanor this goes away.
"And I can run for office. I still have the baggage, but I don't have to worry about being in court and being on the front page every day on bogus corruption charges.
"So I took it, I paid the fine, and it was over with. It was political. And Dennis Stout the former D.A. has endorsed me, and he's going to have statements to make about the political prosecution I went through.
"This was a single contribution, one contribution that supposedly wasn't reported, although I reported it. I didn't report the contribution to the PAC because it didn't go to me. I reported the PAC contribution to me because it went to me.
"The D.A. paid his wife $10,000 in consulting fees out of his campaign, failed to report it on his 700 form, basically he made the same . . . . they charged me with perjury and for filing a false form . . . . the district attorney did the investigation, they handed it off the attorney general. But you have to remember the attorney general did it on behalf of District Attorney Mike Ramos."
There's a recording of an interview Derry did with the Public Integrity Unit that shows investigators misconstrued Derry's testimony, Derry said.
"The district attorney investigator who did the investigation was under investigation himself," Derry said.
"That's the only thing they've got on me. I'm pretty much a Boy Scout."
District Attorney Ramos was not available to comment for this report. He has endorsed James Ramos for Third District supervisor in the coming election.
A year ago, a Superior Court judge presiding over the Cheryl Ristow v. County of San Bernardino, D.A. Ramos case rejected multiple motions brought by Ristow seeking reconsideration and reversal of the March 2011 dismissal of the case.
"As I stated in March when this case was dismissed, these false allegations were made in an effort to dissuade me from moving forward with our corruption investigations," District Attorney Ramos said in a statement. "My family and I have endured these sensational charges, knowing that the court process would one day establish that they were completely false. That day of vindication finally came on March 3rd. Now the Court has once again rejected the petitioner's effort to resuscitate her fictitious case, I will never allow such methods to deter me from performing my duty to vigorously prosecute corruption."
Given time to list more of his successes in office, Derry listed several, took another swipe at Hansberger, and posed a question to each of his opponents.
"We passed a sunshine ordinance which opened up all public records that were being hidden from the public, that includes records from one supervisor to another, those are going to be retained, not shredded like they were in my case. I came into office, there were no files. There was nothing. It was all shredded. They shredded everything, except for their appointments and who they had appointed to certain committees.
"Everything else was gone. And these weren't personal files, these were public files, public information that I needed to do my job. They were gone. And they shredded all of it. The D.A. investigators did an investigation but they didn't prosecute Hansberger for destroying public files, which they should have done. Another coverup by the D.A.
"Hansberger violated a county ordinance he signed as chairman about retention of public files. What the D.A. investigators said is because the files are elsewhere in the county, then it wasn't a crime. The board of supervisors passed an ordinance saying you must retain files and it's a misdemeanor. But because Hansberger's good friends with the D.A., of course it all went away.
"That's the kind of crazy stuff we have to deal with at the county. We're also building the Moonridge Zoo, it goes under construction this year, up in Big Bear.
"We're building a new pipeline to Pioneertown, we start construction next year because they can't drink their water out there. It's going to come from Yucca Valley. They're going to pipe it up Pioneertown Road. They've had problems with natural contamination of the water table 18 years, since the Landers Quake. They've got cyanide, uranium, all kinds of other stuff that's not drinkable.
"We've been balancing our budget and we've got a lot of projects done in different communities. We just had a groundbreaking at a park in Yucca Valley, we're building the park in Big Bear, we're helping rebuild facilities in Loma Linda. We found federal funding that the county had had and we assigned it to the YMCA for the pool so they could get the YMCA pool built, which is a great facility now. We have the grand opening June 2nd I think. And we've been very aggressive in partnering with our local communities and local cities to make sure that things get done, that weren't getting done before. The Third District was basically on autopilot before I came into office.
"If you talk to public officials that work in the district they'll say they've never had a supervisor as engaged in the community as I and my staff have been. That's because I come from a field rep background, where I represented a state assemblyman and I understood the need to be visible in the community, serving the community and listening to the community.
"I think that's the biggest advantage I have in this election is that I have been out, I have been working hard, people see it and they respect the work I've done. . . .
"We shocked a lot of people in 2008. It's because we ran a good campaign. We ran hard in the district. And our message was good. We had a real message.
"Other accomplishments, I made a campaign promise to repeal a benefits package the board had approved for itself. They just gave themselves another $26,000 as part of a 3-to-2 budget amendment. I pledged to repeal that. My opponent, Dennis voted against it, then accepted it. I pledged to repeal it and we repealed it in 2009. We also lowered the benefits of the board again this past year. So we've been making changes at the board of supervisors and at the county level.
"We're asking our employees to take a greater pay of their pension, we're negotiating that right now, I'm hopeful, there's no guarantees but we're working hard to make sure to balance the budget and do it fairly, respecting the work our employees do, because there's 18,000 people, they're the ones who put the rubber to the road and get things done. The board of supervisors passes policies and is engaged in the communities, but it's really those folks who get things done in the community, whether it's public safety, whether it's the public defender's office, the district attorney's office, or road maintenance, flood control, those are the guys that actually do the work."
Asked what question he would ask of his opponents, Derry responded:
"I'd like to see James release his tax information to the public so they can see. Beyond that I think I've heard a lot of speeches. I haven't heard a lot of information on what he plans to do. There are no specific goals that he has. I would ask him what do you really want to do as supervisor? Why do you want this job? Because the public really deserves to know that. And so far he hasn't answered that question. If you talk to him, you find out he doesn't have a lot of answers. He doesn't understand the position. I mean what do you as supervisor want to do?
"Jim Bagley can answer that question. Jim Bagley is a smart guy. But I'd ask him why are you in a race when you couldn't win your re-election and another election to city council? He was defeated in '06 and again in '08. Why should you be elected to the board of supervisors when you can't be elected to your own city council? The folks at Twentynine Palms where you live have rejected you twice."
Candidates James Ramos and Jim Bagley also met recently with Redlands-Loma Linda Patch to share their backgrounds and perspectives as election day nears. Stay with R-LL Patch for in-depth interviews with the challengers in coming days.