Board orders assessment of County’s lobbyists

RIVERSIDE – During the Tuesday, Jan. 6 meeting, Riverside County supervisors directed their new legislative affairs director to analyze whether the four lobbying firms under contract to the county have proved their worth over the past several years.

”This allows us to take a breath, step back and look at the legislative successes and failures so we can determine whether the lobbyists are doing their job,” said Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, who proposed the performance review. ”Several firms do great work; others are absent from the picture.”

In his proposal, Jeffries expressed doubt about the need for advocates when the county has a ”strong bipartisan delegation in both Sacramento and Washington, D.C.”

The county contracts with the Sacramento-based firms Cline & Duplissea, Michael Y. Corbett & Associates and Nielson, Merksamer to represent its interests at the state level, while Thomas Walters serves as the county’s point man in Washington.

According to Jeffries, the county’s state and federal lobbyists are collectively paid $412,000 a year. That doesn’t include a separate $175,000 per annum that the Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District pays for its own federal lobbyist.

Former state Assemblyman Brian Nestande, who lost a congressional bid Nov. 4, began work as legislative affairs director on Monday. He was hired over the holidays by county CEO Jay Orr and is earning an annual salary of $168,000 to oversee the county’s legislative priorities.

Nestande is tasked with evaluating the lobbyists and returning to the board with a report by March 10.

While Jeffries alluded to reservations about the Nestande appointment, he acknowledged that the ”position has been created” and it was time to make immediate use of it. However, several speakers criticized Orr for hiring the longtime government insider and asked how the action could be justified.

”This newly created position is clearly one of political loyalty,” said Temecula resident Paul Jacobs, noting that Nestande is a Republican like Orr and every member of the board. ”This was a partisan favor. Partisan loyalty is a destructive force. The county has a number of key positions that remain unfilled. I have to question the competency of the Executive Office.”

Vivian Moreno of Riverside, who operates the public watchdog website thirtymilesofcorruption.com, was outraged by what she called the brazen nature of the appointment.

”Do you think people are really that stupid?” she said. ”This is for a friend. It makes all of you look foolish. So Mr. Nestande didn’t win his race. Now let’s help him out? When you make a decision for a friend, you have to ask how the public is going to see it.”

Supervisor John Benoit said he recommended Nestande to Orr during a conversation last month, touting the fellow Coachella Valley resident’s experience as a former congressional staffer and state lawmaker.

”There’s a uniqueness to his resume you don’t see every day,” Benoit said. ”It’s good to have an in-house person with his experience.”

Orr said he liked Nestande.

”But I like a lot of people,” the chief executive asserted. ”This is about best practice and the best service to the Board of Supervisors.”

Jeffries’ desire to re-examine the county’s lobbying interests is not without precedent. In 2011, then-Supervisor Jeff Stone sought to boot three of the county’s five advocates, whom he viewed as ineffective.

The supervisor’s ”Stop Lobbying in California Excessively” — or SLICE — proposal failed to gain traction, though he continued to list complaints at later meetings, pointing out that the county’s chief legislative priorities were continually failing to gain support among a majority of lawmakers and the governor.

The Executive Office replaced one of the lobbying firms in 2012.

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