Ovitt Will Not Seek Reelection After Ten Years As 4th District Supervisor

(January 9)  Fourth District County Supervisor Gary Ovitt this week announced he will not seek reelection later this year, capping his political career with ten years in office as supervisor and twelve years in office as city councilman and mayor in Ontario.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Sentinel at the Ovitt Family Library, the municipal library in Ontario named in honor of him, his wife and his father, Ovitt reminisced and sized up his 22 years in public office.
The son of an Ontario policeman, Ovitt was born at San Antonio Community Hospital in Upland in 1947, attended Chaffey High School and then graduated from the University of Redlands. His first career employment was with his high school alma mater, where he originally was a physical education teacher and coached football, baseball and cross country. He broadened his teaching arena, eventually becoming a social studies, history, economics and government teacher.
His public office career started when, as a high school employee, he was appointed to the city of Ontario’s parks and recreation commission in 1974. The commission had representatives from both the Chaffey High School District and the Ontario-Montclair School District on it.
In 1992, Ovitt was encouraged to run for city council by Mike Milhiser, who had been the city manager in Montclair and Ontario as well as by Gus Skropos, Ontario’s mayor who had once been one of his students, and Jim Bowman, an Ontario council member with whom Ovitt had gone to high school. In what was his first attempt at elected office, he won.
“It was a relatively easy assignment,” he said. “It required two nights a month for you to do the best you could representing people.” Six years later, he ran for mayor. He won.
Of his time on the council and as mayor, Ovitt said he had been part of a coordinated effort to “build up the city economically. We invested heavily in our industrial area and brought Ontario Mills on board. Through that we were able to get sufficient tax revenue to buy property and put in the infrastructure where the Citizens Business Bank Arena now sits. I wasn’t there when they remodeled this library, but was there during the planning stages. We made the senior citizen center become a reality. We developed the teen center at De Anza Park. The convention center was built during that time. We worked with Los Angeles World Airports to construct two new terminals at Ontario International Airport. We hired Greg Devereaux as city manager, which helped us get a firm financial footing, where we could meet our community development goals. As a result, Ontario today is the largest generator of sales tax revenue among all the cities in the county.”
Ovitt provided a window on the hiring of Devereaux, who at that point in the mid-1990s, was city manager in Fontana where he was successfully working to rejuvenate that city in the aftermath of the closure of Kaiser Steel.
“I was on the council at the time,” Ovitt said. “The mayor [Skropos] was out of town and the mayor pro tem called for a special meeting. At the meeting we looked at the performance of the city attorney, Sam Crowe, and the interim city manager, Michael O’Connor. With the four of us, we accepted Sam Crowe’s resignation and then put Michael O’Connor on administrative leave. We temporarily appointed Otto Kroutil, the community development director, to serve as acting city manager. The mayor was very impressed with Greg Devereaux. He was a good man who had done a good job in Fontana and Gus [Skropos] made the arrangements to hire him.”
Ovitt had been mayor for six years when the recall of California Governor Grey Davis took place and Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected to replace him. Then-San Bernardino County Fourth District supervisor Fred Aguiar resigned to take on a position in the Schwarzenegger administration. Aguiar’s wife, Patty, temporarily replaced him on the board, and the following year a special election was held to fill the Fourth District supervisor’s post for the remaining two years of Aguiar’s term. Ovitt ran against a large field of candidates, the most noteworthy of whom were then-Chino mayor Eunice Ulloa and former supervisor, assemblyman and state senator Ruben Ayala’s son, Maurice. Ovitt won that race.
“At that point I had taught for 35 years and I enjoyed what I was doing, but I saw running for supervisor as a new challenge and an opportunity to try my hand at the county level and to interact with other cities and build relationships. It was an opportunity to do things I had not done before,” he said.
County government at that time, he said, was “much different as opposed to city government. I came from a well-run city. When I actually went to the county, it was like the frontier, the wild, wild West. You could do pretty much whatever you wanted to do in your district. You could deal with someone in your district and task staff to remedy the situation along whatever lines or rules needed. Mark Uffer was the county administrative officer at that time. He had become top administrator around the time I got there. Mark was a very capable administrator at the county hospital but when he was hired to oversee all 42 of the county’s departments and 19,000 employees he took on far more responsibility. It was an almost unworkable situation. The board had tremendous power and the chairman of the board was more responsible than the county administrator, more powerful and more in control. Immediately, I realized if it was to work better we were going to need someone like Greg as administrator, someone of his caliber who understood the workings of a municipality and could make it come together with structure and order. I looked around at the board and none of the five of us had the technical ability to do that. Bill Postmus was a politician. Dennis Hansberger had been involved with his family’s business but didn’t have experience running something like the county. Josie Gonzales had run a good family-owned restaurant but didn’t have the necessary experience. Paul Biane’s family had a business and he had experience selling real estate but that was it. I had been a high school teacher.
“We needed a structure where we could bring in a professional, someone who could run an administration for the entire county and its departments and we [the board] could then deal with policy and devote ourselves to issues in our district on a more efficient basis,” Ovitt said.
In his initial years on the board, Ovitt said, he felt board members were out of their depth in dealing with issues placed before them and were without the top tier administrative guidance that could delegate decisions on pressing issues to those with the requisite technical expertise or experience.
“One of the things I was concerned about was our decision-making on how we spent money and our budgeting,” Ovitt said. “Much of it was done by the chairman of the board. As supervisors we had no idea of what equipment we were missing, whether we needed an 800 megahertz capability, what equipment needed to be purchased. Josie and I were elected at the same time. There was a learning curve for both of us. We have changed all of this for the better.”
His greatest contribution to the county, he opined, was to reorganize leadership and management by strengthening the role of the county administrative officer, a position which is now termed the county’s executive officer. It is manned by Devereaux, who was lured away from Ontario in 2010 while Ovitt was chairman of the board.
“It is now a matter of whoever is elected supervisor, that person will have the resource of a strong leader in the form of the CEO, instead of rushing to meet whatever happens to be the trend of the day,” Ovitt said. “The supervisors before were able to spend money on whatever they wanted in their own district but there was no control, their request was not agenized and no vote required. As supervisors we have lost direct access and control of that money, but now there is a much more intelligent and structured control on how our money is spent. Although tasked with setting the budget, we really didn’t play much of a role in shaping the budget. The sheriff had tremendous power. The district attorney had power. Public safety is always important and the public demands we provide safety for them and their communities. Now we budget ahead and do not throw money at a problem when it arises. It is not so much that Mark Uffer failed but that the system of governance wasn’t wired so that we could rely on a professional who knew government structure and how to organize and recognize the difference between policy decisions and operations. The county is now setting goals, so that we know where we are going instead of doing just what the board happens to bring up. We no longer give the sheriff or DA whatever they ask for without question. There is a new organization and Greg has made it so it reflects the way we work, separating the board, as policy makers, from the day-to-day operations. We involved the public in developing a Community Indicators Report to establish a baseline for what we need to improve – health, education, economy. We now have a basis to work from to develop priorities.”
Ovitt said he also believes that the county board and management structure is now “smarter about the way we do our budgeting, putting money away and trying to build reserves. We negotiated with the [labor] associations to pay 7.5 percent of their retirement costs. There is now something built into the budget for the future. Costs will continue to be reduced and we will be able to continue to bring more money into our programs, into building jails and into meeting other important goals.”
The hardest part of the job of being a supervisor/policy maker is having the discipline to say “no,” Ovitt said.
“I think the county is huge and it has tremendous opportunities,” he said. “We can’t fund them all. We have to work with the CEO to develop priorities. We have to work with each other and other governmental entities. We spend our money according to the mutual goals we have. Previously, we were acting and reacting blindly in many respects.”
He said his advice to his successor is to “continue” with the improvements made under his watch on the board.
Ovitt said that he does not think he would have done anything much differently if he had it to do over again. “I don’t see any regrets,” he said. “You take risks and make changes. You do your best. I don’t think I’ve hurt anyone. That is the key to what I did. I obviously had a tough vote with the Colonies [in which he joined with supervisors Bill Postmus and Paul Biane in November 2006 to confer a $102 million settlement of a lawsuit brought against the county by the Colonies Partners]. My vote made sense because I saw real liability on the part of our county.”
Of those he worked with on the board, Ovitt said of Bill Postmus, “He was a strong leader at the beginning but he became absent halfway through his last term.”
Paul Biane, Ovitt said, “expressed his opinions and fought for what he believed in.”
Josie Gonzales, he said, “is the Eveready Battery. She goes to many, many events. She is not afraid to express her opinion. She speaks from her heart.”
Dennis Hansberger, Ovitt said, “was a great mentor. He studied the issues. He was bright and articulate. I think he was old-fashioned but in a good way in that he loved to debate issues. Debate became less of the plan of governance under Bill Postmus. With Bill Postmus, you didn’t debate.”
Neil Derry, Ovitt said, “came in to make a name for himself and be Mr. Clean, if you will, and sometimes it was harmful to other supervisors.”
Janice Rutherford, he said, “is bright, articulate and is a good leader.”
James Ramos “wants to solve everyone’s problems. He has more to learn about the county. He cares.”
Robert Lovingood, Ovitt said, “brings a businessman’s perspective to every issue and is good to work with.”
Brad Mitzelfelt, he said, “overanalyzed and tried to do too much of the work himself.”
Before Ovitt became board chairman and after Postmus had been  chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, Ovitt became central committee chairman.  He said that he “tried to keep our party activity separate from my being on the board of supervisors,” which he said was counter to Postmus’ approach, which blurred the distinction between the two lines of authority.
Ovitt, like the rest of the board, is subject to recently enacted term limits, but those were not applicable until this term, meaning he could vie for reelection this year and again in 2018, if he chose to. His intent to depart at the end of the current term now has contributed to the perception that he is leaving because another Republican, assemblyman Curt Hagman, has given indication he covets being Fourth District supervisor and was prepared to put Ovitt to a real electoral test.
Ovitt insisted he was not driven to leave office by Hagman’s resolve to vie for Fourth District supervisor or reports that Congressman Gloria Negrete-McLeod was also contemplating leaving the House of Representatives to make a bid for supervisor.
“The truth is my wife and I talked about this and had come to this decision independent of the other issues,” Ovitt told the Sentinel. “I am 66 years old. I always intended this to be my last term. I ran 7 times and I won 7 times. I’ve accomplished things I never would have envisioned I would accomplish. I have been councilman and mayor, supervisor and chairman of the board of supervisors. I was the SCAG [Southern California Association of Governments] president and helped return it to a highly respected planning organization. I don’t see too much more I can accomplish.”
Ovitt acknowledged that he was aware Hagman was looking to challenge him this year.
“He is aggressively looking at being supervisor,” Ovitt said. “He will be termed out of the assembly and has nowhere else to go. If he ran and I ran, I would have run on my record and I believe I would have done well.  The labor unions have not been encouraging me to run.  Congresswoman McLeod is also considering running. She has over $900,000 in her campaign account and she doesn’t like the partisanship in Washington. It would have been an interesting race. My plan had always been to step down after this term. The only reason I was looking at serving another term was the encouragement I was getting from others to run again. My wife and I both looked at it. I go out on my own terms now. I am a man of faith and I prayed about it. This is a good time for me to bow out. I can be just as effective in the other roles I am contemplating,” Ovitt said.
“I am still healthy and I would like to get involved in education again,” he said. “That is what I loved doing and what I am trained for. I am looking at a chance to finish up in the field. When I look at water boards, school boards, city councils, I see people who want to represent their communities but who have not been trained in leadership. I do not see a ‘bench’ of people who know how to run agencies and governments.  I want to get involved in making leadership training opportunities available. This could be done at our colleges or universities or be privately funded. The idea would be to train leaders of the future. Not many young people join service organizations anymore. The young people who do show an interest are not experienced because there isn’t anyone out there developing the skills and providing the experience we need for our future leaders. I am excited about getting involved in that.”
Ovitt said, “For me, I have benefitted greatly from the relationships I have formed and the experiences of serving with so many committed public servants.  I step back knowing that I have done my best.”

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