'Stubborn about my principles,' says longtime San Bernardino board supervisor Dennis Hansberger

11:16 PM PST on Sunday, November 16, 2008
The Press-Enterprise

At meetings of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, Dennis Hansberger often seems more of a professor. His comments may include mentions of regional history and detailed policy analysis.

"To the irritation of many," Hansberger, 67, said jokingly.

No one, however, survives for 20 years in the rough and tumble world of San Bernardino County politics on the charms of collegial airs. Hansberger, who leaves the 3rd District seat at the end of November, has not been afraid of a fight, even on occasions when he has found himself without allies.

"I don't think of myself as much as being a fighter as being maybe stubborn about my principles," Hansberger said. "Right or wrong."

Hansberger lost a bitterly contested election this past spring to San Bernardino Councilman Neil Derry. With uncertain plans on what to do next, the thrice married supervisor regrets the toll the job took on his family but is proud of the way he went about his duties: true to his beliefs, he said.

He laments what he described as the increasing partisanship of local government, where the priority for elected officials has shifted from sound public policy to personal gain and ambition.

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Greg Vojtko / The Press-Enterprise
Dennis Hansberger first took a seat on the county board when Richard Nixon was president.

"I guess I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about the politics of what I may be doing," Hansberger said. "And that's been a weakness at times."

Hansberger was born in 1941 in Redlands to Leroy and Helen Hansberger. The elder Hansberger is listed as a carpenter on his son's birth certificate but would become an influential developer.

The younger Hansberger said he inherited his probing intellect from his father. "He's an interrogator," Dennis Hansberger said of Leroy Hansberger, now 90.

Dennis Hansberger played football and ran track at Redlands High School, where he graduated in 1960. Long-time friend and former Hansberger chief of staff Jim Foster was a classmate.

"Dennis was always very aggressive, very outgoing, very active in sports," Foster said. "He was easy to get along with."

Politics Unintended

After high school, Hansberger took some college classes before taking a job at his father's former company. It was during this period in the mid 1960s that Hansberger met Donald Beckord, who successfully ran for a seat on the county board in 1968.

"Beckord asked me if I would be his field representative, so I went to work for him, not expecting to stick around," Hansberger recalled. "I took to it rather comfortably."

Beckord surprised Hansberger by not seeking a second term. Hansberger initially decided against running for the empty seat fearing he would not have enough time for his family, which included four young children. His wife at the time convinced him to reconsider.

"She said if you don't run it will still hurt you because you'll always regret that you didn't try," Hansberger remembered. He ran and won the seat at age 31 in 1972, becoming one of the youngest chairmen in board history in 1975.

Hansberger focused in particular on flood control issues and other infrastructure improvements.

Voters re-elected Hansberger in 1976 and he served through 1980. He did not seek re-election, Hansberger said, in hopes of saving his failing marriage. As he feared, the long hours and demanding schedule hurt his family life, Hansberger said.

'Cost Me My Marriage'

"It ultimately cost me my marriage," Hansberger said. "The price of public office can be extraordinarily high."

Working as a land use consultant in 1996, he successfully won re-election and, he said, hoped to help reform a county board that had fallen under the cloud of corruption scandals. He often found himself a minority of one, voting against a board dominated by then Supervisor Jerry Eaves.

He risked further alienation when he backed candidates running against Eaves and another powerful supervisor, Kathy Davis.

Eaves kept his seat, but the Hansberger-backed candidate -- a young, rising star named Bill Postmus -- toppled Davis. Eaves served three terms before he was forced to resign in 2004 after pleading guilty in a felony conspiracy case.

Hansberger was not free of controversy. In 2005, Foster, his then chief of staff, resigned after an investigation raised concerns about a conflict of interest involving his purchase of former county land. Foster was ultimately cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.

The 3rd District includes Highland, Redlands, Loma Linda, Grand Terrace, Yucaipa, Big Bear Lake, Yucca Valley and parts of San Bernardino and Colton, as well as unincorporated communities.

In his second stint on the board, wildfires destroyed scores of homes in the mountain communities in 2003 and 2007.

Dave Stewart, director of Rebuilding Mountain Hearts and Lives, a community group dedicated to helping those who lost homes in the fire, said that like the rest of his colleagues, Hansberger's response to the 2003 was slow.

"The county just was not cooperative," Stewart said.

But in 2007, Stewart said, "Hansberger was an advocate on our behalf." Lots were cleared of debris and various county departments established liaisons with the mountain communities.

"I hate losing a friend and I consider Dennis Hansberger a friend," Stewart said.

In commenting on Postmus, who has since been elected county assessor and become embroiled in a controversy on his own, Hansberger said, "There was a point when I was very angry with Bill; now I'm just disappointed in his career and sorry for him that he has made such a mess of things for the county and himself."

Earlier this month, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a letter of censure against Postmus for refusing to address accusations of illegal political activity in his department and allegations of drug addiction. Hansberger pointed to Postmus as a symbol of the growing importance of politics over policy in public service.

"I will have to call this the Postmus era in which politics became the objective, policy was thrown away," Hansberger said.

There are aspects of the job Hansberger will miss, others he won't. "I won't miss the stress and pressure," he said. "But I'll miss people, constituents. I'll miss them and I hope that maybe some of them might even miss me."

Reach Zeke Minaya at 909-806-3062 or zminaya@PE.com

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