CALEXICO — This might be Calexico City Council Member Rosie Arreola Fernandez’s first go-round on the council, but she’s been an active community member and political veteran for two decades, and she said she’s well-suited for her inaugural voyage as mayor, which was expected to begin July 1.
“My feeling is, I’m ready for it. I’m ready to step up to the plate. I hope to represent the city in a good way,” Fernandez told the Calexico Chronicle in a June 30 interview. “I see my being mayor as no different than any of my other colleagues. We have to move forward together, make decisions together.
“As mayor, you’re just exposed more. You have to speak out for the city,” the 63-year-old first-term council member added.
Fernandez said she’s on a very tight-knit team of council members and city management, and with the help of family, friends, and long-time community supporters, she excited about the prospects for the year.
“We’ve got a really good team. We all have the same goal: the community and economic development projects,” she said.
Barring any unforeseen changes in the July 1 meeting of the Calexico City Council, which occurred after this newspaper’s deadline, Fernandez was expected to be ceremonially elected as mayor for the 2020-2021 fiscal year by her fellow council members.
Council member Morris Reisen was expected to be elected mayor pro tempore and newcomer Camilo Garcia was expected to be sworn into the seat vacated by the resignation of disgraced politician David Romero.
Fernandez was elected to the council in 2018, alongside Romero. She had previously run for council two other times, including in 1986-1987 when she was still in her 20s and under the tutelage of former mayor, council member and community icon, Dr. Amelia Katsigeanis.
Much of her political experience, however, was honed as a member of the Heffernan Memorial Healthcare District board for some 16 years. She has also been a Calexico Chamber of Commerce director, a longtime active member of the Lincoln-Juarez Club and is currently president of the Calexico Woman’s Improvement Club, among other community pursuits.
She admits, though, her two years on the council has been all of that previous experience, but to the tenth power.
“It’s a learning process. It’s quite different from Heffernan. There’s so much more involvement,” she said. “The things we work on are wide, broader.”
“But this City Council, we have really worked together and accomplished a lot,” Fernandez said.
Yes, this is a time when all anyone wants to talk about is the recent stain left upon the council and the city by Romero, who pleaded guilty recently for taking bribes from an undercover FBI agent who was posing as a cannabis business developer seeking to fast-track permits. He resigned from office as part of his plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
But Fernandez doesn’t want to address too much. The council has accomplished too many good things in the last two years and has so many more important issues ahead of it.
It was “wrong to accept bribes … because we are not corrupt,” she did say. This city, the rest of these council members, she said, “we are not corrupt.”
Among the shining achievements in the last two years, Fernandez said, is the city’s return from being some $4 million in the red, with a 2016 general fund budget in negative territory, to returning the city to the black, with two consecutive budgets estimated to finish in surplus territory.
Fernandez said while many cities are hurting financially due to the loss of revenue and sales taxes from the COVID-19 pandemic — and Calexico is no exception, she said — the city has learned to live within its means to such a degree that even losses from COVID are being contained.
She said other positives in the past two years have included bringing back commercial and retail development to the city and seeing police and fire departments that are so well run.
Also, she said a major grant to build out Heber Park and other work to the city’s parks system have been important to the community.
Fernandez said she looks to the next year to continue that high level of work, including the ongoing development of new businesses and economic development opportunities in town and seeing the return of housing development to the city. Although, the ongoing situation with COVID-19 transmissions does threaten that progress, she said.
“It’s like a wrench thrown in, and somehow we’re going to get through it. But we have hard times ahead of us. Businesses are crying out. They thought they’d be open. It’s like a Twilight Zone out there. It’s really affecting everyone as a whole,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez is no stranger to challenges herself. The mother of three grown and successful daughters and a grandmother to eight and great-grandmother to three became a widow some 22 years ago. She raised her family while working full-time in the healthcare field and in U.S. Customs for a time, earning her registered nursing certification. She has been semi-retired.
Even in the last year she has felt the sting of personal struggles, with two high-profile court cases against her, one of which was dismissed and another — a driving-under-the-influence conviction — she was issued summary probation for.
These are yet other issues that she realized people will use against her, but she doesn’t want to give them power over her life. Her friends and her family provided much comfort to her during her travails, and she has grown stronger because of them.
“It was an unfortunate mistake … I’m very remorseful of it,” Fernandez said. She said she has learned and made restitution, “but I have to move forward.”
She feels like she is doing that, with a new beau by her side who just happens to be the brother of her confidant on the council and soon-to-be new mayor pro tem, Morris Reisen.
Fernandez is quiet about the relationship. Reisen is the one who brought it up to a reporter when speaking about his fondness for Fernandez, informing the reporter Fernandez and his brother are an item.
“I’m really excited for Rosie. I think she deserves (to be mayor),” Reisen said. “I feel like she’s part of the family. I’m going to back her up 100 percent.”
To that end, Fernandez said she believes as mayor and Reisen as mayor pro tem, they will make a great team.
“The guy moves; I really hope he gets re-elected,” she said. “Me and Morris plan to have much more communication with Mexicali,” which she said is needed as both regions struggle with COVID-19.
As for Reisen, who was set to take over as mayor pro tem July 1, “It’s just a title. I’m still a councilman. I don’t let it get to my head.”
He said this is a good team, and he is really motivated to run for re-election, something he wasn’t as enthusiastic about until his recent recovery from a bad bout with COVID.
Reisen was in isolation for 20 days, and at times, he thought he would die. He was given the all-clear from his doctor and the county on June 19.
“I learned a lesson: Life is precious, and God kept me here for a purpose,” he said June 30. “I love my city. I was down and ready to go (die), but now I feel like I’m 30 years old … I feel strong and I’m ready to go.”
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell when Reisen is joking due to his deadpan delivery. But when asked how he got the virus, the man known as “Mr. Downtown” for his years as a merchant and downtown Calexico activist said: “I got it at the Walmarts and the Food 4 Lesses. There’s over 1,000 people in there; I don’t feel like I got it from a small business,” Reisen said in his characteristic monotone baritone. “You go to the bread department at Walmart, there’s 30 people around you.”