SACRAMENTO – Bill Lyons officially became the Agriculture Liaison to Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday afternoon.
What is the Agriculture Liaison? That’s something Lyons will have to help figure out. The position is new, apparently created specifically for Lyons and for a governor trying to deepen his understanding of how the Central Valley works.
“Gov. Newsom is really concerned about the entire Central Valley,” said Lyons on Wednesday. “He sees the opportunities in the Central Valley, and he’s really making an effort to reach out to people up and down the entire Valley.”
Lyons is well-known in Modesto, where he is CEO of Mape’s Ranch (which specializes in cattle and various crops) and Lyons’ Investments (a land development company with interests throughout the San Joaquin Valley). He was a member of the Modesto Irrigation District board of directors (1984-93), ran for county supervisor (2010) and has served on community boards ranging from Little League baseball to Haven’s Women’s Center to the Howard Training Center to Salvation Army to the Gallo Center for the Arts.
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He’s also well known in Sacramento, where he was the state’s Secretary of Food and Agriculture under Gov. Gray Davis (1999-2004), and has remained active in Democratic Party politics.
Lyons, 68, is a political rarity in that he has received prestigious awards both from agriculture and environmental groups – organizations frequently in conflict over water and land use. He was president of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau and is a former California Cattleman of the Year. He was named the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Environmentalist and was the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation’s Conservationist of the Year in 2010 – among other numerous awards.
That might be why Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others recommended him for a seat on the State Water Resources Control Board last month. Instead, the Governor apparently wanted Lyons closer, bringing him directly into his office in a newly announced role as “liaison.”
“I bring a very broad range of knowledge on a lot of different topics,” said Lyons. “There are people who disagree with me, but I really do think I have some experience in bringing balance and offering sensible solutions.”
Apparently, Newsom wants to hear such solutions. He has visited the Valley at least four times (not all his visits have been announced, so the exact number is unclear), including Reedley, Fresno and Monterey Park Tract in Stanislaus County. Each time, he has stressed similar issues – providing clean drinking water and greater opportunity to the region.
“You’ve already seen the number of trips he’s made up and down the Valley,” said Lyons. “As busy as the governor is, to take the time to come down personally – with all of his senior, senior staff – to tour … it means we have someone who really understands. I’m really excited about that … I think he’s going to provide some unique leadership on some very complex issues.”
As Lyons sees it, water, agriculture and opportunity are inseparable.
“Economic opportunity and the success of agriculture, it’s so intertwined,” said Lyons, “they’re almost hand-in-hand. A good economy stimulates a good agriculture base and a good agriculture base stimulates a good economy. Where there are overlaps, I may be able to voice some opinions, some ideas. But I’m also excited about Lenny Mendonca’s appointment – he’s another Valley voice.”
Mendonca is a Turlock native whom Newsom appointed to lead the High Speed Rail Authority Board. A former senior partner in one of the world’s leading project-management firms, Mendonca also has a reputation for getting things done. His first act might be to help Newsom battle the Trump administration’s efforts to force California to refund some $3 billion in federal funds already allocated – and mostly spent – on the project.
It’s possible that Lyons, too, might be offering advice on difficult issues involving federal water projects which could lose funding if the president redirects money to builds his wall. If so, Lyons leaves no doubt about his loyalties.
“Obviously, there are going to be some differences between the two administrations, but I’m supporting my governor,” said Lyons.
Because Lyons reports directly to the governor, his appointment does not require senate confirmation. It pays $175,008 per year.