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Benitez Proud Of Pool And Park Projects
Sandra Benitez, who declined to run for reelection to the Riverbank City Council and stepped down Monday night, has spent 16 years in office including two two-year terms as mayor.

First elected in February of 1992, she served four years as a council member, then made a successful bid for mayor, and was reelected as mayor in 1998. She lost that position to Bill O'Brien in 2002 but was returned to office as council member in 2006 for her final four-year term.

Contrary to popular belief, Benitez was not the city's first woman mayor. Madeline Davidson preceded her "and back in the '50s there was a first woman on the council," Benitez said.

Now 73, she would like to be remembered for, among other things, helping to get the community swimming pool rebuilt.

"That took a lot of hard work and a lot of begging," she said. "The state gave us $100,000 and we raised about $300,000.

"Then there was Jacob Myers Park. When I ran for mayor, I made a promise we would take back the park from the drifters and druggies. As a young parent I'd taken my kids to that park on Saturdays. I told Rich Holmer (city manager) we had to do something about reclaiming it for families."

Benitez recalled city officials spent two years preparing a grant application to improve the park, "dotting the I's and crossing the T's" to help ensure it was approved.

"So we went to Sacramento. We'd got word we'd been awarded $500,000. Then some official proposed all the grants be cut in half. I made a ruckus. I was almost in tears. I got to my feet to protest. Some young attorney and two grant applicants from Merced supported us and the official backed down. We got the grant and were all dancing around hugging," Benitez said.

Benitez fought for the grant in official hearings but attributes most of the real work to get the park cleaned up and rebuilt to city staff members like Sue Fitzpatrick plus community volunteer Scott McRitchie and Pat Paul, who was then serving on the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors and secured county money to build the children's playground.

As she looks back over the years, Benitez said there are things she is pleased about, and she's proud of helping bring in new businesses - Galaxy Theatre was one of the first and biggest - and developing the Crossroads Shopping Center.

"That took more than 10 years. But people told me it was unheard of for a small town like Riverbank to have seven anchor stores in one shopping center."

Then there was development of the downtown and creation of its central park named the Plaza Del Rio.

"It's a dream come true and there's more improvements to come," she said.

One disappointment - "if you want to call it that. I just didn't like the project" - was the proposed development of the old Hancock property, several hundred acres with upscale homes and a golf course along the Stanislaus River.

"My grandchildren learned to fish in that river. I think it should be kept open to everyone, not closed off by a gated community," she said.

Questioned on her advice for incoming council members, she suggested they should listen, ask many questions, pay attention and read the staff reports from cover to cover.

"There is no position on the council for those with a big ego and a personal agenda," she said. "You're there to help and serve the community. Keep in mind the people put you there and they can take you out."

Being on the council is a learning experience, she added, noting she never attended a higher education institution except junior college and then worked for the Pacific Telephone Company and several banks.

"I'm not going to hang around City Hall and criticize," Benitez promised. "The public often doesn't know the facts and what's going on behind the scenes. The council has a job to do. We should let them do it. This town is growing and very different now from what it used to be. I'll serve if asked but I won't interfere."