Former Fifth District supervisor loved west county and worked to make it a better place.
Mike Reilly, a major presence in west county political circles for more than 40 years, died last week after a long illness. He was 75 and had been in ill health.
The cause of death was complications related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the condition known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, said his wife, Judi Reilly.
A memorial service is pending but has not been scheduled yet, said Judi Reilly. “There will be a memorial and a service,” said Judi Reilly. “We just haven’t had time to figure that all out yet.”
Mike Reilly’s political roots run deep in the lower Russian River area, where he had long been involved with social service advocacy causes starting with the River Switchboard, the Guerneville-based project that began in the 1970s and evolved into West County Community Services.
He served on the West County Union High School District Board of Trustees, the Forestville School District Board, ran Ernie Carpenter’s successful re-election campaigns and was a member of numerous community groups working for youth employment, senior services, better schools and environmental protection.
In the 1980s he worked as a political aide to state Assemblyman Dan Hauser, who represented California’s sprawling North Coast District.
At West County Community Services, Reilly did everything from calling the weekly bingo games in the Guerneville Vets Hall to getting grants to build the Russian River Senior Center. He once set up a winter homeless center using mobile construction housing units parked outside the old WCCS Guerneville offices on River Road.
Reilly eventually became WCCS’ executive director, a post he held for 10 years until he ran successfully to replace Ernie Carpenter for Fifth District Supervisor in 1996.
By the time he ran for county supervisor in 1996 “everyone knew who Mike Reilly was and that he could get things done,” said a newspaper account. “Maybe that’s why for the next 12 years no one ran against him.”
“My real strength is that I’ve spent every working day for the last 10 or 12 years trying to make the communities in the west county work for everybody,” Reilly said, when he ran for supervisor.
In his first year as supervisor Reilly helped land $9 million in federal grant funds to elevate nearly 250 houses that had been inundated in the Russian River floods of 1995 and ’97.
He created a Russian River Community Redevelopment Agency that alarmed many of his constituents, including supporters, who worried that redevelopment would bring unwanted urban changes to the river’s rustic landscape. But as redevelopment’s revenues piled up, even critics saw the redevelopment agency as a resource. Redevelopment revenues helped replace aging Guerneville and Monte Rio water mains, build parks and put public restrooms in downtown Guerneville.
“I created redevelopment because I was concerned about the economic viability of these small village communities,” Reilly said.
The Fifth District Supervisor’s challenge is to “learn the politics of 27 unincorporated communities” such as Freestone, Bodega, Camp Meeker, Jenner and Sea Ranch, each with its own identity, said Reilly.
“In the Fifth District, being supervisor isn’t a job, it’s really a lifestyle. If you don’t enjoy it and the place and the people, then it’s going to be tough,” said Reilly, when he retired. “I was incredibly fortunate to have a wife who partnered with me in that, because this 24-7 on-call stuff can put tremendous strains on relationships if you don’t have a spouse who enjoys it too,” said Reilly.
“You run for this office so you can, number one, do good things, and two, keep bad things from happening. The fun part of the job was making government work for the little guys, helping them through the system,” said Reilly.
“I’ll miss the constituent work,” Reilly said when he retired. “I’ll miss the people.”
When he left office in 2009, “from now on every day is Saturday,” Reilly said, sipping a Bloody Mary at Monte Rio’s Northwood Restaurant, where he loved to play golf and where he met his second wife, Judi.
Reilly was influential in west county politics but not always on the winning side. He supported Rue Furch who ran for supervisor in 2008, losing a close race to Efren Carrillo. Reilly also supported Noreen Evans in 2016 when Evans lost to newcomer Lynda Hopkins.
“We never once held it against each other,” said Hopkins last week on her Facebook page. “Early on in my new role I enjoyed grabbing a beer with Mike in Forestville after work, either at his home or mine. He’d generously download some of that encyclopedic west county knowledge to me — from flood and mudslide recovery to failed sewer infrastructure attempts to how he was able to repurpose construction storage spaces for the homeless to sleep in over winter. He was a kind man and a good man and deeply ingrained in our west county communities.”
He will be remembered for “a tremendous legacy of community improvements” from his time at West County Community Services, as Fifth District Supervisor and as a champion of the environment on the California Coastal Commission, said Hopkins.
Hopkins said she will dedicate the new boardwalk section of the West County Trail currently under construction in Forestville in Reilly’s honor at a ceremony this spring.
“I wish Mike could be there and be honored by the community that loves him, but I suspect he knew how much the west county loved him anyway,” said Hopkins. “Mike would have a permanent place in the heart of his hometown of Forestville, with or without a boardwalk dedication.”
The family said donations may be made in Mike Reilly’s memory to Coastwalk, the non-profit advocacy group for public coastal access and the California Coastal Trail, or to the Russian River Senior Center.