Kay Ceniceros and Ernie Maxwell in 1985 when the trail was named in Maxwell’s honor. Ceniceros was the Third District Supervisor at the time and presented Maxwell with a proclamation.    file photo

Former Third District County Supervisor Kay Ceniceros remembered

Kay Ceniceros, Riverside County Supervisor from 1981 to 1996, passed away July 26, 2019, at the age of 81 from Alzheimer’s Disease. She had resided in Claremont for eight years with husband Blair Ceniceros.

Ceniceros was born Kay Sandra McPherson to Ross and Eunice McPherson in 1938. The family moved to Long Beach from Los Angeles at the beginning of WWII. In her youth, Ceniceros read voraciously and excelled in school. She graduated from Long Beach Poly High and entered Occidental College on a scholarship. There she met fellow student Blair and they were married in 1958. In 1960, they moved to Riverside County where Blair began teaching at Beaumont High School.

In the early 1970s, Ceniceros testified to the Riverside County Board of Supervisors regarding the negative environmental and community impacts of a large land development proposal in Garner Valley near Lake Hemet. Her humble but persuasive style and command of the facts attracted notice from Third District Supervisor Clayton Record, who appointed her to the Riverside County Planning Commission in 1972. Ceniceros became the first woman on the commission in its 42-year existence.  

She was elected vice president in 1976 of the California County Planners Association and became its president in 1978. During this time she enrolled at UC Riverside and earned a bachelor’s degree in urban studies and then an Master of Arts in public administration. 

Ceniceros managed to handle her duties on the planning commission and rigorous coursework in the master’s program while raising three children. In 1979, she resigned from the county planning commission to become a full-time planner for the city of Hemet.

In 1980, she was asked by several community leaders and friends to run for the third district seat on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors that was to be vacated by Supervisor Record. Having no experience with elected office, she initially declined. But she was ultimately convinced to run and beat nine other candidates by a wide margin with the help of many dedicated volunteers. 

In January of 1981, Ceniceros was sworn in as the first female supervisor elected to the Riverside County board, paving the way for a board majority of women a few years later. She quickly developed a reputation as a nonpartisan supervisor who helped warring parties find common ground. She was known for doing her homework — consuming weekly board agendas that typically included over one thousand pages of background reading material — and became an expert in urban policy and technical areas including flood control, habitat management, air and water quality, waste management, and renewable energy. 

County staff and proposers of development projects came to learn that they needed to come prepared to answer tough, technical questions from Ceniceros about the impacts of their proposals. She was reelected three times, one time unopposed, serving 16 years in the office.

“Kay Ceniceros’ expertise in planning and land use helped shape the County of Riverside into the modern, developed region that we see today,” said Third District Supervisor Chuck Washington. “She is warmly remembered as a resolute leader and a compassionate advocate by the third district communities that she served.”

Retiring from the board in 1996, Ceniceros was then hired as dean of advancement at Mt. San Jacinto College, where Blair had previously taught. She retired permanently in 1998 and the couple moved to the small mountain community of Idyllwild in 2000. Blair and Kay became active in the local community, playing key roles in organizing the Mountain Communities Firesafe Council to educate residents and mobilize volunteers to reduce risks of property loss from wildfires. This organization secured millions of dollars in grant funding and became a model for other regional fire-safe councils.

The former board hearing room, located on the 14th floor of the County Administrative Center, is named in Ceniceros’ honor. The Board of Supervisors also named a service center the Kay Ceniceros Multi-purpose Senior Center in Menifee.

During her time as a county supervisor, Ceniceros was elected president of the California State Association of Counties. Some of her other appointments included the Task Force on Environmental Law appointed by State Attorney General Evelle Younger in 1973, the U.S. Forest Service’s Regional Advisory Committee in 1975, appointed by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland to the National Forest Policy Advisory Committee to oversee development and implementation of the first forest plans across the nation in 1977, and the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board serving western San Bernardino County, western Riverside County, and Orange County in 1979. She was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Her survivors include her husband Blair Ceniceros, three children Kevin, Bruce, and Lara, and six grandchildren.