A spirit for civic leadership

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Connie George
La Quinta’s lush Civic Center Park provides a scenic backdrop for the city’s Mayor Pro Tem Terry B. Henderson. A leader in local government for nearly 20 years, Henderson has witnessed the development of many of the most critical improvements and challenges in her community while serving on numerous administrative boards and committees.
Photo by Connie George

Considering the vast number of civic responsibilities she must balance on a regular basis, La Quinta Mayor Pro Tem Terry B. Henderson is a remarkably relaxed person.

“My hobbies are what I do,” she said good-naturedly of the community, valley, county, state and national leadership roles she has held for nearly 20 years.

Her coinciding commitments have included work not only with the business of La Quinta, but regional matters affecting transportation, public safety, conservation, animals, libraries, the incorporation of new cities and other key issues.

Pathway to local government

Petite, warm, gracious and innately curious about the issues that affect her city and the Coachella Valley in general, Henderson, 68, developed her interests in civic affairs through fairly customary activities.

After living several years in the Los Angeles area, the Pennsylvania native moved to the valley in 1969 with her family. She became involved with the business of the Desert Sands Unified School District after she and her husband enrolled their five children in local schools.

She recalls that the valley was so sparsely populated at the time that her family was featured on the front page of the Indio Sun newspaper for enrolling so many new kids in the school system.

The family lived in Palm Desert, but the closest high school was in Indio. So Henderson became involved in promoting a bond campaign to provide funds for a new high school in Palm Desert.

Helping to improve her community in such a fundamental way proved fascinating and meaningful to Henderson, who said she subsequently ran for a school board seat and served from 1974 to 1978.

Just before her term ended, her husband passed away and she turned her attention to a new role as partner in a construction and engineering company, Sunray Ltd., which specialized in underground infrastructure.

With the ongoing rapid development of the Coachella Valley, Henderson remained busy with the firm for 17 years, and said that she learned a tremendous amount about civics, government and local issues as a result.

She also developed an interest in the politics of the Republican Party, which introduced her to issues on a state and national scope.

After one of her sons, John Henderson, began serving on La Quinta’s first city council in 1982, he encouraged his mother to move from Palm Desert to the newly incorporated town. He even recommended a house he had seen for sale in the community’s Cove area.

La Quinta was geographically just as large as it is now, although much more sparsely populated, and she liked it instantly, she said, purchasing the house her son had suggested. She has lived in it since 1986. She also joined the La Quinta Historical Preservation Commission.

In 1994, Henderson sold her half of Sunray Ltd. and became absorbed in the business of La Quinta. She attended every city council meeting as an interested member of the community and decided to run for a council seat in 1995.

“I lost by about eight votes,” she said. She landed on the council nonetheless — as its first woman representative — after one of the council members was chosen mayor in the same election, freeing up another seat to which she was appointed.

She was officially elected to the council in 1997 and has been re-elected ever since.

Supporting La Quinta

Her current role as mayor pro tem lasts for one year, Henderson said, and rotates among the council members. If Mayor Don Adolph is away on other business, the position requires her to chair council meetings and be the primary representative for the city.

But far more time-consuming are her many other obligations, some of which are requirements of serving on the city council, while she has taken on others by choice in order to be even more closely involved with regional government business.

She is especially protective of her city’s financial health. She’s actively involved in helping it recover from the impact of not only the nation’s economic crisis, but the loss of state redevelopment agency revenues that were slashed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Henderson said that when an unincorporated community, such as La Quinta, later achieves status as an independent city, stronger governing can take place. But the loss of supportive funds and services from the county can make the new city financially sensitive.

Fortunately, La Quinta is now home to the busiest traffic intersection in the valley, at Washington Street and Highway 111, and has been able to enjoy a steady stream of sales tax revenue from the growing commercial district that has developed along the Highway 111 stretch.

Attracting new hotels to the city will also help increase its revenue from transient occupancy taxes. Property taxes in La Quinta are seven cents on the dollar.

La Quinta is now in a financial “holding pattern,” Henderson said, adding that she believes the city can continue to move forward with economic strength. In fact, when the 2010 census showed that the city’s population had dropped from 41,000 in 2000 to 38,000, meaning a bit of a loss in per capita state and federal dollars, La Quinta chose not to contest the population total. “We were happy to leave some of those funds for poorer communities,” she said.

Balancing diverse roles

Currently Henderson serves as chair of La Quinta’s Redevelopment Agency and vice-chair of its Finance Authority. She is also chair of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG) Transportation Committee and a member of CVAG’s Public Safety Committee.

She is the voting alternate to the Coachella Valley Conservation Commission for Supervisor John Tavaglione, and serves on the State Board League of California Cities.

In addition, she is involved with the Riverside County Transportation Commission, the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission, the Riverside Division of the League of California Cities and the league’s Revenue and Taxation Committee — and is past chair of all of them.

Prior commitments included serving on the National League of Cities board of directors, the county’s Library Zone Committee, and the valley’s Mosquito and Vector Control.

Henderson was also on the boards for the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority, Jacqueline Cochran Airport, and Coachella Valley Animal Campus, and served as chair of all three.

Managing such an enormous load of commitments feels second nature to Henderson now, she said, after so many years being involved in local government. There is some overlap among the responsibilities that helps to keep things organized somewhat, but, she said, “it’s still a matter of shifting gears when you leave an animal commission meeting and you walk into a transportation meeting and talk about building a new freeway through the county, and then go to an airport meeting where you’re talking about extending the runways. So it really is diverse.”

And she enjoys all of it. “I like to read contracts, so there’s a lot of that,” she said.

For her service to local government, Henderson has received three significant awards. In 2002, she was named Woman of the Year for the 80th Assembly District and Woman of Distinction by the La Quinta–Coachella Valley chapter of Soroptimist International.

In 2007, as a result of her involvement with the county’s Transportation Committee, she was selected as Woman of the Year in Transportation by the Inland Empire chapter of the Women’s Transportation Seminar.