CVIndependent

Fri12042020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

At a time when many people have become cynical about the motives of those in the political world, people like Karina Quintanilla prove that there are still candidates for office who have the best interests of their community at heart.

Quintanilla, 41, just won a seat on the Palm Desert City Council, in her first run for public office. Born in East Los Angeles, Quintanilla—a Palm Desert resident since 2002—came to the desert in 1984 and was raised in Thousand Palms.

“My mom is an incredible woman,” she says. “Although she had never even graduated high school, she’s a brilliant woman. I’m so aware that not everybody can afford an educational experience. She juggled three jobs and raised us. (Quintanilla is the oldest of four.) If I could be a third of the woman my mom is, I’d be satisfied.

“My mom’s words of wisdom were, ‘Always keep going. Don’t wait for something to happen. If you see someone hurting, help them.’ My dad’s mom, born in 1911, married young but was credited for bringing running water, electricity, telephone service and a health center to their small Mexican village. My mom’s mom became an LVN (licensed vocational nurse), taking care of people when they were sick. They gave me the incentive and desire to serve.”

After graduating from Cathedral City High School, Quintanilla attended the University of California, Riverside (UCR), earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish.

“Maybe the best decision I’ve ever made was taking a field trip to the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference at UCR while I was in high school,” she says. “I had gotten accepted into UC Irvine, UCLA and UC San Diego. But at UCR I thought, ‘This is the place I am at home.’

“Originally, I was going to major in history. Although I had wanted to be a teacher, within higher education, there’s only so far you can go. I realized I wanted to be a translator. People ask me why I majored in Spanish, since I spoke it and had been translator for my mom when I was only 5. It’s funny that nobody ever asks an English-speaker why they majored in English. I wanted to help broker communication, to always find just the right word. Having grown up between two cultures, I wanted to be sure I was speaking Spanish professionally. Plus, we have to learn to really listen, and not just wait for the next thing we want to say.”

After college, Quintanilla returned to the Coachella Valley.

“It made perfect sense to come back here,” she says. “I had a newborn, and my then-husband’s family was here as well. I reflected on what a great experience UCR had been, and I wanted to find a way to impact other students going to college, especially those who were also first-generation. You have to use your tools to advocate for others.”

Quintanilla became an academic adviser. That led to a teacher-credentialing program at California State University, San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus in 2012, and she is now completing a master’s degree in public administration at Brandman University.

“The intricacies of diversity in education include understanding the challenges that many families face,” she says. “If there’s an accident or an illness in the family, helping students know how to empower themselves without feeling they must drop out is critical. If there’s something I can do to improve the quality of someone’s life, I have a personal commitment to make a difference.”

That sense of commitment has led Quintanilla to be a blood donor since 1996.

“My mom once said, ‘I haven’t donated blood in a long time,’ and I still remember going with her into the blood mobile. I was never one with money to donate, but while I’m walking around, I’m making something every day that I can share to save a life. I generally donate platelets, which means I can donate more often than those who are giving whole blood. Now, with the pandemic, I don’t have to wait as long to make a donation: I generate new platelets every day.”

One of the largest influences in Quintanilla’s life was her association with Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE). In 2015, she was selected for their leadership institute, which helped her expand her understanding of community engagement and leadership. That led to her lobbying in Sacramento for accessible health care for all Californians, as well as activism on other issues.

“One event at HOPE included a NASA researcher, a Hispanic woman, who told us how—as an average student—she didn’t think that could be the road for her. She ended up with a Ph.D. from MIT! I’ll never forget what she said to us: ‘Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon.’ I don’t know if that was original to her, but it sure made an impression on me.”

Quintanilla has been involved in translating documents and books, receiving credit as co-author of the Spanish-language version of Vicki Mills’ Any Body Can Enjoy Computers, which helped bring computer literacy to the Spanish-speaking community.

She returned to Cathedral City High School to co-coordinate the scholarship program, among other service. “I had been the one student on the accreditation board while I was there,” Quintanilla says. “The teachers would ask me questions, and my opinions were validated and respected. It’s hard to explain the difference that made.”

While at CSUSB-Palm Desert, Quintanilla developed a tutoring program to help students who wanted to transfer from community college to the university, and also generated a $240,000 grant from the California Wellness Foundation to help fund professional tutors at two local high schools. She was the co-plaintiff in the lawsuit that forced the city of Palm Desert to institute a district-based voting system this year.

“Before I ran for City Council, I talked to my daughters, Cristina (15) and Luz (18), and said I wouldn’t do it if they’d be uncomfortable or if it would mean I’d be too busy for them. They said they were OK with it.

“My experience through HOPE gave me confidence and adjusted the lens through which I saw myself. On the council, I hope I’m able to expand the perspective of what the community wants and needs, including real transparency. Maybe reopening some community issues based on the impact on real people would allow finding new ways to engage everyone and move toward more equity. My goal is always to engage people to think beyond their own personal comfort. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that mistakes are valuable for learning, and the learning is the experience—not the mistake.

“During the campaign, I heard people saying, ‘You give me hope,’ and I don’t take that lightly.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show The Lovable Liberal airs on IHubRadio. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

La Bonita’s Mexican Restaurant did a very stupid thing today—and I couldn’t be any sadder about it.

The owner of the small Palm Canyon Drive restaurant announced yesterday that, as a protest, La Bonita’s would open today for indoor dining, with masks and social distancing. Of course, indoor restaurant dining is not allowed; it will be, at limited capacity, whenever Riverside County graduates from the state’s “widespread” COVID-19 tier to the “substantial” tier. But we’re not there yet.

Walmart and other big corps can have 100’s of ppl inside but restaurants can’t? Enough is enough!!!” said the La Bonita’s social-media post.

La Bonita’s followed through with its plans—and the city promptly showed up and issued a $5,000 fine, according to The Desert Sun. Per the La Bonita’s Facebook page, the restaurant ended the protest after being “forced to comply.”

Again, this was a very stupid thing for La Bonita’s to do, and the comparison of indoor dining to shopping at Walmart is a red herring.

Now that we have that all established, I’d like to share this truly, truly sad quote from The Desert Sun story on the hubbub:

“‘I can’t survive with the current mandates,’ La Bonita's Palm Springs owner Alex Raei said, adding that he was visited by city code enforcement officers around lunch time and was informed of the fine. Raei, who spoke briefly with a Desert Sun reporter at his restaurant Wednesday, was overcome with emotion. In tears, he stopped the interview and walked into another part of his business.”

While I strongly disagree with Raei’s actions, I understand them. Trust me when I say that it sucks to have one’s business existentially threatened by this virus and the resulting restrictions. Most business owners sink blood, sweat, tears and incalculable amounts of time—not to mention retirement accounts and life savings—into their ventures, which are often culminations of lifelong dreams. Many owners also carry the burden of feeling responsible for their employees’ livelihoods.

Of course, all sorts of ignorant, un-empathetic and/or just-plain-terrible people took to social media to slam—not reasonably criticize, but slam and excoriate—Raei.

While I don’t condone it at all, I understand what Raei did. What I don’t understand is the lack of empathy so many people showed regarding Raei’s undeniably heartbreaking plight.

Before the news links: If you appreciate this Daily Digest and the other local journalism produced by the Independent, please consider financially helping out by clicking here and becoming a Supporter of the Independent. Oh, and if you haven’t yet voted in the first round of the Independent’s Best of Coachella Valley readers’ poll, please do so by clicking here!

Today’s news:

• Another day, another Trump bombshell: According to The Washington Post, Donald Trump privately told Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Woodward in February that COVID-19 would have dire effects on the United States—while publicly claiming the disease was no worse than the flu. And then there’s this: “Trump admitted to Woodward on March 19 that he deliberately minimized the danger. ‘I wanted to always play it down,’ the president said. ‘I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.’” That and more horrifying revelations—which are on tape!—will be revealed in Rage, a new book by Woodward.

• These revelations lead to a big, honking question about Woodward: Why in the world did he keep quiet about these TAPED TERRIBLE THINGS said by the president for months and months—until they came out in this book? According to The Associated Press: “On Twitter and elsewhere online, commentators accused Woodward of valuing book sales over public health. ‘Nearly 200,000 Americans have died because neither Donald Trump nor Bob Woodward wanted to risk anything substantial to keep the country informed,’ wrote Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce.”

Clinical trials for one of the most promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates were halted after one of the participants developed—eek!—a spinal cord injury. It’s as of yet unknown whether the injury had to do with the vaccine. According to NBC News: “‘Our standard review process was triggered and we voluntarily paused vaccination to allow review of safety data by an independent committee,’ AstraZeneca, which is developing the vaccine in partnership with the U.K.'s University of Oxford, said in a statement. ‘This is a routine action which has to happen whenever there is a potentially unexplained illness in one of the trials, while it is investigated, ensuring we maintain the integrity of the trials.’”

• Mother Jones reported that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally last month may have led to more than 250,000 coronavirus cases worldwide. Key quote: “According to a new study, which tracked anonymized cellphone data from the rally, over 250,000 coronavirus cases have now been tied to the 10-day event, one of the largest to be held since the start of the pandemic. It drew motorcycle enthusiasts from around the country, many of whom were seen without face coverings inside crowded bars, restaurants, and other indoor establishments. The explosion in cases, the study from the Germany-based IZA Institute of Labor Economics finds, is expected to reach $12 billion in public health costs.” Yeesh.

• In other mind-blowing national news, there’s this lede from The Washington Post: “A senior Department of Homeland Security official alleges that he was told to stop providing intelligence reports on the threat of Russian interference in the 2020 election, in part because it ‘made the President look bad,’ an instruction he believed would jeopardize national security.”

• And then there’s this: “The Justice Department on Tuesday intervened in the defamation lawsuit brought by a woman who says President Trump raped her years ago, moving the matter to federal court and signaling it wants to make the U.S. government—rather than Trump himself—the defendant in the case.” Just … wow.

• Now let’s move to some state-level idiocy, succinctly explained by this SFGate headline on a story originally reported by The Washington Post: “California's GOP Senate leader was under quarantine. She spoke with no mask at a huge prayer event anyway.”

• We don’t link to a lot of crime stories, as they tend to get a ton of coverage elsewhere, but this story seems to be flying under the radar, showing just how depressingly desensitized we’ve come to mass murders: Seven people were killed on Monday at an illegal marijuana-growing operation in Aguanga, which is an hour’s drive or so southwest of the Coachella Valley. The Riverside Press-Enterprise has the details on the murders and how they’ve completely rocked the small community.

• Another thing the damned virus may take away this year: Halloween trick-or-treating. Los Angeles County public-health officials yesterday said trick-or-treating would be banned there, before slightly changing their tune today to say it was “not recommended.”

• Meanwhile, in horrifying local news, a new UC Riverside study comes to this conclusion: “Climate change will decimate Palm Springs, Coachella Valley tourism.” Sigh.

• From the Independent: Kevin Fitzgerald recently spoke to all six candidates running for City Council in Palm Desert. Read what the two candidates for the new District 1 seat had to say here, and check out what the four candidates for two District 2 seats had to say here.

• Here’s this week’s Riverside County COVID-19 District 4 report. (District 4 consists of the Coachella Valley and points eastward.) Our numbers are continuing to trend in the right direction, although the mysterious weekly positivity rate remains too high—although that’s finally coming down a bit, too.

• I’d never heard of Lewy body dementia before a couple of weeks ago. However, the disease is in the news all of a sudden following the death of baseball great Tom Seaver, and the release of a new documentary about the death of Robin Williams. It turns out the disease is quite common and often misdiagnosed; a professor of neurology, writing for The Conversation, explains what the disease is.

Also from The Conversation: A professor of engineering breaks down how ultraviolet light can—and can’t—be used to make indoor spaces safer from COVID-19.

I think that’s enough for today. Be safe. Wear a mask. Be empathetic. The Daily Digest will return Friday—and, as always, thanks for reading.

Published in Daily Digest

For the first time, Palm Desert residents in November will vote for their City Council representatives by district … sort of.

After two residents sued the city last year, alleging that the city’s at-large voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, the council approved a new system: One large district, including the vast majority of the city, will be represented by four council members; it’s now called District 2. A second, smaller district, called District 1, will have one representative. You can view an interactive district map here.

In November, District 2 residents will choose between four candidates for two seats: Incumbents Kathleen Kelly and Gina Nestande, and challengers Evan Trubee and Steven Moyer. The Independent recently spoke to the candidates, asking them each the same set of questions, on topics ranging from the new district voting system to law enforcement in the city.

Here are their complete answers, edited only for style and clarity.

Kathleen Kelly

Incumbent, mayor pro tem

Should you be re-elected, what are your top three priorities for the City Council in 2021?

Some of that has been dictated for us. We positively, absolutely have to manage the COVID-19 pandemic well. That means, to my way of thinking, recognizing first and foremost that the community’s health interests and the business community’s financial interests are totally in sync. Commerce cannot thrive unless people feel safe using commerce. That really requires a broad-based community embrace of the recommended safeguards, such as facial coverings and social distancing. So, if I am re-elected, my top priority will be to try to offer unifying leadership around that issue, and to continue to be engaged with our excellent finance team at the city to shepherd our reserves well, to get us through this. Thankfully, prior councils have left our city on a solid financial footing, so that we are able to weather this without diminishing services—but the same kind of exacting care that they took has to be continued.

Moving past that, even though we are in a crisis, it’s critical to identify some issues where strategic investment has to be made for the future. I would put two (items) at the top of that list. The first is working to improve broadband width, not just for Palm Desert, but for the whole Coachella Valley. This pandemic has exposed our dependence on the internet, so that’s a topic for which we need regional effort. We also need regional effort around diversifying our economy, so that we’re not just hospitality-dependent. Again, this crisis has exposed the problems of being so dependent on the hospitality industry. That’s why I and others on the current council worked very hard to bring about the iHub, the innovation hub across from the CSU (Cal State University-San Bernardino satellite) campus to spark cyber-security startups. That could also be a source of other career options for CSU students. So we don’t just want to survive the pandemic; we want to come out of it stronger, and I would name those two fronts as the most important fronts.

Keeping El Paseo pleasurable has to be on the list, because it’s such a key part of driving the financial resources for the city and for our quality of life. Whether people choose to spend money on El Paseo or not, many people just enjoy walking there. So facilitating outdoor dining is a key priority.

I’m a consistent advocate for more housing choices. One of the great attributes of Palm Desert is that we are a diverse community, and many demographic categories including economic wherewithal are at play, so I do want to see more housing available at all price points.

Did the city of Palm Desert fulfill its obligation to encourage more diversity in political engagement with its two-district solution, or do you believe more districts should be formed?

Experience will answer that, as I expressed when we last spoke. I firmly believe that we should get experience with this new system and learn from that. There are upsides and downsides to a five-district system. I hope that a continuing conversation will inform more residents about both the upsides and the downsides.

In terms of deaths, Palm Desert has been one of the hardest-hit cities in the Coachella Valley by COVID-19. What can, or should, the city do to better deal with the pandemic?

On the topic of the deaths, it should be noted that two particular skilled-nursing facilities accounted for at least 12 of those (COVID-19 related deaths). So, in the early stage of reporting, it kind of skewed Palm Desert higher than our neighbor cities. Unfortunately, the numbers for our neighbor cities seem to be catching up and, in some cases, surpassing us.

I don’t feel there is, or ever will be, such a thing as (doing) enough on that front. This virus is exceedingly challenging, not just because of how highly contagious it is, but because of the range of long-lasting detrimental health effects that people of all ages suffer. So it’s a misconception to suppose that only those over 60 are hardest hit. When you dig into the stories, many younger people who no longer test positive are still dealing with really debilitating consequences. So I feel we have to pull together as a community, without cessation, until it is truly over and done with. That requires constant messaging so that people don’t let their guard down. In early summer, when businesses first started to re-open, some of the public took that as a signal to relax and start having backyard barbecues, and what we hear from county health is that those backyard barbecues became a real source of infection, which hampered the capacity of our businesses to stay open. So if we care about the economy, and if we care about public health, we just have to stay vigilant.

Should the city continue to contract with the Riverside County Sheriff for law enforcement services, given Sheriff Chad Bianco has stated publicly an unwillingness for citizen/community oversight, his refusal to meet with community stakeholders, and the high cost of his department’s services?

That’s a very packed question. It’s appropriate, all of the time, to continue to review that contractual arrangement. I don’t favor being reactive based on any single issue or decision, but it is appropriate to really be in a process of continual review. I would rather see us exert continuing influence on the sheriff than to turn our back and strive to create something from the ground up. Given Palm Desert’s size, there have been tremendous advantages to having public safety delivered from a source that has specialists and task forces that can be tapped for our needs. So I wouldn’t be quick to change the contractual arrangement, but it absolutely is appropriate for us to be, as I said, in a constant state of review.

The City Council originally proposed building an Interstate 10 interchange at the north end of Portola Avenue in 2008. Should the city reconsider moving forward with this plan in light of potential impacts on the adjacent residential neighborhoods, which have expanded notably since the plan was first considered? For instance, should a survey be initiated to gather input from residents most likely to be impacted?

We haven’t. The interchange was designed, in large part, to serve those neighborhoods, and it was put on the schedule in anticipation of that growth in the north part of Palm Desert. Because of the revenue impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing is going to happen there anytime soon. Your question helps me to appreciate that it has been on the drawing boards for so long that once we return to it as a viable possibility, it will be important to have community engagement to both inform and to listen.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity since the pandemic’s arrival?

This won’t necessarily get me any votes, but it’s been a blessing to spend more time with my mom, who is 95. We live together, but before the pandemic, we both had exceedingly busy lives that kept us outside the house all day. So it’s a pleasure just to have three meals together every day.


Steven Moyer

Lawyer

Should you be elected, what are your top three priorities for the City Council in 2021?

I think everyone is, or should be, concerned about two issues, which I really see as one, and that is public health and the economy. I think everyone wants to see the small businesses in Palm Desert re-open, but they’re not going to be able to do that if our residents and the people who work in those businesses aren’t healthy. As far as the public-health aspect of it, I’d like to see the city doing more. I respect everybody’s individual right not to wear a mask or to distance, but I’m suggesting to everyone that when they go out, they wear a mask and they distance, because that’s going to allow our small businesses to re-open. I would like to see the city do more about encouraging people to do that. I don’t think we’ve seen enough of that.

Secondly, we have the issue of the economy. In that regard, in order for the city council to help, there are a number of things it can do. One is to make the permitting of new businesses easier. I think we can continue the San Pablo makeover, although it may be necessary to revisit some of the segments of that project during this time of a recession. I think we should be giving El Paseo a facelift to help the small businesses there. By closing off a couple of blocks and making it into a walking mall, we could have outdoor dining and sales, which would require changing some of our ordinances on a temporary basis, at least. We could install some nice public restrooms for our Southern California visitors, not just our local visitors. Coming from Los Angeles or Orange County or San Diego, people are driving for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, and they usually like to visit a restroom after that kind of a drive. With the restaurants and other businesses that have restrooms being closed, there’s no place for them to go. Also, we need to make sure that we have adequate parking. But if closing off a number of blocks is not a direction that the City Council wants to go in, another approach might be something that I saw recently in Culver City. They closed lanes of traffic, and on the interior street side of the lanes closest to the sidewalks, they installed white plastic barriers and moved outside dining into that area. They put up some nice potted plants and umbrellas, and there were a lot of people sitting outside eating, and they were distanced. That’s something that could be done next week. For those restaurants or shops who have space behind their buildings in parking lots, (the City Council) could make accommodations for them as well.

For No. 2, I think we should extend the ban on short-term rentals into residential areas that currently aren’t covered. I’ve been contacted by a number of people living in Palm Desert who are dissatisfied by the fact that they were left out.

Third would be focusing on making the Cal State University-San Bernardino satellite (campus) into a four-year university so that we can have an educated workforce and provide more jobs. Any city of our size that can have a four-year university is going to provide themselves with a good economic boost.

Did the city of Palm Desert fulfill its obligation to encourage more diversity in political engagement with its two-district solution, or do you believe more districts should be formed?

I believe that we should have five-district voting. At this point in time, I believe that I’m the only candidate running in District 2 who advocates for that. I do not believe that the current settlement of what was essentially a civil rights lawsuit pursuant to the California Voter Rights Act satisfies that act, although I just saw recently something sent out from the city that says it does. Needless to say, as an attorney who represented cities and municipalities in those kinds of lawsuits, I disagree with that representation (on the part of the city). I don’t think it complies with the Voter Rights Act. The current situation provides for voting in District 1 (to elect) one representative who will represent about 20 percent of the city. The other 80 percent is voting at-large, and as a consequence, the way it’s worked out for the last 20 years, and the way it will apparently continue to work out in this 2020 election, is that you have five incumbents, three of which are currently running, and all of whom live in one of the wealthiest sections of the city and within walking distance of each other. The neighborhoods, in the rest of the city, don’t have representatives who share their interests, values and concerns. So I don’t think that’s equal and fair representation. It’s not representative government. It’s government by a few.

Recently, I had a conversation with an old friend who will remain nameless, who lives nearby. He said, ‘Don’t you think that people who live in one area of town might be more talented than the others?’ That’s elitism. We can do better than that in Palm Desert. I don’t think that anyone on the north side wants to be governed by a bunch of people who only live in a small area of south Palm Desert, and that’s the situation that we’ve got now.

If we get sued again, it’s going to cost the city a lot of money, and I think we’ll lose. This time, nobody’s going to settle for this flim-flam settlement. They’re not going to buy that. I’ve spoken to the plaintiffs (in the original Voter Rights Act lawsuit), and they feel that they weren’t given adequate disclosure. Now they’re thinking that if they had known before what they know now, they wouldn’t have entered into this settlement. Nobody else will do that (moving forward). They’ll either go to trial, or they’ll get a settlement for something like five districts. There are other ways to skin a cat, so it doesn’t have to be five districts. I think it should be. You could have four districts and a mayor who’s elected at-large, which would essentially be five districts. By the way, as best as I can tell, this is the only city in the state of California that has two districts.

In terms of deaths, Palm Desert has been one of the hardest-hit cities in the Coachella Valley by COVID-19. What can, or should, the city do to better deal with the pandemic?

The City Council, the city and other departments within City Hall need to do a much-better and more-aggressive job of communicating with our full-time, part-time and visiting residents about the necessity of wearing masks and distancing. As an example, if you go into Palm Springs and just take a drive down Palm Canyon, you see digital signs on wheels saying that you are required to wear a mask and distance. They have banners (hanging) above the street saying the same thing. We were just there recently, and there were a ton of people on both sides of the street walking. Lots of people were enjoying outdoor dining, and everybody was wearing a mask. Nobody was scared off. I think that a lot of folks are anxious to enjoy that kind of experience in Palm Desert, but there are a lot of people who are afraid right now to go into our shops or restaurants where people aren’t wearing masks. I think that the City Council and the departments within City Hall who are responsible for this issue need to take that into consideration, and also remember that there are many more residents in this city than in most in the desert who are over the age of 60. We need to protect them.

Should the city continue to contract with the Riverside County Sheriff for law enforcement services, given Sheriff Chad Bianco has stated publicly an unwillingness for citizen/community oversight, his refusal to meet with community stakeholders, and the high cost of his department’s services?

That’s a good question, and this is an issue that I’ve given a lot of thought to. I have no information that leads me to believe that, at this time, we’re paying too much for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. I have not seen the contract, so I don’t know what it provides for. I have been informed that we are paying $300 an hour for the services of a deputy sheriff. So since I have no other information, that (point) sitting in isolation doesn’t really help me very much. Some people might think that sounds like a lot of money for a police officer. We’re not hiring a high-priced lawyer. But we don’t know what goes into that figure, and we don’t know what other law-enforcement agencies in the valley are being paid. However, I have been informed that Coachella is moving away from the Sheriff’s Department and is going to form its own police department. I would like to get more information on that, and I’ve contacted one of the members of their City Council to find out why they’re going in that direction. It may or may not be applicable to Palm Desert. Coachella is a much larger city, and its demographic (makeup) is completely different than Palm Desert. It may be that many of our residents are satisfied with the Sheriff’s Department in Palm Desert. There may be others who aren’t. I think that, in these sensitive times, we should consider having some public hearings in order to get more information about the issues I just raised, as well as find out how the rest of the city feels about this. So I’m not saying that we shouldn’t continue the contract with the county sheriff; I’m just saying that we should get more information and see how that contract is working in comparison to other contracts of a similar nature throughout the desert, and perhaps elsewhere, to see if we’re paying too much, and to compare it to the cost of running your own police department, and to see how the rest of the city feels about it.

The City Council originally proposed building an Interstate 10 interchange at the north end of Portola Avenue in 2008. Should the city reconsider moving forward with this plan in light of potential impacts on the adjacent residential neighborhoods, which have expanded notably since the plan was first considered? For instance, should a survey be initiated to gather input from residents most likely to be impacted?

It should be looked at again. The City Council seems not to be fully aware of the fact that we are living in the worst pandemic in a century, and a very bad recession that could be worse than the one in 2008. During these unforeseen and unprecedented times you have to adjust, and they don’t seem like they’re adjusting. They’re just like, ‘Let’s talk about the golf-cart parade.’ OK, we can talk about the golf-cart parade while putting in an onramp and an offramp for Portola, but I think we should re-visit the issue and think about if this is the right time for something like that when we could be spending our dollars on things like helping small businesses throughout the city, and maybe hiring some more people at City Hall, so that the staffing is at 100 percent. According to what I’ve been informed since announcing my candidacy, they are understaffed, and, for example, as a result of being understaffed, they can’t do certain types of code enforcement in the manner in which they should be. So maybe we should be spending our dollars on things like that instead of an onramp and offramp that might be nice during flush times.

Also, that (logic) applies to what I believe is Phase 2 of San Pablo, which has a plan for two roundabouts, I think, which maybe we could be doing in flush times. But I’d have to look at how much it costs and how much we’ve got for it (to decide) whether or not that’s something we can afford to do now. Maybe we ought to put it off, and make our priority hiring more staff at City Hall, and paying them adequately and things like that.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity since the pandemic’s arrival?

This with the approval of my health-care providers. We had one standard poodle, and we decided to get her a companion. We got her a puppy, another standard poodle who is now 7 months old. So we’ve been training her and playing with the dogs out in the backyard, and just walking the dogs in our small development early in the morning, partly to get exercise for us as well. We’re appropriately masked and distanced from everybody who lives here right now in the summer.

And I’m taking ukulele lessons online from a very fine musician who, I think, is in Torrance. But he’s one of the premier ukulele players in the country, and I just recently picked up two of my instruments that were being worked on. There’s a luthier named Dey Martin in Palm Springs. Who knew? We have a luthier in Palm Springs. A luthier makes string instruments. He makes guitars, ukuleles and maybe violins, but I’m not sure. But he also does work on them and repairs them. So I asked him to do some work on a couple of my instruments so that it was easier for me to play them. And now they play great.


Gina Nestande

Mayor of Palm Desert; real estate agent

Should you be re-elected, what are your top three priorities for the City Council in 2021?

My No. 1 top priority is to continue to make sure that we’re doing everything possible as a city to keep our citizens safe in terms of COVID, and to help and support businesses by making sure that they have the supplies that they need. It would be wonderful if we get a vaccine or better medications to fight the COVID, but since right now we really don’t, that would be a top priority.

Following that, for the economic health of our Palm Desert businesses—especially the restaurants that have had to go through a second shutdown, and the hair and nail salons—I want to continue to spur economic development and make resources available for when they can re-open, which we hope is sooner rather than later.

We have some economic programs in place right now. We have an emergency loan program where we’re disbursing $1 million to our Palm Desert businesses. Also, we haven’t voted on it yet, but it’s a priority of mine to give $900,000 to our hotels like the J.W. Marriott (Desert Springs Resort and Spa). When people come to the desert, they typically stay for a couple of nights, say Friday and Saturday, and then they go back on Sunday. What we’re going to do is subsidize (a promotional offer) where if somebody comes for two nights, then they can get a third night free, paid for by the city, although they still will have to pay the (transient occupancy tax) on that free night. I serve on the marketing committee (for the city), and research shows that if people stay a third night, they are more likely to perhaps stay for the whole week. So what we want to do is be able to drive customers to our restaurants, to our nail salons and to all of our businesses. So we’re trying to do what we can to support businesses in Palm Desert.

My third priority is the California State University-San Bernardino satellite campus. I want to help nurture and support expanding the degree programs offered there. Just recently, they had a graduation of 400 students. That’s amazing, and we’re very proud of that. We’re adding a cyber-security program, for example, and we’re expanding hospitality (programs). We want to grow technology programs out of this university, and our city has donated money to help with this expansion. So that’s my third priority, and it’s one that is looking to build the future of Palm Desert. One day, we hope it will become a stand-alone campus and it will just be Cal State-Palm Desert. But we’ve got to grow the student body, and we’ve to grow the degree programs in order to make that happen.

Did the city of Palm Desert fulfill its obligation to encourage more diversity in political engagement with its two-district solution, or do you believe more districts should be formed?

I’m going to answer that this way: We have a population of about 50,000 in Palm Desert. I don’t feel we’re comparable to like a Los Angeles, where you’ve got millions of people. I’m not saying we’re homogeneous, but for me, I don’t like the idea of balkanizing, per se, Palm Desert. I believe that El Paseo, which would probably not be in my district, is near and dear to my heart, and I care about that area. Cal State’s in another area of Palm Desert, and I care about that area. So I want to be representing Palm Desert, and I believe that (a multiple-district approach) is actually dividing us. Reluctantly, I went along with the two districts. But the jury is out on it. I tend to agree that I don’t want (the current) District 2 to feel like it’s, how do I say, not as important, because there’s four districts versus one, is how I see it. So I don’t really like that either. But I just went along with what the majority of the council wanted to do on this issue.

I was born in ’63, and when I grew up as a child, Martin Luther King was a hero to me. He changed the United States with his quote about being judged by his character, not the color of his skin. But I feel that this Voter Rights Act is throwing that out the window.

In terms of deaths, Palm Desert has been one of the hardest-hit cities in the Coachella Valley by COVID-19. What can, or should, the city do to better deal with the pandemic?

I’ve been partnering with the Riverside County Department of Public Health to get a deeper dive into the (COVID-19) numbers. It takes them a long time to (research a request), because it’s such a huge county, and they can’t respond every week to every little mayor’s request. But the last time I got data, we found that about half of the deaths were occurring in nursing homes here in Palm Desert. We have several nursing homes here, and many of their patients already have underlying conditions. So I think we just need to continue to support our nursing homes and our nurses working there. I think when we go out and about, people should wear their masks. When we go into the grocery store people, should be social distancing. I think our citizens are doing a great job. We just need to make sure we continue to have enough hand sanitizer and face masks if a business is running short. We were given $700,000 in funds from FEMA to use for our (COVID-19 related) supplies. So we’re being very conscientious with those funds, and we’re using them appropriately where needed.

Should the city continue to contract with the Riverside County Sheriff for law enforcement services, given Sheriff Chad Bianco has stated publicly an unwillingness for citizen/community oversight, his refusal to meet with community stakeholders, and the high cost of his department’s services?

I will say that almost half of our budget goes to police and fire. I do support our police, though. I believe safety is a top priority, and that, first and foremost, we need a safe city. That needs to be the foundation. We need law and order. We can’t condone violence and anarchy. Also, when COVID hit, we had to start looking at our budget again to make up for the shortfalls, and I will say the Sheriff’s Department looked long and hard, and they found a way to cut back about $3.5 million for this year. So that was a big plus. And I do not support de-funding the police.

The City Council originally proposed building an Interstate 10 interchange at the north end of Portola Avenue in 2008. Should the city reconsider moving forward with this plan in light of potential impacts on the adjacent residential neighborhoods, which have expanded notably since the plan was first considered? For instance, should a survey be initiated to gather input from residents most likely to be impacted?

It was 12 years ago (when this plan was first initiated), and over time, the cost to do that interchange has gone up astronomically. Now there’s not enough money to do the project. It’s millions of dollars short, and that (projection) was made pre-pandemic. We greatly want that interchange, and we were partnering with (the Coachella Valley Association of Governments) on it. CVAG came back to us and said, ‘Sorry, city of Palm Desert. We’re several million dollars short. You can try to help us raise the money to find the funds.’ So, that’s where we are with it—and then the pandemic hit. So it’s on hold. But I do think it needs to be looked at again, and we’ll know more in the coming months.

Gosh, if we get a vaccine for COVID, I think it will be such an uplifting thing for the state of California and the whole United States that maybe the flood gate of funds will re-open. Another issue that sort of ties into this one is that we just got our sales-tax (report) from the county for the month of May. Typically, we get about $600,000 approximately, but this May, we got approximately $1 million. Our finance director, who couldn’t believe it, wanted to make sure there wasn’t a mistake, because we don’t want to spend money that we don’t have. But it’s been confirmed. We’re not sure if it’s coming from more online sales, but the economy seems to be firing up. So we’ll see if that trend continues.

We have $100 million in reserves. This is a very well-run and financially sound city. But we don’t have the money to fund this whole project. We have to get state credits, grants and find other monies. But, having said that, if the economy comes roaring back, it will make it easier.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity since the pandemic’s arrival?

Actually, my children and I have been playing board games, and that’s something that we didn’t do anymore. The game called Catan is a great game. It’s about trading, building and settling communities, and it can go on for hours.


Evan Trubee

Owner of Big Wheel Tours

Should you be elected, what are your top three priorities for the City Council in 2021?

Not necessarily in order, I would say the top three issues are making sure we preserve the short term rental rule, and maybe even look at—and this is a can of worms, and I don’t really want to go there—but maybe look at some of the loopholes that were created in the current ordinance, because it did not cover the planned residential communities. In other words, it restricted short-term rentals in R1 and R2, but planned residentials were left out of it, almost like HOAs, even though many of these planned residentials don’t have CCRs that prohibit short-term rentals. I’ve talked to several residents, and it’s becoming a bit of an issue. The current regulations need to be protected, and maybe enhanced. We’ll see. But the feedback that I’m getting is that there are some pretty unhappy residents in those PRs.

Second, I want to make sure we maintain our economic strength and foundation. We’re going to lose quite a bit of (transient occupancy tax) revenue, and we need to be judicious about keeping a balanced budget. This year turned out pretty well, but we’re going to have to be pretty disciplined on the budget so we don’t run into trouble. And we need to think about diversifying the economy away from tourism so much, and try to cultivate more local businesses that don’t necessarily have to do with tourism.

Third, I would say, is to make sure we keep the pressure on advocating for the four-year university, meaning that Priority One foundation that’s been set up and that the city’s giving $150,000 to. My point is that even if the state of California, which is looking at a budget deficit, put the building of another four-year university on the back burner, I think we should keep the pressure on our lobbying efforts in Sacramento to make sure we stay on their radar.

I just want to make sure to get this in: We can’t forget supporting the College of the Desert. Let’s keep the four-year university as an emphasis, but not at the expense of supporting College of the Desert.

Did the city of Palm Desert fulfill its obligation to encourage more diversity in political engagement with its two-district solution, or do you believe more districts should be formed?

I followed that process pretty closely. I did go to the redistricting meetings that were held just this past winter, and even before that, I was paying attention. I think they came up with a solution that is in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act. In other words, they created a district that was as close as you can get to a majority-minority composition. So in that regard, they achieved the objective of the CVRA. It was adjudicated, and both parties agreed to it. So you’ve got to trust the judicial system. It went through the process. I’m curious to see how it plays out in this 2020 election cycle. Now, going to five districts, if that’s what you want to consider, you couldn’t carve four districts out of what is now District 2 and come up with anything even close to a majority-minority district to help try to get Latinx representation on City Council. So then you’re talking about a different issue. You’re talking about Palm Desert being a city of a size where you can justify having five separate districts of roughly 10,000-15,000 people if we get to that point. So it becomes a different issue other than just complying with the CVRA in terms of ethnic composition.

I guess the short answer is that I’m willing to let this current cycle play out, (and) see how the residents respond. I believe they did achieve the goals of complying with the CVRA in this instance. But I’m flexible. I mean, if down the road, Palm Desert residents say, ‘Hey! We feel under-represented because we live in the northern sphere, and there’s nobody who lives in our district on council,’ well, then, shoot. I’m all ears. Let’s talk about that, and talk about maybe down the road dividing it up into five.

In terms of deaths, Palm Desert has been one of the hardest-hit cities in the Coachella Valley by COVID-19. What can, or should, the city do to better deal with the pandemic?

From what I understand, and I have not been able to verify this officially, there were one or two places, and I think they were assisted-living (facilities), where a big cluster of the deaths happened which spiked our numbers relative to other valley cities. That’s what I understand, and I’ll give my answer based on that understanding. So, that was unfortunate. That’s terrible. I don’t know how it happened, and I don’t know if the city could have prevented it. However, I do advocate wearing masks.

At first blush, when this thing happened in March and April, I said, ‘Oh I’m a believer in personal liberty and in an educated populace deciding whether or not they want to do it.’ And the question was, ‘Were (the masks) really effective?’ I’ve come to the conclusion, after doing research and studying, that masks are effective. So I’m all for mandating masks here in Palm Desert at businesses, and when people are in stores in close proximity to one another. Beyond that, I think the city has done a pretty good job with education programs. They were part of the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau campaign to promote mask-wearing, so I guess that’s my answer. I think the city has done a decent job so far. Like I said, I believe our numbers (of COVID-19 deaths) are higher just due to that one unfortunate outbreak that may, or may not, have been preventable by the city of Palm Desert.

Should the city continue to contract with the Riverside County Sheriff for law enforcement services, given Sheriff Chad Bianco has stated publicly an unwillingness for citizen/community oversight, his refusal to meet with community stakeholders, and the high cost of his department’s services?

You know, I’ve talked to city officials about this, because since I’m running for this office, I have to consider all of these issues. Palm Springs has their own police force. Desert Hot Springs has their own police force. There are pros and cons to each (type of) service. When you contract out with the Riverside sheriff, then you’re spreading out the liabilities. You know, I was told by an employee of the city of Palm Desert, ‘Look, each one of those police officers is a walking liability.’ So it creates a great risk for the city if, God forbid, there is some kind of lawsuit or issue. You spread that out when you contract with the sheriffs. I like that aspect of it. From what I understand, and the research that I’ve done, the three main things that are front and center nationally are addressed. The sheriffs use body cameras; they’re not allowed to do “no-knock” warrants; and they don’t use choke holds.

So I like what the Sheriff’s Department is doing in that regard. I’m not familiar with Bianco’s unwillingness (to cooperate with civilian review). Actually, I haven’t read anything about it, so I can’t really speak to any of Bianco’s actions. I’m just talking from my perspective, and from what I know about Riverside sheriffs, I would advocate for continuing the contract with the Sheriff’s Department moving forward, for sure. In my mind, it’s one less thing the city has to worry about or staff. I think they’re doing a good job so far here in Palm Desert. I’m happy with the job they’re doing as a citizen.

The City Council originally proposed building an Interstate 10 interchange at the north end of Portola Avenue in 2008. Should the city reconsider moving forward with this plan in light of potential impacts on the adjacent residential neighborhoods, which have expanded notably since the plan was first considered? For instance, should a survey be initiated to gather input from residents most likely to be impacted?

I’ve noticed it on the agenda for the past year or so as well. From one meeting to another, when the issue of the interchange is brought up, the projected costs seem to go up considerably. I know a lot of it is being borne by CVAG (Coachella Valley Association of Governments) and the county, but the costs to the city went up considerably. As with any construction project, over time, costs typically don’t go down; the estimates go up. That’s a concern. When you talk about moving forward with the Portola interchange, I do think we need to take into consideration the (opinions of) the residents in the northern part of the city. Also, you have to take into consideration the BlackRock housing development, which is projected to bring almost 1,000 homes into that part of the city. I feel that you want to get the infrastructure in place before you have the impact on that infrastructure. In other words, build the infrastructure first, and then the housing development. So, I think that’s something to consider as well. I would like to see it happen, as long as it doesn’t adversely impact our budget to the point where we’re digging into reserves.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity since the pandemic’s arrival?

Being able to spend time with the kids. My son, who’s 19, came home from college early, in March. And my two daughters are teenagers. So when you get to this point of parenthood, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel where they’re going to be out of the house. I’m going to be an “empty-nester” in five years. I’ve just really enjoyed spending time with them. We’ve been playing games, reading books and just being together. I know it’s going to end; we’ll go back to our busy lives and busy schedules where we’re going in 20 million directions. So being with them has been a treat, and we’re enjoying it. Luckily, I have a loving family and it’s just fun to spend time together.

Published in Politics

For the first time, Palm Desert residents in November will vote for their City Council representatives by district … sort of.

After two residents sued the city last year, alleging that the city’s at-large voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, the council approved a new system: One large district, including the vast majority of the city, will be represented by four council members; it’s now called District 2. A second, smaller district, called District 1, will have one representative. You can view an interactive district map here.

In November, District 1 residents will choose between two candidates: Karina Quintanilla, one of the aforementioned plaintiffs in the Voting Rights Act lawsuit, and incumbent Susan Marie Weber. The Independent recently spoke to the candidates, asking them each the same set of questions, on topics ranging from the new district voting system to law enforcement in the city.

Here are their complete answers, edited only for style and clarity.

Karina Quintanilla

Site coordinator for Think Together

Should you be elected, what are your top three priorities for the City Council in 2021?

My priorities are districting, growing higher education and public health. Regarding districting, the importance of representation, and the equitable distribution of our votes across Palm Desert—that’s a conversation that’s been had many times now, I believe. A lot of the residents I met with while I was gathering petitions (to run for the City Council) had questions about the settlement and how we got to the two districts. Now, they understand that Lorraine (Salas, the second litigant in the case) and I settled because we knew there were going to be challenges with implementing the process, so we wanted (to create) a first opportunity for everybody to come, get the microscope out and look at the process and scrutinize to see how we could do it better the next time. We wanted everybody to have more of an even say.

Today, as we move forward on this pandemic, we need to be sure that we have equal representation. We keep saying that we’re all in this together. Yes, we’re in this together—but we are not in the same boat. My boat looks very different from somebody else’s, and we need all these communities with all of our little concerns to have an equal voice in what happens with the resources moving forward, and how we identify the priorities as a city.

Now, talking about growing higher education opportunities in Palm Desert: I worked at Cal State San Bernardino, and I remember hearing that the nursing program got off the ground years ahead of schedule because the community said they work looking ahead and could see that a nursing shortage was going to get critical. So they made sure that funds were available through philanthropists and commitments from the cities who felt they had to make that happen. So, the health sciences building wasn’t even complete—and there was already a cohort of nursing students. I had the privilege of working with those students who are now in the field themselves, saving lives. Some of them are doctors of nursing, as is my sister. She has worked in a couple of medical facilities here in the desert.

With higher education comes the ability to diversify our economy. Right now, we have so much tied up in hospitality and tourism, and everyone is taking losses. So, growing our higher education capabilities will mean that we have different fields available. Right now, some of the highest-paying jobs available in the region are in cannabis—but we don’t have the biologists, the chemists and others that are needed (by this new valley industry) growing in our own backyard. Instead, they often come from out of the area. They get their master’s degrees and acquire good jobs with good salaries, when we could grow this talent at home. We are letting our brightest students leave to pursue their higher education, while we have to pay high wages to attract people who have lived in other urban areas who relocate for jobs that we can’t fill here.

We know that Cal State right now has said that they are not ready to approve any (new four-year) programs—but when they say they’re ready, we have to put ourselves in the position of having addressed housing inequality. Right now, students can’t afford to live in Palm Desert, and we can’t give them the kind of housing that makes it easy for them to work a part-time job and focus on being a student. We can’t stick our heads in the sand. If we’re going to grow our university, we’re going to need faculty for it, and they will come with families, in many cases, and we’ll need places for them to live close by. So we need to be forward-thinking in how we allocate our physical resources and where we allot land, because we need housing to be accessible to Cal State. Also, I think that supporting the city’s infrastructure, to be sure we have more accessible public transportation, is very important.

Public health is another of those major priorities. Having experienced (COVID-19 infections) within my own family, I wonder how my neighbors are coping. People get fooled (into complacency) by the wealth of their zip code, but I believe that there are a lot of people struggling to get by everywhere. We have to be aware that our neighbors may be struggling, and not everybody knows how to get help. This may be the first time that somebody is experiencing this kind of financial distress. Maybe they made it OK through the last recession. You know, maybe they had two incomes before, and the spouse passed away, so this is their first time trying to make it on a single income. We have to be genuinely more compassionate, and I think that Palm Desert just needs to do more for her residents.

I’m very happy to see that some businesses are open around town, and have signage saying that masks are required and (they) have the right to refuse service. But there needs to be signage citywide. It is of great concern to me that we have access from Highway 74, from Interstate 10 and from Highway 111, and we don’t see anything that welcomes our visitors and says, ‘Please be careful, and wear a mask.’ It doesn’t have to be a political issue. It doesn’t have to be a freedom issue, as people are making it (out to be). It’s a public-health issue. It’s a compassion issue. It’s a ‘love thy neighbor’ issue. People who come from out of town may not know what our policies are. They may be here for business for the first time, so they don’t know what Riverside County’s policies are, let alone from one city to the other.

I grew up in Thousand Palms, and they have signs. That was wonderful for me to see. When you get off on Monterey (Avenue), and you head north, Thousand Palms has a sign that encourages people to wear a mask and to be distant. That helps protect a beautiful little community with a lot of essential workers, where I still have family. Palm Desert can clearly afford to put up these signs. But we don’t have that clear signage, and we’re one of the cities that’s been hit the hardest by COVID-19.

When I think of what will happen with the viral load that we have in the community if we open too soon, it concerns me very deeply. Eventually, we have to reopen completely, and that’s not a matter of if, but just when. What’s within all of our control is how we move forward as a unified community so that we can do this with fewer mortalities. We have to think of all of the kids, all of the teachers and all of the first responders. You know, if we really are going to glorify their profession, then let’s respect that they are on the front line and they are at the most risk. We’re not giving them the respect they deserve in any way, shape or form by replacing (the word) “essential” with “disposable” workers.

In terms of deaths, Palm Desert has been one of the hardest-hit cities in the Coachella Valley by COVID-19. What can, or should, the city do to better deal with the pandemic?

I think that Palm Desert residents, and the people who work here as well, deserve better. Not everybody is contained to their zip codes, and we’ve got people who live all across the valley and are in different industries who need to feel safe going to work.

Right at the start of the pandemic, I started a job working at a senior-living facility where I met some amazing residents. But just the idea of going to work every day, and loving the people that you work with, and then being afraid that any one of them could go, or that you could be taking virus home to your family, creates levels of stress that are toxic. When they closed down the dining room, there was this one woman who liked to take her time eating, so she was eating in a different area. She said to me, ‘I’m just a slow eater. When I grew up during the Depression, you never knew when you were going to get a next meal. So, we made time to eat slowly.’ That came full circle for me—thinking about how many kids now are dealing with this generational impact of the crisis mode that they see their parents in, and these hyper-stress levels. In education curriculums, you’ll see them talk about adverse childhood experiences. We are all being exposed to trauma, but I’m worried about the long-term effects of this stress on the little ones. And yes, they need to be out there. Yes, they need to play. Yes, they need to engage, but they need to feel safe. They need to know that when they go out, it’s going to be safe for them to do so, and that the adults have done their due diligence in making sure that they’re taken care of.

Should the city continue to contract with the Riverside County Sheriff for law enforcement services, given Sheriff Chad Bianco has stated publicly an unwillingness for citizen/community oversight, his refusal to meet with community stakeholders, and the high cost of his department’s services?

I felt disappointed upon having learned that there was no outreach (on the part of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department) to the organizers of the (George Floyd/Black Lives Matter) demonstration in Palm Desert. Having seen so many different people protest in the Coachella Valley, it seemed that the mindset was already one of response only, instead of it being an opportunity to engage, observe and keep the peace. So, it was very disappointing to me.

I would choose to believe that all stakeholders’ best interests (would be served) by coming together and making sure that the needs of the community are met. It makes it difficult to have the community fully support the needs of law-enforcement officers if we aren’t able to hear directly from (Sheriff Chad Bianco) his justifications as to why these expenses keep growing. And we need to have everybody come to the table to have these open conversations.

The City Council originally proposed building an Interstate 10 interchange at the north end of Portola Avenue in 2008. Should the city reconsider moving forward with this plan in light of potential impacts on the adjacent residential neighborhoods, which have expanded notably since the plan was first considered? For instance, should a survey be initiated to gather input from residents most likely to be impacted?

I think that this is the kind of (issue) that just needs to be put on hold. It needs to be tabled until we get (more) districts in the city. The people who live in that area are the ones who are going to be impacted the most, and we need to be sure that they have their voices heard loud and clear. The environmental impact of having that right in their neighborhood may not be something they anticipated (12 years ago). Maybe residents have a vision of something entirely different that they want to see go on there. I don’t see why this needs to be a top priority right now. That funding needs to be directed to public health right now.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity since the pandemic’s arrival?

Some of the things that I’ve done are things that I learned to enjoy when, for instance, I was out of work on disability. A lot of people think that it’s a time to rest and hangout, but sometimes, it’s just a time to recover. But, my personal favorite me-time (activity) continues to be going to the blood bank. It’s my time to unplug from everything, because you can’t quite be texting. You maybe watch a movie, but it gives you time to reflect that no matter what else is going on, I’m standing, and, I’m healthy enough to be able to give something that my body is just going to make more of. I truly believe in giving everything we have if we can make somebody else’s day and life better. Not only is that good for them, but it feels great inside. So I wish more people would take the opportunity to go down to LifeStream, where they take excellent care of you. I’ve built some long-term friendships with people who have been donating there since it was the Community Blood Bank back in the ’90s. That’s one of my favorite things to do.

I know it’s kind of weird, but everybody’s got their own (favorite activity). I can’t hike right now. It’s too hot. But if you go to donate, you do it in the AC. You get to lay down while you do it. They give you juice and cookies. You get T-shirts and gas cards, and you get to save lives—and, that’s a pretty good feeling, too. When we feel kind of helpless, like there’s nothing we can do because it feels like our hands are tied as we watch our national leadership scramble and try to figure things out, there are things we can do. …  And they are doing the antibody screening, so you may be able to come back and give plasma and save even more lives.

There are absolutely things that we can all do. We can all take the Census to make sure that, once this (pandemic) is all over, each community has a true representation and how much funding they deserve to receive to meet the individual needs of their community. And everyone can vote. Everyone can pay forward.


Susan Marie Weber

Palm Desert City Council incumbent; sole proprietor of an accounting business

Should you be re-elected, what are your top three priorities for the City Council in 2021?

Yes, I do think that I should be re-elected. I kind of look at things objectively. I’m an accountant, so I look at things (to see) are they in balance—debits and credits, and so forth. That’s always allowed me to look at things objectively to try to determine what’s best. I think that’s one of the things I bring to the council, while maybe other people on other councils might not have that capability. And I don’t take things personally.

So my top three priorities, and mostly what we’re working on right now, is pretty consistent with what’s going on in the city—and that is how we can work on housing. Housing seems to be an issue right now. So what can the city do to help facilitate more housing? Now, the state has stepped in and given us some directives. We call them “unfunded mandates,” because they tell us, “Here is what you will do as a city, but good luck on trying to figure out where the money comes from.” So, one of our issues is how to create what we all call “affordable housing,” so that people who are just working in our city can actually choose to live here and not have to drive back and forth. That’s probably one of my main objectives right now.

The other one (deals with the fact that) our city has an extraordinary amount of what we call committees and commissions. These are opportunities to participate in the city, and my goal is to get more people involved in that. So when I meet somebody, and they say they really like our city, I immediately (suggest) that they go to our website, click on the committees and commissions, and find out what makes you happy and participate in that. For example, you may have noticed the project going on around San Pablo Avenue. We have an Art in Public Places Commission that is very much involved in selecting the art that’s going to go there. Also, they select the art that goes all along El Paseo, for which our city has become rather famous. So, everybody has a passion, and serving on one of our committees or commissions is a way that they can have their passion and get involved in the city. I like people to be involved. Rather than sitting on the sidelines and saying that you don’t like what’s being done, come on over, and let’s get you to work and find out what you can do to contribute to make it better.

So, those are two things that I think are most important right now. We had 100 residents show up for Envision Palm Desert (a strategic-planning effort). Our city is comprised of community involvement, and that’s what I think makes our city as great as it is. Everybody asks me, and I do think that our city is the best in the valley. I’m not kidding. It’s the best financially run. It’s the best (in terms of) commitment from our community. It’s just the best all around.

Did the city of Palm Desert fulfill its obligation to encourage more diversity in political engagement with its two-district solution, or do you believe more districts should be formed?

It’s kind of hard thing to say, because so many people think that we didn’t fulfill it. I can only speak for myself, but I was not in favor of districting. I think it’s inappropriate for a city like ours. You have an opportunity in our city every two years to do away with three (city councilmembers) and replace them, and then in two years do away with (the other) two and replace them. Now, people are going to be confined to one representative—at least in my District 1: They’ll be confined to me for four solid years. Whereas before, (the voters) had more flexibility. … If you live in our city, you had five people you can go to with your comments, and everybody would be working to make everything better. Now, with districting, I’m not quite sure. I presume that most of us who are there will continue that practice, no matter which district we are assigned to, if I can use that phrase. But I don’t think it was the best thing for our city.

We are a unique city. We’ve worked all these years as a whole city—and now, to divide us, I don’t think was in our best interest. I’ve read a lot of comments by people who want to take it further and make it into five (districts). Frankly, I’m baffled by that, and can’t figure out how that would benefit (Palm Desert). When they talk about diversity, our diversity is all over our entire city. They had quite a challenge working on the demography (of new district creation) because we are a city where (different demographic groups) just live all over the place. Plus, I’m not quite sure what they mean when they say that they want more representation. It’s hard to answer a question when the question doesn’t make sense. How do you want more representation? What’s going wrong right now? Can you not show up at City Hall? I have regular office hours, and anybody could walk in on a Friday, and there I would be. They wouldn’t even need an appointment. With any of the council members, all you have to do is call and say that you want to talk to a council member right now, and somebody would be there. So I’m not quite sure what the people who disagree with (the results of) the districting want, exactly.

I don’t quite know how to answer that question. I thought we were doing really well. I felt represented, and I always participated, too. If I didn’t like what was going on, I showed up to say so.

In terms of deaths, Palm Desert has been one of the hardest-hit cities in the Coachella Valley by COVID-19. What can, or should, the city do to better deal with the pandemic?

Our city is on the record, and we (on the City Council) all voted to accept whatever instructions the county is putting out. For example, if the county says. ‘OK, you can all open up, and here are your guidelines,’ our goal is to comply with those.

Regarding the significant amount of deaths that appear to be in Palm Desert, I think that sometimes they leave out the rest of the story—and that is that we have a tremendous amount of nursing-care facilities. A lot of times, when they’re hit hard, a lot of deaths will come out of that area—not necessarily because of a lack of care or cleanliness or anything else; it’s just that those particular patients might have been susceptible. So it’s always important to look at the rest of the story before decisions are made.

Regarding our city, the minute that we had the information, we shut down our city (administration). Everybody started working from home. We got new computers and all sorts of systems set up so that people could assist the public immediately. So we did not drop the ball on that. When you call, you get help so that (obtaining) licenses and so forth can continue to take place. We figured out a way with our social distancing at City Hall to have the public make appointments to come in for one-on-one assistance. We’ve complied in every manner, and deep cleaning has been done. I was over there yesterday to do the online City Council meeting, so that I don’t have to worry about my computer shutting down. And while I was there, everyone was walking around with our masks on and following all those rules.

Should the city continue to contract with the Riverside County Sheriff for law enforcement services, given Sheriff Chad Bianco has stated publicly an unwillingness for citizen/community oversight, his refusal to meet with community stakeholders, and the high cost of his department’s services?

Well, we just changed our contract with them. But my concern about any of these organizations is that the people who are working in them aren’t necessarily running them. The unions are telling everybody what they have to do, and I’m not a fan of unions dictating what should be paid to different people, because I think the unions kind of all work for themselves after a while. That’s something that we’ve been facing, and you can’t just keep escalating costs, because pretty soon, 100 percent of the income that the city might get is going to be used for public safety. So we changed our (contract) so that we have more people who are working on paper work, you might say. So for example, you might call the sheriff’s department, because you’ve just been beaten up, and you would have a sheriff’s deputy go out there and take care of it. Then, I might call to say I just had a robbery, and they might take the report and then have somebody else out to follow up with all of the paperwork. So the deputies are now freed up to go out and do more of what we might call law-enforcement type work.

A lot of the (policing) issues we’re having, unfortunately, come from the homeless issue. Now, why would we want a deputy going out to take care of a homeless issue? So we’re hiring different people who can go out and handle that, as long as there’s no risk. As you understand, there’s a real fine line in public safety, where you don’t want anybody to get hurt. We’ve been looking at this now for the last two years, so I imagine that this is going on all over the place. Everybody’s trying to decide: What’s the better way?

Clearly, I’m not a fan of defunding. That’s not a good solution at all. It sounds like a great idea, but it’s not practical or common sense. If you’re going to get rid of something, you’ve got to be prepared to put something in its place. Also, we are working with Indian Wells and La Quinta to study the issue of changing the way we sub-contract out (our law-enforcement services). I’m a major fan of subcontracting, rather than having our own police force, (because) that’s a real expensive way to do it. For example, if we’re subcontracting out, and we all of a sudden need a whole lot more deputies, they can easily bring in the extra service to take care of our needs. That gives us a great amount of flexibility that we would not have if we just had our own police force. Of course, there’s good and bad on both sides. It’s kind of nice to know your own officers, so we try to make sure that we have the same ones for a period of time, like Lt. (Matthew) Martello right now, who we call our police chief, even though he’s with the sheriff’s department. He mostly works in Palm Desert, so we all have that comfort level of knowing him directly. So, all costs have to be analyzed, and the decision that’s made has to be focused on public safety and what’s best for our community.

There’s a matrix study that we’ve done (to analyze) how we could make police work more efficient, because if you keep doing things the same old way, you’re going to keep getting the same old results. If they’re not affordable results, then something has to change a little bit.

The City Council originally proposed building an Interstate 10 interchange at the north end of Portola Avenue in 2008. Should the city reconsider moving forward with this plan in light of potential impacts on the adjacent residential neighborhoods, which have expanded notably since the plan was first considered? For instance, should a survey be initiated to gather input from residents most likely to be impacted?

We’ve been working on this for ages. If it had been left up to the city of Palm Desert, we would have had an overpass in the blink of an eye. But we have to coordinate with everybody under the sun, beginning with CalTrans, the water district and anybody who touches that (project)—we have to negotiate with them to make sure that safety measures are in place for whatever they have (to do) in their underground or wherever. I’m not quite sure what you’re asking, because we’re trying to go ahead with it. That’s been our goal all along, to go ahead with it. We’re still being delayed because of the other organizations, not because of ours.

What I’m asking is: Since the project has now taken so long, do you think the plan should be re-visited with more community input from current neighboring residents, rather than going on what seemed like a great idea in 2008?

Well, the residents who I hear from and the community I hear from are very much in favor of having another access to Interstate-10. Our traffic clearly has increased quite a bit. So, if there are residents who don’t think it’s a good idea, of course, I would love to hear from them. But government takes a long time to do something. … The money is allocated. It’s sitting on the books allocated for this particular project. The design has been done, and the design has been approved by CalTrans and whatever agencies are involved in this. They’ve all taken the time to approve all those plans. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to start all over again.

When that overpass is finally completed, a lot of people are going to be quite happy. It’s going to relieve traffic on Monterey and Cook (Street) a little bit, since some of the traffic will be coming in via Portola. So my only concern is that if people are saying we should start all over, then they’re not understanding the reason it’s taking a long time. Our city is a fiduciary of the public money. So, when the public has decided, ‘Yes, we want to do that particular project,’ that money is set aside and designated for that particular project—and to change that would be quite an endeavor. Remember, these funds have been set aside for quite some time. I can’t even imagine how would we return them to whatever organization. So I don’t think it’s feasible, but I would invite anybody who thinks it’s a foolish idea to meet and talk. Right now, I thought we were pretty much on board with it.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity since the pandemic’s arrival?

I’m like a lot of people in that I like to watch these old PBS shows, and I watch a lot of movies and TV shows. They’re kind of nice, because they don’t use a lot of bad language in them, and PBS doesn’t use a whole lot of bad language. So they’re not so stressful, and you don’t have to cringe all the time. Of course, like everybody else, I talk to friends and send emails out to everybody to stay in touch and make sure everybody’s healthy.

Published in Politics

Forgive the tortured metaphor here … but the reopening train has left the station. And I don’t think there’s anything this country can do to get it back in the station now—no matter how dire things get.

Late this afternoon, the Wisconsin Supreme Court—in a disturbing 4-3 decision—struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order. The result is chaos: According to the Wisconsin State Journal, some counties have stepped in to issue their own orders, which remain valid. As for the other counties …

“For now, it looks like businesses and restaurants in counties that have not prohibited opening may operate as they wish,” the story says.

Closer to home, two Southern California casinos—Sycuan Casino Resort and the Valley View Casino and Hotel—just announced they’re reopening next week. And even closer to home, Morongo’s Canyon Lanes bowling alley will be reopening on Monday, according to the Facebook page.

All of this is happening on a planet where other countries that have eased restrictions are now needing to tighten things back up due to an increase in infections. Would that even now be possible in Wisconsin, if needed?

What a weird, alarming mess.

Meanwhile, May rolls on. And it’s only the 13th.

Other news from today:

• I am going to start off with some encouraging stories, as I cross my fingers really hard: The Washington Post talked to some doctors about how much they’ve learned about treating COVID-19 in the last two months. They’ve learned a lot, and that increasing knowledge is saving lives.

• From The New York Times: Scientists are working together more than they ever have before to find treatments for this damned virus. That’s leading to some very good things.

• Related: Vaccine-makers are considering joining forces to test their various candidate vaccines in one large trial. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach, however, as CNN points out.

• Public-relations guru David Perry drew my attention to this article, from Foreign Affairs magazine. The headline says it all, and as David presented it, I present it to you—without endorsement or critique: “Sweden’s Coronavirus Strategy Will Soon Be the World’s: Herd Immunity Is the Only Realistic Option—the Question Is How to Get There Safely.

• In a similar vein, here’s a piece from The Atlantic with this headline: “Take the Shutdown Skeptics Seriously: This Is Not a Straightforward Battle Between a Pro-Human and a Pro-Economy Camp.”

• I am holding back tears and counting my ample blessings after reading the opening paragraph of this San Francisco Chronicle piece: “More than 40 immigrants being held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego are alleging that a detainee’s recent death due to COVID-19 was caused by reckless and inhumane conditions, according to a letter begging the governor and other California lawmakers to intervene.”

• Some companies stepped up and offered their “essential workers” what amounted to hazard pay as the pandemic broke out. However, some of that extra pay is coming to an end—even though the hazards have not.

• Our colleagues at Dig Boston have done yet another compilation of alternative-newsmedia coverage of the pandemic, across the country and the world.

• Speaking of kick-ass media: Five media orgs with deep pockets are suing the Small Business Administration for information on which businesses got billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded loans.

The Hollywood Bowl’s summer season is officially cancelled. Surprising? No. Sad? Undeniably.

• If you’re a nerd like me, you’ll be fascinated by this San Jose Mercury News piece on how geneticists mapped the spread of SARS CoV-2 across the country. This data could help guide future travel restrictions.

• From the Independent: Palm Desert’s two new voting districts—which are decidedly unconventional—have been finalized for the 2020 city election. However, the pandemic has delayed the city’s planned adoption of a ranked-choice voting process.

• The federal government has decided some companies don’t need to follow the EPA’s pollution-monitoring rules during the pandemic. Nine states, including California, have filed suit against the EPA as a result.

Bankruptcy courts, alas, are going to probably going to see a lot of filings in the coming months and years. The Conversation shows how the courts are not ready for what’s about to hit them.

• A fantastic read from the Los Angeles Times: Janice Brown spent time at a Victorville hospital after getting sick with COVID-19. She improved, went home … and then the infection came back. This story, while alarming, is also oddly filled with hope.

• More from the “Elon Musk is a dick” files: Some of Tesla’s employees aren’t too thrilled about being rushed back to work at the carmaker’s Fremont plant.

• Creepy, or creative? A restaurant in Virginia with three Michelin stars doesn’t want to feel empty when it reopens with social-distancing restrictions … so it’s “seating” mannequins at unoccupied tables.

That’s enough for today. Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Be kind. If you can spare a few bucks to support quality, independent local journalism, please consider supporting the Coachella Valley Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with whatever craziness Thursday brings.

Published in Daily Digest

After a legal process that took nearly a year, the city of Palm Desert has finally moved to a district-based city voting system … sort of.

On April 30, the Palm Desert City Council—meeting online due to the COVID-19 pandemic—voted 5-0 to enact the new system. One large district, including the vast majority of the city, will be represented by four council members, while the tentatively named Civic Center Core District will have one representative.

The City Council had also planned to adopt a ranked-voting system in advance of this year’s city elections, but instead decided to put that off for two years due to the uncertainty created by the pandemic.

Karina Quintanilla is one of the two plaintiffs who sued the city in June of last year, alleging that the city’s at-large voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. Similar suits have forced cities across the state, including other Coachella Valley cities, to move from at-large to district-based voting in recent years. During a recent phone interview, Quintanilla—who fought for a five-district system throughout the process—said her feelings on Palm Desert’s new voting system were decidedly mixed.

“I cannot say that I’m satisfied,” Quintanilla said. “I can say that I’m disappointed that we did not get the five districts. But I am pleased that we’ve started a conversation. When Lorraine (Salas, the co-plaintiff) and I were faced with the decision (whether to settle the lawsuit), we knew that it’s very difficult to get things right the first time. But our hope was to generate a conversation—a platform to launch forward to the five (districts option). That’s something that I feel we did achieve, so I feel very pleased with that component.

“What we really wanted, though, was the ability to have districts, because that would allow people to relate directly to one representative.”

Quintanilla and Salas agreed to a settlement with the city in November, launching a process in which city residents were asked to offer input on the new voting system. At the first public presentation on the matter in January, city representatives made the two-district system seem like a foregone conclusion, before taking a more open and honest approach in subsequent meetings. Still, throughout the entire map-creation process, not one five-district map was offered to the City Council by the National Demographics Corporation, a company hired by the city to guide the map-creation effort—despite the fact that a five-district outcome was the stated preference of Quintanilla and Salas.

“Our perspective and our desire was to simply make a civic impact and have more people fully represented on the council,” Quintanilla said. “We were just looking at: How do we improve the city? We didn’t feel that draining the city funds through a long, drawn-out lawsuit was going to deliver any benefit. And now I’m even happier about that (decision on our part), because we couldn’t have anticipated that there would be this global pandemic nor the economic impact.

“So now we’ve come full circle, and we’re OK with postponing the ranked-choice voting. The city has much more important things to do, like taking care of its residents, rather than making that shift in the electoral process.”

While Quintanilla said she views the new voting system as just one step in an evolving process, Palm Desert’s council members spoke as if the process was complete—even though the city, at the least, will need to revisit the map after the results of the 2020 Census are released.

“This has been a long, difficult and challenging process,” councilmember Sabby Jonathan said prior to the final vote. “I want to thank all of the residents who came in and offered their input, opinion and perspective. It did help shape the final result. I think this was a situation where there were a lot of competing pros and cons, and benefits and downsides and upsides, and at the end of the day, I’m hopeful, and I believe that we crafted a method for moving forward that creates tremendous balance for all of the concerns that have been expressed.”

The Independent asked Doug Johnson, the president of the National Demographics Corporation—the company hired to help with the map-making process—what the city would need to do once the Census results are released.

“Following the release of the 2020 Census data, the city will have to revisit the adopted map,” Johnson wrote in an emailed response. “If the current districts remain reasonably population-balanced and in compliance with the Federal Voting Rights Act, the revisiting could be as simple as affirming the same lines. But the council does have the option to revise the lines even if population-balanced. It is, however, highly likely that the 2020 Census data will determine the districts are not sufficiently population-balanced, necessitating adjustments to at least bring them into compliance with federal law. California's ‘FAIR MAPS Act’ sets the minimum process the city has to follow for any post-2020 Census revisiting of the districts, including some timeline rules and a requirement for at least four public hearings or workshops.”

Beyond any changes the city may make after the Census data is released, there is always the possibility of another California Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the city and its unconventional new district map.

“According to the settlement agreement,” Quintanilla said, “Lorraine and I are barred from suing the city on this issue. So another resident will have to take over the helm and move it into phase two after the Census is over.”

Quintanilla, however, expressed optimism that the city would be open to input from residents moving forward.

“I had the opportunity to speak with councilwoman Kathleen Kelly, who was very gracious and very thoughtful,” Quintanilla said. “Moving forward, the ability to collaborate will make the city better.”

That olive-branch moment seemed to have resonated with Kelly, Palm Desert’s current mayor pro tem.

“I want, very enthusiastically and on behalf of the city, to thank the plaintiffs for collaborating to assess the appropriate implementation date for ranked-choice voting,” she said at the April 30 meeting. “They’ve shown a true interest in what’s best for the community, and we’re highly appreciative.”

Published in Politics

At noon on March 17, the city of Palm Desert’s public information officer, David Hermann, issued a statement with the headline “Palm Desert Declares Local Emergency—Temporarily Closes City Hall.”

“In response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic and rapidly evolving public health guidelines, City Manager Lauri Aylaian on Tuesday announced the declaration of a local emergency in Palm Desert,” the statement read. “Palm Desert City Hall and other municipal facilities are closed, effective at noon on March 17, and will remain closed pending a public health risk re-evaluation on April 3.”

On this crazy day, Hermann—displaying an impressive degree of professionalism—also took the time to respond to a few inquiries the Independent made regarding the status of the Palm Desert district-creation process for upcoming elections.

To recap: Palm Desert residents Karina Quintanilla and Lorraine Salas sued the city, accusing Palm Desert of not complying with the 2001 California Voting Rights Act. Similar lawsuits have forced cities across the state, including several in the Coachella Valley, to switch from at-large to district-based election systems. Quintanilla and Salas reached a preliminary settlement at the end of 2019—launching a public-participatory process.

That process began with an open-house presentation on Jan. 15, including a somewhat-misleading characterization: The city presented the creation of a system with just two districts as pretty much a done deal, which was not the case.

There was another, more-candid open-house presentation in February, followed by a public hearing in City Council chambers on March 12.

Then the pandemic reality arrived.

After one more public hearing, scheduled for March 26—during which remote input is allowed via cityofpalmdesert.org—the city has scheduled its final public hearing for April 16, when the City Council is slated to select the district map that could define the structure of electoral representation for the foreseeable future. (It is worth mentioning the plaintiffs have approval rights over the district boundaries in order for the lawsuit to be settled.)

The Independent reached out to Hermann to ask if the city has considered postponing the rest of this process until the COVID-19 threat has subsided.

“A postponement is not feasible given deadlines for the November election and the settlement agreement’s requirement that districts be in place for that election,” Hermann replied.

Of course, things are changing by the day, and it’s possible the city and plaintiffs could indeed agree to delay implementation of the district system, given the unprecedented circumstances. But as of this writing, the process is racing ahead toward that April 16 due date.

As of the March 12 public hearing, 10 maps had been submitted for consideration. Seven of them came from five different residents, while three were created by the National Demographics Corporation—a third-party vendor experienced in electoral district-map creation hired by the city—to reflect the city’s input.

At that next-to-last public hearing scheduled for March 26, at least two more map submissions will be considered as well.

All of the maps so far call for the creation of just two districts: One encompassing 20 percent of the city’s population in a majority-Latino area, with the other district encompassing the other 80 percent of the city’s population. The first district would be represented on the City Council by one member, while the second district will elect four members. No maps have yet been submitted illustrating three, four or five districts.

During the public-comment period of the March 12 meeting, Quintanilla expressed concerns that the online map-creation tool provided by the city was not intuitive or easy to utilize, even for someone as digitally savvy as she considers herself to be; as a result, she had not been able to submit the five-district option she would like to see implemented. Councilmember Kathleen Kelly suggested that instructional support be provided to residents if possible.

The Independent asked Hermann if map submissions could still be made. He replied: “Maps for City Council consideration have to be submitted prior to the March 26th hearing.” So that leaves residents, including Quintanilla, without much time—all while dealing with the uncertainty and distress of the pandemic threat.

On multiple occasions, Douglas Johnson, president of the National Demographics Corporation, has mentioned at public sessions that whatever district boundaries are adopted by the city will likely need to be redrawn next year based on the results of the 2020 Census. However, Hermann said this is not by any means a certainty.

“The districting map will only be adjusted in 2021 if it proves to lack the requisite population balance,” Hermann clarified.

What happens next? Stay tuned.

Published in Politics

After enjoying pizza and salad compliments of the city of Palm Desert, more than 100 residents—including the two plaintiffs in the ongoing legal process spawned by the city’s previous failure to move from at-large elections to district-based elections—convened on Feb. 12 for the “Public Open House No. 2: A Conversation About District Boundaries for City Elections” at the Palm Desert Community Center.

During a similar January event, city officials implied that a new elections system with just two districts was a foregone conclusion—even though it was not, as we learned in subsequent conversations with the city attorney and an unhappy plaintiff in the lawsuit, based on the 2001 California Voting Rights Act. However, city representatives at the Feb. 12 gathering were, at times, more candid, with more of an effort made to explain the steps involved in the city’s adoption of the lawsuit settlement.

Still, remarks and presentations made by City Manager Lauri Aylaian and Douglas Johnson, president of the National Demographics Corporation—hired by the city to help facilitate the creation of the districts—were met by shared groans and chuckles from residents in attendance, who seemed skeptical of the assertions being made.

After the meeting, Karina Quintanilla, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against the city, said she was pleased by the turnout. She and her co-litigant, Lorraine Salas, agreed to the preliminary settlement, they said, to save the city from an expensive court fight, in hopes that city residents would speak up in the mandated public forums—and that’s what happened at the Feb. 12 gathering.

“My impression was that the residents are trying to hold the city accountable for what (the city’s) intent is in pressing for only two districts,” Quintanilla said. “It made me feel pleased, because what Lorraine and I intended was to have the settlement foster community engagement and people to voice their opinions. It was wonderful to see that. It was great to be able to speak to a couple of the residents and give them my firsthand (input) on our decision to settle, as well as our commitment to continue to work for five districts.

“But during the Q&A portion of the meeting,” Quintanilla continued, “I was very displeased that, when City Manager Aylaian was asked, ‘Who proposed two districts?’ she mischaracterized (our position) and implied that we had proposed having only two districts That’s why I made sure to speak up and clarify that we never made that decision.”

Johnson urged residents to construct their own election-district maps and submit them to the City Council via the NDC’s online platform. (Residents can also print out a hard copy of their map and send it to the City Council.) We reached out to the city’s public information officer, David Hermann, via email to ask how seriously the council would consider any resident proposals.

“Residents may submit two-district or five-district maps,” Hermann replied. “The five-district maps will be kept in the records and provided to council, but only processed and posted if council directs that they be processed.” In other words, according to Hermann, the City Council retains the right to dismiss any residents’ proposals out of hand: There is no requirement that the council share proposals with the plaintiffs or other city residents.

In response to another question, Hermann said district plans could not be put up to a vote by residents because of a lack of time: “Plaintiffs wanted a solution implemented in time for the November 2020 council elections.”

Quintanilla clarified her and Salas’ intentions with the settlement.

“(The final settlement agreement proposal from the City Council) was so terrible that we just decided there was no point to dragging out things behind closed doors,” Quintanilla said. “So, one of the results was to bring it out (in front of the public), but we did not say, ‘Let’s get this over with and get on to the election.’ That was, by far, not our intent.”

While Quintanilla was heartened by the public turnout at the Feb. 12 meeting, she was disappointed by what she perceived as an unnecessarily confrontational stance taken by city representatives toward the plaintiffs and inquiring residents.

“Many of us found it to be a derogatory expression when they kept saying that it was a ‘tsunami of changes’ coming through (as a result of the Voting Rights Act non-compliance lawsuit),” Quintanilla said. “Is it really a tsunami, which is a devastating, terrible natural disaster? Is democracy a natural disaster? How is civic engagement a natural disaster? Change is not a bad thing.”

As for those map proposals: Quintanilla said she and Salas definitely planned on submitting a five-district map to the city for consideration.

“Now that we’ve been to the meeting and seen the (map-creation) tools that were presented, we’re going to submit a map,” she said. “We want to have the discussion be about, ‘What is the goal for the city of Palm Desert?’ Is it all about El Paseo and beautification? That is not what defines a city. The city (representatives) have said repeatedly that the (advantage) of having the ‘at-large’ council was to preserve unity, community and working together. So, how does creating two or more districts impede that?”

Palm Desert residents who desire more information about the ongoing process, offered from the plaintiffs’ point of view, can go to the Facebook page created by Quintanilla: www.facebook.com/District1PalmDesert. Residents who would like to take advantage of the Palm Desert district-map creation digital tools may visit www.representpd.org.

Published in Politics

The settlement that would resolve a lawsuit accusing the city Palm Desert of not complying with the 2001 California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) is not so settled after all.

The first public forum—held by the city to explain the two-district settlement, proposed in December to plaintiffs Lorraine Salas and Karina Quintanilla—gave attendees the impression that breaking the city into two voting districts was a done deal.

However, after a conversation with Palm Desert City Attorney Robert Hargreaves, I now understand that it’s not a done deal: If a resident believes that a total of three, or four, or five districts would provide a better solution to the lawsuit, then it is still possible for a resident to push for those changes.

In other words … everything is still on the negotiating table—and that negotiating table seems to be standing on wobbly legs.

“We were very displeased with the city’s offer to do one (new) district,” said Quintanilla, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit driving the city’s attempts to transition to a district-based system before the November election. “It almost seemed kind of patronizing (for the city) to say, ‘All right, fine, we know we’re not in compliance, and if we go to court, they’re going to make us do it anyway. So how about if we do just one district?’ That seemed very odd to us. … It seemed that the City Council was failing to understand that we’re a series of communities with different needs. We were not at all pleased with the settlement offer, but we felt it was best to let the public know what the city’s intentions were. It would be best to just save the tax-paying residents more (potential legal) fees by settling instead of continuing this in court. (Agreeing to settle) was done knowing that no matter what we did, it would still need to be presented in public meetings. So, we felt that this was just the very first step.”

What are the next steps from here? For example, if a more-diverse City Council is the goal, should the city consider perhaps adding a district in the northwest area of Palm Desert? According to the demographic map distributed by the city, Latino residents make up some 25 to 65 percent of the total population in several neighborhoods in that area. After all, if the plaintiffs or other residents resist the current, two-district direction, then the whole matter could wind up back in court—and ultimately, in the worst-case scenario, the court could decide to draw the map itself.

Mayor Pro-Tem Kathleen Kelly said she feels that the two-district plan puts the city on a path to a short-term resolution without litigation, and a longer-term future marked by flexibility and accommodation.

“As a resident, I would tend to favor an ‘at-large’ system, acknowledging that there could be some advantages to a ‘district’ system,” Kelly said, adding that she was speaking only for herself and not the entire council. “In response to the lawsuit, there was certainly a need to try to be accommodating, to hear the plaintiff’s concerns, and try to structure a system that would be responsive to that. What resulted was really a hybrid system, which will give us in Palm Desert the opportunity to experience, perhaps, the advantages and disadvantages of both systems. Once everyone has had some shared experience, and some basis for comparison, there’ll be further discussions that will be informed by that experience.”

Why, then, did the city seemingly create confusion and misconceptions by leading residents to believe a two-district future was a done deal? For instance, an early January postcard from the city requested residents’ attendance at the first public open house on Jan. 15. It stated, in part: “Starting in November 2020, Palm Desert will move to a two-district City Council system. … The Open House on Jan. 15 offers an opportunity for you to tell us what’s important in the transition.” Sounds like a done deal, right?

During her introductory remarks at that open house, Palm Desert City Manager Lauri Aylaian told the audience: “Our immediate fear was that we’d divide ourselves up into five districts, because we have five council members. We would have individual portions of Palm Desert fighting against one another to get the same money, to get the same resources, to be able to do the projects that they want to do in their areas. We thought we’ve been so well-served by working together; we don’t want to lose that.”

Later in her remarks, Aylaian said: “We were able to reach the terms for a settlement agreement with the plaintiffs who had filed the suit. Now, we’re on to the next part, which is how do we make the settlement work, and the CVRA work, and represent the best interests of Palm Desert? So what we came up with was completely different from what other cities have done. We have proposed a two-district solution, rather than dividing the city up into five—which is what most of the other cities in California have done. … We’ve been working on it for a long time, and we were able to implement a two-district solution.”

Again … sounds like a done deal, right? This was furthered by a slide in the onscreen presentation made by the city that read: “Today’s meeting—purpose—inform the community about the City’s New Election Process and learn from community members what’s important for them as we undergo this change.”

There’s yet another element of the city’s plans that plaintiff Quintanilla is not so sure about: a desire to move to a “ranked choice” voting system: According to Ballotpedia, “A ranked-choice voting system is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority. This system is sometimes referred to as an instant runoff voting system.”

Quintanilla said now was the time for Palm Desert residents to speak out if they don’t like these proposed changes.

“Like I said, when we received the settlement (agreement from the city), we were very displeased. Very displeased,” Quintanilla said, “But I finally came to the understanding with myself that this was a settlement. It’s not meant to be (a situation) where both parties are delighted with the process. It’s supposed to be a middle ground—not as far to the middle as we might have hoped, but again, it was our intent to make this first step and to open the door to this conversation. Now, it’s up to the rest of the city’s residents to come forward and say, ‘We don’t like this,’ and then they can speak up against that ranked-choice voting (proposal) and decide that’s not what they want.”

The city’s second open house is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 12, at a venue yet to be determined.

“It’s about taking action when it needs to be (taken), because there are greater goals to focus on,” Quintanilla said. “That’s what Lorraine and I were doing. Our city is right in the middle of Coachella Valley. We’ve got College of the Desert. We’ve got Cal State (San Bernardino). We’ve got UCR (the University of California at Riverside). We’ve got many opportunities here, and we need to be able to respond to the needs of the growing valley. So our decision was that, instead of having this tied up behind legal back and forth, and closed-door sessions and private conversations, it was time to let this (proposal) come to a community forum.”

Published in Politics

Palm Desert was incorporated as a city just 45 years ago—on Nov. 26, 1973, making it the second-youngest city in the Coachella Valley.

This November, Palm Desert is poised to become the fourth valley city to approve and regulate cannabis-industry retail sales, commercial cultivation and delivery services within its city limits—presuming voters approve the resolution put on this year’s ballot by the current City Council.

Also on the November ballot: Palm Desert voters will choose among five candidates—two incumbents and three challengers—for two seats up for election on the City Council.

The Independent recently spoke with four of five candidates. (Matt Monica, who identifies himself as a retired educator on the city’s candidate-information form, did not respond to the Independent.)

Incumbent Jan Harnik is winding up a busy year of political campaigning. Earlier this year, she ran unsuccessfully for the local Riverside County Board of Supervisors seat. After losing to V. Manuel Perez, Harnik immediately dove into her re-election campaign.

“It’s been exhausting,” said Harnik, who has served on the Palm Desert council since 2010. “But if we pay attention to the lessons, we have an opportunity to learn through these processes. It was pretty valuable in a lot of ways for me.”

Why did she decide to again run for the Palm Desert City Council?

“I’ll share with you that I’m an accidental politician,” Harnik said. “But I’ve found a great passion in doing this work, and in making a difference in our community. In 2013, I pushed for a strategic plan for our city that took over a year to complete. More than 100 community members volunteered to help us create this great plan, and now we have work to do.”

Sabby Jonathan, who is completing his fourth year on the council and this year is serving as mayor, spoke similarly of not wanting to leave work undone.

“I’ve been a resident in Palm Desert for almost 40 years, and I’ve been involved in our community during that time. Currently, my involvement is serving on council,” Jonathan said. “Right now, we’re dealing with creating good things rather than putting out fires. So one of the driving forces that caused me to seek re-election is that we have adopted a vision of what the city will look like in the next 20 years. It’s our strategic plan, which is now embedded in our general plan. We are now in the early stages of implementation, and so I feel that there is unfinished work.”

Challenger Carlos Pineda described his work experience as being in the legal field and working as a medical assistant, attending to Alzheimer’s and elderly patients. “Since January 2017, I’ve been active in attending City Council meetings in each of our Coachella Valley cities to address different issues that affect my communities,” he said. “My frustration stems from the fact that, since day one, when the new (federal) administration took over, we’ve been under attack. I’m a Latino person. I’m an immigrant, and I’m also a member of the LGBTQ community, and when we bring up issues (important to us) with the councils, they’re not listening to us.”

The other challenger is Kenneth Doran. A resident of Palm Desert for 15 years, he is retired.

“My background is in economic development (where he worked for eight years for local government agencies), and I have a master’s degree in public administration, so this is not new to me,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for a very long time, and therefore I think I can bring something.”

We asked each candidate what they felt are the priority issues facing Palm Desert.

“Economic development is one,” Pineda said. “I feel that Palm Desert has come to stagnation. They (the City Council) aren’t doing enough development. As far as the city’s support for businesses within Palm Desert, (the City Council) always focuses on the El Paseo area, but there are a lot of empty stores in the Westfield Mall, and this is affecting jobs. I understand that right now, Sears is having talks about when, and if, they will be leaving that location within the next year. That’s a big concern, because if we start losing more of the big stores, who’s going to want to go to the mall? The foot traffic will suffer. What these businesses are doing is moving to other cities where rents are more affordable, and the traffic is better so they can generate more sales.”

Pineda continued: “Another key point is affordable housing. According to the City Council, Palm Desert is the only city that has a resolution in place that says for every five acres of development, 20 percent of that space has to be allocated for affordable housing. However, it doesn’t mean that (developers) have to build it. So, they (the City Council) are bypassing their own policy. In some instances, they have accepted fees in lieu of (enforcing) the building of affordable housing. That’s a big problem for me, and it’s a big problem for the community.”

Pineda also took the current City Council to task over homelessness: “In the city of Palm Desert, they seem to not want to accept that there are homeless people. But there is a homeless population here, and I feel that Palm Desert should be a lot more active in addressing this problem in our own city. Their response to me has been, ‘Well, the best thing we continue to do is work in a coalition with (the Coachella Valley Association of Governments) and its committee (on homelessness).’ But in my opinion, each city needs to actively start doing something like they have in Palm Springs.”

Jonathan certainly sees the homelessness issue from another perspective.

“I chair the Coachella Valley Association of Governments homelessness committee,” he said. “We’ve implemented a regional holistic approach, and we’ve just received the first yearly report. It’s an evaluation of our first full year, and it is incredibly encouraging. It shows an 80 percent success rate.”

What does that “success rate” mean?

“We engage the services of HARC (Health Assessment and Research for Communities, a Palm Desert nonprofit) to conduct a third-party, objective, data-driven evaluation of the program. One of the measures was to track those who entered and exited the program to see how many have been taken out of homelessness and put into permanent housing, along with wrap-around services. The results stated that it was about eight out of 10. … It is very much a regional and holistic approach, and I’m encouraged by that success.”

Other issues that Jonathan said were priorities included the implementation of the aforementioned strategic plan, and handling the escalating cost of public-safety services.

“That cost is increasing annually at an unsustainable rate, and we’re dealing with it,” he said. “I think it’s important that we continue to address that issue to find a solution.”

Doran and Harnik both put economic development at the top of their lists.

“I want to focus on redeveloping the Highway 111 corridor,” Doran said. “What we have right now is from back in the ’50s, and it’s obsolete. It’s not fitting the traffic that we have now, so I’d like to revitalize that. Also, in terms of economic development, for the past 21 years, we’ve been trying to get a hotel over at Desert Willow (near Cook Street and Country Club Drive). We have hotel pads over there waiting for a hotel to be built. I want to see what kind of incentives we’re offering hotel developers now, and see what can be done to bring someone in there.”

Harnik said: “We recognize that tourism is the (economic) backbone of our community, and we also recognize it is absolutely necessary that we broaden our economic base. Every time we hit a downturn in the economy, we get that message, and we’re doing something about it now. We are really investing in the Cal State University, San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus, and offering relevant education. This will have an impact regionally, and not just on Palm Desert.”

Harnik touted the council’s commitment to a digital iHub in Palm Desert.

“We’re collaborating with CSUSB and the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, and I’m fortunate right now to be the chair of the executive committee at CVEP. We three are collaborating on this digital iHub, and we are bringing over the cybersecurity-study program from CSUSB to be part of our headquarters. We found a building right near the CSUSB Palm Desert campus, and they are going to have some of their (administrative functions) in there as well as the cybersecurity program. There are almost 400,000 unfilled jobs in cybersecurity in this nation, and they’re high-paying, clean-energy jobs. This is a tremendous opportunity for our community and for the region at large.

“When a job goes away due to technology, there are many more jobs created because of that technology,” Harnik said. “So this is an opportunity for somebody in their 40s or 50s to go into a new career. We’re focusing on Palm Desert and the digital iHub, because we have the bandwidth through CENIC (the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California). It’s the only bandwidth (of this magnitude) in the valley today. With this strong bandwidth, as well as our lower cost of living when compared to San Francisco or Los Angeles, we have an excellent opportunity to attract good and different types of businesses here.”

Doran said he’d focus on “community-building” and fixing what he sees as a lack of ethics in the city’s business dealings.

“Would you give a $130,000-a-year position as marketing manager to somebody who does not have a college degree and has no experience in marketing?” he said. “Several years ago, that happened (in Palm Desert). There is a city ordinance governing how persons should be selected for positions in the city administration, and it’s done that way to be respectful to the resident taxpayers. And when it’s not done the right way, to me, it’s a slap in the face to those residents. … If I see things like that happening, I won’t just vote “no,” but I’ll let the citizens know what’s happening.”

All four candidates agreed that voters should pass the cannabis business taxation and regulation resolution on this November’s ballot.

“(The City Council) adopted that resolution that permits adult use of recreational cannabis pursuant to the state’s Prop 64,” Jonathan said. “We were very careful in drafting our ordinance to make sure that we limit the number of cannabis businesses in our city, the types of those businesses, the distances between each other, the distance from schools and so forth. The idea was to step into this new industry very carefully, and that’s what we’ve accomplished.

“We’ve approved 11 permits, and (those businesses) are all in some stage of development at this point. Six of those permits are for dispensaries. The other five are for cannabis manufacturing.”

Harnik added: “When we make a move like this in Palm Desert, we always engage the stakeholders. We had a lot of input from the cannabis industry, including growers, sellers, etc., and we’ve looked at what other cities have done. We’re being far more conservative in the cannabis business than some other cities in our valley, and we feel that going slow and measured is the better way. We’re looking to see how this market shakes out. We do not want to create a situation where all of our really valuable plumbing businesses, tile, decor and construction businesses in the north end near Interstate 10 have their landlords saying, ‘We can make more money if we have somebody growing cannabis in there.’”

Pineda gave the current City Council credit for being “progressive” regarding cannabis businesses.

“There are actually several cities in the valley that are refusing to allow this industry to come in,” he said. “But (the City Council) is estimating that if this resolution passes, it will result in up to $3 million in additional annual tax revenue for the city. That’s not a bad thing if they allocate these new funds to actual projects that are needed. For instance, one could be dealing with retirement-benefit liabilities (for city workers), where they have only $5 million in reserve, and that doesn’t seem to be enough. Or maybe some of this money could go to the police department costs. But it seems that (the council members) are afraid of a major national economic crisis, and I feel that we have to be proactively thinking of what we can do to make sure that Palm Desert doesn’t suffer too much.”

Doran said he supports the new state cannabis law.

“I can assure you that as California goes, so goes the rest of the nation,” Doran said. “Still, our law-enforcement services are having a very negative impact on the city’s financial situation. Those costs are rising tremendously, and it’s not sustainable. So we’re going to have to address that issue, and I think, in my humble opinion, (the current City Council) is trying to make marijuana taxation the solution to all their problems.”

When asked if Palm Desert’s proposed tax rate was potentially too high, Doran said it was.

“That wouldn’t surprise me one bit,” he said. “But let the citizens vote. Honestly, what I think is ultimately going to happen is that the marijuana industry will become more wealthy and more powerful, and they’ll get lobbyists and then start whipping the system, just like everybody else has. When they do, we’ll see laws change, and taxation limits will be introduced. But right now, it’s a new industry, and the city is looking at it as the savior for all its problems.”

Published in Politics

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