CVIndependent

Thu12032020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Indio calls itself as the “City of Festivals,” and is home to the Empire Polo Club, where every year since 2001—except this year—folks from around the world have flocked to the world-famous Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

However, Indio is much more than the home of Coachella. It’s the Coachella Valley’s largest city by population, and has some of the area’s highest COVID-19 rates. It’s in the midst of a redevelopment effort, led by a new College of the Desert campus—but those efforts are being challenged by the economic downturn.

In other words, the winner of this year’s two contested City Council races will have a lot on their plates.

In District 1, incumbent and current Mayor Glenn Miller is facing challenger Erin Teran. The Independent recently spoke with them and asked each of them the same set of questions, covering issues from how can the city better curb the spread of COVID-19, to what can be done to decrease violent crime in the city. What follows below are their complete responses, edited only for style and clarity.

Glenn Miller, District 1 incumbent and current mayor; district director for State Sen. Melissa Melendez; landscape business owner

What is the No. 1 issue facing the city of Indio in 2021?

The No. 1 issue facing Indio now and in the coming year is how to come out of this COVID-19 pandemic with open businesses and an economic future for our community. Having a balanced budget for the city of Indio, with a healthy reserve that makes us able to continue with services, is the most vital issue facing the city in the coming years. We’re not exactly sure how the pandemic is going to affect us overall, but obviously it’s affected us with our concerts and our taxing base. But getting businesses back open, making sure that everybody’s back to work, and making sure, at the same time, that the city’s general fund is balanced and that our reserves are healthy, (will enable us to) continue to (provide) the quality of life and the services that residents expect.

The city of Indio has been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than any other city in the Coachella Valley. What can the city do better to reduce the infection rates among its residents?

What we have been doing: communication—networking with our businesses, our chamber of commerce and our residents to continue to make sure that we’re following what I call the four basic guidelines: Make sure you’re masked up; make sure you’re washing your hands; deep cleaning areas where there are multiple touches; and, obviously, social distancing, especially if you’re inside. This will continue to limit the spread of COVID-19. Our residents have done a good job with this. Our city has provided PPE (personal protective equipment) to our businesses and residents. We were just recently doing this with our senior citizens (to whom) we gave care packages that contained all the essential sanitary items they need to continue to be safe, including masks. So the city needs to continue to open businesses efficiently and safely, and I think what will help us is getting our communication network out to residents and businesses. The more that we open up, and the more interaction we have, the more chance we have of spreading COVID-19. Making sure that we take personal responsibility, and at the same time making sure that our residents and businesses are following those guidelines, will limit the spread—and, particularly, as we continue with social distancing, we have to make sure that we are personally responsible about what we do.

During 2019, incidents of violent crime in Indio increased over 2018. What can the city do to decrease those numbers moving forward?

What we have done is invest in our police department. We continue to bring new police officers up through our academy, and at the same time, we’ve deployed our Quality of Life Team officers throughout the city of Indio, along with any other units that are a part of the task force for Coachella Valley. We are looking for ways to interact with the community through our faith-based organizations, our businesses and our community as a whole, with outreach from our police department’s chief, Michael Washburn. We have a top-notch police department, and (top-notch) code enforcement and public safety overall, including our fire department. President Obama recognized us as one of only 15 police departments in the United States to be honored as one of the 21st century policing agencies, out of 18,000 (overall). We can do a better job, always, of communicating and looking (to see) what we can do with any kind of crime, but right now, our focus is on communication with our faith-based organizations, our businesses and the community to continue to work with them to reduce any opportunity for crime to be instigated here in the city of Indio. And, we’re working with other regional agencies to stop any crimes, if we’re able to, before they even occur. So, we have a great support unit with the local agencies, and that’s going to be the key to allowing us to provide more services and better public safety for our residents and businesses. We’re always here to support our police officers, and we’re in the middle of investing in more officers, having just hired six brand-new recruits, and we have four more in the pipeline who are working their way through the academy. That’s being paid for by the city of Indio, so that we make sure that they are able to study and go through the academy when they weren’t (otherwise) financially able to because they had to work at another job. So we’ve already invested in another 10 police officers.

Back in June, when the Indio City Council passed a budget for the fiscal year 2020-2021, some reserves were drawn upon to balance the budget. The new budget projects more than $135 million in revenues. Given the economic uncertainty, if those revenue numbers fall short, what cuts or new revenue opportunities would you propose that the city pursue?

Right now, we feel we have a balanced budget for the next two years, drawing either from our reserves, or our Measure X funding (a sales tax increase approved by voters in 2016), or from our revenue sources coming in. When I first got on City Council, we had a negative balance in our reserve fund. This is exactly what our reserve fund is for—to make sure that whenever we had any kind of uncertainty in our revenue sources and streams coming into the city, that we are able to utilize our reserve fund to make sure that services wouldn’t be cut.

I talked to the city manager, and his estimates on revenue coming in are a little higher. There’s quite a bit of sales tax (revenue) coming in, and our Auto Mall dealerships, which are our biggest source of revenue, are doing very well. So we’re going to get an update at our next meeting on Oct. 7 on exactly where we are, and where we’ll end up being. But in the last year or two, one of the great things that Indio has done is really push our economic development. We do it every year, but we actually doubled down with two new car dealerships coming in, and we also have a 37,000-square-foot Vallarta supermarket and a lot of other businesses opening. And we’re working with all of our existing businesses to get them open as well.

So, our revenue streams are a little better than we anticipated. If this pandemic continues, then we might have to make an adjustment, but we’ll do it wisely, and we’ll figure out where we can find savings now, and take it from the best opportunity that we have. But we won’t cut into any services or any protection that we have for our residents, to make sure that our quality of life stays like it is. We’re very confident we can do that.

What topic or issue impacting Indio should we have asked you about, and what are your thoughts on it?

I think the one thing you should have asked about is what else we’re doing to make our city’s quality of life better. It’s about working with our residents and our businesses to make sure that the quality of life in Indio is what they expect it to be. Over the last 12 years, that I’ve been on the council, we’ve worked very hard to continue to better the city with the new schools that we’ve brought in. Every one of our high schools is either brand new or has been rebuilt in the last 10 years. We have the new College of the Desert campus that is going to be expanded, and it was going ahead until COVID-19. Multiple businesses have come in, expanding economic opportunities. Obviously, the concerts which were cancelled this year, unfortunately, but we’re bringing in opportunities—not only to our downtown area and our new mall that’s going to be redeveloped, where the Indio Grand Marketplace is, but we now have every major homebuilder (working) in our city. So, the city of Indio is poised not only to be the City of Festivals, but also the City of Opportunity. We have a bright future in the city of Indio, and we’re looking forward to many years of efforts supported by the City Council and our residents, to make it the city that we all want it to be. We can always get better, but I can tell you that from talking to the residents on a continued basis, they are excited about where our future is going, from education up to business opportunities.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity during the COVID-19 pandemic?

That’s tough. I’ve been dialing up our seniors and other individuals, just to have a chat and conversation to see how they are. The conversations that I’ve had with people, who I would never have met before or talked to before, have given people an opportunity to get off their devices and get on the phone, because they actually want to hear your voice. So it’s been a great opportunity to connect with some people who I probably would have never had the chance to.


Erin Teran, registered nurse

What is the No. 1 issue facing the city of Indio in 2021?

In 2021, I definitely think that unity is going to be very important. We’ve gone through some very difficult times, not only with this pandemic, but we’re seeing much of our country be so split and divided. So I think it’s going to be so important to take a stand in our own communities and be a voice of leadership to try to bring people together, to check on your neighbors and to take care of one another. As human beings, we’re all experiencing many of the same things. We have the same fears right now. We have this fear of getting sick, or getting our family members sick. The stress of having to go to work, and then not knowing if you might bring (the virus) home to your family, is so difficult for people. So many families are trying to do the new distance learning, and it’s so challenging. But I found that if we really work together, we can get through this and overcome it, and make things easier for each other.

The city of Indio has been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than any other city in the Coachella Valley. What can the city do better to reduce the infection rates among its residents?

Well, we do know that the city of Indio has the largest population and the largest workforce (of any valley city), and quite frankly, we have the essential workers living on the east end of the valley. So, I think that, No. 1, we need to be out in front of this, and speaking about it daily. We should be talking about things we can do to keep our residents safe, and keep our employees safe. I’ve talked to so many different people who either haven’t had the PPE that they need, or they haven’t had the training (in how to use it properly). The city’s done an excellent job in getting the PPE out there to the businesses, but I think we could be doing more. I’d really like to utilize some of the committees that we have currently, in order to see if we can designate a group of volunteers—either furloughed or retired health-care workers—who want to volunteer their time to go out there and train some of (the workers at) these businesses. I’ve walked into so many stores where people were wearing their mask beneath their nose. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of education on how to use a mask correctly, and why we need to wear it a certain way, and take it off a certain way.

I think that we need to have real strong leadership, and not wait to see what other cities are doing. In the beginning of the pandemic, Indio took two weeks to put that mask ordinance in place. I think that when it comes to a pandemic, two weeks is really a lifetime. We need to be on top of that. We’re starting to see that we’re moving up into a new tier (of reduced state-mandated COVID-19 restrictions), so our main focus should be keeping everyone safe, and keeping our businesses open. We see so many businesses, especially small businesses, that are struggling right now, and we need to provide resources to those business owners. We could be meeting with them intermittently to see what challenges they’re facing, and to see how we can resolve those issues.

During 2019, incidents of violent crime in Indio increased over 2018. What can the city do to decrease those numbers moving forward?

I definitely think that many people are struggling. I know we’re talking about 2019 numbers, but again, we’re looking at the (valley’s) most populated city. So when you have people who are struggling and may not be receiving the resources that they need, or even understanding that there are resources available (for them), there may be some desperate measures that are taken. Also, I think we’ve seen nationwide this divide between law enforcement and communities. So this year, we formed a group called We Are Indio, and we held a vigil. The purpose of the vigil was to focus on prevention. Not only does that relate to any kind of police brutality, but it also relates to crime and other things happening in our communities. So when you’re able to provide social resources, and you’re able to bring the community together and form better relationships with public-safety officers, I think we will see a drop in those numbers. Chief Washburn has been very committed to working with us to form that bond with the community, and I’m really excited about that. Having these difficult conversations is not always a comfortable thing to do. For instance, when we were planning our vigil, I had officers call, and one was someone I went to school with (in Indio). He had some concerns, but when I was able to explain to him that our purpose and intent was to make things better for everyone, then he seemed to understand, and it calmed some of his nervousness. Obviously, we want to make sure that the officers are safe, but we want to make sure that we’re preventing any future issues, too.

Back in June, when the Indio City Council passed a budget for the fiscal year 2020-2021, some reserves were drawn upon to balance the budget. The new budget projects more than $135 million in revenues. Given the economic uncertainty, if those revenue numbers fall short, what cuts or new revenue opportunities would you propose that the city pursue?

I was able to sit down with Mark Scott, our interim city manager, and he said we’re looking pretty good to get through the rest of this year. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen next year. My understanding is that the festivals are planning to move forward next year, but it’s hard to say for sure. I always advocate that city reserves need to be utilized before we make any cuts that would affect any of our employees, because that’s their livelihood. I think it’s important to protect jobs. But we’re seeing so much growth in Indio that even through this pandemic, we’re building in Indio. I think we’ll be able to get through this by working together, but it will be very important for us to advocate strongly for additional funding. I looked at the numbers recently, and I think it was over 2,100 cities nationwide are facing budget shortfalls. So I think it’s time we start advocating to state and federal officials to bring more funds into our community.

What topic or issue impacting Indio should we have asked you about, and what are your thoughts on it?

One of the reasons why it was really important to me to run is that I’m a lifelong resident of Indio. I went to school here from kindergarten through 12th grade. My heart really is in Indio. I have a real passion, not only for what our city was, but for what it’s going to be, because I plan to live the rest of my life here. We’ve made a lot of changes, and obviously, we’ve had a lot of growth since I was a little girl. I just turned 40, and over the last 40 years, we’ve seen a lot of growth and change, but there are so many areas that have been left behind. So I feel a great connection to my community, but running for City Council has given me even more opportunities to speak with different community members and to understand the struggles that they face. For instance, I spoke with Pastor (Carl) McPeters recently. He has a church over in the John Nobles Ranch area, and for the Black community, it’s a very historic area. He was able to share how being displaced from that area (due) to expansion of the Indio mall affected his churchgoers. So I think it’s so important that we make sure our representatives are there to lead everyone, and to give equal access to all resources to every Indio resident.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Well, as a nurse, I didn’t have that much of an opportunity to shelter in place, because I was actually taking care of COVID-19 patients. But for me, it’s really been finding the silver linings in everything—and it’s really not one thing that I can say. Obviously, my daughter is disappointed that she has to be home from college, doing distance learning instead of living in her dorm, but the silver lining has been that I’ve had more time to spend with her. And while running this campaign, it’s been more challenging to actually meet with people. But the silver lining there is that when I got sick (with COVID-19), I was able to meet with people virtually, and I didn’t have to run all over town. So, I’d say it’s been finding the silver lining in so many things.

Published in Politics

Happy Monday, everyone. We have more than 20 story links today, so let’s get right to ’em:

• It was a big news day for the U.S. Supreme Court. In a landmark 6-3 ruling, the court ruled that gay, lesbian and transgender workers are protected by federal civil-rights lawsand Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch (!) wrote the majority opinion. The court also more or less upheld California’s sanctuary law by declining to hear a challenge to it.

• This just in, from the city of Palm Springs: “In an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, continue to flatten the curve and keep residents and visitors safe, the city of Palm Springs would like to notify the community that this year’s Fourth of July fireworks spectacular has been CANCELLED. ‘Due to the fact that the state of California is prohibiting large gatherings there will be no fireworks this year,’ said Cynthia Alvarado-Crawford, director of Palm Springs Parks and Recreation. ‘We thank our Palm Springs residents for their understanding.’”

T-Mobile—and possibly other wireless services—suffered a major outage today. Details are unclear on what exactly happened as of this writing.

• OK, now this is weird: The mayor of Indio apparently told KESQ News Channel 3 that even though Coachella and Stagecoach have been cancelled, Goldenvoice is still considering putting on a large, Desert Trip-style festival in October. We have no idea how such a large gathering would be possible, but as we’ve repeatedly said in this space, nothing makes sense anymore, so who knows.

• Despite rising case numbers, California is still doing OK as a whole in terms of COVID-19 metrics, Gov. Newsom said today.

• Yet again, the president has made a baffling remark regarding COVID-19: “If we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any.” Sigh …

• The Los Angeles Times takes a look at the reopening debate taking place in Imperial County, which borders Riverside County to the southeast, and has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in the state. Despite the high rates, some people there want to start the reopening process anyway.

• Hmm. Three large California police unions announced a plan yesterday—via full-page advertisements in some large daily newspapers—to root out racists and reform police departments. While some will scoff at this, the fact that police unions are suggesting such reforms is nothing short of stunning.

• Also stunning: A major Federal Reserve official said yesterday that systemic racism is holding back the U.S. economy.

• Sign No. 435,045 that we know very little about the disease: At first, scientists feared common hypertension drugs could make COVID-19 worse in people who took them. Fortunately, now they’ve changed their minds.

• Sign No. 435,046 that we know very little about the disease: Scientists from UCSF and Stanford say that “super antibodies,” found in less than 5 percent of COVID-19 patients, could be used to treat others battling the disease—and may help in the development of a vaccine. That’s the good news. The bad news, according to Dr. George Rutherford, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle: “Between 10 percent and 20 percent of patients with COVID-19 show no antibodies in serological tests, Rutherford said. The remaining 75 percent or more of coronavirus patients develop antibodies, he said, but they aren’t the neutralizing kind, indicating immunity to the disease might not last long in most people.

• The FDA has revoked the emergency-use authorization for hydroxychloroquine, aka the president’s COVID-19 drug of choice.

Tesla—and other companies—refuse to disclose coronavirus stats at their workplaces. Neither will county health departments. Why? They’re citing federal health-privacy laws as a reason—even though that’s not necessarily how federal health-privacy laws work.

• Writing for The Conversation, a professor of music explains why for some churches, the inability to sing is a really big deal.

• Also from The Conversation, and also religion-related: Indian leaders are using Hindu goddesses in the fight against the coronavirusand it’s not the first time they’ve used deities to battle disease.

• The Riverside Press-Enterprise writes about local public-health officials, people who normally work fairly anonymously, but who have now been thrust into the limelight—and a large degree of public scrutiny, often undeserved—thanks to the pandemic.

• The Legislature is in the process of passing a budget today—even though they’re still negotiating things with Gov. Newsom. Why the urgency? Well, they have to pass a budget by today if they want to continue being paid. In any case, there’s disagreement on how to deal with a $54 billion deficit caused by the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

The 2021 Academy Awards are being delayed two months due to the fact that most movie theaters remain closed, and most movie productions have been suspended because of, well, you know.

• This column from The Washington Post may leave you beating your head against the wall: “Are Americans hard-wired to spread the coronavirus?

• The pandemic has led some companies to institute the four-day work week. NBC News looks at the pluses and minuses—and finds mostly pluses.

China’s embassy and consulates have been engaging in displays of kindness—like free lunches and donations of medical supplies—in U.S. communities where they’re needed. NBC News looks into this interesting tidbit.

That’s the day’s news. Wash your hands. Please, please PLEASE wear a mask whenever you’re around other people. Fight injustice. Be kind. If you value honest, local journalism, please consider becoming a Supporter of the Independent. The Daily Digest will be back tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

A recent review of the budgets of all nine Coachella Valley cities confirms what multiple sources have mentioned over the last several months: The costs of providing police and fire protection have been rising every year—and could soon become a worrisome financial burden.

“About 50 percent of our general-fund budget at this time goes specifically to public safety,” Coachella City Councilmember V. Manuel Perez told the Independent in a recent interview. “In the course of the last few years, public-safety expenses have increased between 5 and 7 percent every year.

“The passing of Measure U a couple of years ago, which was a 1 percent sales-tax increase, is the only reason why … we’ve been able to sustain ourselves—and we understand that these annual (public-safety cost) increases are going to continue.”

With 50 percent of the general fund being allocated to public safety, Coachella falls in the middle of the pack, as far as valley cities go. Given different accounting methods, a direct comparison is difficult to make. However, Indian Wells is at the low end, spending about 35 percent of its general fund on public safety, while Cathedral City is on the high end, around 65 percent.

This is not just a problem here in the Coachella Valley, and studies have been done across the country over the past decade in an effort to determine what’s driving the trend in rising public-safety costs, even when adjusted for inflation. But because there so many variables at play, these studies have not uncovered a single root cause.

In the Coachella Valley, five cities—Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, La Quinta, Coachella and Indian Wells—contract out public-safety service to Riverside County and Cal Fire, while the other four cities—Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs and Indio—still maintain independent police departments. Only Palm Springs and Cathedral City have independent fire departments. Yet independence does not seem to be an indicator of how large a city’s budget allocation will be, since Palm Springs comes in on the low end at about a 45 percent budget allotment, with Cathedral City on the high end at 65 percent.

Back in 2013, Desert Hot Springs was in the midst of a financial crisis and explored outsourcing services to the county. “We were looking at our police force and what we could do either with the sheriff’s department or keeping our own police department,” said Mayor Scott Matas, who was a City Council member at the time. “When the sheriff’s department’s initial bid came in to us, it appeared that it was a couple of million dollars less. But after the interim police chief and his staff tore the bid apart and compared apples to apples, when the sheriff’s department came back for a second round, we found out it was actually going to cost us $1 million more, so it was pretty much a no-brainer for us to keep our own police department.”

Desert Hot Springs is now on better financial footing. “Recently, we actually gave a little bit back to the police department, which was cut by upwards of 22 percent when the fiscal crisis was going on,” Matas said. “It’s been nice to keep our own police force. It’s more personable when it comes to your community policing, because you have the same police officers there. When you contract out, you never know what that face is going to be. We have that issue with our county fire contract. We’re very fortunate that some of the firefighters who work in this community have been here a long time, but for the most part, they rotate in and out all the time, so you never have that same chief, or you never have the same firefighters.”

Indio City Council member Glenn Miller, who has also served as the city’s mayor, touted the benefits of Indio having its own police force.

“About 80 percent of the police officers working with us live in our city,” Miller said. “We have a large contingent that is home-grown, and then a lot of them have moved into the city, including our police chief, Michael Washburn, who came from Seattle. So they are vested in the city, and that does us a lot of good. … When they live in our neighborhoods, they get to know those communities.”

What solutions are mayors and city councilmembers looking at to keep public-safety spending in check?

“When it comes to county fire, they’ve just been given larger pay increases, which then trickles down to the people who contract with them,” said Matas, the DHS mayor. “We were hoping to open another fire station eventually, but now we’re looking at just trying to keep the staffing that we have. … It’s always a challenge with public safety. We’ve been very fortunate with our police services. Crime is down. We’ve got a great chief (Dale Mondary), and we’re working in a great direction, but with this fire budget coming up, I don’t know how we’re going to do that.”

Coachella’s V. Manuel Perez said there’s no way his city can keep pace with the public-safety cost increases as things stand now.

“We have to figure out how we can work with other valley contracting cities to come up with a long-term solution for this problem,” Perez said. “Maybe we can come up with some sort of (joint powers authority) between the cities to support an agreement to help pay for public safety.”

Newly elected La Quinta City Councilmember Steve Sanchez agreed that it’s worth exploring whether the valley’s cities should join forces … perhaps literally.

“I think that’s something we need to discuss amongst all our council members,” Sanchez said. “We need to look at all options, whether it’s (joining forces with) Indio or other cities, or if it’s just staying with the sheriff’s department—whichever makes the most sense.”

Miller said East Valley cities have already started talking about working together more.

“When I was serving as the mayor of Indio, up until the end of this last year, we discussed with (La Quinta Mayor) Linda Evans and (Coachella Mayor) Steve Hernandez the possibility of doing an East Valley coalition plan that would include combining police and parks, and … making a better community overall by working together as one. We could lower costs for each individual city by economies of scale. Also, we talked about economic development, youth programs and senior programs. Not that we were going to give up our autonomy, but we’re looking at ways we could partner up to get a bigger bang for our buck, and maybe do better for our residents by being able to provide additional services.

“With public safety, we’d look at what we could do, since we’re right next to each other, to institute a regional police force. It’s something that we’re open to. You never shut the door on any option.”

Published in Local Issues

Indio is the Coachella Valley’s largest city—and faces complex challenges due to the fact that it’s the home of Coachella, Stagecoach and Desert Trip.

In this year’s city election, seven people are running for two seats on the Indio City Council: Incumbents Glenn Miller and Lupe Ramos Watson, and challengers Joan Dzuro, Gina Chapa, Sam Torres, Jackie Lopez and Noe Gutierrez.

Joan Dzuro (right), a retired human resources consultant, cited a lack of both redevelopment funds and a concise plan for redevelopment as problems in Indio, due in large part to the state of California dissolving all redevelopment agencies back in 2012.

“One of the challenges that we have is the loss of the redevelopment funds,” Dzuro said. “… When those funds were removed by Sacramento, it became harder to find funding for that. I’m very encouraged by the hiring of (the city’s new director of economic development), Carl Morgan, because he’s able to come up with plans to talk to investors and businesses, and to try to work on options for some of that funding. You always need more funds when you have a fast-growing city. Public safety needs to be able to keep up with that, and it costs money.”

Dzuro said that her 35 years in corporate human resources give her much-needed experience.

“I’ve dealt with corporations from the business side and the employee side,” she said. “I think that’s the strength I can bring to the council, and bring in jobs and create businesses for the city, and have those businesses contribute new marketable skills to our unemployed and to the younger people graduating from college.”

Gina Chapa, a community organizer who worked for Congressman Raul Ruiz, said the lack of diverse commerce is a big issue.

“We’re struggling a lot with bringing in new businesses, supporting businesses, and actually having a thriving commercial area,” she said. “Also, I see that there’s a huge disparity between different populations in Indio. In order to feel like a complete city, we need to find a way to build bridges between the different communities in Indio. I feel that there’s a lack of ownership or participation. There’s a large population of disaffected or apathetic residents who feel disconnected to their local government.”

Chapa (right) said her roots are in Indio. “I’m a longtime community organizer and community resident. I was born in Indio and went to school in Indio. I’m raising my son in Indio, and I’m connected to various communities in Indio.”

Sam Torres, a former city councilman, said Indio’s slow economic recovery has caused problems.

“We’re starting to see some signs of (recovery in) the last few years, but we haven’t seen the robust economy we thought we were going to have,” he said. “I think that there’s another issue, and that’s the fact we’re starting to see two Indios. One is the north side and the far south side along the polo fields. The south side gets a lot of attention and is a new and dynamic community. But we’ve been leaving out the communities that have always been here. The residents in these communities are the ones who were building this economy. If you look in those neighborhoods, you can see the decay.”

Why should Indio voters put Torres back on the City Council, two years after he lost a re-election bid?

“I know the job. Now I really know this city,” he said. “I tell the truth and tell it like it is: ‘This is the problem, and this is what it takes to fix it.’ I do not bow to special interests, because the city residents elect me, and I don’t have a scheme to make money off this city.”

Jackie Lopez (right), who works as the district director for Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, said Indio’s largest challenge involves commerce.

“The No. 1 issue is places to shop,” Lopez said. “People spend their money outside of Indio. One of my main goals is better economic development. There are a lot of business owners struggling to make it. On the north side of Indio, we have a village market that could be a grocery store that’s sitting there. There are people who live across the street looking for places to shop that are walkable, and they’re getting to the point where they’re relying on their children and public transportation. Even though there are places to shop on the other side of the overpass, it’s too far for them. … I also feel that hotels are another concern with these festivals in our city; a lot of our tourists are staying outside of the area.”

Lopez said her work experience makes her a good fit for the City Council.

“I’m a lifelong resident here and have eight years working for the state Legislature,” she said. “I know how to get our money back from the state. I have worked on numerous pieces of legislation at the state level, (and worked) with our congressman to leverage funds for victims of the Salton Sea.” 

Noe Gutierrez—a behavioral health specialist, writer for CV Weekly and musician—said the city has not focused enough on small business.

“Downtown Indio hasn’t flourished like it should have,” he said. “I think smart growth is what we need—focusing on small-business owners and helping people get set up and started, as well as following them through. We all know the numbers of small businesses and when they open. Generally, they close within three years. We need to develop a plan we can follow.”

Gutierrez (right) said his experience in understanding people will serve him on the City Council.

“I grew up in Indio, and went to school in Indio, and I understand the backstreets, the different neighborhoods, the different types of people who live in those neighborhoods, and I understand their perception of things,” he said. “I have a huge amount of empathy given my background working as a social worker. My job is to put myself in other people’s shoes, so I feel I do a pretty good job doing that. … One thing I’m known for is gathering people together, getting them connected and establishing long-term relationships that are beneficial.”

The incumbents have had front-line experience dealing with Indio’s economic challenges in recent years. Glenn Miller said that while some newer areas of Indio—closer to Interstate 10—are fairly prosperous, the city’s downtown is suffering.

“Some of our older parts are taking a toll from the economic downturn,” he said. “It’s getting the actual funding availability, not only from the city of Indio, but also from our business community to invest into some of the areas that have been hit hardest due to the economic downturn, such as our downtown area.”

Miller, who has been on the council since 2008, has seen the city deal with hard financial times.

“When I first came on to the council, we had a structural $13 million deficit,” he said. “We burned through $35 million in reserves. Now we have a structurally balanced budget with over a half-million dollars in reserves, so financially, it is economically sound. But when you start talking about where you want the city to go when listening to our residents, one of the things they ask for is different kinds of shopping and business opportunities, education and investing in infrastructure.”

Miller said he should be re-elected because of his dedication to the city and the fact that he spends most of his free time working for a better Indio.

“I’m the most active and involved council member out of all the council members,” he said. “I’m very much engaged and spend all my free time working with our businesses, nonprofits and residents on what’s important to them.

“Indio will grow not only locally, but regionally. Not everyone who lives in Indio works in Indio. So the stronger the Coachella Valley is as a whole, and the more relationships we can build with College of the Desert and with our school district, it will be an advantage to the city of Indio, and I’m able to engage in those relationships.”

Councilmember Lupe Ramos Watson (right) said she’s concerned that Indio is losing out on sales-tax revenue.

“Our first and biggest challenge is to recapture some of the sales tax that is leaking out to other cities,” Watson said. “Several years ago, we conducted an economic-strategy analysis to figure out how much of our disposable income is being spent within the city boundaries to produce sales tax revenue, and how much was leaking out to other cities. We figured out that more than 50 percent of our potential sales tax revenue is leaking to other cities.”

Watson said she deserves to remain on the council due to the steps that she and her colleagues have taken regarding economic development.

“We just hired an economic development director a couple of months ago,” she said. “Because of the strategy we put together a couple of months ago, we have a plan for the downtown area that we’re completing to make sure the businesses that come into that area not only revitalize the downtown area, but add sales tax to our revenue and augment the opportunities as the ‘City of Festivals.’ With my background in planning in addition to development, I believe I’m a great asset to the city of Indio to help unfold these projects.”

We asked each of the candidates: What is the real identity of Indio?

“I believe Indio’s biggest attraction is that we’re a family-oriented city,” Dzuro said. “We emphasize our parks, the teen center and the Boys and Girls Club of America. We work together as a community with our festivals. The Tamale Festival and the Date Festival are family events. We really try to bring in the families to our community, and I think that’s what we emphasize more than anything.”

Chapa said that she feels the city government is not properly engaging with the older parts of the city.

“We know what it’s all called: ‘The City of Festivals,’” Chapa said. “That’s what it’s marketed as. It … doesn’t have just one identity. We know people understand Indio from the outside because of Coachella and the large snowbird community. As for the identity that it once had, there are many 40-plus-year residents living here who aren’t being included in the new face of Indio and the ‘City of Festivals.’ The identity is something we need to work on as a city, and (we need to) reach out to the community to build an identity so the people can feel like they’re part of the city, and that we can build our city together.”

Torres said Indio is not reaping the economic benefits it should be.

“The city of Indio is the ‘City of Festivals,’ but we used to be the second seat of the county, and we’re now in the backseat to Palm Springs,” Torres (right) said. “Any of the big events they have here, even at the casinos, they call it ‘Greater Palm Springs.’ We provide the neighbors and facilities, but the cash registers are ringing in the west valley. The local leaders have allowed that to happen and don’t have a plan to bring that identity back to Indio, and that’s where we made a huge mistake. It’s called the ‘’City of Festivals,’ but we’re really the ‘Greater Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce Backseaters.’”

Lopez said she wants Indio to once again be considered the hub of the Coachella Valley.

“We have so much potential, and we’re still growing,” she said. “On the other side of the freeway, I just found out we’re getting a Sonic and some other new places to shop and eat. The hope is to make sure we have a council member who will reinvest back into our community. We do pay taxes, and we’d like to see some of that money come back in infrastructure or attracting new places to shop and eat in downtown Indio—becoming the hub of the valley again.”

Gutierrez also said the city does not capitalize enough on the ‘City of Festivals’ label.

“There are some blinders on us,” he said. “We’re known for Coachella, but we don’t really expand on that. We’re just the site for Coachella. … We can’t rely on one-time events where people come, hang out and then leave, and probably never come back. We need a continuous inclusion of all age groups, ethnicities and everything.”

As for the identity of Indio, Miller (right) feels it has a lot to offer culturally.

“It’s the ‘City of Festivals’ and the city of culture. The city also has a bright future,” he said. “I think people see that in our rich history and being the largest city, but … multiple art developments and art pieces are going up throughout the city by world renowned artists who want to be part of the city of Indio and its culture.”

Watson said that she feels the city’s identity as the “City of Festivals” ties everything together.

“We’ve always celebrated our culture through the festivals,” she said. “It’s a community of celebration; Indio is full of hard-working individuals who work through our seasons to fulfill every need of their families, and when it’s time to celebrate, it’s done through our festivals. That is … a hard working community that understands that we need to work hard and work together to build a community that meets our needs.”

Published in Politics

Unless you’re one of those people targeted to receive vitriolic mailers from candidates blasting other candidates, you may not even know there’s a primary election taking place in California on Tuesday, June 3.

Even if you do know about the election: Are you one of those who doesn’t think it really matters—and might blow off voting?

Midterm elections are notorious for low turnouts, largely because the hype isn’t as great. They’re the elections in which nasty low blows and last-minute revelations dominate, yet they are often the elections which affect us most: city council members, judges, county supervisors, sheriffs and school board members are chosen. These are the offices closest to our everyday lives, and yet only the most ardent citizens follow these elections.

In the Coachella Valley, we have a couple of really interesting races, especially in light of the new open primary that means all candidates are in the same race, and the top two finishers, regardless of party affiliation, go into a final runoff election in November. California voters approved this by ballot initiative in 2010, another midterm lower-turnout election, apparently hoping it would end political gridlock. So much for that notion. If you don’t like this system, you should have voted against it.

As I recall, Republicans pushed for this open primary, because they felt they were getting completely shut out of California politics in this largely Democratic state. Its supporters claimed to want all parties to have an equal chance. That’s why you’ll see Democrats, Republicans, Peace and Freedom, and Green party candidates all running on this ballot, as well as some candidates who don’t identify with any party.

One of the offices up this election is Riverside County supervisor. We have the chance to fill this one seat with what would be the only non-Republican on that panel—and the first Hispanic, V. Manuel Perez. He was recently appointed as majority floor leader of the California Assembly, but he is termed out and cannot run again for that seat. Perez is running against present County Supervisor John Benoit. These are the people who decide how county funds are spent, and oversee programs that cater to populations and nonprofit efforts at the local level. How often have you heard complaints that the supervisors don’t take enough interest in our end of the county? This is a chance to impact who sits in that seat.

In the newly designated State Senate District 28—formed through redistricting and covering the desert communities, southwest Riverside County and Corona—the open primary is taking center stage. Drawn to be a Republican district (fair or not, that’s the way these things get done), the 28th has an active campaign that’s not always pleasant to watch, especially because it’s an “open” seat, meaning there is no incumbent with a presumed advantage up for re-election.

Four Republicans are running alongside two Democrats. Philip Drucker, a local attorney and educator, is a first-time candidate; he’s a lifelong Democrat, though he’s not well-known in local Democratic politics. The other is Anna Nevenic, who has run for various offices in the past, and is considered by local Democrats as something of a political gadfly.

On the Republican side, four candidates are vying for votes. Bill Carns is a business owner who is seen as having little chance to pull many votes. The other three Republican candidates are all political veterans who are running very hard campaigns.

Bonnie Garcia previously served in Sacramento, and was known for a while as the woman who wouldn’t “kick (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) out of my bed”; she has responded strongly to attacks on her integrity and family issues by her opponents.

Jeff Stone is a county supervisor who touts that he knows firsthand as a medical professional (owner of a compounding pharmacy) that Obamacare is a disaster. Of course, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is already law, is not on the ballot, and is not administered by county supervisors.

The Riverside County Young Republicans and Coachella Valley Young Republicans endorsed Garcia. The Southwest Young Republicans of Riverside County are going with Stone.

Also on the ballot for this Senate seat is Republican Glenn Miller, City Councilmember and former mayor of Indio. Miller describes himself as a fiscal conservative with progressive views on “social issues,” saying he supports abortion rights and gay marriage. He has recently been endorsed by no less than Equality California, a gay-marriage activist organization, and by some local Democrats (although these endorsements do not yet appear on his website).

These endorsements have caused no end of dissent among local Democrats, who ask: Why endorse a primary vote for a Republican, when there is a credible Democrat on the ballot? Wouldn’t that mean there is less likelihood that the Democrat might be one of the top two vote-getters? Or are they willing to bet on a friendly Republican, assuming any Democratic candidate will lose in the final election, anyway?

Some Republicans ask whether they can support a candidate who has gotten support from Democrats, especially pro-gay-marriage activists. Doesn’t that mean he’s a RINO—a Republican in Name Only? Are they saying not to vote for Miller because he might actually get elected? Is ideology more important than winning?

Since the district is presumed to be majority Republican, and since it’s not a bad bet that the primary will result in two Republicans being the highest vote-getters, why shouldn’t the Democrats hedge their bets and support the moderate Republican who could be a friendly ear in the State Senate? Remember the Rush Limbaugh “Vote for Hillary” campaign to hurt the Obama campaign, assuming Hillary could be beaten by John McCain?

I thought this kind of crap was what the open primary system was supposed to eliminate. What happened to caring about why they’re running, and how they plan to address issues and policies that matter to us?

Are you willing to let these decisions be made by political hacks playing games, or will you fulfill your responsibility as an American citizen, do some homework (the links are all here) and show up to vote for the best candidate?

The primary election is Tuesday, June 3. You don’t have to vote for everything on the ballot for your vote to count. But if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain about the results.

Full disclosure: I have interviewed Philip Drucker and Glenn Miller on my radio show. I have not publicly endorsed anyone. Podcasts are available at www.KNewsRadio.com.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

The sun is descending behind the San Jacinto Mountains as the classroom portion of the daily First Tee of the Coachella Valley program gets under way in the pro shop/education center of the First Tee golf course in Palm Desert.

“I show respect for my surroundings by picking up trash wherever I see it,” declares James, a member of the “Player 3” group (ages 7 to 9). He is addressing his fellow First Tee students, a few parents, lead instructor Jeff Harrison and LPGA-USGA program director Amy Anderson.

This group is learning how to incorporate into their daily existence the “nine core life values” emphasized by the program. Instilling these character traits in each and every participant is the primary mission of the First Tee staff here in Coachella Valley—and all of the chapters worldwide.

“We want to make them good citizens,” says executive director Glenn Miller. “I don’t really care if they become great golfers.”

The First Tee international organization lists the United States Golf Association, the PGA, the PGA Tour, the LPGA and the Masters Tournament as founding partners. So wouldn’t it be correct to assume that another underlying objective is to develop the next Tiger Woods or Stacy Lewis to represent U.S. golf on the international stage? “No, I don’t think that’s the case,” insists Miller. “Of all the young people who come through our program, I’d say about 99.9 percent of them will never be great golfers. Fair to good, probably, if they keep playing. But the next Tiger Woods? Well, it could happen, but that’s not what our program is focused on developing.”

That focus is on teaching students the appreciation of, and adherence to, the values of honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment in every aspect of an individual’s life. In addition to these basic “nine core life values,” the Coachella Valley chapter has incorporated instruction about “nine healthy habits.”

“We’re trying to get our kids to eat better, walk more and do things that are healthy for them,” Miller says, “get them to think about eating apples, grapes, oranges and yogurt rather than only potato chips and soda.”

In order to promote the budding self-esteem of committed participants, at the end of each school semester, the First Tee national office honors all participants who present a school report card showing an A/B level of achievement by presenting them with a certificate for their hard work and perseverance.

“Our First Tee team focuses heavily on the A/B scholar classroom accomplishments of our youngsters,” says Miller. “We’re looking for transformation in how they conduct themselves. We get input from the parents who tell us how much more reliable, confident and poised their child becomes, and we get great satisfaction from that feedback.”

First Tee was founded in 1997; Coachella Valley’s chapter started up in 2007. Palm Desert City Council members Dick Kelly (who passed away in 2010) and Robert Spiegel (who still serves on the council) were the catalysts in bringing First Tee to the valley under the supervision of the Desert Recreation District. They supervised the ownership transfer of the current 27-hole, par-three First Tee home golf course on Sheryl Avenue, just off Cook Street, from the city of Palm Desert to the Desert Recreation District. The program’s reach into the community has grown rapidly since then.

“We have about 1,350 student participants enrolled in all phases of our program in 2013,” Miller says. “They range in age from 4 years old to 18. We have four full-time instructors and about 150 volunteers who give regularly and generously of their time and effort. In each of our sessions, which are categorized by age and learning accomplishment, we have one instructor or volunteer present for every four students.”

The First Tee depends on community support for almost all of its operational funding as well. “The First Tee national organization contributes roughly $20,000 per year to our chapter,” Miller says. “So we rely almost completely on our fundraising success. The H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation was one of the first supporters to come to the table. Also, the Houston Family Foundation and the First Foundation have been strong contributors.

“Most of the funds that come in are utilized for equipment and scholarships for a lot of our youth,” Mr. Miller continued. “We don’t turn anyone away—we just don’t. We want to make First Tee available to any kid in the valley who would like to learn golf and those core values that come with it. The challenge is: How can we help them succeed in life?”

Assistance comes from several of the golf and country clubs in Coachella Valley. “The people at the Springs Country Club have been a godsend for us!” says Miller. “All together, they’ve raised some $200,000 through their fundraising tournaments for the First Tee. Our kids have access to play at the Classic Club, Desert Winds in 29 Palms and the Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage.

“The Marrakesh Country Club has welcomed our kids, and this Dec. 14, they’re staging their inaugural First Tee Golf and Putting Tournament benefit. And next Feb. 15, for the first time, we’ll be staging our annual First Tee Benefit Golf Tournament and fundraiser at the Bermuda Dunes Country Club.”

Given the First Tee’s strict policy that its students demonstrate the core values of honesty, integrity and responsibility at all times, what is the official First Tee stance on the use of mulligans during a round of golf?

Miller pauses for a second. He then diplomatically replies, “Mulligans are very good for fundraisers.”

For more information on the First Tee of the Coachella Valley, visit www.thefirstteecoachellavalley.org, or call 760-779-1877. Memberships are $120 per year, although discounts and scholarships are available based on income.

Below: First Tee of the Coachella Valley executive director Glenn Miller: “Of all the young people who come through our program, I’d say about 99.9 percent of them will never be great golfers. … That’s not what our program is focused on developing.”

Published in Features