CVIndependent

Mon06012020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Kevin Fitzgerald

On May 8, the Desert Ice Castle announced it was closing for good, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason.

“It is with great sadness and regret that—due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and despite our best efforts to remain in business—Desert Ice Castle has no choice but to cease operations, effective immediately,” read the notice at deserticecastle.com, where various equipment from the facility is now on sale.

While the pandemic has caused many valley businesses to close—and will sadly claim many more before it’s all over—COVID-19 may have simply been the final nail in the figurative coffin of the Cathedral City rink.

On April 13, 2018, the Desert Ice Castle filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy with the United States Bankruptcy Court’s Central District of California in Riverside. The rink apparently settled with its creditors, staying open—but on Dec. 13, 2019, Desert Ice Castle, LLP, owned by Anthony Liu, filed both a Certificate of Dissolution and a Certificate of Cancellation with California’s Secretary of State Office.

Regardless of the cause of the Desert Ice Castle’s demise, the closure left Coachella Valley hockey-lovers devastated.

“I was really sad, and kind of emotional,” said Katie Evans, president of the Coachella Valley Youth Hockey Foundation. “For me personally—speaking now as just a hockey mom and not as the foundation president—my son has spent six years of his life in that rink. He’s made some of his very best friends in that building, and so have I. We’ve gotten to know wonderful people in our community while we’re standing together against the glass watching our kids play, and he has spent wonderful moments on the ice and on the bench there. He’s had birthdays there. We’ve celebrated Christmas with our teammates there. So the whole idea of that building not being there anymore is just really sad. It’s meant a lot to us. It’s been an important place in our lives, and we’re just really sad that it won’t be around anymore.

“From the perspective of the Hockey Foundation or anyone who’s involved in hockey locally, it’s a tough pill to swallow. Our hockey programs (have been) so great here, and we have so many wonderful coaches and players. We’ve already struggled (in the past) to keep those programs robust. Now, of course, not having a local rink will (make it) difficult for players and their families to keep playing.”

Adults who relied on the ice rink—the only regulation-size hockey rink within at least 50 miles—for their skating enjoyment have been left in the lurch as well. Justin Reschke, the vice president of business operations for the Palm Springs Power Baseball Club, has been a player in the Ice Castle’s Adult Hockey League for six years.

“I was disappointed. I was sad,” Reschke said. “It was something to look forward to each week. After you’ve been playing with the same group of guys for several years, (it’s hard) to have that taken away all of a sudden—especially now, when you’re looking forward to slowly resuming normal activities.

“I guess some of the writing was on the wall, but I don’t think any of us thought when we walked out of the rink the last time back in March, that would be it.”

In order to keep playing, Reschke said he and his teammates will probably start making trips to Riverside.

“The Los Angeles Kings help operate a rink out there, and many players who lived here and played at DIC have also played out in Riverside,” he said. “It’s a little farther drive, but I’m sure we’ll figure out carpools. There were five teams in our league, so, from across the whole league, we should be able to get, hopefully, a couple of full teams to head out there.”

Evans said her group remains committed to helping keep local hockey kids on the ice.

“The foundation is here to support players and their families.” Evans said. “So we’ll focus on continuing that effort, whatever needs to happen. If our players decide that they’re going to go play in Riverside or Ontario, or another rink that’s within driving distance, we’ll do our best to support them. Maybe it will be by helping with the player fees, because now the parents would be spending lots of money on gasoline. Or maybe someone needs a scholarship, or we can help out again with gear.

“We’ll look at ways to continue to support our local players until there’s another facility that they can use here locally,” Evans said. “And we have high hopes for that. The (American Hockey League) team that’s intending to come and play in Palm Springs is a big deal. It would provide a facility again—the proposed Palm Springs arena home to the AHL team would include two ice rinks—and hopefully, (it will bring) more attention to hockey as a sport.

“And who knows? I don’t know how long it will take to build that rink, but maybe another opportunity will arise where someone else builds a rink.”

While the pandemic and the resulting financial crisis have cancelled sports, live entertainment and large events for the time being, work is apparently proceeding on the New Arena at Agua Caliente. For a status update, the Independent reached out to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which connected us with the Oak View Group, the company that will operate the arena.

“The New Arena at Agua Caliente in Palm Springs will feature two ice rinks, and we anticipate that in addition to its place as the home of AHL Palm Springs, that it will be accessible to the Coachella Valley ice-sports community,” said John Bolton, senior vice president of entertainment with the Oak View Group, in a statement. “Given the current unprecedented times, discussions around arena construction timelines continue, and we will provide updates when available as we work closely with the city of Palm Springs and Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.”

Reschke said he is keeping his fingers crossed that construction remains on schedule.

“It would be tremendous to have a new rink that’s a top-notch facility right here in the community of Palm Springs,” Reschke said. “That’s something that a lot of the players at the Ice Castle had a lot of interest in. So let’s hope that’s still part of the plan and that it’s still on schedule for 2021, or close to it. Then, hopefully, we can get on it right away and reinvigorate the adult hockey community right here in the Coachella Valley.”

Water infrastructure is finally coming to three underserved portions of the eastern Coachella Valley—if state budget cuts don’t get in the way.

After nearly six years of work by Castulo Estrada, the rest of the Coachella Valley Water District board and Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, the water district announced in early May that the State Water Resources Control Board had approved two construction grants, totaling about $3.3 million. The funds will be used to complete three projects that will bring safe, reliable water service and fire protection to two disadvantaged communities and one elementary school in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“The reason we put out the press release was because the financial agreement was executed,” said Estrada, the CVWD board’s vice president, during a recent phone interview. “Once an agreement has been executed, it’s a contract between the state of California and the CVWD for the execution of the project (for which) the money had been requested, in this case the three east valley projects. That allows us to move forward with bidding the project, so that we can move on to construction. We’ve initiated that (bidding) with money from the CVWD’s own budget. I believe we’ve begun advertising, and these three projects are being presented as a package. The same contractor would construct the necessary works for connecting these systems the public system. The last I heard, we were shooting to award the contract sometime in July, and start construction sometime between the end of July and the fall.”

Garcia, who chairs of the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife, welcomed the funding in a news release.

“Together with partners like the Coachella Valley Water District, we have been leading a concerted effort to address the eastern Coachella Valley’s severe water disparities,” he said in the release. “Last year, we focused our legislative endeavors (on) creating a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund to ensure that California dedicated investments towards long-standing water infrastructure needs of underserved areas like ours. I am proud to see our advocacy and hard work result in these state grants that will go a long way in supporting our goal of improving water connectivity and public health for our families and students."

However, the good news arrived just as the state and country were falling into the deepest and most-sudden recession in history, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked Estrada if he was concerned state budget cuts could possibly negate the funding commitment.

“No, these monies have been accounted for,” he said. “But what I think might be at risk—not just for water-related projects, but for all budgets within the state of California—are those (grant applications) that will come up in next year’s budget process. These (projects) have already been encumbered. So, I don’t have any worry about these projects stalling.”

The Independent reached out to the SWRCB to verify that the grant funding was, in fact, completely secure. Public information officer Blair Robertson responded via email: “The bottom line is that there is no irrevocable commitment. That said, we are not aware of the funding for the Coachella projects being proposed for cuts by the governor.”

According to the SWRCB, all grants are subject to a set of terms and conditions, the 18th of which states: “The State Water Board’s obligation to disburse funds is contingent upon the availability of sufficient funds to permit the disbursements provided for herein. If sufficient funds are not available for any reason, including but not limited to failure of the federal or state government to appropriate funds necessary for disbursement of funds, the State Water Board shall not be obligated to make any disbursements to the recipient under this agreement. … If any disbursements due the recipient under this agreement are deferred because sufficient funds are unavailable, it is the intention of the State Water Board that such disbursement will be made to the recipient when sufficient funds do become available, but this intention is not binding.”

Once the connections are built between the CVWD’s existing water-delivery infrastructure and the Oasis Gardens Mobile Home Park, the Thermal Mutual community and the Westside Elementary School, the district will add roughly 200 new customers. While, without a doubt, these projects are necessary, the Independent asked Estrada if he was concerned the new clients may have difficulty keeping up with the monthly water-service charges, especially given the economic downturn.

“That hasn’t been a concern,” he said. “Obviously, before the project moves forward and the monies are appropriated, there is a need to enter into consolidation agreements. There were a number of workshops put together to engage the community and let residents know exactly what it means to get hooked up. Information about bills, and things like that, are explained up front, so that there are no surprises and so that there’s buy-in. All of that took place. Our water (comes) at a very affordable rate, and I think folks are happy when they’re able to connect to our system. I think that their concern about not having access to safe drinking water for themselves, and their families and their kids, outweighs any concern that they might have about a bill.”

While the financial crisis is obviously a huge concern, Estrada said he was confident other needed infrastructure projects in the eastern Coachella Valley would receive strong consideration from the state whenever funding is available.

“When the new funding called the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund was created and signed into law last year … (the legislation) created the fund, but it also directed the SWRCB to put together an advisory group, because there was no (statewide) plan. What gets funded? What is the expenditure count? What are the priorities? … It’s made up of 19 people from across California, and I’m one of them. I think we’re very well represented in Sacramento now. We are at the table, and we’re constantly engaging with the SWRCB and their staff. Personally, I now know the SWRCB members in Sacramento, and I’m very happy to know them. We’re in constant communication to the point where (the SWRCB) advised us that … since we have (over the last several years developed detailed) water- and sewer-project master plans (identifying roughly 40 water- and 80 sewer-hookup projects in the east valley) that total multi-millions of dollars in infrastructure investments, they want to help us enter into bigger financial agreements (with the state). So rather than doing small agreements almost on a per-project basis, the next thing that we’re working on is an application for a group of water-related projects that would require a $20 million grant.”

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.”

Although the gates remain closed at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, anyone can hop onto social media to see some of the unusual breeds of animals that call this desert enclave home—all while learning from the videos, photos and descriptive content developed by the park’s team in an accelerated fashion these days.

The aim is to inform visitors about the daily lives of this nonprofit zoo’s residents—while inviting visitors to make a much-needed donation.

“We have 450 animals here who depend upon us,” said Allen Monroe, The Living Desert’s president and CEO, during a recent phone interview. “We have a commitment to them, and we’re fortunate enough to have a great animal-care team here, and a veterinary team to help support them.

“Our first action (when the shelter-at-home orders were announced) was to make sure that the needs of the animals were going to continue to be met for whatever length of time we were forced to be closed to the public. We ensured that we had months of different kinds of foods supplied to us, and all the veterinary medicines that we could project needing over the next couple of months. This way, if there are supply-chain interruptions, we’ll be able to go forward with our operations without external resources. This is part of what a modern-day zoo does. These animals are here as ambassadors for their species, and we’ve got really strong commitments for their care. We have to make sure that we can accommodate those, no matter what the situation might be.”

Part of guaranteeing the safety of these ambassadors from desert regions all over the world is managing the financial challenges brought on by the massive economic downturn that’s a result of the pandemic.

“Once the county health department closed down our park as a gathering place, our first concern was on a financial basis,” Monroe said. “We rely on gate-generated revenue for the majority of our operating expense budget. Unfortunately, we were at the start of spring break, our busiest time of year. It’s when we make enough money to help us get through the times in the summer when, because of the heat and the (drop in) tourist traffic, it is actually a money-losing time for us.

“Fortunately, we’ve practiced a number of scenarios (that focus on us) continuing our business operations. We have drills on a regular basis for everything from fires to earthquakes and things like that—although we never planned for a pandemic, obviously. I don’t think anybody had. Still, we could use some of those practice exercises to help us figure out what we needed to do in the short term, and then we could start thinking about what business operations will look like while we’re closed, and then—as soon as the county gives us the green light—how we can find a way to open back up again in a safe fashion for our guests and our staff.”

Unfortunately, one of The Living Desert’s first actions was laying off about two-thirds of the park’s workforce, mostly guest-services personnel.

“That allowed us to focus in on our core team of people who are integral in our animal-care departments and business operations,” Monroe said. “We’re like many businesses in a similar situation to us, but they can close their doors and turn off the lights. They may still have to pay rent and such, but (they don’t have) a large operational expense”—namely, taking care of the resident animal population and more than 1,200 acres of park grounds.

Fortunately, The Living Desert made preparations for the worst.

“The good news is that, over the last number of years, we’ve been able to develop an endowment fund that helps support The Living Desert,” Monroe said. “So we have relatively strong cash reserves that would get us through the next months and up to a year if we have to. That’s if we stay with just our current core team of staff people who are necessary for us to take care of the plants and the animals and the mechanical systems here in the park.

“We’ve got months and months of supplies on hand now—and even (planning for) a worst-case scenario, we’ve already started planting some lettuce. We have a horticultural department here, and we feed out lettuce as a treat to some of our animals. Our giraffes are really fond of lettuce. Also, we’ve got a large walk-in freezer that’s stacked to the brim with the different meat products that we feed to our carnivore animals.

“I used to say that we’ve planned for everything, but this virus has thrown the whole world into a new scenario of what’s possible. I think, though, that we’re in good shape.”

What most concerns Monroe during this period of wait-and-see?

“It’s making sure that we can provide a safe environment for our guests when they return,” Monroe said. “We have a COVID-19 preparedness plan that we’ve been putting in place. It specifies all the new standards for how we’re going to operate a business that (traditionally) encourages people to gather—whether it’s acrylic shields in front of cash registers, or making sure there are adequate cueing areas where people can be far enough away from each other so that they feel safe in coming back to our facility.”

While visitor-safety concerns will be crucial when the zoo reopens, comfort and convenience will be important considerations as well. For example, Monroe said The Living Desert is working on plans to move away from multi-car trams in favor of smaller vehicles that hold just one family.

“This way, guests who need an assist in moving around the park will still have an option, and by keeping it to one family, they’ll get an opportunity to see the park while not being exposed to other people unnecessarily.”

What about the educational experiences that have long been featured aspects of The Living Desert?

“We have been talking about modifying some aspects of our park. … In the past, we’ve had a Wildlife Wonder Show that we do in an amphitheater that has a capacity of about 300 people sitting shoulder to shoulder. It now seems likely that will not be the kind of event that is conducive to good health, at least for the immediate future. So we’re talking about ways to integrate spacing into that, or potentially just closing that aspect down for a while. Instead, we can just let people enjoy other parts of the park. We’ve got these great botanical gardens that have lots of really nice trails, and opportunities to walk through different desert habitats. That will be a chance for people to get back outside, get a little exercise and re-connect with nature in a safe fashion.”

Until that reopening day comes—hopefully sooner rather than later—Monroe recommends people visit the zoo’s social-media outlets. While people enjoy the original video and photo content—like the entertaining weekly update videos created by Animal Care Director RoxAnna Breitigan—they can help support the park by creating a fundraiser to support the park’s operations. According to the zoo’s Facebook page, in the month of April, some 16 fundraisers had been initiated, raising more than $10,000.

“When we were forced to shut down,” Monroe said, “we established a fundraising campaign called Mission—Animal Care. Now our supporters can, through a variety of different mechanisms, help us with just a few dollars or sometimes with thousands of dollars towards the care and support of the animals. One of the things that’s been really heartwarming is that, in sort of a spontaneous fashion, dozens and dozens of people who, instead of getting presents for their birthdays, have (done Facebook fundraisers) to have their friends give $10 to $15 that goes into a pot that then helps us provide our educational and conservation programming, as well as take care of our animals. Also, there are often comments made by the people who make donations, and they tell us what an important part of their lives (The Living Desert has been), because they came here with their parents, and now they have kids of their own. It’s nice to see that kind of multi-generational connection that we’ve been able to provide and that generates wonderful memories.”

Meanwhile, Monroe and his team are working toward the day the zoo can reopen.

“The good news about The Living Desert is that, obviously, it’s an outdoor facility, and we’ve got a great deal of room for social distancing,” he said. “It’s not like people are in a movie theater sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with somebody. So I think the nature of the product that we offer our guests will be of interest to them, and they’ll feel relatively safe going back out, once they get the green light from the governor. What we don’t know is how deep will the recession be. What amount of discretionary income might people have? But we’re prepared to staff back up as a number of guests come rolling back in, and hopefully sooner rather than later, we’ll get back up to what the attendance numbers were prior to when the COVID-19 virus hit.

“The big question is: How long will we be shut down? And when will we be able to re-open and start generating revenue again? Those are the main questions that all the businesses in the Coachella Valley are asking themselves.”

For more information, visit www.livingdesert.org or www.facebook.com/TheLivingDesert.

Dr. Raul Ruiz is entering the final six months of his fourth term in the U.S. Congress (and running for a fifth term), and much to his own surprise, the medical doctor who spent years working in emergency rooms finds himself in a new role—as a widely sought-after expert.

When nationwide social-distancing guidelines were announced back March, the U.S. House of Representatives was forced to stop meeting in person, so many representatives, including Ruiz, returned to their districts.

“It was hard to find consistency, clarity and credibility here when I got (back) from D.C.,” Ruiz said during a recent phone interview. “I really took it upon myself—given my medical and public-health/disaster-response training and background—to make myself available and to keep this (discussion) in line with a very data- and fact-based scientific approach. I try to answer questions as honestly and transparently as I can. I admit what I don’t know, or what science doesn’t know, and (try) to create a sense of social responsibility, of loving your neighbor—to really help people understand the big picture and see the forest. Then, they can make better decisions when they have to choose amongst the trees.”

The public is confronted daily with numerous and often conflicting messages related to the COVID-19 pandemic—from the often confusing positions declared by President Trump, to the more-considered policies and analyses of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, both which run in contrast to the policy proclamations of Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County’s public health officer, or the more erudite views of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

When the Independent spoke to Ruiz on April 21, we had to ask: Where does the Coachella Valley stand regarding the pandemic?

“This is what I know for a fact: This virus is not going away,” Ruiz said. “People will still be carriers of this virus, even if they’re asymptomatic and feel perfectly fine. And in the absence of massive testing, we don’t know truly how many people are carriers in our communities. Therefore, it will depend on how the community practices social distancing and the (other) precautions to determine whether we see an outbreak, and another rapid rise in coronavirus transmissions. So we are not out of the woods until we have two things. One is a vaccine. That’s the definitive preventative measure that will help us get back to a pre-coronavirus state of normalcy. But in the absence of a vaccine, the second objective would be to have the safeguards in place to prevent another outbreak and surge that could put us over our hospital capacity to handle the amount of coronavirus cases.

“In a nutshell, the safeguards required are having what it takes to help our first responders save lives and protect their own. Secondly, we need the capacity to quickly identify new cases, to isolate them through quarantining, (to do) sufficient contact tracing—and, basically, contain the virus.”

Large-scale, accurate testing is key to beginning the return to relative normalcy.

“Currently, Riverside County has tested about 1-2 percent of the total population—but we need 30-40 percent of the population to be able to get tested readily,” Ruiz said. “I’m talking about testing through primary-care doctors. I’m talking about testing in businesses, testing at food pantries and food banks, testing in the schools. We need massive drive-through testing, where people can get screened and tested even if they don’t have the symptoms. That will give us a better picture of the prevalence of the coronavirus in a community, and also it will help us quickly identify people who are infected—who we hadn’t known about before—in order to do contact tracing, isolate them and quarantine others who may be at a high-risk.

“At this point, I don’t believe we have the system in place to do that. People can come up with plans (to re-open), but having an idea written on paper is different from having the actual personnel, the training, the equipment and the resources needed to implement any such plan.”

How did we, as a nation, arrive at this juncture in the battle against the worst pandemic the world has seen since the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918? And can a massive testing effort, such as the one Ruiz described, come to fruition?

“It does require federal support, and this is one of the biggest failures of the response by the federal government,” Ruiz said. “This pandemic was not taken seriously enough in the months of January and February, and that’s precisely when a full and comprehensive use of the Defense Production Act should have been implemented in order to plan the production of the needed tests, PPEs (personal protective equipment) and ventilators required to handle the surge—and we (as a nation) are still behind. In California, where we have the fifth-largest economy in the world, we have enormous purchasing power to create a statewide plan to augment testing. I believe the governor is focused on a statewide plan now, given the lack of movement from the (federal) administration.”

Ruiz said the federal government, if it so chooses, could still initiate a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach to bringing the virus’ spread under control—and thus create a clear, safe path toward reopening our country. In fact, Ruiz has a three-point plan of his own.

“It’s not too late for the president to fully utilize the Defense Production Act,” Ruiz said. “What does that look like? The president assigns multiple companies, in multiple industries, to produce not only the PPE, the tests and the ventilators, but also all of the ingredients that go into each of those, in a targeted amount and by a certain date. The federal government guarantees that it will cover the cost of purchasing (the finished) products and of distributing them. Also, it will help with any capacity expansion or modification that those manufacturers need, and even help provide the labor pool needed to get it done. I would use the CEOs of those companies to form a rapid-response task force to problem-solve the nuances of the supply chain logistics in real time.”

“The second thing the administration should do is create a federal-command coordinating mechanism that’s regionally based, has a very clear chain of command, and can strategically produce, deliver and re-stock these materials in different hospitals.”

Ruiz explained how this command structure could effectively free hospital administrators and local-government officials from the stress of searching the world for supplies, as well as eliminate price-gouging, plus hoarding by concerned state administrations.

“The third aspect of this plan that I’ve sent over to the administration—and made a lot of noise about—is that we need transparency,” Ruiz said. “Currently, we cannot clearly plot who’s responsible for what in the supply chain. We don’t know what real role Jared Kushner has, or what real role the vice president has, or what real role Admiral (John) Polowczyk has. This (creates) a dilemma for people who want to trust and augment the system when the chain of command is so vague.

“I say it’s not too late, because we won’t have a vaccine for at least another year. So we’ll need to practice precautions for another year. I would love to have all non-essential businesses open with social-distancing precautions, but to do that, and safely avoid another massive surge that puts us back to stay-at-home orders, we need massive testing, and a massive amount of PPEs.”

Of course, 2020 is an election year—and traditional voting may not be safe during a pandemic. Oh, and the United States Postal Service is on thin financial ice. Both of these related topics have been the subject of much recent bickering in Washington, D.C.

“I’m in support of a vote-by-mail program,” Ruiz said, “because that’s the best way to practice our patriotic and civil voting responsibility while keeping our citizens safe during these elections. Democrats (in Congress) proposed funding for the post office during the CARES Act, but the Senate Republicans refused and said it was, basically, a non-starter. But I know that it will continue to be an advocacy on the part of House Democrats and Senate Democrats, because we believe that everybody who can vote, should vote, responsibly and in the safest way possible. Forcing individuals to stand out in the cold (at polling places) without enabling proper protections and precautions is putting them intentionally in harm’s way, when you know that there is an easy way to vote safely from home.”

The U.S. Postal Service could also play a key role in any at-home testing programs that get developed in the coming months. Ruiz said he and his fellow Democrats would continue to fight to save the Postal Service—but there’s only so much they can do.

“I’m confident that we’re going to include USPS support in a Democratic House bill,” Ruiz said. “Whether or not the Senate will vote for it, or whether or not the president will veto a plan that allows every citizen to vote safely by mail—I cannot guarantee that.”

While COVID-19 is obviously the world’s biggest current health challenge, people still have other health problems that need to be addressed in a timely fashion—and if you happen to be a low-income, uninsured resident of the Coachella Valley, one of the few options for good, quality care is Indio’s Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine clinic.

According to the clinic’s website: “CVVIM is a member of Volunteers in Medicine, a national nonprofit alliance with more than 90 free clinics across the U.S., whose mission is to provide healthcare services in a compassionate, caring way to our neighbors in need.” The Indio clinic opened its doors in November 2010, and is the valley’s only free health center.

However, CVVIM is not set up to directly treat COVID-19 patients like the local hospitals and the Desert AIDS Project are.

“LabCorp, our lab-service provider, (won’t) process the (COVID-19) tests from us, because they are saving the tests for the people who are needing them the most, and an ambulatory clinic (like CVVIM) that doesn’t normally see very ill patients wouldn’t qualify,” said Dr. Stewart Fleishman, a volunteer physician and the board chair at CVVIM. “So we send people to the appropriate test sites.”

The clinic’s operations have been severely impacted by the ramifications of the virus’ spread. The shelter-at-home restrictions and the threat of exposure to the coronavirus have greatly impacted the daily operations at CVVIM. In fact, the clinic stopped allowing in-person visits on March 19, when Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order took effect. Since then, the clinic has been communicating, diagnosing and refilling prescriptions for patients through virtual and telephonic channels every Tuesday through Friday.

“We only have a few paid staff members, and they’re all coming in,” Fleishman said. “Our volunteers are almost all over 65; maybe 75 percent of us are over 65, so it would have been very tough to ask them to come in. The rest of our volunteers are trainees from Eisenhower Medical Center, from the internal-medicine and family-practice-training programs, but they’ve been needed at the hospital. So we’ve had to change things around.

“We have medical technicians coming in, and they’re fielding all the phone calls and the faxes. They’re calling each of the providers with questions about drug (prescription) renewals, transportation, or X-ray or scan results, and then we call the patients back and give them the information. We answer any patient questions and make sure they’re OK. It’s a bit cumbersome. I am the main bilingual provider, believe it or not, with a name like Fleishman. I can operate on my own, but (the technicians) are here to help all the other providers make phone calls (to patients), because they need to have a conference call with a translator.”

Fleishman said he believes the clinic is continuing to serve its patients well, given the circumstances.

“For what we’re doing now, we have Doug (Morin), the executive director; an operations manager; a front-desk coordinator; a diabetes nurse; a med tech; and a volunteer coordinator. So, we have six people. We spread them out so that they’re not all in the same little area at the same time. We’ve really kept all of those folks employed, because we feel that’s a commitment that we want to make to them—and we need them to be the middlemen amongst all of these services and patients.”

Fleishman said many of CVVIM’s patients, in normal times, are working—but uninsured.

“Many have jobs, although some don’t have jobs now,” he said. “Luckily, most of the patients do have access to a cell phone. Since the government relaxed the rules on privacy and confidentiality, we’ve been using FaceTime and Skype to do telehealth visits. We’re not (yet using) a regular telehealth platform, (which hopefully soon) we should be getting from the national Volunteers in Medicine board.”

The one exception to the strict “no patient contact” policy: CVVIM’s Indio-based Street Medicine Team, to which one member of the clinic’s personnel is attached one night per week.

“They’ve been getting to some of the homeless people who were not being serviced by the (Coachella Valley Rescue) Mission or one of the other wonderful programs all over this valley,” Fleishman said. “These are folks living under overpasses and in small encampments. (The team) goes out on Tuesday nights with an Indio police officer, somebody from the Narrow Door (an Indio service organization) and some food. So, there’s food, clothing and medical care (being offered) to the homeless. They skipped two weeks, but they’ve started going out again.

“It’s a sad situation, but there are people congregating in small groups all over the place. Many of them have insurance—many of them have Medi-Cal, but they don’t trust the system. They feel that the system has wronged them. So, if they came to our office, by our usual rules, we wouldn’t see them, because they have insurance. But if they encounter the Street Medicine Team, then we can. Right now, a smaller team is going out, because the medical assistants are mostly needed at the Eisenhower hospital. Because the police officer is from Indio, we don’t cross the city lines into other cities. They see a number of patients every week. People trust them. They know that they’re coming, and they know there will be food and clothing with them.”

Nearly all nonprofits are dealing with financial worries due to the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn. However, Fleishman expressed limited optimism about the clinic’s future, as well as gratitude for the help that’s already come their way.

“We’ve been lucky in that before we even contacted them to let them know what our plans were, the foundations who have granted us money are being extremely understanding,” Fleishman said. “Our major fundraising event for the year, the VIMY Awards, was to be on March 21, so we’ve had to postpone that until Nov. 13. That’s a big issue.

“We have been trying to communicate that we’re still here to help the patients in the best ways we can based upon the circumstances. For the foreseeable future, yes, we are stable, but I don’t know how to quantify what ‘foreseeable’ is. Our foundations have given us latitude in how we can spend their (grant) money, because some of it was restricted to use for only certain programs. One of our funders did spontaneously send us some extra money, which was unrequested and quite lovely. But we haven’t yet (made requests for additional funding), because we wanted to see what was really happening, and figure out how long we’re going to have to operate like this.

“If we get the telehealth system from the national VIM, then I think we’ll be in a lot better shape.”

For more information on Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine, visit cvvim.org.

About a month has passed since the first restrictive impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were felt here in Coachella Valley—and no group has been affected more than the valley’s seniors, who are at a much higher risk for serious illness and death from the coronavirus.

In turn, the valley’s senior centers have taken on a daunting task: Finding ways, with suddenly depleted budgets, to serve their clients remotely—many of whom are already battling loneliness and isolation.

“When all the centers shut on March 16, we started on our call-back list,” said Laura Castillo, the director of nutritional and operational services for the Mizell Senior Center in Palm Springs. “We were on the phone with clients, sometimes 45 minutes to an hour, just talking to them.

“This (COVID-19 crisis) has created a real issue for a lot of our seniors. They’re scared. They don’t know where to go or what to do. They haven’t been given directions on anything, and half of them don’t know what’s going on. They don’t understand why there’s no toilet paper at the stores. They don’t understand why they can’t get eggs. So … we talk to them.”

Over at the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert, executive director Jack Newby said his clients are facing similar problems.

“One of the things we’re doing is calling every one of our members,” Newby said. “We have over 2,000 members, so we’re working our way through the alphabet, basically. We’re contacting them to see how they’re coping.

“We have a program called Problem Solving Strategies, which is a counseling program designed for short-term situational issues and to help people solve those problems. What we’re finding from (those contacts) is that, the longer this shelter-in-place order stays in place, the more frustrated people are getting with having to stay at home. You know, they’ve read the books; they’ve walked the dog a million times—so much so that now the dog is hiding in the corner. They’re starting to feel the stress of being at home alone. … One of the most serious issues that seniors and older adults face is isolation and the loss of their social network. So, for our senior members, it’s as if, a few weeks ago, their best friend suddenly passed away—that social network that many of them built after their spouse or partner passed away was suddenly just gone. So, we’re doing everything that we can.

“We’ve started doing a daily Facebook live video at 11 a.m. to help keep people exercising. In fact, we’re trying to turn our Facebook page into a virtual senior center. Some studies show that isolation among older adults can be as serious as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, in terms of health consequences. So that’s why we’re here (as a senior center)—to keep people active, engaged and exercising. Suddenly, that’s not available.”

Many people also depend on the area’s senior centers for much of their nutrition. Castillo said the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the Mizell Senior Center to alter its routine in many different ways, both in terms of Meals on Wheels clients and members used to getting meals in person at the center.

“Meals on Wheels (represents) both of our (nutrition) programs rolled into one,” Castillo said. “We deliver food to congregate sites, which includes most of our senior centers in the Coachella Valley, and then we home-deliver meals as well. In the home-delivered aspect, the changes mostly (involve) our drivers, who are being very conscientious about social distancing. They’re trying to make sure that (our senior home-delivery clients) don’t look sick or troubled by something that’s going on. Also, they wear gloves and face masks, and they have sanitizers in their vehicles.

“The food hasn’t stopped (being prepared) and provided by us. The only challenge in making the food is that, during this pandemic crisis, the deliveries from our food providers have changed, and I find myself substituting in our menus more frequently than I used to before. Our congregate (on-site meal offerings) have completely closed down. Now nobody comes into our building on a daily basis except for our nutrition staff and our senior management. We do still make meals for our congregate clients, but now we have a drive-through set up to distribute them. We give our seniors the food to-go while they’re still in their vehicles. That program runs Monday through Friday every week, from 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Also, we still provide (meals) to the Cathedral City (Senior Center), which does a pickup-and-go service for their senior clients as well. We also (support) programs at the Indio and Coachella senior centers, as well as the Desert Hot Springs senior center. So we’re still trying to feed all of our seniors the way we did before.”

The Meals on Wheels program is still functioning, albeit with extra precautions—and the number of clients is growing.

“Our (Meals on Wheels) clients were home-bound anyway,” Castillo said, “but we facilitate the program for the Riverside County Office on Aging, and this has brought to light a lot of seniors who are mobile, but really can’t go anywhere now, because they have underlying health issues, and they need to stay home. This has created a big ripple effect where we, along with the Office on Aging, had to come up with a new plan. Now all the applications (for new services) have to be funneled through the RCOA, and we are adding new clients at a rate of about three a day.”

Over at the Joslyn Senior Center in Palm Desert, Newby said the coronavirus has created an increase in demand—and a more stressful environment for his Meals on Wheels drivers.

“It’s volunteers who are making our deliveries,” Newby said, “and as a result, we have to be constantly aware of (the well-being) of our volunteers. If anyone should become ill, or not feel comfortable doing their routes, then we need to replace them. We’ve been able to keep up with that so far, but that’s one of the challenges that we are facing. Currently, we serve between 60 and 70 (clients) a day, and we have gotten new requests for Meals on Wheels service from clients over the past weeks. We keep (our drivers) at about 12 clients per route, so we are reaching capacity—and considering adding an additional route, too.”

At the Cathedral City Senior Center, executive director Geoff Corbin said the center is determined to keep its nutritional-outreach efforts operating at full strength during the crisis.

“We provide two essential services during the pandemic,” Corbin pointed out. “One is the lunch program, which is now extended into weekend, and the other is our food bank. With our lunch program, we’re one of the few sites that offers it five days a week. So it’s become very important to the people who use it.”

However, the Cathedral City Senior Center has had to transform the way in which its food bank—something Corbin referred to as “an essential service”—gets food to clients in need.

“It used to be that our large activity room would be turned into what looked like a Trader Joe’s. In fact, Trader Joe’s is one of our biggest sources of food, other than FIND Food Bank,” Corbin said. “Every Saturday and Sunday, we pick up van loads of food (at Trader Joe’s) that’s about to date out, and it goes into our Monday food banks. They’re donating tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of food products annually. But, right now, that (walk-through food bank) is suspended. Still, all the folks who come by and pickup curbside meal service (on Monday) will get a couple of pre-packed bags of food now.”

The closures of the senior centers’ physical locations has led to dramatic revenue losses—and the three centers have joined forces to overcome that and other obstacles.

“The Joslyn Center, the Cathedral City Senior Center and the Mizell Senior Center have been working together and meeting regularly for the last month or so,” Newby said, “first in person, and now via teleconferencing. We share information, and all of these nonprofit senior centers share the same concern. This epidemic hit at the peak of our season, which helps provide us with the resources to make it through the summer, quite frankly. During the summer, our electric bills go up to $5,000 a month, and our income is reduced. So we’re all working together to share resources regarding grants that are available; information about the Small Business Association loans that are becoming available; (and reaching out) to local foundations and encouraging them to make emergency grant funding available to senior centers. Our own executive committee has been meeting every week for the past month to work on these various issues and develop a cash-flow analysis. We’re being sensitive to the foundations, because so many of them who provide funding have their funds in investment accounts—and we all know what’s happened to those in the past few weeks. It’s similar to what happened in 2008, and it’s come very suddenly.

“The senior centers depend on donations, class fees, memberships and all of that, during this peak season time of year when the snowbirds are here and taking advantage of our services. Suddenly this year, on March 16, all of that came to a screeching halt.”

Corbin said he’s spending a lot of time looking for funding.

“Our maintenance and cleaning costs have gone up, and we still have to keep the building (running for the slimmed-down programs) and keep it staffed,” he said. “… We’ve lost all of our earned income. We made all that money playing bingo and mahjong and other games where people pay activity fees. So, our earned income has absolutely ground to a halt, and our contributed income is suppressed—and we don’t have large reserves, so we are in crazy fundraising mode. Just a couple of days ago, we applied for $10,000, which is the limit of what we could (request) from the Desert Healthcare District’s emergency funding option. Now I’m trying to put together a response to the SBA for a Paycheck Protection Program (loan) which, if we were eligible for that loan and got it, could keep a portion of the payroll going. We do have a ‘donate now’ (link) on our small MailChimp list, and believe it or not, we raised $750 from that, which is something we have not done. We will do more in terms of community fundraising as we move along.”

Castillo said the Mizell Senior Center had to lay off 10 staffers.

“I know the financial (realities) are always an issue,” Castillo said. “Right now, I can only keep the development director on, but I can’t afford to keep her staff on. How can I? All of our (in-house) programs are shut down, because the center is closed.”

Castillo said that despite the tough times, seniors should know there’s help available to them—whether or not they’ve been senior-center clients before.

“Right now, my main concern is that we’re still able to serve our seniors and bring on any other seniors who have concerns about food insecurity at this point—and there’s so much of that going on within the senior community,” he said. “Any seniors looking for help should call 800-510-2020. It connects them to the Riverside County Office on Aging, and they’ll get guidance there as to whether they can come on our program, or whether they can pick up food vouchers. They’re doing a lot for our seniors.”

For more information on the Mizell Senior Center, visit mizell.org. For more information on the Joslyn Center, visit joslyncenter.org. For more information on the Cathedral City Senior Center, visit theccsc.org.

Even in the best of times, an average of 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. That adds up to more than 12 million women and men over the course of a year.

But these aren’t the best of times. As the nation and the world try to limit the damage of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are told to stay home as much as possible—and that means that under these stressful circumstances, a lot of domestic-abuse and sexual-assault victims are being forced to constantly stay under the same roof as their abusers.

Angelina Coe is the executive director of Shelter From the Storm, the Palm Desert-based shelter and service provider for victims of domestic violence. She said the organization has needed to make a lot of changes during these unprecedented circumstances.

“Clients who are not currently in shelter but are receiving services from us are impacted, because everything is being done by teletherapy and telephonically,” she said. “There are no in-person meetings, for their safety and the safety of our staff as well, in order to maintain social distancing and make sure were not adding to the spread of the coronavirus. We don’t know what interactions (our clients) have had, and they don’t know what interactions (our staff members) have had.

“To not be able to come here for solace, safety, counseling and guidance (makes) a huge impact,” Coe said. “They (in the past) came in to receive in-kind donations and food distribution, things like that. Now they don’t have that readily available to them.”

Over at Coachella Valley Sexual Assault Services (CVSAS), program director Winette Brenner and her team help victims of sexual assault and human trafficking. She said it’s important for people to know that there is still help available.

“We have had calls, but I feel that we are getting fewer calls, and I do think that it has to with the pandemic,” Brenner said. “People are afraid. People do not know what to do, or who to call, because everyone is in panic mode. Now, do I think that’s going to continue? No, I don’t. I think the more that the media get out there and let people know what services are available and where, that’s going to help. That’s our No. 1 focus—to let people know that, yes, we are in a pandemic, but we are still here to help you in the best ways we know how, and to the best of our abilities.

“We still have our 24-hour crisis hotline up, and anybody can still call that number and get a live person, not an automated recording,” Brenner said. (That number: 800-656-4673.) “We work closely with the law-enforcement agencies and SAFE services at Eisenhower Medical Center. We all work as a team for the sexual-assault victims, (and) we had to come up with a plan for the best way to continue to give services. Unfortunately, with the COVID-19 pandemic going on, at this time, we’re not able to respond physically to be at the hospital or the police department, but the hospital’s SAFE services (personnel are) still able to do the exams, and then they are referring the client to us, and we do the follow-up work. The same is true with law enforcement: Each particular law-enforcement agency has established their own protocols as to how they (participate), but we’re all still continuing to provide services for the victims and their family members.

“Because of the pandemic and because of the world we live in, sexual assault and human trafficking does not stop. Sad as that is, it doesn’t. So we’re really trying to come up with new ways to use the platforms that we have available, like Zoom (the video conferencing platform) and telephone conference calls.”

Back at Shelter From the Storm, Coe said that she, too, wants people to know that some help is still available.

“We are seeing a decrease in calls,” Coe said. “But we’re not sure exactly what the dynamic is. Is it because everybody’s home? Is it because of the uncertainty about where they’re going to go? Is it because there’s an additional fear about what happens next, and, ‘Am I going to be even more exposed (to the coronavirus) at a shelter than I would be staying home?’ There are a lot of factors there. But our hotline is still available. Our staff is still present and available in both English and Spanish.

“Our main focus now is safety planning—not safety planning around the client leaving (an abusive environment), necessarily, but safety planning if they have to stay.”

Coe ran down a list of challenges her team is trying to address.

“We are in the process of working on teletherapy via video conferencing, but that takes some time to set up—to make sure (victims) have a confidential location where they can take that video conferencing,” Coe said. “Our service is all about anonymity and confidentiality, so they can’t open up and disclose what’s really going on, or what the issues are that they really would like to discuss, if their children are in the room, or if their partner is still in the household, or if they’re living with other people for their safety. You really can’t get into that one-on-one dynamic. … A lot of (victims) do not want to participate in the telephonic counseling, because they don’t feel it’s effective, or they don’t have a phone available. Not everybody has a cell phone that they’re not sharing with someone else, or (they don’t have) the minutes to do that, especially if they (have no) income right now, because they’re not working due to the businesses being closed. Or they don’t have child care, because the schools are closed, which is a huge impact to our community clients.

Coe said Shelter From the Storm has needed to stop accepting donations of physical items during the pandemic.

“That creates a huge impact, because a lot of (clients) rely on those items of clothing and food and hygiene (products), backpacks and other every-day regular things that you’d (normally) just run to the Dollar Tree for,” she said. “… Without an income, they need those items even more, and we’re unable to provide them. So, it’s just huge for our community clients.”

The pandemic is causing challenges for the nonprofit’s in-shelter clients, too.

“The biggest impact for them is the uncertainty about what happens to them when their time (in shelter) is up,” Coe said. “Maybe other programs aren’t accepting new clients, or everything is on hold, because a landlord doesn’t want to take in a new tenant right now, since they don’t know what (that tenant) could expose them to. So that’s a huge fear factor, in addition to (the realities that) the client has already left their family; they’re here by themselves; and there’s no outlet, since we’ve restricted their movement in and out, because they’re sheltering in place. California has said everyone should stay at home, and that’s their home. They’re interacting only with the staff at the shelter, and they are missing out on many support services that would have been available to them during a normal stay. That’s causing additional anxiety, and our counseling has changed its focus to anxiety and coping skills, along with understanding the factors of: (What happens) if you are exposed? What are we doing to keep you safe? Why are we keeping you on ‘lockdown?’”

Coe said Shelter From the Storm is currently unable to accept new in-shelter clients because of concerns over COVID-19.

“We’re not taking in any new families, because we have no way to isolate them and to ensure that they’re safe, (while) not exposing our current clients to additional factors that we can’t afford to expose them to—and the same thing with our staff,” she said. “So what happens to them?”

Then there’s the financial picture: The nonprofits rely on government support, as well as community support via donations—and the pandemic and shelter-in-place reality has financially devastated both government budgets and members of the community. However, both Brenner and Coe said their organizations will do what it takes to keep offering the much-needed services they provide.

“All of our services are free of charge, and we work hard to keep it that way,” Brenner said, reassuringly. “I think right now that the best thing I’m doing for my staff is telling them not to panic, and that we will continue to offer the services that we have and that we can. As far as our financial security, right now, it’s a day-to-day issue. I think it’s too early to say what the future holds. But as long as we’re still working, I think we’re going to be OK. I haven’t heard anything different from the state. We’re still being supported (by the state), and our doors are still open, and we still have some (staff) in here for the victims.”

Coe said Shelter From the Storm is planning for the worst, but she remains optimistic.

“We are working on contingency plans in case we do have to reduce staffing numbers, or if we need to shut the shelter down (due to) whatever mandate might come down the line,” Coe said. “But we don’t think that will happen, simply because of the kind of shelter that we are, and what we’re doing to support the individuals who do reach us. But if that happens, how would we be moving forward? What would that look like? How would our staff survive? We don’t have anyone working here just because they enjoy the job. They all need an income—so we have to make sure that they’re sustainable as well.”

Despite all the darkness, Coe—whose shelter for victims of abuse is the only such refuge in the Coachella Valley—managed to find some proverbial silver linings.

“It’s been an intense time,” Coe said. “The Coachella Valley has been really good. Supervisor (V. Manuel) Perez’s office and the county have been really good about having weekly call-in meetings with providers and sending out updates. The (California) Partnership to End Domestic Violence has been a wonderful support network as well, (providing) scheduled weekly and bimonthly meetings to check in with other shelters, other leadership and get the most updated information.

“Again, we’re always pushing everyone to wash their hands, to keep social distancing, and to clean hard services as much as possible. We’re just doing our best to keep going.”

If you are dealing with domestic violence, call Shelter From the Storm at 760-328-7233. For more information on Shelter From the Storm, call 760-674-0400, or visit www.shelterfromthestorm.com. If you are a victim of sexual assault, get help by calling the 24-hour crisis line at 800-656-4673.

It’s been a turbulent year for Rancho Mirage’s city government. In October 2019, the city received a letter accusing the city of violating the California Voting Rights Act with its current at-large election system.

Then, in November 2019, a group of residents sued the city after the council had approved an In-n-Out Burger restaurant, with a drive-through, on Highway 111. In January, that suit prompted In-N-Out to withdraw from the development agreement.

It is against this backdrop that the voters of Rancho Mirage are voting by mail to select two members of the City Council. Ballots, which are being sent out to all registered city voters, must be returned by April 14.

The Independent interviewed three of the four candidates. Both challengers, Maggie Lockridge and Stephen Jaffe, agreed to phone interviews. Incumbent Ted Weill agreed to respond via email, while incumbent Richard Kite asked for a list of questions, which we sent. After indicating he would “respond accordingly” by our deadline for this story, he did not.

The Independent asked each of them the same set of questions, on topics ranging from the most-pressing issues in Rancho Mirage to their favorite leisure activities. (It’s important to note these interviews took place before the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic set in.)

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

Maggie Lockridge

Nurse, United States Air Force Nurse Corps veteran

What are your most important reasons for becoming a candidate?

I really haven’t been in politics before, and, I didn’t have any plans really until last fall, although I’ve always met any challenge that came into my life. I attended the In-N-Out Burger Planning Commission meeting of Sept. 12 of last year, I believe. There were so many residents living in the neighborhoods around the site where the In-N-Out Burger was to be built who attended that there was standing room only in the main room, and the atrium was at least half-full of people, too.

There was a representative from In-N-Out Burger, and he told us the basic concepts of what was going to be on the site: 3,800 square feet under roof, and 1,500 square feet of patio for the civilians to enjoy In-N-Out. Who doesn’t like a good In-N-Out Burger? I’m not saying anything about that—but he also stated that the presence of the In-N-Out Burger would have no impact on neighborhoods. At that point, everybody became quite upset, because obviously, 1,500 to 2,000 cars going by in your neighborhood is going to have an impact; there’s no doubt about that. And if you walk out of your home and come face-to-face with an In-N-Out Burger sign, it will affect the value of your property, and there is no doubt about that, either. Your quality of life will definitely be affected by it.

So there were about 20 to 25 individuals, including myself, who signed up to speak. We each had three minutes, and everyone basically spoke about the same situation: the traffic, the noise, the late hours—1:30 in the morning (as the closing time), my goodness! Rancho Mirage folds up at 10 to 10:30 p.m. every night. There’s nothing going on, basically, with Rancho Mirage residents after that hour. The latest (people out) would probably be leaving a movie, and at The River, there’s already a Big 5 hamburger place over there. So, it’s not that we need another hamburger place within two blocks of one another, that’s for sure. It was going to be trafficked probably by people mostly from out of town, particularly after 10 o’clock at night. And the delivery trucks come. And there’s litter. There’s always litter. But, basically, (the problem is) the drive-through line and the number of cars that are idling while waiting to get their pick-ups. That’s probably the longest line in the country because In-N-Out is the most successful burger restaurant in the country. So, that will have a huge impact, and Las Palmas Shopping Center is not very large in regards to most shopping centers. It’s 15 acres while most of them are 30 or more. It’s really going to impede a lot of different aspects of traffic and parking and trying to maneuver around where the burger line might (block) other entrances. It’s not going to work out well.

We did not know at the time what the City Council had done in order to get (the project) to the planning commission stage. We found that out when we started doing our research. But first, let’s go back a moment to the 20 to 25 people who poured their hearts out to the Planning Commission as to why this was not a good idea. There was some very impressive commentary going on up there. One woman was actually in tears, because she has two young children, and they ride their bikes out front, and obviously she could no longer allow them to do that with the additional traffic. A lot of other reasons were expressed too. At the end of that particular public comment (segment), if I had been on that council, I’ll tell you one thing that I would have done: I would have said that I feel we should adjourn at this point for 30 minutes so that the council can discuss what it’s just heard. That was the first time that they had heard from their constituents. They had been so quiet about (the In-N-Out project). They had not discussed any aspect of this development with (anyone) in the surrounding neighborhood. But instead, they went straight to a vote and it was yes, yes, yes and yes, because Mr. (Dana) Hobart had recused himself from the vote, stating “personal reasons” because of (the fact that) Dr. Hirschberg, who opposed the project, had once saved Mr. Hobart’s life. So since Mr. Hobart was going to vote for it, he didn’t want that emotional trauma between he and his friend. But, if you research it, there is no legal reason whatsoever on the books that (says) you can recuse yourself for personal reasons. There are only financial ones. That was very upsetting to me that he would do that, because obviously, what’s being hidden here? What is his interest in that (Rancho) Las Palmas Shopping Center? I don’t feel that that is an accurate reason why he recused himself.

Then, on Oct. 3, I went to the City Council (meeting) where they would do final approval, and I’ll state this on the record because there were witnesses: (At one point) in the very beginning … Mayor Iris Smotrich said quite arrogantly, “Anyone who speaks out of turn will be arrested and taken to jail.” I was shocked. I was emotionally traumatized, and I thought, “What country do I live in?” I turned around and looked at the back of the room, and there were eight uniformed policemen standing there. I thought, “This is not right. This is not my council. This should not continue.” Here they are, threatening their constituents. How dare they. I mean, I was totally outraged. And then they voted. Since then, that comment was removed from the video (of the meeting), never to be seen again in the public eye. I did not take pictures or video of it at the time. I never expected that to happen. But, if you go to their website, there is nothing mentioned at the very beginning of the Oct. 3 meeting about being arrested. She (instead) very nicely starts the whole meeting. They address a couple of events on the agenda, and then she gets to the In-n-Out portion, and she says in a very gentle voice that because of specific laws that are on the books, she does have to stipulate that if anyone does speak out of turn, they will be removed and taken to jail. That was a total re-filming of that section that they (then posted) on YouTube and on their website. So it was upsetting to me. If you say something, then stand behind it. Don’t run away from it, conceal it and deceive your public. I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t have a film clip of it to prove it, but I do have people who were there and witnessed it themselves.

So, obviously, they went to a vote, and they voted yes, yes, yes, yes. And there were about 17 of us there from “Save Rancho Mirage,” the organization that we had, so when they did that, we had agreed that we would all stand up in unison and leave, and we did. I was so upset that, as we went out the entrance, I turned around and said very loudly and emphatically, “You have just killed a beautiful city.” That never showed up on the (archived) video, either. Fortunately, I caught everybody by surprise, and I wasn’t arrested, but I almost wish I had been, because then it would have all been brought to light. So, a group of us met together out in the atrium and agreed that now we would find out what the heck happened to get this to this point.

That was when we really started researching and reading documents. We found out that they were using a traffic study that was way out of date, supposedly from 2014. Supposedly, they had just doubled (the numbers in it), and they figured that was good enough to use as a traffic study for today. But it was taken at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. One thing that In-N-Out has proclaimed out loud is that the busiest time for them is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., so 4 o’clock would not have been an accurate study.

There was a law on the books that there would be no fast-food drive-through restaurants in Rancho Mirage. So although that property was zoned commercially, there was this (other) stipulation on the books. But they decided to just do a “text change” (to the law) saying that there would be no fast-food drive-through on less than 15 acres, because, of course, that (Las Palmas Shopping Center) site was 15 acres. Then we found out that (the City Council designated it) as an “in-fill project.” There had been a restaurant there before, and we believe that they were probably using (the restaurant) CoCo’s which was there 15 to 20 years ago. CoCo’s did not have a drive-through, and it closed around 10 to 11 o’clock at night. So, it was not an accurate in-fill. They said it was an in-fill so that they could avoid doing a (California Environmental Quality Act study) or an environmental impact statement. They did not want to do that, because with 30 cars idling in line, they would not pass in such a small area. So, they circumvented both city zoning law and state CEQA law. They did this in such a deceitful, deceptive and illegal way that it just made us all extremely upset. We had our attorney come before the city Planning Commission, and he very clearly stated that if they put this through, then Save Rancho Mirage would be suing them because of these illegal actions they had taken. So they were forewarned, but they just didn’t pay any attention to it, just like they didn’t (pay attention) to their constituents. So, we sued them and the In-N-Out Burger company.

Twice, the city came back to us after they had received the suit and asked, “What can we do to make you happy and to make you accept In-N-Out?” We said, “Go away.” They offered us all kinds of landscaping around so it wouldn’t show. They offered us gates at our community so that traffic couldn’t cut through. Anyway, evidently, when In-N-Out got their aspect of the suit, I can only imagine that they weren’t aware of all the illegal actions that had been taken to get the approval for them to be on that lot. Or else, they (may have not wanted to) antagonize the neighbors to this point; it’s not good PR. So, they (decided) to withdraw their application and (reserve) the right to do their own CEQA, and if it passes, they could re-apply to build their restaurant. And that’s where (the process) is now.

If everything had been done legally from the beginning, then (neighboring residents) wouldn’t have had any recourse. We would have had to say, “OK. That’s growth.” But by changing the zoning law and doing what they did behind our backs, they just antagonized everybody in the area. To me, having a red-and-white In-N-Out Burger arrow sign on that corner would have been a blight on Rancho Mirage. An, it would have been an illegal blight. I don’t mind an In-N-Out Burger being in another part (of the city); we can bend the rules for them. People do enjoy In-N-Out burgers. But (it should be located) down near Costco, off the Interstate 10, where (property) is commercially zoned, so that you’re not affecting anybody else’s quality of life. And that’s where most of them are. In fact, Save Rancho Mirage did offer to In-N-Out that if they closed at 11 p.m., and they didn’t have a drive-through, we would accept them there (at the location on Highway 111). They do have five other locations where they’ve done that. But they chose not to. So, we did try to negotiate with them. It didn’t work.

If you are elected to the City Council, what steps do you support to resolve this In-N-Out Burger issue, or is the process currently at a wait-and-see standstill?

First of all, I’m no longer associated with Save Rancho Mirage. Once I became a candidate, all relationships were severed. I have to stand alone. I don’t go to their meetings, and I don’t know what they’re planning at this point. Once I’m on the council—obviously, at the moment, the issue is dead. It’s moot. If (In-N-Out Burger) should decide to do their own CEQA, the possibilities of (the CEQA report) coming up and passing, I think are very slim. If it did, legally, they can submit another application. If a traffic report was not a part of the CEQA, then I would require that they do another one at noon, in that location, during high season. The first one was done in August. We all know that we don’t have that kind of traffic here in August. It was so deceptive.

Here’s another point I want to bring up: If you research on how the council has been voting on major issues, it’s always been four “yes” votes or four “no” votes. Dana Hobart is kind of the leader of the pack over there, and they kind of vote leaning toward what Dana would like. I can’t help feeling in my heart-of-hearts that there isn’t somebody (on the council) that is voting against their inner feelings. I would not be afraid. Maggie Lockridge is a Leo. Maggie is a leader, not a follower. If I felt a negative response was warranted when all else were positive, you best know that I would certainly let it be known how I felt. I would not be swayed to vote one way or another by anybody on that council. And you know, two of these council members have been on that council for 20 years—that’s 40 years with just those two members. That’s an awful lot. My inner (instincts) tell me that once you’ve been on a council for 20 years, you’ve got to have a feeling of empowerment come over you. And it gives you a little more leeway to do what you want, and not what the constituents want, so you involve the constituents less in your decisions. I feel that if there’s any type of a major project that’s being considered, such as In-N-Out, then you involve your constituents. They didn’t, because they knew that (the public response) would be so negative. They didn’t want to face such adversity, so they didn’t inform you.

I don’t like that it’s the “good old boy” days on the council. Most of them have been on there from a minimum of seven years to 20-something for Dana. I think there should be fresh ideas, fresh concepts and new people on there. I feel real strongly about districting. We definitely need term limits and districting. Those are two things that I am adamant about. Term limits should be eight years, two terms. That’s plenty. If you haven’t brought your ideas, your concepts and your energy to the council within eight years’ time, you’re old news. You’re gone. I’m sorry. You’re ineffective.

Like many other cities in the state, the city of Rancho Mirage has received a letter from the law firm of Shenkman and Hughes putting the city on notice that it is not in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. What should the city’s next steps be?

I certainly would vote for districting. I’d do whatever needed to be done to put it on the ballot. It shouldn’t even need to go on a ballot. It’s a state law. They should do it—and they’re in non-compliance.

Both (fellow candidate) Stephen Jaffe and I met with Isaiah Hagerman, who is the city manager, many weeks ago, in late October or early November, when we first became candidates. We asked if the council had replied to this letter. He said, “Not to my knowledge.” Then we asked if (the council) had discussed this at a council meeting, and he said, “No.” And I said have they discussed this otherwise, and he said, “Yes.” And I said: Where? He said, “In closed chambers.” You know, they’ve discussed it amongst themselves, and evidently, they’ve decided not to reply. This one affects them being re-elected.

I would go to five districts, so there would be candidates for five (races). The people from each district would have a vote, and it would matter, and that’s important to me. And there would be much more involvement (by the public). Right now, there are five of them up there, and I don’t think that any of them are really keying in on the specific problems and certain aspects of the town.

Beyond what we’ve discussed, what would you say is the single most-pressing issue facing the residents of Rancho Mirage in the immediate future?

Homelessness, without a doubt. Homelessness is only going to become a bigger problem. It’s not going to go away by itself. It’s not going to burn itself out. Do you know if you’re homeless, and in you’re in Palm Springs, if you have to find a place for the night, you have to go to Indio? How in the heck are you going to get to Indio? The (Coachella Valley Rescue) Mission right now is the only place that takes them in, where they can get a walk-in—but also, you can’t keep your dog. A lot of these people have pets, because that’s the one reason they stay alive, is to take care of their pet. You know there was a grant for $10 million made to this valley to solve the homeless problem. But the choice, according to people who do home planning, was to build 30 homes. That’s ridiculous. I’m sorry. You have 10,000 homeless in Riverside County, shall we say, and it’s getting worse and worse every day.

We need a shelter. I want a shelter built out near the I-10, near the commercial (district). I want at least 50 cubicles in this building. So, I want to take $5 million of that for the building. I want 50 cubicles with a bed, and a bureau and a closet, so that they have one element of decency, privacy and humanity in their life, and they don’t have to be in a room with 50 bunk beds. This is not a detox center. We’re talking homeless here. If they have other problems, they’re going to have to get rid of that before they come to us. And you’ll be there at this shelter for either 30 days or 45 days. In the back of the shelter will be a huge area where they will be taught plumbing, or television repair, or how to be a sous chef, or how to sew a seam, some skill that would enable them to get a job when they got out. Just giving them handouts is not going to work. We’ve got to give them some way to make a living. And there will be a placement center in there, and consult rooms and a kitchen and a cafeteria. It would not be the lap of luxury. It would probably be very much a barracks-type place, but it would be functional. It would be a partial solution. The other $5 million (from the grant) would run it for five years. So, if you have 30-day contracts with all these people—and I think they could apply themselves to that time period if that’s all they had—in five years we could help 3,000 homeless. That’s a lot. That is at least starting on the problem.

Plus: We don’t have a place for the seniors to go in Rancho Mirage. There’s no senior center. If you’re not behind a gated community and have a club that offers you bridge and craps, etc., there is no place for our elderly—55 and over—to go. I’d love to have a senior center where they can go and just get out of their houses, so that they’re not so lonely and emotionally depressed, like you can get so easily when you limit your social exposure.

You’re talking about possibly building the homeless transition center within Rancho Mirage city boundaries?

It would be out there by Costco, near the I-10. There’s land available down there. Del Webb (is building) an over-55 community here now, but (homes there) are still too costly. It’s expensive. Del Webb can’t say they’re helping the homeless. But I think (building the transition center) would be a great example to set for this valley. Would I vote for a prison in Rancho Mirage? No. Obviously, no. But a shelter, not around the neighborhoods? These people aren’t going to hurt anybody. You know, they just want to live. They just want to exist and be independent again. They’d have to be vetted to get in. We’re not going to bring somebody in who isn’t going to benefit from the program. But if they show good intention, and good faith, and apply themselves to the project of learning, then I think absolutely we should have a place for them. At least it could be an incentive for them to go to detox, so they can go to the shelter and learn some way to get themselves on an independent basis again.

The incumbent Rancho Mirage City Council candidates in the last two elections have run a “joint campaign.” What advantage, if any, do you perceive that these candidacies gain from this approach?

The main benefit of that is you can share expenses. You can get both on one pamphlet; you can get both on one billboard, on yard signs or whatever. So it’s less expensive to do a slate. Maybe they think it’s easier for the people?

What do you do to relax? What’s your favorite leisure activity?

Well, I’d have to say I putter around my yard. I love gardening. I have a beautifully landscaped yard. I keep it trimmed, and I feed my roses. I used to love to ski, but that’s been curtailed lately. My foundation, Rebuilding America’s Warriors (RAW), keeps me extremely busy. We are still very active, so that takes up a great deal of my time. I’m dedicated to the military, our veterans. They have a very big soft spot in my heart. They sacrifice so much. Being a nurse, you have a certain feeling of being of service to others, and in my nursing career, that’s what I have been. At this particular point, I believe that the citizens of Rancho Mirage are in need of somebody on that council to serve them. So, they’ve been added to my hopes and desires for my future here, in terms of where my professional career takes me.

I love to go to the theater. I go to the McCallum all the time. I love to go out to dinner. I’m weeping about Wally’s (Desert Turtle restaurant possibly) closing. I truly am. If Michael (Botello, the owner) doesn’t find a buyer, he’s going to walk away in the spring—although they do own that building, so maybe they’ll just sell the building. I don’t know. But I’d hate to lose Wally’s. It’s the classiest restaurant we have in Rancho Mirage, and possibly in the valley.

I collect crystal, and I enjoy my crystal collections. I used to collect professional memorabilia, because the love of my life was Ron Fairly, who was a baseball player at one point in his life. He died last October of cancer. It was a terrible year of cancer and fighting for him. So, it’s given me more time on my hands. We weren’t married. We were extremely good friends. We were out three or four times a week at different restaurants or the movies or theater. So, that part of my life has quieted down a great deal—and the City Council has moved in.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about your candidacy and/or yourself?

I’ve lived in this town for 20 years. I love Rancho Mirage. It’s got a dignity to it. When I first came here, I lived in White Sun Estates, then this particular home I live in now came up for sale. It offered me a bigger home, a bigger yard and a view. So, I jumped on it, although it was a bankruptcy home, and it needed everything done to it. Now I love my home. I love my neighborhood. I love my community, and I love my city. And I want to add to it. I don’t want to detract from it.


Stephen Jaffe

Attorney and mediator; animal-rights advocate and mental-health-awareness

What are your most important reasons for becoming a candidate?

Yes, the “Why are you running?” question. I’ll tell you the story of how this happened. My wife and I are relatively new here. We moved down here last summer, about 6 or 7 months ago. A few months after we got here, we were contacted by one person who we met (during the process) of acquiring our home, who told us about (the plans) for an In-N-Out Burger coming into the city. Apparently, they were all up in arms because it was, and still is, a big controversy in the neighborhood, and (the proposed location) was pretty close to where we live. He asked if we’d like to come to a meeting to learn about it. I said we would, largely because we didn’t know anybody, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet some neighbors.

So, I went and found out about the issue, and then wound up going to a City Council meeting. Now I’m not that familiar with how this council works, but with most city councils, they have to pass an ordinance, and then it has to be passed a second time. I wasn’t around for the first time it had passed, but this was the second time they were going to pass it. I was absolutely struck by the way that this body of legislative elected officials ran their business. It was incredible that there was no discussion or debate on the record—and that was for the whole two-hour meeting. They just read agendas and voted. The more I learned, the more alarmed I got about the way the city is run in general. Apparently, Mr. Hobart is kind of an old-school political boss. Everyone I talked to said that he runs the city, and everybody does what he wants. And observing the other four council members during the session confirmed that. Also, aside from the issue of this hamburger place, there was an issue about a notice that had been given to the residents about how (that proposal) had been put through—the transparency of the governmental process and really fundamental democratic issues. So, that’s what really triggered my interest in running.

It’s very important for me to say that my candidacy has absolutely nothing to do with hamburgers, even though my incumbent opponents are trying to spin me as a single-issue candidate opposed to the In-N-Out Burger (project). That has never been, and never will be, the case. It’s really about much deeper flaws in the governmental process that I perceive and I think need to be fixed. So, that’s the short answer as to why I’m running. There are a whole number of issues that I’ve identified and would like to address if I get elected to the City Council.

Like many other cities in the state, the city of Rancho Mirage has received a letter from the law firm of Shenkman and Hughes putting the city on notice that it is not in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. What should the city’s next steps be?

I’m strongly in favor of district elections. I have actually spoken to (the attorney who sent the letter) Mr. Shenkman about this. I don’t know how I could put it more strongly or bluntly, other than to say that I’m for district elections.

Using my 49 years of law practice experience, if the city were to be sued, it would lose. For the same reasons that Palm Springs, Palm Desert and Santa Monica—which was sued and lost—(changed their elections), I don’t think the city has a defense to that kind of a lawsuit. So, I’m for it on political, legal and moral grounds. But they would lose the lawsuit.

Also, I discussed this with the city attorney briefly. I said to him at a meeting that we both (attended), “I saw that (the city) got this letter; what are you going to do about it?” He just smiled at me. Apparently, they’re doing nothing, because they haven’t responded. That’s really bad form. But, politically, people will do what they think they can get away with. A quote from Justice Louis Brandeis, that I use often, says, it is frequently said, sunshine is the best disinfectant. If were to characterize the role I hope to play if elected to the City Council, I want to be the sunshine here, and shine some light into the dark corners of what goes on.

If you are elected to the City Council, what steps do you support to resolve this In-N-Out Burger issue, or is the process currently at a wait-and-see standstill?

For me, it was never opposition to an In-N-Out; my opposition was to the procedures and the ways that particular project was shoved through the governmental process illegally, in my opinion. I have nothing against In-N-Out burgers. I eat them. It’s about process and legality and transparency and public awareness.

I’ll give you another example of what I’m talking about. There’s an entirely vacant square-mile piece of land called Section 31, that’s across the street from what used to be Annenberg estate. It’s bordered by Gerald Ford, Frank Sinatra, Monterey and Bob Hope. So, there’s a monster-size project going through the City (Council) right now that hardly anyone has even heard of. It calls for 2,000 new dwelling units and 175,000 square feet of retail (space) and service businesses. Just like with the In-N-Out Burger, which was snuck through (the City Council) in what I call the “dark of August,” when nobody was here in town, the traffic study (in that case) was done in August when there was nobody on the road. Now Section 31 is being marched along very, very quietly. We’re talking about increasing the population of Rancho Mirage by 6,000 to 8,000 people. And it may very seriously increase the number of businesses here. Look, it’s kind of a beach ball through the snake scenario, and nobody knows about it. So, that’s another example of the lack of transparency.

The incumbent Rancho Mirage City Council candidates in the last two elections have run a “joint campaign.” What advantage, if any, do you perceive that these candidacies gain from this approach?

I think you’ve already had my answer to this one. They’re all being herded and directed by a single person who dominates the City Council, and you can quote me on this, by fear and bullying, and that’s really what he does. One person asked me almost the same question, but in another way. They asked me, “Why do you think they all walk together in lockstep?” They do it because that’s the way they’re set up to operate by Mr. Hobart. Why do they run together? Because they stand for the same things, and they vote together.

As I mentioned in my answer to the first question and what caused me to run: At that first City Council meeting I was at where the In-N-Out Burger issue was being discussed, there is a (public) comment period at the start of the meeting. And there was this very long, passionate parade of people standing up and speaking out against this hamburger location, and talking about how this had happened without anybody knowing about it, which is the transparency issue. And these five people (on the council) sat there like Mount Rushmore, stone-faced and not saying a word. So, for the half hour to 45 minutes that all of these people spoke, there was no engagement, and no exchange of ideas. The only words ever said during that time came from the mayor at the time who said, “Thank you for your comments; now here’s the next person.” And following that, (the council members) did not debate or discuss. Someone read the motion, and they all voted electronically, and it was done. I think I spoke, too, and I pointed my finger at them and said, “You people are not listening to the people who elect you. Your constituents are the residents of this city, not the businesses and corporations. Your constituents are people.” Of course, they just stared at me, and said not a word. So, that’s really another reason why I’m running, because they’re not listening to the people who elected them. It’s supposed to be a representative body, and it is not.

Beyond what we’ve discussed, what would you say is the single most-pressing issue facing the residents of Rancho Mirage in the immediate future?

One of the other issues important to me is term limits for these (council members). Mr. (Richard) Kite sent out an email a couple of days ago in which he’s bragging about his accomplishments. One of the accomplishments he brags about is that he’s been mayor of the city five times … mayor of the city five times. What’s wrong with this picture? I don’t think anybody should be on the City Council long enough to have been the mayor five times. What has happened is that they claim the city is magically run. It’s like Disneyland for adults, and nobody wants a change. Therefore, they equate that to what amounts to a lifetime entitlement to be constantly re-elected, because everything is so wonderful. I think legislative bodies benefit from a change in personnel from time to time. I mean, the state does it. I think there should be a two, four-year term maximum for Rancho Mirage City Council (members). So that’s a big issue.

Crime is a big issue. A lot of people are shocked to know that Rancho Mirage crime stats are not good, particularly in the area of property crimes. Burglaries, car break-ins and things like that all need to be addressed.

I am in favor of public financing of campaigns, which goes hand-in-hand with one of my personally most important issues, which is the elimination of “dark money” from politics. A lot of cities publicly finance or do matching funds to campaigns, so that the influence of outsiders and money is diminished. So, I would be in favor of that.

The CV Link is a big deal, too. I have a really open mind about that. I’m generally in favor of bicycle paths, and, I think the notion of people being able to ride a bike from one end of the valley to the other is a good one. I understand the voters voted against it in the past. I’m concerned about the true motive of the people who opposed it and if it’s really what they say it is. A lot of times I hear, “I don’t want those people here.” Well, who are those people? I don’t have a “for” or “against” position on it. I have an open mind to reconsider it, and I would like to.

Even though it’s a non-partisan election, I know that I’m the only Democrat running in this election as a self-identified Democrat.

What do you do to relax? What’s your favorite leisure activity?

We have four parrots, so I like to spend time with them. I read a lot. My wife and I walk a lot. We also have a rescue dog, so we spend a lot of time with our dog. I’m a political junkie, meaning I’m interested in it. So, I try to keep up on it.

In this day and age, you find following politics closely to be relaxing?

I’m one of these guys who needs to keep his mind going around something. I can’t just sit around and do nothing. That’s why I’m still practicing law at my age. I think I’d go nuts if I didn’t do that. I do animal-rights work with two organizations. I do pro bono legal defense for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and I’m the national legal counsel for what’s called the American Federation of Aviculture, which is a bird organization. And I’m a very passionate and strong advocate for the mentally ill and their families. I’ve spoken to the national convention of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), run support groups and written quite a bit about it. So, that’s a subject that’s very important to me.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about your candidacy and/or yourself?

SJ: I think I’ve given you a pretty good overview of my opinions, and I hope some of my personality came through here. I’m a real open book. 


Ted Weill

Incumbent, real estate developer

What are your most important reasons for becoming a candidate?

Before I got on the council, I served on the city’s Planning Commission and witnessed a tremendous amount of rapid growth. I was first appointed to the council in 2012 to fill the late Councilmember Gordon Moller’s seat, and then ran and won in 2014 and 2016. Serving the city for so many years has been a very rewarding experience for me. I find the work both emotionally and intellectually rewarding because of the challenges presented to the council that allow me to contribute and utilize my business expertise and problem-solving skills to City issues. Although the work can be very demanding and sometimes unappreciated, it provides me with a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction and a sense of achievement knowing I am doing my part in furthering the public good in a real and tangible way for the city overall.

Like many other cities in the state, the city of Rancho Mirage has received a letter from the law firm of Shenkman and Hughes putting the city on notice that it is not in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. What should the city’s next steps be?

Without disclosing any confidential attorney-client privileged information, I can say that based on empirical evidence, the city of Rancho Mirage does not meet the criteria for being forced to revert back to district elections. Rancho Mirage had a district-based election system in place a while ago. While I think it is critical that minorities, such as my wife, should and must be given a real voice and a real opportunity at all levels of our local, state and national political forums and venues such as Congress, state legislatures, county boards of supervisors and city councils, particularly where minorities have been historically shut out of the system, Rancho Mirage is not one of those jurisdictions where the issue is an issue. There is simply no evidence that there has been any racially polarized voting in any of our elections in the city, whether the election included candidates for president, Congress, governor, state elected officials, the State Legislature, water district, school district or City Council. Also, the city does not have a significant population of any under-represented group of persons that would be sufficient to make them a majority in a city-created district. While I truly believe in the benefits of diversity and representation of the under-represented on elected bodies, I don’t believe converting back to district elections will solve an issue that is not an issue in the city

Why did you vote to approve the In-N-Out on Highway 111? Where do you stand now on this question, and what next steps do you support to resolve this matter?

I understand the lawsuit may now be moot, since the developer requested the city to prepare an environmental impact report which will likely involve a new traffic study. Again, while I understand the opposition to In-N-Out by some property owners, I also understand the support expressed by the business owners in the center concerned about the survival of their businesses. I expect that once we process the project again, with an EIR, I will have to engage in the same balancing act that takes into consideration not only the opponents’ testimony, but also the interests of the merchants and the city’s residents as a whole.

Councilman Dana Hobart recused himself from voting to approve the franchise establishment due to a conflict on the matter which he described as “a personal non-financial interest.” Do you believe that the nature of Hobart’s “interest” in any way influenced the voting of any of the council members? 

I do know that Hobart agonized over this issue, which he has made very public. Although he was advised by the city attorney that he was not required to recuse himself from the matter since one of his doctors “saved his life,” I thought it was a very noble act on his part to do what he did under the circumstances.

I constantly remind myself that in the business of local politics, “perception is often reality” and I gather in Hobart’s case, this was a concern. It is critical, legal-wise, that we, as decision-makers, make land-use decisions that are fair, impartial and rational. It seems Hobart may have been concerned that with his participation, it may have tainted the decision-making process, which could undermine the public’s confidence in the decisions we make on development projects. I respected Hobart’s decision to recuse himself under the circumstances. However, I can say his decision had zero influence on how I voted on the project, since I made my decision after balancing all evidence, testimony, etc. Whether Hobart’s decision had any influence on any other council member, I cannot answer that for any of them. If I did know, it could have created the perception that I violated the Brown Act.

Beyond what we’ve discussed, what would you say is the single most-pressing issue facing the residents of Rancho Mirage in the immediate future?

Local control has always been a pressing issue that has a direct impact on the city’s residents. The city is a charter city, which allows the city to adopt a plethora of local policies that are beneficial for the city, even though they may conflict with the general laws of the state. The state has been usurping cities of local control, with various laws and regulations that were once the purview of the city. For instance, the city is now required to approve secondary units without regard to setbacks, parking problems and density. This should remain within the jurisdiction of the local government, since it would hold the local elected official accountable for policies that are either bad for the city’s residents, unworkable, unnecessary or too expensive. Local control allows the city’s future destiny to be determined at the local community level, instead of by the State Legislature or governor’s office, who are total strangers to the concerns of Rancho Mirage residents and local businesses.

The incumbent Rancho Mirage City Council candidates in the last two elections have run a “joint campaign.” What’s the rationale behind this strategy?

Richard Kite and I are not running a joint campaign, although we totally support one another’s re-election. We are very fortunate to have a group of people on the City Council with very different backgrounds and divergent political views that get along as well as we do. Although we don’t socialize much on a personal level, we are constantly with each other at community events, nonprofit fundraisers, ribbon cuttings, city-sponsored events and festivals, and most of us make time to attend. It all boils down to the fact that each of us on the City Council have the same objective in mind, which is to do what we think is best for the city overall—and not for any special interest. This seems to unite us as a City Council, and makes us more productive. The fact that we all get along also makes for good government in general, since it reinforces the confidence that many residents in Rancho Mirage have in the council as a whole, which is a council that does not waste its time nipping at each other’s heels, leveling personal attacks against each other and all the other unbecoming conduct one often witnesses at other council meetings.

With all this said, it just makes good political sense that we support each other’s re-election. Why break a system that is not broken?

What do you do to relax? What’s your favorite leisure activity?

I have always participated in athletics. In college, I was on the wrestling and soccer teams. I later became an active golfer when I moved to the desert. I no longer have the leisure time to spend four hours on the golf course as a result of my commitment to the City Council. However, I start every day by being in the gym by 5:15 a.m. By the time I finish my workout, that includes cardio, stretching and light weights, it is 7:30 a.m., and I am ready to start the day. This has been my routine for many years.

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.

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