CVIndependent

Sat03282020

Last updateMon, 23 Mar 2020 12pm

Kevin Fitzgerald

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.

It was less than a week before the best tennis players in the world were to gather for the start of the 2020 BNP Paribas Open on Monday, March 9. I’d connected with Sheri Pierattoni, owner of Piero’s PizzaVino in Palm Desert, to hear about the challenges she and her team faced as they prepared, for the seventh year, to operate a satellite restaurant at Indian Wells Tennis Garden—alongside world-famous eateries like Spago’s and Nobu.

“People come from all over the world to watch this tennis tournament,” Pierattoni me excitedly. “It’s one of the biggest events in tennis in the world—and it’s a beautiful place with the best dining options anywhere. It’s what sets this event apart from all others. (Tourney owner Larry Ellison) has brought a ton of money into this valley, and everybody is grateful to him for that. A lot of local businesses are sustained by this event.”

Then came the pandemic, and the cancellation of the tournament on the eve of its start.

Pierattoni was stunned.

“At 7 p.m. (on Sunday, March 8), I got a call from Jeff Dunn,” the director of operations for Levy Restaurants at Indian Wells Tennis Garden, “to say they cancelled it. It was devastating—pretty devastating,” Pierattoni told me during a subsequent chat.

How did she handle this terrible turn of events? “Well, you go into shock,” Pierattoni said. “But I had planned a fun night for friends and neighbors to come over, and—because it was kind of a cool night, and I have a fire pit at my house—we drank nice wine and ate s’mores. We sat around talking about (the cancellation), and there was a collective agreement that this (coronavirus threat) is blown way out of proportion. So why everybody is panicking so much is just crazy. But that’s what people do. It’s going to cost the desert economy millions and millions and millions of dollars.”

According to a variety of sources, the cost to the local economy of the tennis-tournament cancellation alone could be more than $300 million. With the cancellation or postponement of Coachella, Stagecoach and all of the other festivals and events, the financial pain in our communities will be devastating. Local governments will lose significant taxes and fees, and small businesses like restaurants, taxi companies, ride-share vendors, local entertainment venues and personal-service providers will feel the devastation, too.

“The desert business owners make the bulk of their money in just four months out of the year,” Pierattoni said. “Then you have the shoulder season where you won’t lose money, and you might make a little money. But now is when you make the big money, and that’s what carries you through the summer. Now, with PizzaVino, I’m very lucky, because we have a great local following, so we don’t lose money in the summer. We don’t make money, but we don’t lose money. We’re going to be OK.”

Since the postponement, the Piero’s PizzaVino team has been focused on recovery and damage control.

“We can’t just turn the key and walk away,” Pierattoni said. “We’re in the process of getting all of our wine vendors out there. They’ve all been extremely gracious in this situation, and they’re taking back our wine and liquor. And the BNP has said that we can use the restaurant to store our frozen and refrigerated goods as long as we need to. We’ll assimilate gradually what (frozen-food items) we can use at our El Paseo restaurant. Also, we’ve been calling some of our friendly restaurateurs to see if they want to purchase some of the perishables from us, just to help out and cut down on the loss we could have.

“It’s been amazing how many people have come out of nowhere to give us support. And that part of it has been beautiful, just beautiful. People ask if I need help, and what they can do. These are restaurateurs and fellow valley people in general doing this.”

As of our post-cancellation chat, Pierattoni had not heard much from BNP Paribas Open staffers regarding any help they may provide to the disenfranchised vendors.

“It’s too early for them,” she said. “Look, they’re still licking their wounds, too. Trust me: They’re still in their decision-making process. When I got the phone call, they said I should send them an email with all my questions, and they’d get back to me as soon as they can.

“Everybody is overwhelmed, and honestly, everybody is still trying to wrap their heads around this and unwind, and hopefully, they’re thinking about how to make it right. Personally, I can’t imagine that we’re all going to take this hit. Maybe we won’t be reimbursed for everything we’ve lost, but hopefully something.

“My biggest heartache in all of this is the money that my employees are going to lose. They count on this money. It helps get them through their summer. We had people who came from outside the state and had taken time away from their regular employment to come here and work the tennis weeks. They do that because they love working for us; they love the tennis tournament, and they know they make good money. So, it’s worth it to them. Now they have to go home, and they won’t have their job until they get back on the schedule, because their position has been filled (temporarily). So I’m really hoping that there’s some compensation for my employees.”

Pierattoni emphasized that it’s her employees—her team, as she calls them—who have made this annual opportunity a reality for the local favorite.

“I’d like to emphasize that it’s a huge team effort,” she said. “I couldn’t do it without my staff, and I have an incredible staff. Here’s an example: Last year, we lost one of our main cooks who comes in (from out of town) just to work this event. He couldn’t make it because his daughter became seriously ill. But it was amazing that, within 24 hours, we had a solution, because the rest of the staff just pulled together and said, ‘We’re going to make it happen.’

“I don’t want to be cocky, but we’re in a class of our own,” Pierattoni added. “You know that we were the only all-girl team out there. We’re a mother-daughter team, and I did take a lot of satisfaction and pride from that.”

Pierattoni’s daughter, Lea Tubberville, is an integral part of the family business operations. Her husband, Piero, passed away less than two years ago.

“I run my restaurant with heart,” she said. “Even though I think we run a great business, the people I hire have heart, and everybody who works (with us) loves it.”

Before the tournament’s cancellation, Pierattoni expressed joy about her restaurant’s participation in the BNP Paribas Open.

“We serve like 10,000 people in the two weeks. It’s nuts!” Pierattoni said. “There’s a vibe out there that’s contagious. It’s exciting. It’s like being in a circus tent. I’ve never put on a circus, but I bet it’s kind of like the same thing, where everybody’s working together to make the show happen. I feel very honored and proud that we can be a part of it. We make good money out there, and not all places do. I think (the tournament) is happy to partner with us, and we’re happy to make it happen.”

Here’s hoping Pierattoni and her team are allowed to make it happen again next year.

The “2020 BNP Paribas Open Will Not Be Held” declared the emailed press release that arrived in my inbox at 6:43 p.m. on Sunday, March 8.

It came after news that a local patient was “presumed positive” after being tested for COVID-19 (aka the novel coronavirus). The unidentified patient is being treated at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage—just a few miles from the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, where the ATP and WTA tennis players’ favorite tournament in the world was to begin play today and run through Sunday, March 22.

The BNP Paribas Open’s cancellation came after the cancellations of South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and the Ultra Music Festival in Miami. Both were cancelled on March 6 due to concerns about the potential spread of the COVID-19 virus among their hundreds of thousands of participants and attendees. Still, as of the next day—Saturday, March 7—the 2020 BNP Paribas Open, which drew 382,000 fans last year, was slated to go on.

In fact, the unofficial local kickoff of the tournament did take place, starting on Saturday morning: the traditional Kids’ Day free event, which happened simultaneously along with the Oracle Challenger Series semifinal matches for ATP and WTA pros at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. And on Sunday, the pro series continued, with the WTA final being captured by Romania’s Irina-Camelia Begu, and the ATP finals win going to American pro Steve Johnson. Each earned a berth in the main draw of the tournament that is no longer going to take place—at least not this weekend.

The cancellation came after Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County’s public health officer, declared a local public health emergency on Sunday, March 8. Tournament director Tommy Haas seemed to leave the door open for the possibility of re-scheduling the tournament at some point in 2020.

“We are very disappointed that the tournament will not take place, but the health and safety of the local community, fans, players, volunteers, sponsors, employees, vendors, and everyone involved with the event is of paramount importance,” Haas said, according to the news release. “We are prepared to hold the tournament on another date and will explore options.”

All good intentions aside, it’s likely the tournament won’t return until March 2021. So, this year’s biggest winners of the 2020 BNP Paribas Open won’t be Novak Djokovic or Simona Halep. Instead, that distinction will go to the large contingent of kids of all ages who flocked into the Tennis Gardens on Saturday morning to enjoy a variety of fun activities. (Scroll down to view photos of the fun.)

The highlight of the day was the newly introduced tennis clinic held for local kids from Coachella Valley, sponsored and facilitated by the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and its partner, Universal Tennis. More than 140 local students from local schools took to the courts accompanied by coaches and a cadre of participating WTA and ATP pros. Big swings and even bigger smiles were the order of the day for the participants.

When asked what their favorite moments during the clinic had been, three young ladies from the George Washington Charter School in Palm Desert shared their thoughts with the Independent.

“Doing the high-5,” said Gianna.

“Playing with the pros,” Melia told us.

“Trying to beat the pros,” was Kaia’s favorite challenge of the day.

On Nov. 1, 2019, District 28 State Sen. Jeff Stone, a Republican, resigned to become the western regional director of President Donald Trump’s Department of Labor. On March 3—the day of California’s primary election, as well as Super Tuesday nationally—voters will start the process of choosing Stone’s replacement.

Five candidates—three Democrats and two Republicans—are running in the district, which reaches from Temecula Valley in the west to the Colorado River in the east, and includes nearly the entire Coachella Valley. Presuming no candidate gets a majority of the vote, the top two finishers will move on to a special vote on May 12, and the winner will serve the final two years of the term.

The Independent recently spoke to all of the candidates and asked each of them the same set of questions, on topics ranging from the Salton Sea, to their personal accomplishments, to California’s primary format. Here are their complete answers, edited only for style and clarity, and presented in the same order as the certified list of candidates.

Anna Nevenic

Retired registered nurse, nonprofit director and author

Democrat, 72

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

We have been talking for some 20 years about it, and we should have started doing something about it years ago, because you can’t fix that problem in one day or one year. But we haven’t done any of that. We’ve just been researching and analyzing and wasting more money in the process.

My plan always has been that we can’t save the whole lake. So we (should) cover the area with trees, so that we have a big park, which will also be good for the wildlife. They should have done that right away. Then (we) use what revenues we have and work together with the private sector to use the algae, because we have a lot of algae, which are good for renewable energy. There’s talk about bringing water in from the Sea (of Cortez) and using recycled water to help regenerate the sea. But you have to be sure before you can say there’s a plan.

People can say, “This is what I want,” but it has to be realistic.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

As a community activist working in the health-care profession for the last four decades, I’ve been working to have health care for all, because health care is the most important asset we have. It should not be treated like a commodity, because our bodies should not be for sale. We can save money, too, if we take measures and prevent people from becoming disabled. Prescription-drug treatment is a key component of any individual’s health care plan, and we need to be increasing access to safe and affordable prescription drugs. It is unacceptable that Americans pay inflated prices for vital medications. Health care for all ensures that health services are appropriate, effective, cost efficient and focused on consumer needs. Preventative care will play a major role in meeting health-care needs. Prevention works, costs less, and it saves lives.

Also, we should be diversifying our economy. Most of the jobs created in our area are low-wage jobs in hospitality and the restaurant business and so on. A lot of them are part-time jobs, which are OK for senior citizens, but are not OK for the young people, because they don’t have health care overage or retirement plans. We need to bring high-tech industry (into our district). It’s growing in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, but in the entire Inland (Empire) area, we have maybe a few startups, but nothing really. And that’s very important to bring wages up, especially for young people who are supposed to be our future.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

I’ve been a community activist and rallying for health care for all for the last 40 years. I’ve been going to Sacramento and trying to get a bill passed. Every year, we lobby for that … but it’s the regular citizens who are making this happen. So I’ve been working with the environmental movement, and fighting for sex education in schools. Each time, you have to gather signatures on the petitions, and then you go and lobby for the bill. I’ve been doing that for the last four decades. I’ve educated many people as to why they should get involved, why it’s important to go to alternative media like PBS to get the information you need. I give lectures to young people wherever I go, and I’ve spoken to thousands and thousands of young people explaining what the generations before them did to provide them with things they all enjoy today like civil rights.

I never got married … that’s my point. So I’m proud I didn’t do it. Instead, I’ve spent thousands of hours of my time going to different conferences, and participating in annual summits where you talk about the economy, and other issues of importance to the average citizen. I’ve spent more time doing that than making my own living, because I felt as a young girl that there were many people who were not as strong as I, and they needed help in some way.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

The only reason I’m running is because I hope to educate enough people that influence and money is a problem, and (they should) not to be influenced by the establishment that only promotes people who raise big money while ignoring the others. I feel that, because of my professional background, my educational background and my civic engagement, I’m the most prepared for this position. I have traveled, and I’ve seen how other countries deal with their health-care issues. If you listen to all these powerful voices like the (American) Medical Association or the trial lawyers or big pharma, somebody’s always standing in the way. So I try to educate as many people as possible that they have to use their own minds.

There is a solution to every problem, and for every dollar we invest in preventing problems and intervening early, we save $7. So, I believe that one person can make a difference. That’s why I wrote a book called Out of the Shadows about American women who changed the world. I do believe that I could influence (legislative) colleagues to put the money in the right place where we really need it.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

From when I was about 11 years old, I saw all these horrible movies about war and misery and what people are capable of (doing to each other), and I always thought that when I grew up, I might be able to help make a better world, and a better society by working together rather than against each other. I’ve been a peace activist all my life, and I still am. People don’t understand that $1 trillion is going to the military, and how are we going to pay for all the other problems that we have? We have such a broken system. But if you believe in the Constitution, you know that it says, ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people.’ It doesn’t say anything about being led by the professional politicians. I think it’s a problem, because we have people (in elected office) who want to stay there forever, because it’s a good position, right? But I just want two years, and I believe that if I’m elected, I’ll be able to put my agenda in front (of my legislative colleagues) and say, ‘OK. There’s already a solution for this problem, and this one, and this one. So let’s do it!’

I’m an independent voice. I will do what is right for the people who elected me, and not what’s right for wealthy corporations and individuals. I will never change my positions. I don’t blindly obey any policy platform. So if I’m elected I will take the approach that everybody matters. Every child matters. Every person matters. And all my decisions will be based on human needs, not on corporate needs.


Elizabeth Romero

Assistant vice chancellor of governmental community relations at UC Riverside

Democrat, 36

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

As a resident of the eastern Coachella Valley, obviously I have firsthand experience and knowledge about what is happening in and around the sea, especially related to some of the environmental-justice issues that are currently impacting our communities. I think the most important thing is that we have to ensure that we are moving forward in a way that is founded in science and research, so that we can find the best solution to mitigate—not only the current dust (pollution being dispersed into the air), but also find long term solutions that allow us to restore the sea, not only for habitat (redevelopment), but for economic development, as well as long term continuity of the sea.

If we have an option to bring water into the sea, which is something that I think has been on the table and is still being explored, then we should pursue that. So there are various proposals out there, and I’m open to listening to and assessing all of them. But what I think is really important now is to also leverage the $220 million in funding that has already been allocated in the budget through the water bond so that we can actually get some projects moving.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

There are several issues that I’m passionate about addressing. I don’t think there’s one single issue that we need to point our finger at, but there’s a whole host of things that are intersectional and that we need to focus on. Those include the state’s affordability issues, which some would say is what’s pushing us into the crisis around homelessness. But it’s deeper than that. It’s about people having access to affordable and diverse housing in the region, which means (we need better) transportation access, health care and quality education. There is this whole host of different issues that I think it’s really important that we focus on. … We’re finding that as we talk to people, there’s not one single issue. People want quality jobs. People want a quality environment and quality education. So, (overall) we want to make sure that we’re focusing on issues that matter to the residents of the 28th District.

When you mention “diverse housing” as a need, what exactly are you referring to?

I think we need to have entry-level housing and affordable housing, (which can be done) obviously by expanding access through California’s Section 8—a government funded program that aims to help low-income families find housing—but also through self-help programs. We need to have first-time home-buyer programs and veteran housing programs. So there are many programs that exist, not only through the state, but through the federal government that we need to leverage and expand here in the desert. This housing needs to be built throughout the Coachella Valley, so that our communities are built out in a way that allows people to live closer to where they work.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

Most recently, professionally, as assistant vice chancellor of governmental community relations at UC Riverside, I’ve been very focused on helping to expand the number of doctors serving our region. I’ve worked to help raise $100 million to build a School of Medicine education building that will double the size of the current class at UC Riverside from 250 (per class) to 500 over time. Also, we’re focused on leveraging the state funds to fully fund residencies and programs that are addressing direct health-care access needs in our region. As you know, we have a health care crisis in our region (due to the fact) that the underserved communities of our region don’t have the same number of doctors that the more affluent communities do. So we’re trying to level the field in terms of having primary-care physicians who are focused on serving the entire region. The best way to predict where a doctor will actually start their practice is (determined by) where they did their residency. So that’s why it’s important to embed these doctors in our communities throughout the 28th District. That way, we will be able to deal with the health-care shortage we’re experiencing long term.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

My career in the region has spanned over 20 years of serving the greater Coachella Valley area, and throughout Riverside County. I’ve been elected for 13 years in a very purple part of the district (to the Coachella Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees and then the Riverside County Board of Education). I’ve been successful in serving this area for a couple of reasons, and I think they underscore the qualities that you’re speaking to: I’m a coalition builder and a good listener, too. Even though I may not agree with someone’s point (of view), I’m always willing to engage in the conversation. Also, I’m someone who’s able to bring people together to solve issues. My campaign currently has the support of Republicans and Democrats and everything in between. I’ve worked on both sides of the aisle. I’ve served for county supervisors in a nonpartisan office, and I’ve sought to just do the work. I think that’s really important for this race.

Moving forward as a state senator, I think we need somebody who’s focused on getting results, and addressing the issues that matter to everyone. There are issues that are cross-cutting. People, regardless of their party affiliation, want to have quality schools. They want to have access to healthcare. They want quality jobs that have benefits. So I think it’s important to focus on the issues that matter to the people in our region, and work across the aisle to make things happen.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

Obviously, it’s the system that we have. I think it’s important to communicate, as a candidate, to the voters. So, in all fairness, I think it’s definitely a process that allows us to put the best candidates forward, and have them come to voters who can participate in the democratic process and decide (which candidates) they want to move forward.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I’d be honored to have the votes of your readers. As a lifelong resident and a homegrown candidate that has served this community for over 20 years, I am poised to hit the ground running on day one. I can ensure that our voice will be heard in Sacramento and that we will be leveraging the state resources that we need to address the issues that are important in our region. So, I would be honored to have the vote of all of your readers on March 3.


Joy Silver

Businesswoman; housing adviser; political activist

Democrat, 64

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

I’m really happy to talk about (this issue), because, for me, running for this office is the continuation of working on the things that I’m already doing. A lot of times, politicians get elected and say, “When I get elected, I will do this and the other thing,” and they elucidate some things that they’ll accomplish should you elect them. But for me … it’s about continuing to finish what I’m already pursuing. … What’s important to know about the Salton Sea is the “sea-to-sea” solution which has received traction throughout the desert cities. Resolutions have been passed through a number of those city councils (supporting this approach) as an answer to stopping the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea.

The recommendation of the Salton Sea Coalition—of which I’m a member—is to put the engineering in place to start what is called the “ocean water import.” Now, the second part of this is to support the declarations of emergency that have been passed by Imperial County. The first declaration of emergency regards the local emergency for air pollution. The second one addresses the stoppage of emptying raw sewage into the New River. Both of those emergency declarations are of critical importance to overcome the delays that have happened (while trying) to implement any of the projects. What is great about these declarations is that they mitigate the permitting issues, procurement issues and agencies getting in each other’s way, including using money, because once the declarations of emergency are accepted, (any corrective actions) can be paid for without another bond. The total state revenue is $146 billion, and the “rainy day fund” has $16.5 billion, and the budget surplus is $21.5 billion. So the money is there to move forward and mitigate the declarations of emergency on both the raw sewage and the air.

Getting that into forward motion will push solutions toward getting done. We’ve got to use the available funds to clean the water and update sewage treatment. This needs to be for both the New River and the Salton Sea itself, since there’s been an increase in pesticides (flowing into the sea) along with the raw sewage and military munitions (contamination). The Region 7 State Water Control Board has been non-compliant around these issues for the past 27 years, and that has to change. (The region covers approximately 13,000,000 acres, some 20,000 square miles, in the southeastern portion of California.) There have been funds earmarked (by the state) for the Salton Sea, and we can use them to start the engineering plans to begin water import. There have been about 11 proposals for importing ocean water already submitted, and we need an unbiased agency to evaluate those proposals. That will determine what the actual cost is for importing ocean water. Ocean water, with salinity management, offers the most feasible path to restore the Salton Sea and protect the region from environmental disaster.

The good thing that’s happened is that (Arturo) Delgado is the assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency. He has made the commitment to the community that there will be an open and unbiased evaluation of those ocean-water import proposals, and that’s really major, from our point of view. You know, the connection (from the Salton Sea) to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez was actually there at one time, so, fully restoring the sea would restore the environment, and bring back the birds and the plants, restore boating and fishing, and help with economic development in the area. All of that will mitigate the health issues (including elevated) asthma and respiratory illness rates. Right now, as that sea water evaporates, the playa just releases more and more toxins into the air.

It’s so interesting to me that people who are unaware of the challenge happening with the Salton Sea don’t realize that they’re actually breathing in the toxins released. We breathe the same air (all over Southern California). So, this is not simply a problem in Brawley, or Salton City, or Imperial or Riverside County. This is a problem for California and further. I think that understanding needs to be made clear to Sacramento, and that would be my job, to advocate for moving (a solution) forward in some way.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

Here’s where I have difficulty with this question: “the single.” The reason it’s so challenging is because the issues that we face are integrated. So, there is no one solution of one item that’s going to solve that very issue. See what I’m saying? Unless things are going on along, at least, three tracks, you can’t really solve any issues without the other things rolling forward.

That being said, what I would look at as one of the pressing issues that we’re facing is the need for affordable housing—whether it’s for seniors on fixed incomes or veterans in need of support services due to (post-traumatic stress disorder) challenges, or entry housing pricing for young families and work-force housing for those with jobs in the district and have to drive far out of their own neighborhoods. This (housing initiative) goes further in that it helps create solutions as well for the homelessness crisis. My intention to address this is to develop a legislative initiative—which I’m working on right now—that refocuses the funding efficiencies of the state to allow for easier permitting and funding when criteria has been met that is not dependent upon federal funding sources.

What actually is the strategy as to how you would go about accomplishing such objectives?

Well, we have to reallocate our existing resources to developing efficient strategies for funding affordable housing. Part of the funding of affordable housing relies on federal tax credits, for example. We see legislators who are putting together bills to mitigate the timelines of how long it takes to go through the processes to bring affordable housing into line and to go into construction in communities. Some of that has to do with the permitting process, and some of it has to do with conditional use of permits, which means that municipalities get to choose the location for what the use of the land can be. (What’s needed) is bringing municipalities on board to find land to integrate affordable housing communities. So, how do you fund that? It has to be more state focused. There has to be more incentive through the state, so that the competition for funding is lessened, and there are more no-profit developers who can begin the process of construction. So that’s one of the big issues that we’re facing.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

For me, we’re still on the subject of affordable housing, and what I’m most proud of is that, when Palm Springs says we have land available, but we can’t find a developer to come in and build an affordable housing community, I said at the time to someone who was on the City Council during that time period, “I’m going to bring a really good organization into Palm Springs to do that.” So, consequently, I did, and I now work as a consultant for that nonprofit organization (the Community Housing Opportunities Corporation) as their regional director for Southern California, and we’re bringing more affordable housing communities into Riverside County right now. I’m very proud of that.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

A couple of things. The first thing is that I am not a career politician, and that’s important, because I can afford to be strong in my stance to represent our district. Also, I have skills and experience in the real world that I bring to a legislative body. That’s important, because when you represent people, you represent those who actually are in the work force, who have experience in creating business, who actually provide health care and these are the kinds of skills that I have. So when a piece of legislation is put forward, knowing how things actually work in the real world can help that legislation be stronger and not simply be developed without being able to see that it may cause obstructions that no one intended, because they actually didn’t know how the thing itself works. I think that’s an important piece. I’m also able to motivate people into taking action, and that’s a quality that’s really critical in moving something forward. That’s why I got into running for this office, because I was already mobilizing and motivating people to move forward, and so I thought, “OK … we’re moving forward, but we have some challenges in getting things done—like with the Salton Sea Coalition or other things that I was moving forward with—so it’s time to move those obstructions out of the way on the state level.” We haven’t really had any representation in District 28 that moved things forward. Basically, we had representation that was saying “no” and keeping things at status quo, and certainly not fighting for our fair share of resources to get those things done.

Also, I am persistent, with a laser focus on goal attainment. I possess an awareness of different community needs throughout our district, because I’ve been out there talking to people for a good three years now. I hunt down the truth, and I stand up for solutions when they’re for the common good. (Because I’m not) a career politician, even if (the position) is politically unpopular, if the solution is for the common good, then I’m willing to take that stand. So, meeting people where they are in this district that’s more than 6,000 square miles means a lot of travelling. But I’m willing to go out and meet with people throughout the district, and I bring those people together to move things forward. I’m a fighter. I’m inclusionary, and I’m a negotiator.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

Here’s the thing: I’m not really sure about this, because my senate races have been my first such races (both in 2018 and the current 2020 campaign). I don’t know what it would be like in a different environment. I think what we’re seeing right now is the different political parties having their primaries let the political party’s strength (in a particular region) decide who is the stronger candidate. That could be advantageous, but not having experienced that (scenario), I don’t know for sure. Having the run-off election be between the two highest vote-getters can be difficult, because I don’t think it offers (the voters) the same amount of choice as, potentially, the party primaries do.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I would like to let your readers know that I’m a working-class kid who was once out on the street, but I worked my way up from an entry-level job at a health-care clinic to the executive suite. I have said before that I’m not a career politician, and I have real-life experience in health care, senior care, housing development and renewable fuel technology. I’m the renewable-energy-economy candidate, actually. I’m not running to get things done when I’m elected. I am running to get the things done that I’m already doing.

My agenda for change will focus on reducing the cost of prescription drugs and opposing harmful cuts to health care. I want to tackle the homelessness crisis and provide housing, also for homeless veterans. And I will fight for our fair share of state funding, because you know what? Riverside County cannot afford to wait any longer.


Melissa Melendez

U.S. Navy veteran; California District 67 assembly member

Republican, 52

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

From the people who I’ve talked to about this issue, and from the things we’ve seen coming through Sacramento, I can say from the beginning that we really need more money. The government really needs to step up here and help us out. But I do think there are things we can do in conjunction with that, which range from some wetland development along the edges and the open areas. We can partner with state, local and federal entities on that. I would say we could be creating some habitats in there, too. These would be habitats that the community could access as well. We could provide some other amenities in there to really get community buy-in. The reality is that we need more water out there, which we can do in the future by bringing it in from new sources.

I feel like we’ve just been standing still on this issue. A little bit of money gets thrown in there, but then the situation doesn’t change. I think that some of the things I mentioned are things we can do immediately. I think the governor promised about $220 million, but that is contingent on the bond measure passing. So what happens if the bond measure doesn’t pass? I don’t think that’s a fair solution. While I appreciate the (governor’s promise to direct) $220 million, let’s be honest: It’s going to take more than $220 million to solve this problem.

Is there any particular restoration strategy that you favor?

Yes. More water. We know that the issue is that we need to fill the sea back up. We have to do that. Years ago, my great uncle lived near the Salton Sea, and I remember him talking about it as the place to be, and the place to go. But now you look at it and say, “What the heck happened here?” Why has it been neglected for so long? So, it’s got to be a group effort, and now is not the time to point fingers and argue about whose fault it is. Let’s get something done.

I’ve heard talk about a “sea-to-sea” water replenishment strategy. Do you think that’s a viable approach?

The problem we always seem to run into is that environmental groups come in and challenge whatever is trying to be done. That’s always going to be an issue. The question is how we can get everybody to at least agree to some (restorative actions) in the middle, because it’s a health hazard out there. People are getting nose bleeds, and there are asthma problems and other respiratory problems. This is not something that we can argue about all day long as far as environmental concerns, and then do nothing. People deserve better than that.

I’m in the western part of our district, and there are times when we can smell the Salton Sea where we are. And that (polluted air) wafts over Los Angeles, even. You’d think that they would say, “Hey, what’s going on here?” So, everybody thinks that there’s just one answer, but there isn’t. I think people need to be mature about this and (understand) that you’re not going to come with some silver bullet. This calls for a multifaceted solution, and we have to stop trying to find that magic wand to wave and fix everything, because that’s not going to happen.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

I think the two top issues, in the whole state really, are affordability and the homelessness crisis. That’s what people have been talking to me about, and that’s what we’ve seen in the polling. The cost of living is pretty darn high in California, and it impacts every aspect of our lives, from housing affordability to long commutes and the time that people are spending on freeways. I will say that I have personally authored legislation. … I’ve even offered bills to re-purpose the high-speed rail funding and put it into the building of new housing. There is a bill that we put forward to make sure that the gas tax money is actually going to (maintaining) the roads instead of other pet projects which everyone is frustrated with.

The homeless issue—which I think is the No. 1 polling issue in California—everyone’s concerned with that. I did put policies forward to address chronic homelessness that can be lessened, or averted, by providing more mental-health funding, because we know that there’s a large contingent of homeless out there who have some mental-health issues. They really need some help, so we’re going to beef up the funding for that, in addition to making sure that those out there who have substance abuse issues are getting the help that they need too.

Relating to “sober living” homes: Basically you (or anyone) living in your neighborhood could open a “sober living” home. As long as you have six or fewer clients living there, there are no regulations that you have to follow. It is literally the wild west. It’s kind of insane. So we put a bill forward saying there are certain standards that have to be met, because people have been coming out here from all over the country to get help. But, once (the patient’s) money runs out—their health insurance or whatever form of payment they’re using—they kick (the patient) out. They have a term for it: They call it “curbing.” Talk about dehumanizing someone. And (the patients) don’t get the help. So, now we’re back to square one. I think that’s all pretty important when we talk about the homelessness issue. It’s not just that people can’t afford a place to live, although that is a portion of it. But there’s a whole host of other issues out there that we can do something about and adjust.

These policies that you’ve been referring to: Are some of them still pending in the Legislature, or have they been passed already?

These are bills that have been introduced and have failed to get passed in the Legislature. We’ve gotten further with them each year we bring them up. Apparently it takes like 50 attempts to get something meaningful through, but we’re working on it. Even on the “sober living” homes bill, we had the coalition of the (home) operators who came forward in support of the bill. Their feeling is that they run a legitimate organization, and they want the bad actors to be gone. They want rules to be followed, because (the bad actors) aren’t helping people. But the other side is saying that when it comes to addiction issues, (the patients) are a protected class, and we don’t want to get into a situation where we’re somehow violating their civil rights by saying where these “sober living” homes can and can’t operate, which we weren’t trying to do. We were just trying to say that there are certain rules and certain standards to make sure that they are actually helping people.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

That’s an easy question. That would be marrying my husband and going on to have our five kids. They are the best thing ever. You know, politics is short-term, and even a career is not forever, but family is forever, and I’m very blessed. We’ve got great kids: the oldest one is a (United States) Navy diver; we’ve got one in college, and two in high school; one in eighth grade, and they are the loves of my life. That’s definitely the thing I’m most proud of.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

It’s a precarious situation at the end, but I think it’s important for all of us who are serving to remember that we serve the people that we represent. We are not to be serving the special interests that dominate the halls in the state capitol. I made that commitment to be their voice when I first got elected, and I’m going to continue to be their voice. I’ve hosted over 100 town halls since I’ve been in the Assembly. We do two a month: one during the day, and one in the evening. We do that because voices need to be heard. I always tell them that I can’t represent them effectively or well if I don’t know what’s on their minds and how they feel about the issues. Frankly, I wish every legislator would do that. It’s been very helpful, because sometimes we have bills that come up, and they are definitely partisan bills, and I have to ask my constituents what they want me to do. We had the late-school-start bill last year—and party politics don’t come into play there—and went and asked (constituents), ‘What do you want me to do?’ For everybody who has kids, this is going to affect you. So, I think I’ve been most effective and best represented the people, because I do that. You know, when you win your re-election (races) for the state Assembly by large margins with (backing) from Republican, Democrat and Independent voters, that means they like when their representatives listen to them and come talk with them.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

I get a lot of complaints about the “top-two” (primary format), and I have to remind people that the Legislature did not do that; the voters of California actually did that. I think (the voters at the time) were convinced that it would bring forward candidates who were more in the center (of political ideology) rather than on the fringes. But I have not seen that happen, actually, so I don’t know that it worked. But I know that people are really irritated when they look at their ballot, and if they’re a Democrat and they only see two Republicans, or if they’re Republican and they only see two Democrats—they don’t like it. They want choices. So has it served the public? I don’t think so. I don’t think it changed anything, to be honest with you, other than frustrating the voters.

From your perspective as a candidate, does it matter?

I think it does. I mean, if you have to make a choice, you’re making a choice ideally between two different things. But when you have two people in the same party, then it becomes (a question of), “How different are they, really?” Maybe those candidates aren’t really different, and it just comes down to who has more money. And, who has more special interests backing them. I don’t think that’s fair to the voters. They want clear and distinct choices, and that’s very hard to get when you have two people in the same party on your ballot. I mean, imagine how left out you feel as a voter if you’re in one particular party, and nobody from your party is on the ballot for you to choose from. When you talk about voter apathy, that could have something to do with it, because people say, “You know what? Someone I would prefer to support isn’t even on the ballot. So, why bother?” It has an effect on every (race) down ballot, too. If you don’t go in to vote for your state Assembly member or your state senator (for instance), because somebody from your party is not on there, that means maybe you’re not voting for ballot initiatives, either. And your vote could be very important (in terms of) determining whether or not something passes.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I do want to point out that I have the endorsement of the (Riverside) County sheriff, of the county district attorney and of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. I think that should let people know that I take public safety very seriously, and I take protecting their tax dollars very seriously, too—considering the fact that we’re going to have a ballot initiative in November that is going to tinker with Prop 13 and how property taxes are assessed.

I want people to know that I didn’t get into politics by design. Politics is not exactly where I expected that I would be. I got into because, after leaving the Navy, it’s just kind of a way of life. You go serve. You don’t just take care of yourself; you go serve everybody in your community. So, that’s how I look at it, and public service is pretty much all I’ve done for my entire adult life. I hope (the voters) see that in the work that I’ve done, and in the ways that I’ve communicated with my constituents, the outreach that we’ve engaged in. When I get emails from my constituents, I answer every single one of them myself personally. I don’t do it by email; I hand-write my response, and I like doing that better. Frankly, all we ever get in the mail now is bills and junk mail, and, it’s nice to have someone actually write something to you. So, I answer them all by hand, and I hope (constituents) recognize that I do that because I think that’s what (each constituent) deserves, and they deserve someone who respects them regardless of whether or not we agree on a particular issue.


John Schwab

U.S. Marine veteran; owner and operator of a residential facility for developmentally disabled adults; real estate broker/mortgage broker

Republican, 43

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

Ever since I was stationed at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base, they’ve been talking about cleaning up the Salton Sea forever—and they just haven’t done anything. So we really need to take care of it, because it’s just become more of a problem with all the respiratory infections out there.

I’m willing to work on coming up with a solution to help start cleaning it up. I’ve come up with some ideas that can help the area out there, because they just keep kicking the can down the road. Nothing’s getting done, and it’s just getting worse

Any specific thoughts you have on how to attack the problem?

I’d like to talk to a lot of people about the environmental impact reports for that area and what needs to be done. We’re talking, in my estimation, about years of cleanup. It’s not going to happen quickly, but it is something that needs to be addressed.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

My No. 1 priority is traffic. I’ve lived in this state since I was 18 years old, so it’s been 25 years now, and traffic has gotten worse and worse. With more housing and more people, we still have limited space on the freeways and roads. So, I’m willing to work with the California Transportation Commission and the California Department of Transportation to come up with solutions to many of the issues that we have with traffic.

Do you have any particular strategy that you think could help alleviate this serious problem?

These are just some thoughts: scheduled commute times, more (traffic) lanes, maybe some roundabouts in certain areas and on certain roads, and maybe even look at additional roads. In this area, (to travel east-west), you’ve got to take the Interstate 10 freeway, and that’s it. It’s been that way forever, and if something happens on the 10, you’re not moving. I listen to the radio most of the time, to calm me down and soothe me. I even put the classical music on.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

It would be my personal life, because I’ve got really good kids. They’re very respectful, and they (reflect) what I grew up with. I’m originally from Richmond, Ind., and my kids are very respectful of their elders and people. They’re polite and well-mannered. When I started this campaign, I was trying to get signatures for the nomination, and you’d be surprised how people treat each other. So, just by raising great kids (who will be) great stewards, that helps make the state, counties and the cities better. That is the future, right?

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

I just look at the facts. I’m not all about fluff. I’m not going to sit here and promise you everything, and not deliver. What I talk about is coming up with solutions and trying to solve problems in the district. I’m not going to cure everything, but I’m going to work hard and diligently, and, it may be behind the scenes. I don’t have to be out here speaking in front of a crowd. I don’t need to be telling (people) what I want to do. I just need to put my nose to the grind, work with professionals who can give (me their) expert opinion, and try to get things done.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

I don’t have a problem with the best two (moving on). The top two vote-getters after the primary going (into the runoff election) is fine with me.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I’m just a regular neighbor, a father and husband; my kids are still in school. I’m just trying to do the best we can for the people in the district. I’m not a career politician. That’s not what I want to do. I’m just trying to stop some of the ridiculous laws, and lessen the tax burden that the state (government) keeps putting on the people of this state. I love California, but a lot of my friends and family are looking at the future, and trying to figure out if California is somewhere they want to stay, because (the state government) is burdening a lot of the people who live and work here. So, I decided to run for those particular reasons specifically.

I’m not an attorney. I don’t have any hidden agenda. My (focus) is on traffic, public safety and lowering fuel prices. I wasn’t a political major in college. I am really for the people, and that’s what I’d really like to share. They’re the ones who sit down and, hopefully, do the research. They look through the fluff and the rhetoric, and then they get to decide for themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quintanilla clarified her and Salas’ intentions with the settlement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you want to join in the fun of the annual 11-day celebration of midcentury architecture and design known as Modernism Week, we have good news and bad news.

First, the bad: The week, taking place from Feb. 13-23, has gotten so popular that a lot of events have been sold out for weeks.

Now, the good: The week, now in its 15th year, has gotten so big that there are still tickets available for an array of tours, lectures, sales and parties—including a host of free and lower-cost events.

Lisa Vossler Smith is the executive director of Modernism Week, a nonprofit organization. Smith and her team, including more than 450 volunteers, will produce hundreds of events and activities across the Coachella Valley over those 11 February days.

“This is my seventh year (working for) Modernism Week,” Smith said. “I’ve been involved with the organization since its beginning. My husband and I volunteered for years with Modernism Week before I came on staff. … It’s near and dear to my heart, and I’m really looking forward to our 15th anniversary.”

In recent years, Modernism Week has realized impressively rapid growth in attendance levels, which has led to increases in revenue—for the organization itself, the charitable scholarships and grants it funds, the vendors at the sale events, and countless merchants throughout the Coachella Valley.

“We can tell already that it’s going to be a big year,” Smith said about the 2020 events. “Our sales have been strong, and we’re on pace with last year, when we had 152,000 attendees. So we feel really confident that we’ll have at least the same size crowd or even larger.

“Over the last seven years, our (attendance) growth has been 20-30 percent each year.”

Modernism Week events are not limited geographically to the Palm Springs city limits.

“We’re in Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City, Palm Desert and Indian Wells,” said Smith. “There’s midcentury-modern architecture throughout the valley that the architects were working on in the same era. We’ve had homeowners and businesses participate by conducting tours in all of those communities throughout the Coachella Valley. That’s part of our continued growth—that we’ve been able to expand into other cities outside of Palm Springs.”

The Modernism Week team estimates that about a third of all tickets are purchased by locals, so we asked Smith for tips and advice.

“I would tell people to figure out what day they’re available, and then look at our website and sort by that date to see what tickets are available for that day,” she said. “If you’re looking to go on multiple days, then try to see a little bit of everything. Try to take a house tour; take a walking tour, and learn a little bit about the history of Palm Springs. Go to a lecture, and learn about architecture and design globally. And then certainly go to a cocktail party and have a martini by a pool at an architecturally significant house. Touch on all the cornerstones of our activities, which are all related to midcentury architecture and design throughout the Palm Springs area.”

While a single ticket to some of the swankier events can run upward of a couple hundred bucks, there are many free or low-cost events and activities—although it’s important to head to the website to get tickets even for the free events.

“Free and low-cost events are something that Modernism Week is always committed to maintaining, because we really want to invite the whole community to experience Modernism Week,” Smith said. “So whether someone’s into architecture or classic cars or vintage furniture, there’s something happening for everyone.”

If you’re convinced that you want to attend an event or two, then Smith offers this additional bit of advice.

“Always, my recommendation to attendees is that (when they arrive), go to CAMP”—that’s the Modernism Week Community and Meeting Place, located at 575 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs—“and figure out what you want to do, what tickets are available, and then you can purchase them right there at our box office,” Smith said. “Also, during the event, our website home page has a link to tickets still available for that day, which will make things easier for people to find events last-minute.”

If “free” is your favorite way to go, then take note: “I love the Modernism Week Vintage Car Show, which is a free event featuring a great selection of lectures for people who are interested in learning,” Smith said. “The show attracts a large and diverse (collection) of cars. It’s really popular, and we’ve been doing it for many years.

“Also, the Modernism Yard Sale is really fun. It’s on the last day of 2020 Modernism Week. People from all over Southern California come in and have a flea market in the H3K parking lot.”

As for lower-cost events: “All of our lectures at the Annenberg Theater or at CAMP are priced between $12 and $15, and you can see close to 80 lectures scheduled throughout the week.

“People really treat (their time at Modernism Week) like they’re going to summer camp. They show up every morning at CAMP, attend some of the lectures, and then they take off on their tours in the afternoon. It really is like having a spring break for adults. And almost every day, the Dreamboats (musical group) are playing at happy hour. They’re a wonderful throwback rock ’n’ roll band that actually gets people up dancing—even though it’s only 4 o’clock in the afternoon.”

Finally, there is one event that Smith wanted to point out that’s important for the community as a whole.

“The Palm Springs School of Architecture event is a big deal, because Cal Poly Pomona and College of the Desert are going to collaborate to offer an undergraduate program in architecture at the new Palm Springs campus,” Smith said. “This event, which is free and open to the public at the Annenberg Theater (at the Palm Springs Art Museum at 10:30 a.m., Friday, Feb. 21), is actually the public announcement about that collaboration. … The collaboration with Cal Poly Pomona will not only allow local COD students to pursue an architectural degree, but it will also bring a reciprocal program with students from Cal Poly Pomona, who will be able to use the campus in the desert as a lab for architecture. So, it’s really, really exciting.

“These kinds of programs are at the very core of why Modernism Week was founded. Locally, we’ve had such a strong group of grassroots supporters for the architecture and design community that it was everyone’s dream that someday, we would have architecture students who would graduate from the desert and then come back to work here as architects in the future.”

Modernism Week takes place from Thursday, Feb. 13, through Sunday, Feb. 23, at locations valley-wide. For more information, including a complete schedule and ticket information, visit www.modernismweek.com. Below: Modernism Week’s Community and Meeting Place (CAMP), open for free to the public, should be the first stop for anyone looking to enjoy the week for the first time. Photo by David A. Lee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back in October, a mulch fire ignited at the Sun Valley Recycling Center near Thermal, on land owned by the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians. The smoke plagued schools and neighborhoods for several weeks, creating health concerns for thousands of residents in the eastern Coachella Valley.

Communities and school boards called for help—and one of the organizations that answered that call was the recently expanded Desert Healthcare District, led by newly elected Board President Leticia De Lara, and Chief Executive Officer Conrado Barzaga.

“There were funds (accessible to the DHCD) that were identified for clean air and to address some of the air-quality issues related to the fires that were burning in the east valley last October,” De Lara said during a recent phone interview. “Our CEO, Conrado, was able to identify these funds and some partners who could bring some immediate health-care resources to the residents, including Borrego Health, Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo, federally qualified health clinics, the Coachella Valley Unified School District and the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians tribe. Also, (Barzaga) was able to identify some funds that were set aside to address issues like this in the future, and (allow potential responders) to avoid the chaos that resulted … (by facilitating) their coordination.”

This would not have been possible a couple of years ago: In November 2018, Coachella Valley residents voted to expand the Desert Healthcare District beyond its original, antiquated Cook Street boundary, all the way to the eastern end of the valley. Since then, seven districts were re-drawn and approved by the DHCD board, and directors were put in place for each. As 2019 drew to a close, the DHCD was starting to make its supportive influence felt in these historically underserved east valley communities.

In another recent dangerous health-related incident that drew substantial attention, the management of the Oasis Mobile Home Park in Thermal proved to be incapable of supplying reliable access to clean drinking water for its nearly 2,000 residents; the drinking water drawn from wells on the property, also owned by the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, was found to contain unacceptably high levels of arsenic. Immediate attempts to import clean water proved insufficient.

“At our December meeting, we allocated some funding to be used in partnership with the county of Riverside to address some of the water-quality issues affecting the mobile home park in the Thermal area,” De Lara said. “And we also funded a request from Martha’s Village back in October. So, those are some examples of what’s already been accomplished” in the expansion territory.

The arrival of the DHCD as a new funding option in the east valley is welcomed by established nonprofit health service providers working with east valley residents, including the Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine (CVVIM).

“It’s nice to see new things happening,” said Doug Morin, the executive director of CVVIM, in a phone interview. “There’s about $300,000 for east valley funding. So, when you consider all the (health-care-related) charities serving residents in the east valley, (the funding) is limited, but anything is better than nothing.”

Morin said he had just submitted an application for a $50,000 grant to be used to defray the costs of the east valley patient services his nonprofit provides. He hopes his proposal will get approved by the DHCD board in February. However, when compared to the roughly $120,000 annual grant that CVVIM has received from the DHCD to serve its west valley population, the geographic discrepancy in available support becomes apparent.

De Lara said the disparity comes from the fact that funding going toward efforts within the previous DHCD boundaries is not being reduced to fund efforts in the expanded portion.

“We’re continuing to provide the same level of funding for the west valley. … We are continuing to address homelessness and (work) for a regional solution,” she said. “We believe that in the west valley, there are some major gaps in services (for the homeless).”

According to the June 30, 2018, audited financial statements, the total outlay of funds to west valley grant recipients was $5,076,039 for fiscal year 2018, the last full fiscal year prior to the expansion eastward. However, efforts by the DHCD to raise comparable funds to support east valley service grants are foundering. Given this reality, it’s impossible for the grant levels to reach parity across the valley without cutting the grants to providers serving west valley residents. However, as De Lara indicated, that is not a likely scenario for the DHCD board to pursue.  

Morin sees his CVVIM as somewhat unique among Coachella Valley health-care service nonprofits, because it has served residents at both ends of the valley for years. He said the distinction and disparity between funding levels for the original DHCD territory and the new expanded territory is obvious and challenging.

“Their max funding request (for the recent proposal he submitted to serve east valley patients of his clinic) was $50,000, which is what I requested,” he said. “They don’t have that restriction on the west valley, because, of course, they have more funds for the west valley.”

How can the DHCD address this funding imbalance?

“I think we’re realizing that there’s going to be a need to include other partners,” De Lara said. “Sharing costs on some of these long-term visions, I think, is important. Also, there’s the potential to bring in dollars from the state and federal governments by communicating to them in a much better way, through our assessments and studies, where the gaps are, and how they can help us. We can put together a really strong, compelling case statement for some funding. I think the potential to bring in grants that add to our current resources is a very promising possibility for funding.”

In the past, DHCD representatives have approached Riverside County and the state government about various tax strategies designed to generate the new revenues necessary to fund the annexed east valley needs. However, that outreach has so far proved fruitless.

“The possibility of going to the voters or the county for some assessment is something that we have not discussed, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying where we’re at on that, because we’re nowhere,” she said. “But in the last board meeting (of 2019), we actually approved two positions to take the lead on exploring funds and grants to help support the work that we’re going to be doing on behavioral health. So I think that we’ll start with grants to try to generate more revenue.”

Despite the immediate challenges presented by the revenue shortfall, De Lara said she sees a bright future for her organization’s ability to enable much-needed quality health care through its grantee nonprofits.

“We have to think strategically,” De Lara said. “We have to think incrementally, and we have to think partnerships. I think that’s how we’ll be approaching the mass of the needs that we (face) now because of the additional area, as well as the district we had before. We’re one Coachella Valley. We’re one district, and we have to keep asking, ‘Are we advancing toward our mission, and are we doing it in a fair way, a smart way and collaboratively?’”

While Morin said the funding disparity is problematic, he praised the efforts the DHCD is making.

“They’re a great foundation,” Morin said. “They’re very transparent about everything that they do, and I like their plan of this ‘One Coachella Valley.’ Their (east valley) impact will be felt immediately, once we receive those (requested grant) funds. Even though I may wish that (those funds) were more, it’s a start. … Sources of funding in the east valley are somewhat limited, so this is valuable. It’s important for us, and it will allow a number of agencies to provide more services. So they’re out there doing their own fundraising, and hopefully, over the years, the amount of funding available to the east valley will increase, and that’s a good thing.”

January marks the start of the “high season” of activity at the world-famous Empire Polo Club—and before the huge music events arrive in April, the grounds will host the 34th edition of the Southwest Arts Festival, and its sumptuous display of works created by roughly 250 talented artists, from Thursday, Jan. 23, through Sunday, Jan. 26.

Josh Bonner is the president and CEO of the Greater Coachella Valley Chamber of Commerce (GCVCC), the host organization of this valley tradition. He explained how artists get selected to participate.

“Artists from across the country will put in their applications to be at the show,” Bonner said. “As part of that process, they submit multiple pictures of their artwork. Also, they will submit a photo of the display they use at shows, so we can see what it would look like if they were at our art show. That all goes before our panel of judges. … Primarily, the jury pool is made up of artists, because we want (applicants) to be judged by their peers.”

The number of applications is much larger than the allotted number of spots, in part because the Southwest Arts Festival is viewed as an artist-friendly show.

“Art shows operate in two different ways,” Bonner said. “One way is (organizers) charge a very large upfront fee, like $700-$800, for the artist to come out. Then (the artists) keep all of their sales. We charge a much lower upfront fee of $350, and then they pay a small percentage commission on their sales. We do it that way, because, in our opinion, it helps the artist. If the artist comes out and has a great show, then he or she has a great show. But if they come out and they don’t have a great show for some reason, at least they’re not out that huge upfront investment.”

A lot of selling indeed goes on—Bonner said last year’s sales exceeded $1 million—and those sales do a lot of good for local nonprofits.

“The GCVCC is an interesting organization, because we are not like other chambers,” Bonner said. “We’re sort of an umbrella chamber. The GCVCC puts the festival on, but underneath us, you have the chambers of commerce from Indio, Coachella and La Quinta (among other cities), and the Desert Advertising Federation, which is an association of marketing professionals. All of those nonprofit entities benefit from the show.

“In addition, we’ll also designate two or three other local nonprofits who will benefit from a portion of the proceeds. In the past, we’ve had proceeds that benefited the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission and ABC Recovery Center.”

Bonner said the 12,000 to 15,000 festival-goers can enjoy a variety of experiences.

“One thing we realized is that when you come to an art show with some 250 artists, it takes time for you to get through all those artists. People are normally on the grounds for a few hours; they don’t just show up for five minutes,” Bonner said. “So, because of that, we work with the Empire Polo Club, and every year, they help out with food and beverage. They bring in different culinary experiences. … There are several different restaurants there that people can choose from to eat lunch, or a snack, while they’re at the event. There are bars with drinks available throughout the venue as well.

“We have interactive art displays. We’ll have an area where kids can paint, and sometimes, we’ll have (hands-on experiences with) glass-blowing or metalwork. Or we’ll have live canvas painting going on, so that people can see the artistic process taking place. On top of all of that, we have live music as well. At every point during each day, we’ll have some type of live performance music going on.”

Bonner said attendees will get exposed to a lot of art with which they’re unfamiliar.

“I get asked a lot: ‘Hey, do you have famous artists?’” Bonner said with a laugh. “My answer is always, ‘No.’ But I think that’s also the allure of art festivals and to the people who like to go to them: They get to discover new art, unique art. It’s not the Picassos who everyone knows about, but these are really talented local artists from around the country who come to show their wares, and you get to see things you’ve never seen before. That, to me, is the allure of the Southwest Art Festival.

“We have a local artist, Richard Curtner, who operates out of Cathedral City. He does these wonderful collages where he takes like different newspaper (clippings), and he’ll manipulate them to form this beautiful picture. … It is fine art, and these are extremely talented artists, but the beauty and allure of it is that these are artists that you probably have never heard of before.”

The Southwest Arts Festival takes place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 23-26, at the Empire Polo Club, 81800 51st Ave., in Indio. Tickets, which are good for all four days, are $15; or $13 for seniors. For tickets or more information, visit www.eventbrite.com/e/the-southwest-arts-festival-indio-2020-tickets-76332928845.

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