CVIndependent

Mon06252018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Kevin Fitzgerald

During the short and unsettled lifespan of California’s End of Life Option Act—signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in October 2015, and taking effect on June 9, 2016—terminally ill patients diagnosed as having no more than six months left to live have become the targets of repeated legal challenges, leaving their precious final days in this world unsettled and unclear.

The fate of the law has been particularly unsettled since May 15, when Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia ruled the law was invalid on the grounds that it was passed unconstitutionally during a special session of the California Legislature. During the session, Gov. Jerry Brown directed legislators to enact legislation that would improve healthcare for the state’s citizens. As result of Judge Ottolia’s ruling, participating physicians were barred from writing prescriptions for sanctioned life-ending drugs, while pharmacists were forbidden from providing those drugs to qualifying patients.

A couple of weeks later, Ottolia denied a motion filed by two terminally ill adults and one physician requesting that he vacate his earlier ruling to invalidate the law. But on June 15, the state’s 4th District Court of Appeal granted a stay of Ottolia’s ruling following emergency motions filed by the two patients, the doctor and Attorney General Xavier Becerra. As a result, the End of Life Option Act (EOLA) remains in effect until all of the legal challenges can be resolved.

Both national and California-focused surveys conducted over the last few years show that about 70 percent of citizens support a terminally ill person’s right to determine the point at which their life will end.

The law is indeed helping terminally ill Californians. The first annual report from the California Department of Public Health, as required by the law, was issued in July 2017. It showed that through Dec. 31, 2016, 191 terminally ill Californians had received prescriptions from 173 doctors for aid-in-dying medication. During those first nearly seven months of the law, 111 of those individuals (58 percent) decided to self-ingest the medication. There were no indications the law had been abused by motivations of suicide or greed—something opponents of the law said could happen. The second annual report is due this July.

Despite public support of the law, and the apparent the lack of abuse, opponents of death-with-dignity laws nationwide continue to push the courts to invalidate them.

John Kappos, a partner at O’Melveny and Myers LLP, which currently represents the national Compassion and Choices organization, said he’s dismayed that EOLA opponents keep trying to push their version of morality on others.

“If the choice (to participate as a patient or doctor in California’s ELOA) is voluntary, as described in the law, then why should a few people who do not like the option’s existence be able to decide for everyone who might want to avail themselves of the end-of-life option?” he asked.

Joan Nelson is an 82-year-old resident of Salinas who suffers from a rare and terminal form of cancer called leiomyosarcoma. She decided to enter the legal fray as one of the two patients who filed the motions that led to the stay of Judge Ottolia’s ruling, in part because of her family history.

“When I was a little girl, my grandmother came into the house, and she died there,” Nelson said. “I was maybe 4 ½ to 5 years old, and I was really proud, because I had learned how to skip. I wanted to skip for her, and they kept telling me I couldn’t. But finally, they let me into the room. They told me not to look at her. … The shades were drawn, but I skipped a few steps, and then I left the room. … I was supposed to be content, but I remained frustrated all my life. As a result, I became an amateur thanatologist, and I’ve been fascinated by the phenomenon of death all my life.

“I’ve been on a mission to normalize death for a long time. My parents did not handle their deaths well with me. They did not allow me to see their dead bodies or their ashes. They were trying to protect me, but instead, they left me with a whole lot of incompletes.”

Nelson said she believes the court decisions won’t affect her either way.

“I think I’m free,” she said, happily. “I’ve got my meds, so I’m free to do what I want. I am blessed, and having these medications is enabling me to avoid what I call those dreaded “D’s”: decline, diminishment and all of that. I may never take the medication, but I no longer have fear of watching myself go into a horrible downhill spin. I’m no longer afraid of that.”

Just before the California 4th District Court of Appeal issued the stay, Kat West, the national director of policy and programs with Compassion and Choices, described the chaos terminally ill patients were facing as a result of the court battles.

“There are a lot of patients and their family members who have been left in limbo,” West said. “That’s the worst result. Also, we’re hearing from a lot of hospice staff people who are really upset and asking us what to do and how to help their patients. We’re getting calls from doctors whose patients are in the midst of this process, and they’re very upset, because they feel that they’ve been forced to abandon their patients at their greatest time of need. It’s been a horrible, tragic situation.”

The issue probably won’t be settled any time soon; the case will likely need to be decided by the California Supreme Court.

“The appeals court made the legally correct decision by reinstating the status quo of the law being in effect,” Kappos said it a press release. “… Ultimately, we are confident the courts will rule the law is constitutional and valid.”

On Nov. 6, Indio voters will cast their ballots in the city’s first district-based elections, after the City Council moved away from “at large” or city-wide elections under the threat of a lawsuit to force compliance with the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.

Of the five districts newly established in Indio, District 2 is the home of the race that’s generating the most early interest. The final candidate pool will not be established until August, but so far, two candidates have announced an intention to run: the incumbent and current mayor, Mike Wilson, who has been on the council since 1995; and political newcomer and lifetime Indio resident Waymond Fermon.

In many respects, the two candidates are polar opposites. Wilson, a self-described conservative Republican, is now serving his fourth stint as Indio’s mayor. Fermon has worked for 17 years as a correctional officer, and has already garnered support from the Coachella Valley’s Democrats and liberal left.

Last year, Wilson drew the ire of many when, in the wake of the violent white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., he tweeted: “It doesn’t matter what POTUS says, liberals and the media will always attack him. It shows the real problem in U.S. is the libs and media!” In a recent phone interview with the Independent, Wilson explained the episode.

“What happened, which I explained right after, was that my intent was to say that (it was) the mainstream media and the Washington, D.C., Democrats, but in shrinking it down (to 140 characters), I didn’t really think about the response to it.”

The response turned out to be angry, swift and strong. Because of that, we asked Fermon—who currently lives in District 4, not Wilson’s District 2—if he chose to move his family to District 2 to set up a head-to-head confrontation with Wilson.

“I’m very self-motivated,” Fermon said. “I don’t need any specific target to have a goal. My concern isn’t (Mike Wilson) right now.”

Wilson and others have called attention to the carpetbagger appearance of Fermon’s decision to move his residence to, and run for office for, the new District 2.

“I’m in the planning phase of that (family move), and that will be over with real soon,” Fermon said. “Actually, I’m past the planning phase, and we’re in the transition phase right now. I know it’s public information at the end of the day, but I’m not willing to throw my living quarters (details) out there freely, but we’ll be moved soon.”

Assuming that the candidacy qualifications are met, we asked each candidate about their priorities and objectives.

“First and foremost, always, is public safety,” Wilson said. “As you know, I’m a retired fireman, and having a relationship with law enforcement as well, we need to grow our police department. Based on population and the ratio of one officer per every thousand residents, we are still quite a bit below where we should be.”

Next, he said: “Repairing our streets and roads and overpasses, etc., and building new ones is a priority for me. I sit on the Riverside County Transportation Commission and the CVAG Transportation Committee, so it’s one of my specialties. Over my years, I’ve had some great accomplishments in bringing federal, state and regional money into Indio to do these things. But (right now), we’re $36 million behind in street repairs, and we need about $6 million a year just to maintain what we have. (Moving forward, both Senate Bill) 1, that brought us more street and road money, and Measure X (the Indio sales tax measure that passed in 2016), should bring us $7 to $8 million this next year to put into street and road projects. This is long overdue for Indio, so one of my priorities is going to be catching up on that work.”

Wilson’s third priority: “Continuing our economic development and economic recovery in the city by maintaining forward progress in making the city attractive for new businesses, stores and new projects. We’ve had some success. We have new hotels being built. We’ve got a new theater project coming in. There’s a lot of housing stuff going on that’s positive. But on the top of the list is (the future of) the Indio Fashion Mall, which is on Monroe Street and Highway 111. That project has just been bought by Alex Haagen of the Empire Polo Grounds, and we’re working with him to completely reposition that whole mall property (so it) will be a benefit to the city for years to come.”

Fermon responded by saying that he’s “canvassing the residents” and “meeting and greeting” to learn about their concerns. We asked Fermon what he has been hearing from constituents thus far.

“One is public safety,” he said. “I just think that, at the end of the day, we all want to be safe wherever we go. Next, we need smart economic development, not only that will bring retail and different businesses, but we also need jobs.

“The homeless situation (is another issue),” Fermon said. “I am meeting with people who are concerned about the homeless and the growing problem that we have, but I’m also meeting with homeless people who want to be informed about the resources that are available to them currently, and want those resources to be made more easily available. I’m speaking with businesses about the homeless problem, because sometimes it can create a nuisance for businesses. So the communication seems to have broken down there, and I’m talking to all sides.”

Fermon said he also wants to focus on Indio youth. “In the district that I’m running in, I want to bring more activities for the youth in that area—recreational activities like sports, and other things they can do during their leisure time in that area. As we have it now, there’s really nothing for our youth to do in that area.”

We asked both candidates what message they most wanted to convey to Indio’s voters.

“I think it’s important that experience matters,” Wilson said. “We have a council right now that’s working extremely well together. We have a vision that we share, and we work together to put that vision together. We’re very respectful of each other. Looking at the last eight years, and where Indio had been and where it is today, I think that the leadership in Indio is strong. I think that this council has earned the trust of the voters in Indio.”

Fermon responded to the question somewhat philosophically.

“What I want to leave you with is what I tell the students I work with. I have mantras, or quotes, that I internalize for each week, and this week’s is: ‘The secret to living is giving.’ It’s been interpreted many times by many people, but I first heard it from my psychology teacher at Indio High School.”

On May 9, 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed former state assemblymember V. Manuel Perez to serve the remainder of the term of the late John Benoit, the Riverside County District 4 supervisor.

On June 5, Perez will attempt to hold on to the seat, but he’s facing a formidable challenge from Palm Desert City Councilmember Jan Harnik. While June 5 is considered the primary election, these two experienced Coachella Valley politicos will get no primary testing ground—because in their two-person race, one of them will almost certainly get a majority of the vote, avoiding a general-election contest and getting elected to a new four-year term.

“I think it’s important that people realize the magnitude of what this (campaign) means for the 4th District and for the county of Riverside as a whole,” Perez said during a recent phone interview. “This is the first time in years that we will see an (almost) new Board of Supervisors, and (it could be) a very diverse group, which I think is important to recognize.

“I am running because I’ve always felt a deep sense of responsibility to public service, and that dates back to me growing up as a kid on the east side of the Coachella Valley. But I’m also running because I believe that we need to have a voice that unites both sides of the valley. I believe I can do that.”

Perez is a Democrat, while Harnik is a Republican—but the supervisors’ seat is considered nonpartisan.

“I’m fortunate that I’ve always worked in nonpartisan positions,” Harnik said during a recent phone interview. “So my job has always been to do what’s best and to approach issues with logic and common sense—and, in fact, what is attractive to me in the supervisor position is exactly that. It’s nonpartisan, but, yes, I will carry my values. Yes, I am fiscally conservative, and I don’t believe in spending more than you have. But I don’t have to listen to somebody at the party and at a higher level telling me what is best.”

We asked each candidate about the most pressing issues they’d like to address.

“We have to make sure that we provide public safety in an effective manner,” Harnik said. “That’s the high-quality public safety that, I think, people deserve—but I think we have to get the budget in order before we can do much. The budget is $5.5 billion, and the revenue for that budget is $5.22 billion. Running in the red is unsustainable, and doing things like voting to spend $40 million on an outside consulting firm (KPMG, in this case) to find efficiencies and see how the county can spend their money better is a bad idea. Bringing in outside agencies to do those kinds of things are simply done now when people don’t want to make the tough decisions. … I will not shy away from tough decisions.”

Perez identified a host of critical concerns held by various segments of the county’s voters.

“I think the top issues to deal with are homelessness and behavioral-health efforts; continuing to support our veterans; and obviously, our economy and jobs are a major concern, as well as quality-of-life issues such as the Salton Sea, air pollution and asthma rates, infrastructure including sidewalks, and safe routes to schools,” Perez said.

Perez touted his governing experience and skills.

“What I think sets me apart from my opponent is not only do I have the education—having attended local schools, being a (University of California at Riverside) graduate, and then going off to Harvard University and coming back home—but I also have experience in policymaking, (on the) local city council, school board, and especially at the state level,” Perez said. “I learned how to connect the dots. I’m able to pick up the phone and call the speaker (of the California State Assembly) on a specific issue, and I’m able to text (Assemblymember) Eduardo Garcia or (U.S. Representative) Dr. Raul Ruiz and ask them how are we going to deliver a message to pass the Desert Healthcare District expansion so that we can get it in front of the voters. I think my opponent can’t compare to that—not that I’m better than her, but I’ve been very fortunate to hold these positions in my career.”

Both candidates have amassed considerable campaign chests. As of Dec. 31, Perez reported roughly $552,000 in donations, while Harnik showed close to $400,000, which included a $20,000 posthumous donation made by the John Benoit campaign fund. When we spoke with Perez in April, he updated his fundraising total to roughly $730,000.

“We knew early on that this was going to be a very expensive campaign,” Perez said.

We asked both candidates whether it was appropriate that they were receiving funds from donors who list their addresses as being not just outside of Riverside County—but completely out of state. The year-end reports showed nearly 3 percent of Perez’s contributions came from out of state, as did 5.4 percent of Harnik’s.

“I did notice that she had quite a lot of contributions from throughout the U.S., and it’s perfectly legal, so OK,” Perez said. “If I had access to all those individuals, I would probably be doing the same thing. I will say, though, that Riverside County is a bit antiquated when it comes to the rules around fundraising.”

Harnik said the large number of donors she has is evidence of her appeal.

“I hope you noticed how many donations I have; I have far more donors, because these are real people donating to me,” she said. “Now, the issue with the geography: Keep in mind that a lot of these people will say, ‘Well, I don’t vote here, so why would I donate to your campaign?’ Quite often, my answer is, ‘Because you own a home here, and you bought here because you like the quality of life here. You may not vote here. You may vote somewhere else because you’re only here three, four or five months a year, but you want to maintain the quality of life, and you want to protect your investment.’”

We asked the candidates if they had a specific message they wanted to share with voters.

“Never in close to eight years on the City Council have I missed a City Council meeting,” Harnik said. “That’s a great example of my work ethic. I work hard, and I come to every meeting prepared. I believe in this region, and I do believe there are some things that we really have to look at differently than we have. I can do that. I have the energy. I have the work ethic, and I’ll show up.”

Perez said: “I’m very honored to be in this role, and I don’t take it for granted. I know that people really loved former Supervisor John Benoit. I know I have to continue some of his legacy, and I have to create my own. I get that. It may not seem either sexy or specific, but I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to pass and carry policy, and keep staff as well as hire new staff to keep the momentum going (while) learning the nuances of the infrastructure at the Riverside County level. It’s a lot of work.”

In 1948, the Desert Healthcare District was created by the state of California. Health-care districts were intended as a “response to a shortage of acute care hospitals as well as minimal access to health care in rural parts of the state,” according to the DHCD website.

In the ensuing 70 years, the service portfolio of the DHCD has evolved and expanded. Today, with an annual operating budget of roughly $7 million, the DHCD provides support to a variety of organizations (such as Find Food Bank, Volunteers in Medicine, Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, etc.) that provide health and wellness services to residents in the current district—some 515 square miles of the western Coachella Valley, including Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and the portion of Palm Desert west of Cook Street.

While a Riverside County property-tax allocation paid by all county residents helps fund the DHCD, it serves only this relatively limited portion of the county’s population. However, that is about to change.

In February 2016, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia—representing his eastern Coachella Valley constituency—introduced legislation, Assembly Bill 2414, mandating the DHCD to annex an additional 1,760 square miles of territory—and to provide health-care support to residents of eastern Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio, Coachella, Bermuda Dunes, Mecca, Thermal, Oasis, North Shore and Vista Santa Rosa. The bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2016.

Today, a concerted effort is underway to bring the vision of an expanded DHCD to fruition. The next important milestone: Having the voters of Coachella Valley approve the expansion by passing a measure. Spearheaded by DHCD CEO Herb Schultz and the health district’s board of directors, the “One Coachella Valley” approach, as CEO Schultz calls it, did not arrive at this point without struggle against resistance.

“This has been (the subject) of an ongoing conversation for about 15 years that, finally, required us to pass legislation to get to this point,” Garcia said. “Are you aware that this effort now underway could have been accomplished by the DHCD taking the initiative and applying to the Riverside County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) to expand their territory? I hate to say this, but we almost had to force this issue via the legislation in order for us to get to where the voters can approve it in November.”

That struggle seems to have given way to a new spirit of mutual cooperation.

“The (DHCD) board’s focus, and the advocates’ focus, is squarely on getting this) on the ballot this year,” said Schultz, who has been the district’s CEO since late 2016.

But in order to accomplish that goal, a resolution offered by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors must be approved by LAFCO—and, LAFCO has indicated to the DHCD board that it would only support a proposal that was accompanied by a list of potential quantifiable funding sources.

The district has estimated it will need to increase its yearly budget by about $4 million in order to provide the new expanded territory with the same level of services it delivers to its current, smaller district. But so far, in the district’s search for increased revenue sources, it can only point to a generous, but limited, self-funding commitment: In late February, the DHCD board announced a $300,000 per year donation, which would last for a period of 20 years, equaling a total investment of $6 million. Will that be enough for LAFCO to sign off and allow the initiative to be placed on the ballot? “I can’t conjecture at this point what the LAFCO staff is going to say in its analysis,” Shultz said. “I can’t conjecture what the LAFCO commission is going to say when it gets to vote on that staff report.”

Garcia said the LAFCO commission’s opinions may not matter.

“In the law, LAFCO was stripped of its (ability) to deny the actual application,” Garcia said. “Therefore, their process is very procedurally driven. There is nothing in that process that can cause this application to be declined. So, what the job of both the Desert Healthcare District and Riverside County has been, is to identify a (single) funding source to get the DHCD expansion up and going. Given those circumstances, we believe now that, with the recent action taken by the DHCD (to allocate and accrue a self-funded total of $300,000 annually for 20 years), they’ve done that. They’ve identified a funding source—perhaps not the total amount that would be the ultimate operating budget of the expanded health care district, but it certainly is enough to get some programs up and going. And they’ve identified a series of other funding sources that would be able to augment the level of commitment that they’ve made. So, from all perspectives on this end, we are on track to meet the goals of the bill and to be able to give the voters of eastern Coachella Valley the opportunity to expand the health care district.”

Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez said he expected the forward momentum toward the expansion to continue.

“We’re taking it step by step, or bite by bite, if you will,” Perez said. “The first thing we have to do is get this resolution through LAFCO. We’ve finally got the language down for the resolution. It’s going to go to LAFCO when they meet (potentially on April 26). We’re very committed to this effort. This is an ongoing struggle that goes back many years—and as a person growing up on the eastside (of Coachella Valley), I can say that obviously, the time has come.”

With all the parties coming together, it appears the objective of providing more inclusive health-care services throughout Coachella Valley may be within reach.

“There are no guarantees, obviously,” Schultz said. “But the important thing is that this process has brought together what we call the ‘One Coachella Valley’ approach. It’s not about the west, and it’s not about the east. It’s about the valley.”

Garcia said he’s confident things will work out.

“The reality is that, if and when the voters approve this expansion, the DHCD’s entire (current) $7 million annual operating budget will become part of the (new overall) DHCD operating budget. So it isn’t going to be that $7 million will be only for the west valley, while $300,000 is used for the east valley. It will be a budget that encompasses everything. … The desire to increase the budget in order to reach more people is the goal that’s on the minds of the DHCD leadership. I believe we’ll get there.”

Around 10 a.m. this morning, a crowd—estimated by local Palm Springs Police Sgt. Mike Villegas—of “about 2,000 people” joined together to memorialize the lives and untimely deaths of students victimized by gun violence, including the 17 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students killed by a gunman on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Fla.

As the crowd stood in silence, high school students held aloft portraits of the slain Florida victims, as brief biographies were read for each of them. Then, as planned, the memorial transitioned into a demonstration march through Palm Springs, with at least 3,000 participants. After the front line of marchers stepped off from the corner of Farrell Drive and Baristo Road, it took a full 10 minutes for the entire line to pass that point.

The demonstrators—a mix of locals ranging from tiny toddlers (with parents in tow), to striding teenage students and supportive seniors--were upbeat and determined to have their voices heard as part of the national chorus of Americans calling for an end to gun violence of all types.

See a selection of photos from the march below.

Through swirling winds and unusually cool temperatures, the 2018 BNP Paribas Open’s final weekend was marked by tense yet surprisingly lackluster play on both of the draw.

With the exceptions of the electric semifinal loss by Venus Williams to No. 20 underdog Daria Kasatkina, and world No. 1 Roger Federer’s thrilling comeback in his semifinal win over Borna Coric, moments of stellar play proved few and far between.

Upset victories remained the order of the tournament, with both singles’ championship matches on Sunday producing unexpected winners. First up was the women’s match, with Russian star Kasatkina facing Naomi Osaka of Japan. While Kasatkina had thrilled fans with her determined take-down of crowd-favorite Williams in a long and brilliant semifinal battle on Friday night, she could not muster that level of play in the final, as she lost rather quickly, 6-3 6-2, to Osaka.

Next up was the highly anticipated men’s final, with crowd-favorite Federer attempting to defend his title against No. 6 Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina. Other than a tight second-set tiebreaker in which Federer managed to prevail, 10-8, play was ho-hum, with on-court tension more of a product of the players’ discontent with the chair umpire, line judges and the rowdy, packed-house crowd. In the end, del Potro walked away with the third-set tiebreaker, 7-2, and the title.

“In the finals, you know, you must be playing in all the ways, not just tennis,” del Potro observed during the post-match press conference. “Unfortunately, I couldn't stay calm in the tiebreak of the second set, but then the calms came again in the end of the match, and I played good in the tiebreak.”

When Federer was asked post-match about the uncharacteristic bursts of anger he showed throughout the final match, he said, diplomatically: “I don't even remember half of it, to be honest. I don’t want to get into the details. You know, I think I was just (me) trying to pump myself up more, to get energy for me. … It had no effect on the outcome of the match. I think we both went after the umpire for different reasons—or the same reasons in different moments.”

See a variety of Week 2 photos below.

As play ended late Sunday night, March 11, it was fair to say that the first week of this year’s BNP Paribas Open delivered more than its share of upsets and surprises at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

More than half of the Top 30 seeded Women’s Tennis Association players went down to defeat, including Johanna Konta (No. 11), Garbine Muguruza (No. 3), Petra Kvitova (No. 9), Jelena Ostapenko (No. 6) and the ever-popular Americans Madison Keys (No. 15) and CoCo Vandeweghe (No. 17). Also, unranked but perennial fan favorites Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenko fell victim to a group of young and talented players determined to make their presence felt at this year’s tennis carnival.

On the men’s Association of Tennis Professionals side, the carnage was less widespread, but a number of highly seeded victims, including Grigor Dimitrov (No. 3), Alexander Zverev (No. 4), Lucas Pouille (No. 9), Novak Djokovic (No. 10) and American John Isner (No. 15), will not move on to the round of 32, which began Monday, March 12.

In the midst of this statistical turmoil, some intriguing personal moments unfolded on the Stadium Court 1. On Saturday night, the seemingly immortal men’s No. 1 player, Roger Federer, was getting into tournament shape. Playing his first singles match of this tournament against Argentinian Federico Delbonis, Federer took the first set 6-3 and was tied early in the second set—when the skies gave way to a rainy downpour, the likes of which Indian Wells rarely sees. The match was delayed for several hours before finally being postponed to Sunday for its completion.

“It's been a long time since I have been interrupted at night and have to come back the next day,” Federer said to reporters after he claimed his initial victory with a 7-6 second-set victory, sparing him a lengthy contest on the second of what became three consecutive days of play.

The inconvenience did not color his continuing attraction to our valley tour stop. “They are very knowledgeable about tennis,” he said about the tens of thousands of fans who come out each year. “It's nice that the tournament has invested a lot so they can have an even better experience here at the tennis.”

Just prior to Federer’s eventual Sunday win, five-time BNP Paribas Open champion Novak Djokovic took on his first match challenge against the 109th-ranked Taro Daniel of Japan. While walking onstage during his introduction to the packed stadium, Djokovic exhibited an air of detachment as he smiled slightly, waved his hand and lifted his chin, looking to the sky and soaking up the gladiatorial atmosphere he’s been missing due to various recent injuries and illnesses. “I was grateful to be out on the court after surgery that quickly,” he said in his post match interview, “but at the same time, (I) just didn't feel good at all.” His spotty, overall lackluster play highlighted that reality. After losing a tight first set in a surprisingly one-sided tiebreaker (7-3 for Daniel), he seemed to find his passion and stormed through the later part of the second set, taking it 6-4 to square the match. Then came a complete collapse in the third set as the upstart Daniel capitalized for a 6-1 runaway win.

“Well, it’s life, you know,” Djokovic philosophized later. “God always challenges you when you expect it least. I have experienced many times similar situations, so I know that there is always something good in it. You just need to try to set your mind at that frequency.”

The true “feel good” story of the week belonged to 16-year-old American player Amanda Anisimova, who got into the tournament via a sponsor wild-card exemption. On Sunday, in she faced ninth-seeded Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic. The young New Jersey native was absolutely on fire as she overwhelmed her more accomplished opponent, 6-2, 6-4.

“Yeah, it feels crazy. I mean, I’m still in shock,” Anisimova gushed in the post-match press conference. “She (Kvitova) is the best player I have ever played, and it was the biggest court I have ever played on. So it was definitely nerve-wracking, kind of, but I was enjoying it so much out there and I was playing my best. It was a good day.”

As Week 2 play gets underway, a huge highlight comes Monday night—in fact, it’s happening as of this posting. The No. 8 seed Venus Williams is facing her uncharacteristically unseeded younger sister, Serena in the third round. Serena, coming back to competition after the birth of her first child, was asked how she feels about playing her sister at such and early point in the tournament.

“She’s had such a good year last year and (is) playing fantastic tennis,” Serena observed. “But I have to play a seed regardless, sooner than later most times for the next couple of tournaments. So I have to be ready. Obviously I wish it was anybody else in the draw, literally anybody, but that’s OK. Just have to go out there and see how I am and do my best.”

Here are two predictions for Week 2: Rain will return to play havoc with the later rounds this year … and only one Williams sister will move on past tonight. (Update: Venus defeated Serena, 6-3, 6-4.)

The competition will get serious on Wednesday, March 7, as the last-minute qualifiers to the 2018 BNP Paribas Open join the seeded players in both the men’s and women’s draws—with the goal of becoming the tourney champ, when play concludes Sunday, March 18.

Over the next two weeks, fans will flock to the beautiful Indian Wells Tennis Garden for match play. This year, the tourney’s “Full Bloom” marketing campaign is calling attention to “the world-class tennis players (who) participate in this event woven into the natural beauty of the desert landscape.”

The BNP Paribas Open has been voted the Tournament of the Year by both the women’s and men’s tours for the fourth consecutive year—and organizers are not resting on their laurels. Among the vibrant flowers and majestic palms added to the already impressive grounds, fans will be able to enjoy more concession options, including temporary desert outlets of famed eateries like Spago and high-end sushi franchise Nobu—as well as a newly added local roadshow from desert favorite Wally’s Desert Turtle, among other options.

Then there’s the amazing tennis, witnessed in an environment that brings fans closer to the players than most tournaments will allow. The field of top WTA female pros includes top 2018 performers Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber, as well as perennial favorite Serena Williams, who is returning to the tournament after taking last year off due to the birth of her first child.

On the ATP side of the draw, top pros including former tourney champions Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic will join upstarts like Denis Shapovalov, Dominic Thiem and Mischa Zverev to battle through the desert’s warm days and long nights.

Here’s a brief gallery of snapshots from the first, free-admission days of this year’s event, which included the annual Kids’ Day event, player practice sessions and qualifying-round matches, which took place last weekend.

When voters in Rancho Mirage mail in their ballots on or before Tuesday, April 10, they won’t simply be voting for the City Council candidates they prefer; they’ll be voting on the direction in which the city goes.

If residents like the status quo, they can re-elect incumbents Dana Hobart, Charles Townsend Vinci and Iris Smotrich. If they want change, they can vote for Michael Harrington, Robert Mueller and Kate Spates.

The Independent recently spoke to five of the six candidates for the three seats up for a vote this year. Incumbent Dana Hobart declined to make himself available for an interview.

It’s worth noting that the two incumbents with whom we spoke said they wanted to be viewed as a united entry against their three challengers.

We asked each candidate what their top priorities would be if elected, and why they thought they were the best candidate for the job.


The Incumbents

Iris Smotrich, who at 74 continues to manage her family’s varied real estate investments along with her husband, Tom, spoke about the challenges she sees ahead for her city.

“Safety is always a priority,” Smotrich said. “Our budget is always a priority to make sure that we are fiscally responsible. And then, energy is a priority. Our new energy program goes into effect on May 1. It is a way that our businesses and our residents are going to be able to save, in the beginning, 5 percent—and someday, we hope it will be a larger amount.”

Smotrich is referring to the new program through which the city will decide how and where to buy electricity—rather than simply purchasing energy from Southern California Edison.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 10.1 percent of the population of Rancho Mirage lives in poverty—yet homelessness does not appear to be a pressing issue within Rancho Mirage’s city limits. Still, Smotrich noted: “Homelessness is important to everyone. (The Coachella Valley Association of Governments) and many of our cities are working hard to find dignified ways to provide housing, some education, some therapy and, really, a better way of life for those who want it. Not all, but a significant amount, of homeless people do drugs and want to live unrestricted and do what they want, when they want. But with all these professional, caring and loving civic and health leaders working together, I can’t help but be optimistic that we’re all heading in the right direction for all concerned.”

We asked Smotrich if she thought Rancho Mirage had any problems.

“I don’t think so,” she replied. “And if we do, we solve them immediately. We have just added two full-time (police) officers, not because we needed them, but because this is Rancho Mirage, and we want to provide the best.

“I’d just like people to know that the (current) council members all get along. We’re all friends, and we love our staff. We’re not seeking any higher office. We are here to stay. I serve on 18 different committees, commissions and sub-committees, and so do the other City Council members. We don’t just show up at a council meeting and vote ‘Yes.’ We know what we’re doing, and we do it the best way we can. We are not ‘a silo in the desert,’ as one of the other candidates described us. Instead of calling it a silo, I think it’s really more like the Statue of Liberty that is standing for our community rights.”

Charles Townsend Vinci, the current mayor (a position rotated among City Council members), is 76 and a four-year City Council member who retired last year from his Rancho Mirage-based high-end furniture business. We asked him about the issues on which he would focus during a new term.

“Development is one. Business coming into Rancho Mirage is another. Those are things I’d be working on,” he said.

“The homeless situation is another. I sit on the CVAG (Homelessness Committee), which Rancho Mirage and I personally support. The other main thing is keeping a balanced budget for Rancho Mirage. We have a $63 million reserve, and that reserve is not just laying in an account getting 1 percent (in interest). That $63 million is divided into separate categories, including infrastructure, earthquake problems, problems with City Hall or any of our annex buildings, and it’s also for redevelopment funds, so it’s all earmarked.”

According to the Rancho Mirage two-year budget for fiscal 2017-18 and 2018-19, the city’s reserve funds currently total roughly $68 million.

While each Rancho Mirage City Council member receives roughly $33,000 per year, plus benefits (along with an additional annual expense reimbursement of up to $2,700), Townsend noted: “When you’re in a council with these cities down here, you’re not in it for raising a family. You’re not in it to make money. I’m not in it to advance to Sacramento or Washington and use it as a stepping stone to higher office. I’ve been living here for 24 years, and I have a vested interest in Rancho Mirage. I’m not just jumping in and thinking that I can throw everything up into the wind and change things. The next four years will be very important to our development and achievement.”

When asked what else he’d like constituents to know, Townsend replied: “I think they should look at the record that has been set over the last 10 years for their council. In the four years that I’ve been on it, and going back, there’s been a list of accomplishments and achievements that have been done for the best of the city. One of the main things is the pension fund. We paid ours off, and we saved millions of dollars in interest payments. … This council—and I’m not just talking about the three of us (standing for re-election in 2018), but the five of us—have a great spread of wisdom and knowledge and background, and all five of us are dedicated to the city of Rancho Mirage.”


The Challengers

Michael Harrington, 59, is back on the ballot after losing a 2016 bid for a Rancho Mirage City Council seat. A practicing lawyer who has lived in the city for 15 years, Harrington said he feels strongly that the current council is not providing competent or transparent leadership.

“My motivation is to improve the city,” Harrington said. “I think we’re falling behind other cities in the valley. Somehow, the council just has stopped dealing with modern ideas. That doesn’t mean we have to have radical change; it just means that you have to be able to adapt to change, and they seem to have stopped being able to adapt. That will lead to deterioration, which I believe we’re already seeing. There’s an increase in property crime. We’ve seen businesses opening up, then shutting down, because other cities offer them more.”

What would Harrington’s immediate priorities be if elected? “I’d put public safety first as a broad category, which includes road and pedestrian safety, public lighting needs and overall attention to the needs of pedestrians, joggers, pet owners and bicyclists.

“Second would be revitalizing our business community. We have one grocery market, and I think it’s going to stay, but we had to struggle to get just the one Gelson’s market to come here. They’re doing well now, but we could have sped up the permitting process. With shopping in general, people have been going more to El Paseo, and now they’re starting to go to Palm Springs. We can do more with our shopping experience. What about a free shuttle? People like that, and it brings a good feel to the shopping experience. We could look into private-public tax-sharing agreements that have helped revive local cities like Coachella, where more businesses are opening.

“Third, we need more civility and transparency. Right now, we don’t have the civility in dealing with our neighboring cities’ officials. That probably comes from the false fear that’s been propagated (by the current City Council): ‘We don’t want to have anything to do with any of those people, or any outsiders, or other cities. They’ll ruin our city.’ And as for transparency, they should have open discussion. Usually, when the City Council votes, they’re 5-0 on every issue. A City Council member said, ‘We do have vigorous discussions.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Well, where do you have them?’ I don’t see them on the dais at the public meetings I attend. I want it out in the open.”

A first time candidate is Robert “Bob” Mueller, who, at 70, offers considerable executive business experience, but no previous political involvement.

“I moved to Rancho Mirage four years ago,” Mueller said. “When my partner and I were building our home here, during the construction, the City Council took exception to some of the designs, and we wound up having to make some extremely expensive changes. We asked the City Council to let us speak with a City Council member, and when we presented our concerns and asked for some consideration from them, we were told these exact words: ‘If you don’t like the way we run this city, you are free to live anywhere else in the valley that you want.’ Of course, at that point, we had already purchased the land, so it was too late to make a change—but that served to burnish my opinion that the residents of Rancho Mirage can’t feel that the council is receptive to any thoughts that don’t originate with the council itself. So it’s time for a fresh voice.”

When asked what his top priorities would be if he’s elected, Mueller said: “Combatting property crime in Rancho Mirage is certainly one. According to the data I’ve seen, Rancho Mirage has a crime rate of 3,843 per 100,000 citizens annually, which (in our valley) is second only to Palm Springs, with a property-crime rate over 5,700. A number of less-affluent communities have property-crime rates less than half that of Rancho Mirage, and this is not just a blip. It’s been this way for several years.”

The City Council recently approved the hiring of two additional full-time police officers to bolster the force. “When the officers were hired, there was no discussion about funding police patrols in gated communities, which a number of residents have complained about,” Mueller said. “That seems to be another issue that the current City Council has turned a deaf ear to. So it was a great missed opportunity. They spent $664,000 to hire two additional police officers and set no goals for crime reduction at the time they were hired. I don’t understand it.”

Another issue Mueller highlighted was the need for a reserve fund of some $68 million for a city as small as Rancho Mirage.

“A ‘rainy day fund’ reserve typically would be maybe 50 percent of the annual budget of roughly $26 million,” Mueller said. “So, this is far more than just a ‘rainy day’ fund. This is a huge asset that belongs to the taxpayers. Without spending a ton of money, some of this reserve could be used to make Rancho Mirage an international tourist destination. Most of the city’s annual revenue comes from the transient occupancy tax (aka the hotel tax), but three of the four main Rancho Mirage hotels are all 20 years old or more. Meanwhile, new high-fashion hotels are being built in other valley cities, so our city is facing an uphill battle competing with these much-newer and more-fashionable properties. The city needs to hold up its end of the bargain by improving the luster of the city as a destination to help its hotels compete. Also, they could do things to help the businesses in the city that are not exactly thriving. In the summer, when business is tougher to come by, they could do a sales-tax holiday to give the businesses here in the city an advantage over those in other cities that don’t have the means to do something like that.”

Kate Spates, 50, runs her own business-consulting firm, and although she claims little political experience, she currently holds positions on the boards of numerous local civic and charitable organizations.

“I think we have to assess what the people in our community want, and what they need to help improve their lives,” Spates said. “We need to understand what the upcoming generations want in recreation and then look to provide those resources to satisfy the demands, or our community will suffer. And we need to look at our assets like our hospitals, our hotels and all of our large employers. We need to ensure that the workforce is skilled and healthy.

“It’s also extremely important for everyone to maintain property values, which bleeds into another issue: I feel like having areas of our city that are unsightly, and looking abandoned, is not healthy for the surrounding community of homeowners. So I feel that we need to work to attract new businesses and improve the existing businesses through some sort of business retention and improvement program, especially along the Highway 111 corridor north of Country Club.”

Spates has experience in publicity and marketing.

“I think Rancho Mirage has long been a secret,” Spates said. “So I want to shout from the roof tops and get better marketing (for what we have to offer). You know we have four beautiful luxury resorts (including the Ritz Carlton, the Omni Rancho Las Palmas resort, the Westin Mission Hills and the Agua Caliente Resort and Casino) that attract tourists from all over the world. I know that the city has explored, and is interested in attracting, smaller boutique hotels, which are great. Our bed tax (TOT) accounts for a large percentage of our revenues, so it’s very important that we treat those resorts as our partners.”

What message would she like to leave with voters?

“I feel like it might be a secret that 56 percent of Rancho Mirage residents are under the age of 65, because there’s no current representation of that demographic on our council,” Spates said. “So when I talk about representing an under-represented demographic in our city, I’m talking about those people under 65. It’s been on the record where some of our council members will say, ‘This is a retirement community.’ End of story. I strongly disagree.”

All four of the Rancho Mirage candidates whom the Independent spoke to about CV Link—the 50-mile bike, pedestrian and low-speed electric-vehicle path that, if completed, would connect all eight of the Coachella Valley’s cities—say it’s a dead issue, because the residents of Rancho Mirage overwhelmingly voted against the proposed Rancho Mirage portion two years ago.

And then the candidates keep talking—indicating the issue may not be so dead after all.

Another indication the issue is not so dead: It’s been the most contentious topic so far in the city campaign. Candidate Michael Harrington filed a complaint against incumbent Dana Hobart after Hobart claimed in an email that the three challengers to the incumbents all want to bring the issue back up—perhaps due to the influence of former Goldenvoice chief operating officer Skip Paige, who is in a relationship with candidate Kate Spates.

Both Harrington and Spates have denied Hobart’s claims.

Here’s what four candidates told us when asked where they stand on CV Link. Hobart declined to talk to the Independent, while incumbent Charles Townsend Vinci ended our interview before we could ask him about CV Link.

Robert Mueller: “The CV Link is a big deal, and it’s been a very contentious deal. I think the way that the City Council has handled it has caused the city to become an island. The CV Link was put on the ballot for a vote by the city’s residents, and it was overwhelmingly defeated, with 79 percent of voters coming out against it. I think the voters see it as an externally imposed and expensive disruption without any redeeming benefit. I have no intention of questioning the wisdom of Rancho Mirage voters. They’ve indicated their preference clearly, and I’m not going to try to change their minds. Some candidates may try to make it a campaign issue, but considering that the voters have already indicated their preference, I think that discussing CV Link in the context of this election is an unhelpful academic exercise.”

Michael Harrington: “The Rancho Mirage voters have voted it down, and they’ve said they don’t want it, so it would have to go on the ballot again. I think some of the concerns are about cost and how to apportion those costs. I don’t look at the city in terms of the one issue of CV Link, but somehow, it has become more than just another issue. It’s become some sort of pivotal point where it’s almost become irrational. The incumbents portray it as a threat that will destroy our community. I think that’s irrational. It’s another project, and you look at it rationally and civilly with transparency. But again, the citizens voted it down. I’m open to looking at it again, but I’m not the agent for CV Link. It’s just another project to look at going forward. I’ve reached out to (the Coachella Valley Association of Governments) to discuss with them what might be done with a new City Council. What about having a bike path only in Rancho Mirage? What about cooperating with the people who want to go through our city using CV Link? We need a bike path anyway. I don’t think our bike paths now are really all that good, but we can cooperate with other cities because the riders are going to want to come through here. CVAG is not sharing our trails because of this stand-off. I’d like to look at options to cooperate with the project, even though Rancho Mirage doesn’t want the whole CV Link package, with electric cars and all that. There must be a compromise or a solution, and I’d like to work on it. But I’m not personally promoting the CV Link.”

Kate Spates: “I support the will of the people, and they’ve decided that CV Link should not run through Rancho Mirage. I’m a firm believer in democracy. So, if a wave of people decides to bring it back up, then that’s the only way it’s going to be a part of the discussion. If you ask me, it’s history, and we need to stop talking about it. Although I do receive a large amount of e-mails and calls, and hear voices of support for CV Link, I’m not sure who I’m not hearing from. There have been only a few people who have said, ‘If you’re for the CV Link, then I’m not for you.’ So let me assure (the voters) that there’s not one lone person who can revive the CV Link. And even if all five City Council members decided all of a sudden that we wanted it back, it’s still in the hands of the voters.”

Iris Smotrich (incumbent): “My biggest concerns, and the biggest concerns of the people I talk to, are public safety and property protection. I have to tell you that as a mother and a grandmother and a former chairwoman of the CVAG Public Safety Committee, I’ve heard many concerns through the last four years regarding crime, and accidents, and law-enforcement monitoring, and residential privacy. You have to remember that, according to CVAG’s projections, there will be a huge traffic flow on this roadway, and most travel will be near or in the wash, where there are a lot of communities built. Many of my friends and neighbors and our constituents think there are a lot of problems just waiting to happen. One of the biggest concerns is about homeless encampments. All you have to do is look online at (what’s happened around) similar roadways in the Bay Area, the L.A. River, the American River and the Santa Ana River, and it’s not a nice or a healthy sight to see. It’s heartbreaking, and with this roadway, there (would be) a lot of crime opportunity, drug problems, a lot of health concerns, and privacy issues, especially in the backyards and with windows exposed to the traffic flow of complete strangers going by. I can’t imagine anyone who knows all the details … wanting or agreeing to have any of this. It’s a very difficult situation, and I’m very opposed to it. But we’re going to do an environmental impact study on it for $150,000, even though our residents voted against it, because, someday, things may change. We listen to our constituents, and we listen to our visitors. We want the best for our residents, our businesses and our visitors.”

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