CVIndependent

Tue12182018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Brane Jevric

Reid Milanovich, son of the late, legendary Agua Caliente Tribal Chairman Richard Milanovich, is in his fifth year as a tribal councilmember.

The young Milanovich, 34, has the same disarming smile and green eyes as his father. He also inherited good looks and a political wit from the man who led the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians for 28 years, up until his death in 2012.

During a recent 90-minute chat, we started off by discussing the construction of the Agua Caliente Cultural Center in downtown Palm Springs; it’s set to open at Tahquitz Canyon Way and Indian Canyon Drive in 2020.

“There’s going to be the museum and the spa, and each building will be about 45,000 square feet,” Milanovich said. “In between the buildings, there will be a pathway, and that walkway will symbolize our Indian Canyons. We want to give the public the feeling that they will be actually walking through our canyons. There will be the native palm trees there, too.”

The 5.8-acre project is being designed by JCJ Architecture.

“It’s all going to be world-class and the best of the best,” Milanovich said with a broad smile—just like the smile his father had when he didn’t want to reveal too much. “Let’s just say you’ll get to bathe in our very own natural mineral spring water that’s north of 12,000 years old.”

There’s a reason the museum is going to be built on that particular site, in what used to be called Section 14: In the 1960s, a shameful decision was made by the city to bulldoze the dwellings there, many occupied by tribal members.

“The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., is going to show an exhibit from the Agua Caliente Museum titled Section 14 in February next year,” Milanovich said. “Millions of people visit D.C. each year, and many of them will be able to see the exhibit and get a pretty good summary of the Section 14 tragedy.”

Coincidentally, it was at an event held at Section 14 many years ago that Reid Milanovich first became aware of his father’s status.

“One of my earliest memories of my father being chairman was (him) unveiling the statue of women holding baskets,” he said. “I was about 6 or 7, and I saw my father talking to a TV reporter, and that blew my mind. I was born in 1983, and my father became the chairman in 1984, so my entire life until his passing, he was our tribal chairman.”

Reid Milanovich was only 30 when he was elected to the five-member tribal council. This leads to an obvious question: Will he one day be chairman?

“My agenda is to serve the tribe as best as I can, in whatever capacity, and … to continue my father’s legacy,” he said.

How does it affect the young Milanovich to walk in the footsteps of his renowned father?

“It inspires me, definitely,” he said. “But I never felt any pressure to be like my dad. The tribal members never expected me to do anything that he did. They all see me as my own person. Everyone’s given me a fair shot in laying my own foundation and being who I am. My dad taught me well. He raised me to do what I think is right.”

After graduating from California Baptist University with a degree in political science, Milanovich served on the tribe’s Scholarship Committee.

“We offer some educational opportunities to our younger tribal members, so that they always have options to go to the school they want to. Hopefully, they’ll take advantage of it,” he said. “Going to college really prepared me for my next chapter—and that was to move out here and get more involved with the tribe.”

As for the under-construction Cultural Center: Many people were surprised that the Agua Caliente tribe did not decide to first build a new hotel. Milanovich said he also felt surprised, but for a different reason—that people thought the tribe would think about business and profit ahead of its heritage.

“To me, personally, this is a project that’s been a long time coming, and it is very important to me and the entire tribal membership to be able to showcase our culture and our history,” he said. “I mean, it’s been decades and decades of waiting to be able to do something like this.”

Milanovich fondly recalls occasions when, during rare moments of leisure, his father would take him to the places where their forebears lived long before there was the city of Palm Springs.

“He would often take us to the Indian Canyons at night,” Milanovich said. “We would stop by KFC and grab some chicken, coleslaw and biscuits, and have a night picnic in the canyons, and he would talk about the history of each canyon. He would discuss different leaders that were before him. He always talked about Lawrence Pierce, (current) Chairman Jeff Grubbe’s grandfather, and, of course, Grandma Laverne. He talked about the people who made a lot of harsh sacrifices to get the tribe where it is now.”

History is important to the Milanovich family, Reid said—but one can’t dwell on it.

“My father often talked about the recent history and some of the tragedies of Section 14,” Milanovich said. “He really did not want to talk bad about what happened, but he wanted us to know that this is history, and this is what happened, and don’t ever forget it. … Remember it, but work together to be able to move forward.”

The Milanovich family, beyond its Native American side, has a lot of international flavor: Richard’s father, Steve, was of Serbian and Yugoslavian origin, while Reid’s mom, Melissa, hails from Sweden.

Milanovich also talked about the female presence in tribal affairs. While there are no women on the current Tribal Council, an all-female council once led the tribe. Milanovich showed me a painting on the wall of his office depicting the five women on that council.

“This is Grandma Laverne,” he said proudly, pointing at his father’s mother.

Richard Milanovich often talked about his daughter, Tristan, and said he thought she would get involved with tribal affairs someday. Her brother says his younger sister does have political ambitions.

“I think, at some point in the future, Tristan wants to get involved with the tribe,” Reid Milanovich said. “I think she is a natural leader, and I think she can do a lot of good for this tribe. Right now, she is in Europe, enjoying being a Renaissance woman as far as traveling the world.”

It was Tristan who introduced her brother to his now-longtime girlfriend, Odessa Nikolic, a renowned fashion stylist.

“Odessa is also Serbian,” he said. “… She has a career out in L.A., and she is doing very well. Hopefully we can both call Palm Springs home one day.”

As we ended the interview, I noticed a folded-up flag resting in a glass box just above Milanovich’s desk.

“That’s the flag that was over my father’s casket,” he said.

Below: A depiction of the new Agua Caliente Cultural Center.

A few weekends back, at a party in Indian Wells, I gobbled down a tall drink in a can. The drink was red and cold … and it tasted so good.

No wonder … I didn’t realize it was cranberry juice and vodka.

The party was over for me. I knew I wasn’t myself, but I was sober enough to realize it was not a good idea for me to drive that night.

I left my car safely parked in a gated community. As I slowly walked toward Highway 111 to request a Lyft ride, I discovered my iPhone was dead.

I had about $20 on me, and no credit card. I didn’t even realize I was actually standing at a bus stop until a SunBus pulled up next to me. It was a Line 111 bus en route from Coachella to Palm Springs.

In my 20-plus years here in the desert, I’ve never been on the bus. The SunLine Transit Agency, founded in 1977, runs buses seven days a week all over the valley. I hopped in and paid only $1 for a ride to a bus stop literally steps away from my home in Palm Springs.

There were quite a few people on the bus—which was clean and air-conditioned; it even had Wi-Fi. I soon found out the people on the bus were much more interesting than the people at the party I’d just left.

The first fellow passenger I chatted with was a long-bearded fellow with an expensive backpack in his lap. Allan is a middle-age lawyer from Seattle who was taking an overnight break from a Pacific Crest Trail through-hike. He started the hike near the Mexican border.

“I plan to end it in Seattle, four months from now,” he said. “… I’m taking a long sabbatical from years of hard work as a corporate lawyer.”

Allan told me that the next morning, he planned to continue his hike, heading toward Big Bear.

As we chatted away, an apparently homeless man entered the bus in Cathedral City. His clothing was soiled, and he carried a beat-up, old backpack. He went through his pockets and put some change in the machine by the driver, but was short of a full fare. Before Allan and I could react, a voice from behind us asked: “How much?”

“Fifty cents more,” said the driver.

Another man who was apparently homeless was sitting in a row behind us. He got up, walked to the front, pulled out a handful of change, and paid the fare difference.

Since I needed my car the next day, I asked the driver when the first bus was headed back toward Indian Wells in the morning. He said there was a ride almost every half-hour or so, starting at 5 a.m.

I was actually looking forward to riding the bus again. I was up early and hopped on the bus like a pro. I paid a buck for the ride without asking how much the fare was. The bus was again almost full, and cold like an ice box. I soon struck up a conversation with a tattooed fellow. A tat on his right bicep got my attention. It read: Fuck off!

“I got it in jail,” he said without a hesitation—while flexing.

Brian is in his early 30s and has been in jail and prison “quite a few times.” His left arm was tattooed with gang symbols all the way to his fingers.

“You’re asking me: Why do I ride the bus?!” Brian said with a grin. “Because it beats the hell outta walking, that’s why!”

Brian told me that during the summer, a lot of homeless folks get on the bus and ride all day long, “because it’s nice and cold in here.”

At a five-minute stop in Cathedral City, Brian left, and I met another friendly passenger. José is an older Latino man who offered me a cigarette, even though I didn’t ask for one.

We chatted as we smoked outside. José showed me his right knee, which was bent, arching like a bow.

“I was hit in this knee by a truck in Tijuana, many moons ago,” he said. “I was lying in the middle of the road in agony, and the driver who ran me over drove away like nothing happened!” After surgeries and physical therapy, José’s “days of playing soccer and driving a car are over. So now I’m a regular on the bus.

“And then,” José said with a wink, “there are girls on the bus as well, and I meet plenty of them every day right here!”

Mel is a woman who rides the bus to and from work at a Palm Desert restaurant. She said she loves the bus, but “not every (woman) feels comfortable riding it at night.”

Mel pointed to placards with warnings in Spanish and English that live recording was taking place on the bus. There are also warnings that say attacking the driver is a criminal offense that carries a severe punishment.

I briefly chatted with a driver at another required five-minute stop.

“Not long ago, I was a project manager on a $150 million business venture, and then things turned for worse,” the driver said.

He lost his job and moved here to the desert, because his wife found a job as a nurse.

“Driving a bus is a decent job,” he said. “I’m not out there in the cold or under the direct sun, and the company treats me well. Life is good!”

I got to my car and drove home thinking of all people I met during just two rides on the SunBus. I’ll be taking a bus ride again soon—and I’m looking forward to it.

Lisa Middleton got more than 7,000 votes to lead the way in last year’s at-large Palm Springs City Council election, becoming the first openly transgender person to be elected to a non-judicial office in the state of California.

That may have been the last at-large City Council election that Palm Springs will ever hold.

The city of Palm Springs—like other jurisdictions across the state that currently don’t elect representatives in district-based elections—has received a letter from Shenkman and Hughes, a Malibu-based law firm representing the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, claiming the city is violating California Voting Rights Act of 2001. The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project aspires to increase the presence of Latino candidates in municipal elections.

Indio and Cathedral City, facing similar threats, moved to district-based elections this year.

The letter claimed Palm Springs’ current election system has “resulted in racially polarizing voting” and is diluting the influence of Latino voters.

The letter may have a point. The last Latino who served on the Palm Springs City Council was Joseph Garcia, who was in office from 1972 to 1976—even though Census numbers show that about a quarter of Palm Springs’ population is currently Latino.

The City Council recently decided to start moving toward district elections and is hiring a demographer to analyze how to draft boundaries—a process that Middleton said has cost other cities $30,000 to $60,000.

We recently interviewed Middleton regarding the issue.

Does Palm Springs have an inclusive nature, politically speaking?

My campaign and my election wouldn’t be possible in many, if not most, cities in the U.S., but it was certainly possible here in Palm Springs. The LGBTQ community has been coming to Palm Springs almost since the founding of the city, and in the last 20-25 years, Palm Springs has (become) a community substantially inclusive, not only of LGBTQ people, but progressive individuals as well. Our community has clearly evolved in terms of its politics.

How did you personally feel when you read the letter from Shenkman and Hughes?

I truly enjoyed running city-wide. I was extremely proud that my campaign resonated in every part of our city and that I knew the people and issues on the ground in each of our 45 neighborhoods. I found myself, in the first few days after receipt of the letter, in meetings far from my own neighborhood. I’m so happy to represent those neighborhoods. I did not want to lose that one-on-one connection with each of our neighborhoods. But after a few days, it was clear this was not about me; this is about what’s best for our city. My job is to do what is best for all of our city—today and tomorrow.

How do we get to the point of electing a Latino representative with a district election?

The Latino population in Palm Springs, in comparison to other ethnic groups, is disproportionally young. We’ve seen it in public schools in Palm Springs that are overwhelmingly Latino: 75 to 80 percent are students obviously not yet eligible to vote, but will be at some point. … What we’re doing is moving in the right direction. It might not be in that first (district) election, and perhaps not even in the second election. … Down the road, we can bear the fruit of something that will lead to electing those individuals to the City Council and other offices.

Do you see the City Council as being more diverse in the future?

We are working to set in motion a series of reforms that should result in greater participation of our residents throughout the city in their government. I am convinced that we can increase the participation of all of our residents. The more our city represents all of the people of our city, the better. It is easy to lose faith. It is not easy to put yourself out front as a potential representative for your community and your city. I’m working on a City Council that is committed to have a hand out to help those ready to step up.

What about the allegations that the city violated the California Voting Rights Act by racially polarizing and diluting the influence of Latino voters with at-large elections?

I have not seen any specific allegations and would not respond without seeing any specifics. The issue has risen, and we’re responding. We’re trying to respond in a positive way.

What would be the ideal way to structure the municipal government with future district elections?

Municipal governments are organized in a number of ways. Our largest cities trend toward a strong mayor, who is the chief executive and does not sit on the City Council, but has a veto on City Council actions. Those cities trend toward City Council members elected from geographic districts. Some cities (like Palm Springs) have a weak mayor with additional ceremonial responsibilities, but no additional authority. Such mayors sit as a member of City Council. Other cities rotate the mayors’ responsibility among the various members of City Council. This, along with a city manager as the chief administrative officer, is the most common municipal form of government. … We will evaluate every option, seek extensive public input and make our decisions by year-end. Our goal is the best form of government to address the needs of our city.

What is the role of the demographer hired by the city? Is there a deadline on his report?

We will employ an outside demographer who has worked with numerous California cities to develop reports that will allow the city to draw and select the district boundaries that are best for our city. In drawing boundaries, (the) goals (are): Maximize the goals of the California Voting Rights Act; prioritize creation of majority-minority districts; to the extent practical, keep organized neighborhoods intact; and maintain the principle that the best interest of the city as a whole remains the first responsibility of all elected officials. (The) process: Evaluate our demographics and structure of government; compare with and learn from other comparable cities, and recommend the structure of government that best achieves the goals of the California Voting Rights Act and the long-term needs of our city; and encourage and work through communication platforms to obtain participation from as many residents and stakeholders as possible in the process.

If we had district elections in place when you ran for the City Council, do you think you’d have won your district?

I hope that I would’ve won, but we will probably find it out when the time comes to run for re-election.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians made it perfectly clear to the city of Palm Springs: The tribe strongly objects to Measure C, the ballot initiative that would effectively ban vacation rentals, which will be decided on by Palm Springs voters on June 5.

“The tribe is concerned that this ban is onerous and unnecessary restriction of the use of allotted trust land,” said the letter from Tom Davis, tribe’s chief planning and development officer, hand-delivered to City Manager David Ready. “The complete prohibition of vacation rentals in R1 zones is an extreme action that will likely only serve to drive this activity ‘underground.’”

According to city records, approximately 770 of the 1,986 permitted short-term vacation rentals are on tribal land. As a sovereign nation, the tribe does not need to implement any of Palm Springs’ ordinances when it comes to properties built on its reservation.

After sharing the letter with me, Davis—who started working for the tribe more than a quarter-century ago, when current Chairman Jeff Grubbe was still in high school—agreed to an email interview.

What is the main concern for the tribe regarding the possible ban on short-term rentals in Palm Springs?

The tribe believes that a total ban on short-term vacation rentals is overly restrictive and, in certain cases, contrary to the principle of highest and best use of allotted trust land.

What are the tribe’s legal options in the case?

Land-use regulation is under the tribe’s sovereign authority. However, allotted trust lands in Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and parts of the county are subject to our land-use agreements with those jurisdictions. These land-use agreements allow for local jurisdictions to regulate land use, and all decisions are appealable to the Tribal Council for final decision.

You have been with the tribe for decades. Has there ever been a situation like this before?

Nothing specifically like this. However, in 2004, there was a referendum of the city’s rezoning of “Section 14,” a square mile in downtown that is reservation land master-planned by the tribe and rezoned in cooperation (with) the city. The referendum was sponsored by labor unions. A “yes” vote approved the City Council’s decision, and it passed.

On a brighter note, the tribe just announced plans for a new downtown Palm Springs cultural center.

The tribe invites the community to its groundbreaking at 9 a.m., Friday, May 11, of its new 5.8-acre cultural center in the heart of downtown Palm Springs that celebrates the history, culture and traditions of the Agua Caliente people.

What is the timeline for finishing the project?

The groundbreaking will be at the corner of Indian Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way, and kicks off a two-year construction cycle to build a new cultural museum; an Agua Caliente Spa and Bathhouse that celebrates the tribe’s ancient Agua Caliente hot mineral spring; a gathering plaza; gardens; and an Oasis Trail. The project is on target to open in 2020.

Simultaneously, the tribe is making plans for an expansion of the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage. More on that?

The tribal environmental impact report will study the potential environmental impacts of an expansion of the resort that may include expanding the gaming area by up to 58,000 square feet; meeting space by up to 41,000 square feet; the food, beverage and retail space by 25,000 square feet; and the development of up to 310 new hotel rooms in 364,000 square feet of hotel space. About 120,000 square feet of new commercial space is also being considered to the south of the resort. Like any environmental analyses, the tribe’s environmental report will study the maximum development potential and use that information to refine the project.

There are also plans for a new casino in Cathedral City.

The tribe proposes to build a gaming facility and ancillary amenities on land that it owns contiguous to the tribe’s reservation within the city of Cathedral City. As part of the proposed project, an application has been filed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take approximately 13 acres of land into trust on behalf of the tribe for gaming purposes. The federal actions necessary to implement the proposed project trigger the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. The tribe proposes to develop and operate a gaming facility and ancillary amenities on the project site, which has been previously developed. The proposed project is planned to be designed and constructed in multiple phases and ultimately consists of the development of a casino, parking, bars, restaurants, retail and mixed-use space, and tribal government office space.

Vacation rentals are one of the most contentious issues in Palm Springs—and on June 5, voters in the city will decide on a measure that opponents say would effectively ban vacation rentals, if approved.

Measure C is the culmination of a battle that’s been brewing for more than a decade over short-term rentals, or STRs. The housing-market crash during the Great Recession created an STR boom in Palm Springs, as buyers both local and from out of town snapped up foreclosed-property bargains, and later turned them into vacation rentals.

The problem is that these homes—available for weekend getaways and short retreats through Airbnb and other services, and at times the sites of rather raucous parties—are intermingled with homes occupied by full- and part-time residents.

According to Rob Grimm, the campaign manager for Palm Springs Neighbors for Neighborhoods—the group that got Measure C placed on the June ballot—there are 1,986 units registered as vacation rentals and home shares, which hosted an estimated 467,000 visitors in 2017.

“This is an alarming number of strangers to be rotating in and out of unsupervised mini-hotels located in residential neighborhoods,” said Grimm.

However, city officials claim that the STR issue is under control, thanks to strict enforcement of the city’s newish vacation rental compliance ordinance.

“We are one of the only cities in California that has a dedicated Vacation Rental Compliance Department,” said Boris Stark, a vacation-rental code-compliance officer. “Our latest ordinance … was a collaboration among community stakeholders and city leadership. It addresses neighborhood concerns head-on.”

Stark said the department includes eight officers and two vehicles. I personally have seen VRC officers working, often late at night and on weekends, to enforce the city’s ordinance. (I wanted to go on a ride-along with Stark, but City Manager David Ready did not respond to my request.)

The city makes hefty revenues from the STRs.

“For fiscal year 2016-17, total (transient occupancy tax) dollars from vacation rentals was $7.58 million, and for 2017-18, we anticipate the same,” Stark said. “Vacation Rental Compliance issued over 430 citations for various violations in 2017.”

Grimm said no neighborhood in Palm Springs has been unaffected by STRs.

“The city has refused to entertain density limits on the number of STRs allowed in the city,” he said.

Measure C has attracted fierce opposition in the form of a coalition called We Love Palm Springs. According to Jeremy Ogul, the coalition’s media relations coordinator, opposition to the STR ban comes from groups including Vacation Rental Owners and Neighbors of Palm Springs, representing nearly 400 homeowners; the Palm Springs Hospitality Association, with about 200 hotels, restaurants and attraction venues in the city; the Palm Springs Regional Association of Realtors; and the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce, among other groups.

“We oppose Measure C because of the devastating impact it would have on the Palm Springs economy,” said Nona Watson, CEO of the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce, in a news release.

While a majority of vacation rentals are owned by people who are not residents of Palm Springs, local entrepreneurs have also invested in STRs. Athalie LaPamuk owns and manages two vacation rentals in the city. She also owns and operates Ice Cream and Shop(pe) at the Arrive Hotel.

“I often meet visitors at my vacation rental who are excited to plan a return trip to stay at the hotel, or guests at the hotel who want to come back and stay in a vacation rental,” LaPamuk said in a news release. “Those are some of the same people who end up moving here and starting businesses here. The point is that our city benefits from all this tourism activity.”

Both sides fervently believe they are acting in the city’s best interests.

“It is time for the residents of Palm Springs to decide what their neighborhoods should look like,” Grimm said.

Palm Desert Mayor Sabby Jonathan recently invited the public to enjoy complimentary coffee and conversation—something he plans on doing every month.

During his January coffee meeting, at the Desert Willow Golf Resort, the new mayor (the position rotates among City Council members on a yearly basis) was battling the flu. However, Jonathan, who works as a certified public accountant, was kind enough to agree to answer questions on anything—ranging from the city budget to new hotels to past city-employee wrongdoing—via email.

Regarding your quest for transparency—why the coffee chats?

Coffee chats are a great way for the community to engage with its elected officials. They provide an informal forum where concerns of residents can be heard and questions can be answered. The chats take place monthly, throughout the year, with the exception of July and August.

Is Measure T—an increase of the city’s hotel tax from 9 to 11 percent, passed by voters in 2016—working? How much money is it bringing in yearly, and is the city safer now because of it?

The change generates approximately $2 million in additional general-fund revenue a year, supporting police and fire services as well as other municipal programs and services that help keep Palm Desert safe and ensure a high quality of life that is enjoyed by our residents and visitors.

What is the city’s budget structure? How many special funds are there, and what are total revenues and expenditures?

The city financial records have many “governmental funds,” including the above noted general fund. The city has over 50 special revenue, capital, enterprise, special assessments and internal service funds. Most other funds are restricted or assigned for specific purposes and include traffic safety, transportation improvements, fire facilities, housing, development impact fees, recycling, public art, recreational facilities, capital improvement projects, landscape and lighting districts, etc.

For the fiscal year 2017-18, the overall expenditures anticipated for all funds are $118,624,985. Revenues are same as expenditures! Our complete budget is available online.

As a CPA, would you recommend changing anything in the current structure of the city budget?

Overall, our current budget process works very well. It is based on the city’s goals for the upcoming year, and it is “bottoms up,” meaning the process starts with the individual departments, which then take ownership of their respective budgets. We are looking at adding a five-year forecast to the budget process. … It would enable us to look ahead for the next five years, ensure there are no surprises, and give us an opportunity to take action if needed.

The city previously froze some motorcycle-cop positions. Do you plan to put them back on the streets soon?

We continue to work closely with our public-safety professionals to measure whether there have been any impacts from the frozen positions. To date, we have not seen any diminishment in the city’s ability to provide exceptional public-safety services. If this changes, we will act quickly.

The city of Palm Desert does not have its own independent police force, but instead contracts with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. What is the total annual dollar amount for the sheriff’s contract, and what is the current crime rate?

For fiscal year 2017-18, the city budgeted approximately $21.9 million for police services. The FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program data for 2016 illustrates the city has a higher incidence of property crime than violent crime. This fact is likely attributable to the higher concentration of retail establishments within the city, as larceny-theft constitutes the highest number of property crimes. Examples of larceny-theft include shoplifting, bicycle thefts and pocket-picking.

Comparing the UCR data with the past crime rate reports, was there an increase in violent crimes and property crimes?

(There were) … significant decreases in every crime category, with the exception of motor vehicle theft. Overall, violent crimes were down from 117 in 2015 to 77 in 2016, and property crimes were down from 2,302 in 2015 to 2,146 in 2016.

Is the city improving, considering the new (hotel tax) income? Are the anticipated new hotels being finished on time?

Our transient occupancy tax revenue is supporting public safety and other municipal services and programs that enhance Palm Desert’s wonderful quality of life. The city is working closely with the developers of Hotel Paseo to facilitate its opening as soon as possible. … The Fairfield Inn on Cook Street finished on time and opened last summer. The SpringHill Suites (formerly the Fairfield Inn on Highway 111, which was destroyed by fire several years ago) is being reconstructed and should open later this year.

What is the city manager’s salary and benefits? The previous one (John Wohlmuth) got $300,000 (in severance and accrued vacation/sick pay) to leave amid a scandal involving nude pics.

The current city manager is paid $220,000 with a three-month severance package, but without health care or a car allowance, and with a maximum accrual of 320 hours combined sick leave and vacation. For comparison sake, the previous city manager’s salary was $248,911 annually (when he left), with six months’ severance, plus $500 per month for an automobile allowance, and the same health care and leave benefits as other executive employees (which excludes the 320 hour cap that the current city manager has). He had a combined total of 1,028 hours of sick leave and vacation time at his departure.

How do you keep the city fiscally sound? How is the city handling salaries and pensions?

The city of Palm Desert, throughout its history, has been a prudent steward of the public’s money. This is reflected in the fact that for decades, Palm Desert has adopted a balanced budget in each year, and maintains a healthy reserve balance. Looking back, we have been forward-thinking in addressing challenges related to staffing, whether it be during a development boom or a recession. During the recession, Palm Desert reduced its staff by over 30 percent, and we were proactive in making changes to pension and other benefits for new employees well before the statewide efforts to enact pension reform. … We continue to evaluate the labor market and look for the most effective ways to ensure that we have the best employees available to provide services to our residents.

Do you support the city’s system to rotate mayoral positions annually?

I am a strong proponent of rotating the mayor’s position, especially in small cities like ours. It avoids a lot of the “drama” that we see in cities with elected mayors, and it gives each councilmember an opportunity to engage at a deeper level, which I believe makes for more knowledgeable councilmembers, and a more effective council.

For information on upcoming coffee conversations, call 760-346-0611, or visit www.cityofpalmdesert.org.

For the second time in six years, Palm Springs voters have agreed to open their pocketbooks a little wider.

Measure D, voted in last November, and Measure J, approved in 2011, will bring in a total of about $20 million in tax dollars annually to the city.

One problem: Millions from Measure J were given to John Wessman, the original developer of the downtown redevelopment project, and now the subject of numerous bribery indictments along with former Mayor Steve Pougnet.

One question: Will the city seek reimbursements from Wessman if he is found guilty?

Anticipating legal issues in the wake of the bribery scandal, which culminated in an FBI raid of City Hall, Palm Springs officials hired a new city attorney, Edward Kotkin, in April. While previous city attorneys were contractors, Kotkin was brought on as a city employee, at a salary of $206,088 a year plus benefits.

Kotkin is a former Riverside County deputy district attorney who is expected to develop strategies to protect the city from potential legal troubles regarding the outcome of the Wessman-Pougnet criminal case. He came to the city with a fantastic reputation as a skilled attorney.

Here’s an edited version of Kotkin’s answers to my questions, done via e-mail.

If or when Wessman is convicted of the criminal charges, will you seek retribution from Wessman’s companies—in other words, seek to get our taxpayer money back?

If there are convictions in the district attorney’s prosecution of Messrs. Pougnet, Wessman and (Richard) Meaney, those convictions will have civil legal ramifications that the City Council will consider and act upon in its discretion. The council will always act in the best interest of the city, its residents and businesses. The city has already initiated litigation aimed at protecting the city’s rights and remedies as to assets involved in transactions related to the criminal case, and will certainly continue to do so if and when the council determines that new litigation will advance the city’s interests.

It seems the city’s finances are always supported by yet another tax measure, but how long (will this go on)—until the next measure, or until the city’s bankrupt?

There is no potential whatsoever for future increases to the local sales tax. Only a certain amount of tax can be charged at the local level, and Measure D brings the percentage of tax passed through to local government to the maximum. The city has no current plans to consider or present the voters with any additional taxes in the foreseeable future. The city manages its finances effectively, and does not foresee any potential for municipal bankruptcy.

What are the city’s total annual expenditures, all funds included, and what are the annual revenues?

The city’s adopted budget with respect to all funds reflects revenues of nearly $222 million, and expenditures of nearly $230 million. It is misleading and inappropriate to view or portray this data as reflecting “deficit” spending by the city. For example, revenues from past years are being applied this year, based upon the timing of projects. That creates an artificially high figure regarding expenditures. Airport customer facility charge revenue accumulated through many years of rental car fees is being spent this year on Phase 1 of a significant new airport car-rental facility. Revenues of approximately $2 million are dwarfed by project-related expenditures of $6.5 million. Further, the general fund anticipates a small surplus this year, and leaves a reserve of approximately 20 percent.

I presume that you will not frame this revenue and expenditure data in a misleading or inappropriate manner. If you do so, it will compromise your relationship with my office irreparably.

Would it (have been) possible to keep the city of Palm Springs financially afloat, (and residents safe), without Measure D? For how long?

The city of Palm Springs handles its finances in a responsible manner at all times, and will always advance the interests of its residents, businesses and visitors to the greatest extent possible, within its means. Public safety will always be a top priority for the city. Your question presumes that there is an objectively quantifiable amount of funding that will make the city “safe,” and presumes that some level of public services translates to the city remaining “afloat.” The city rejects your question as based upon false presumptions. The city will always be safe, and always remain afloat. More resources at City Hall equate to better public safety and more city services.

What are the city’s legal tools and remedies to recoup the taxpayers’ money if there is or was a developer’s default, such as a prolonged timeline in finishing the additional structures (in the downtown redevelopment plans)?

The city declines to discuss legal strategies that may be employed to address any matter of city business. Doing so disadvantages the city in the event that those legal strategies must be employed. The city has made, and will continue to make, all decisions with respect to the evaluation and pursuit of the city’s legal rights and remedies, as they relate to the downtown project, in the best interest of the city’s residents and visitors. The city is proud of the West Elm building and store, and extremely excited about the … Kimpton Rowan hotel and related commercial locations. Your question contains a determination that the developer of the downtown project is in default. The city is the only party authorized to make that determination, and has not done so to date.

The city’s budget is a complex financial package. How do you help ordinary but curious Palm Springs residents, who are not accountants, grasp where and how taxpayers’ money is spent and used?

The city has implemented the OpenGov Portal (palmspringsca.opengov.com) to assist residents and other interested parties secure access to very user-friendly data regarding the city’s finances. … The city adheres to Governmental Accounting Standards Board requirements and segregates funds accordingly. The city’s comprehensive annual financial report is independently audited for compliance with all GASB (requirements), and all other applicable federal and state requirements.

The city claims transparency and that all of the information is out there on the site. Why, then, did the FBI raid City Hall in 2015 and seize certain records that resulted in indictments, if everything was in order?

The 2015 FBI search and seizure and the prosecution by the District Attorney’s Office did not reflect systemic problems at City Hall. The allegations in this matter pertain to a single elected official, his relationship with developers, and certain specific transactions where the elected official is alleged to have violated conflict-of-interest laws. The city has provided full cooperation with law enforcement’s efforts to investigate and prosecute this matter, and also initiated civil litigation to protect city rights and remedies related to the prosecution. The city has been, and remains, transparent with respect to its dealings with the developer of the downtown project. When money is spent under the PFA, an independent fund control agent and a city-retained consultant for “on-call” facility construction owner representative services help ensure the proper expenditure of all public funds through separate escrows for private and public improvements.

It’s official: Palm Springs now has the highest sales tax in Riverside County. Thanks to newly approved Measure D, the rate will be 9.25 percent. The half-cent sales-tax hike will bring in an extra $6.7 million annually, according to estimates.

Voters in November also approved Measure E, a new tax on recreational marijuana.

These new revenues will be coming into city coffers along with, among other revenue sources, funds from Measure J, the one-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2011.

Measure J has indirectly led to a lot of bad publicity for the city—because some of those funds were and are being used for the now-coming-to-fruition downtown redevelopment project that was embroiled in the shady dealings that led to the arrest of developer John Wessman and former Mayor Steve Pougnet on bribery charges.

With an entirely new City Council taking office over the last two years, it’s worth taking a look at those Measure J funds, as well as the whole city budget—a budget that is, according to many observers, not so transparent and very hard to understand.

Palm Springs, with 47,000 residents (and a lot of visiting tourists), has a general-fund budget of $110,130,162 for the fiscal year 2017-18. However, the city’s various special funds actually total more than the general fund—bringing the total fiscal-year budget to $229,966,656, an amount confirmed by City Attorney Edward Kotkin, although he added that the amount has yet to be audited.

Figuring out what’s going on with all of these special funds is nigh impossible. I spent several weeks trying to get information from the city’s director of finance and treasurer, Geoffrey Kiehl. After not getting a response, I reached out to Councilman J.R. Roberts.

Roberts said there are 64 separate special revenue funds. “I had to look that up,” he said.

Why are there so many funds—totaling an amount more than the general fund?

“Unlike most cities in the valley, Palm Springs has an airport, a sewer treatment plant, a convention center, etc.,” Roberts said.

Of course, having so many separate funds raises questions about transparency and fiscal responsibility. Roberts responded that city’s website OpenGov website is easy to navigate. He also pointed out that Measure J funds are under the strict supervision of its oversight committee.

“Once the Measure J oversight committee has made its recommendations, the money is moved to the various projects that were decided upon,” he said.

However … if everything concerning the city’s use of Measure J funds is clearly posted on the city website, how did the fund end up getting FBI attention, including a raid at City Hall? Robert Stone, a self-proclaimed FBI informant and constant city-government critic who unsuccessfully ran for the City Council this year, said one of the problems is that the public is only able to find out how the funds were spent after the fact.

“The Measure J funds are controlled by the city manager and the council, with recommendations from the Measure J Committee,” Stone said. “The reasons behind who gets what are not always clear, and disbursements are pretty much at the discretion of the city manager for smaller disbursements, and council for the larger disbursements.

“We only find out how the funds have been administered at the end of the fiscal year,” Stone said. “We never know in advance where the Measure J money is going. We only find out as the transfers are made.”

As for the new Measure D funds: In their pitch to voters, city officials claimed the funds would help the city maintain essential city services, such as public safety. However, it’s unclear what the city will do to handle its huge long-term pension obligations.

“Measure D does nothing to address the ongoing $220 million unfunded pension and health care liability of the city,” Stone said, claiming that the burden from pension and health-care liabilities will bring the city to its knees if it does not fundamentally change the way it does business.

One common complaint about the city budget: generous salaries. In recent years, Palm Springs City Manager David Ready has been the Coachella Valley’s highest-paid public official, with salary and benefits totaling more than $420,000. However, the problem extends well beyond Ready: According to TransparentCalifornia.com, 68 city of Palm Springs employees earned more than $200,000 in pay and benefits in 2016—and when these employees retire, they’ll be in line for huge pensions. Councilman Roberts confirmed that former Palm Springs Police Chief Al Franz, who retired in December 2015, is receiving a pension of $189,083 per year.

In other words … when it comes to transparency and getting the city budget under control, the all-new Palm Springs City Council has a lot of work to do.

Have you ever tried starting your day with ice cream instead of coffee? I have … many times. The cold treat wakes me up, and its sugar gets me going. Hallelujah!

But how about starting your day with ice cream made without sugar—ice cream which tastes good while being good for you? Yeah, sure. We’ve heard that empty promise before.

However, local culinary guru Les Starks insists the promise is not empty.

Starks—who calls Snow Creek (located off Highway 111, 13 miles west of downtown Palm Springs) home—recently published a new book, Sweet Without Sugar: Ice Cream That’s Good for You. The secret, according to the Starks’ book, is to make ice cream with stevia instead of sugar.

“Stevia is a plant native to Paraguay,” Starks said. “The Guarani Indians of Paraguay have consumed stevia for over 1,500 years. Stevia has zero calories and is super-sweet.”

However, the use of stevia itself is not enough to make tasty, healthy ice cream. It took Starks years of experimenting until he found desirable recipes, he said.

“I started in 1992, and finished the book in 2017,” he said. “It was all about trial and error—what works and what doesn’t—and it took a long time to really get it right, without using one bit of sugar, honey, agave or molasses, and none of the insidious stuff like erythritol or artificial sweeteners.”

I first tasted Starks’ delicious food at an event held at Cary Grant’s Palm Springs estate hosted by Dr. Jane Smith, a noted author of medical books. At that time, Starks was still working and cooking for Eric Burdon, singer/songwriter for the Animals.

“I worked for Eric from 1991 to 2003,” Starks said. “When I stopped working for Eric, I got back to the book. He did have a favorite ice cream. It’s called chocolate banana cream in the book.”

Starks tells me that he also briefly worked for Ringo Starr in the 1970s when they both lived at Los Angeles’ historic Savoy Plaza. At the time, Starks was brushing shoulders with celebrities in the L.A. social scene; a close friend was Nancy Andrews, who was then engaged to Starr. He also met someone who influenced his culinary career.

“I met New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne when I was working on Laurie Burroughs Grad’s cooking show,” Starks said. “He told me I should pursue my interest in food professionally. I admired him and had made many of the recipes in his books.”

After moving to the desert in 1985, Starks would find inspiration to begin experimenting and eventually write his own book in the serene setting of Snow Creek.

“I started working on the book after I got my first Vitamix blender,” he said. “I have had some variation of the recipes in the book for breakfast every day since. That is how I wrote the book: I made the ice cream, and I ate my mistakes and triumphs every single day until I got it right.”

Starks’ Eureka moment happened when he started experimenting with stevia.

“In the early 1990s, I experimented with vanilla and chocolate almond milk, sweetened with stevia,” he said. “I tried many stevia brands before coming up with my final recommendation, which I didn’t really discover until 2010, while putting together varying combinations of fruit, almonds and flavoring, just to see what I could come up with that worked with stevia.”

Starks claims the reason his ice cream tastes so good is that it is made of the sweet and tart flavors stevia best complements, as well as high-quality ingredients and fresh or frozen organic fruit. No sugar, though.

“Stevia gives it a light, clear sweetness that accentuates the tartness of the fruit, making it more fresh-tasting than conventional ice cream,” he said.

There were excruciating trials regarding the proper measures of ice, but Starks persevered.

“I really love ice cream, but my family’s sad history of early death, diabetes and blindness from the disease weighed heavily on my mind,” he said. “I knew if I wanted to have ice cream on a regular basis that I was going to have to somehow get around that.”

Starks’ culinary odyssey eventually led to the book’s publication this year.

“My intention in writing the book was to give everyone the rare ability to have absolutely guilt-free ice cream by combining stevia and some soaked, frozen almonds with various common fruit flavorings and virgin, unrefined coconut oil and ice, to make ice cream that’s good for you.”

Thanks to the work of the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy and The Living Desert, there will be no new homes nor condos built on nearly 640 unspoiled acres located off of Highway 74, in the mountains above Palm Desert. None.

Shumway Ranch spreads over a considerable portion of Asbestos Mountain, and also includes large wash areas, as well as a relatively flat section, with views of Deep Canyon and the Coachella Valley floor.

The area is natural habitat for the endangered peninsular desert bighorn sheep.

“This is a major accomplishment for the conservancy,” said Jim Karpiak, the conservancy’s executive director. “The ranch is protected from development in perpetuity through deed restrictions in favor of the state and federal agencies that provided the funds—namely, the conservancy, the (California) Wildlife Conservation Board and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Not only is the land beautiful and vital habitat; the ranch has significant historic value as well. In 1938, the land was granted as a homestead to Percy Shumway and Nina Paul Shumway, part of a well-known agricultural family in the Eastern Coachella Valley. Local records indicate that this was the last stock-raising homestead granted in California.

In the early 1960s, the ranch was sold to silent-movie star Irene Rich. Her daughter, noted sculptress Frances Rich, inherited it, and lived and worked there until the 1980s, when she donated the land to The Living Desert.

“The Living Desert, a local nonprofit, contacted us almost three years ago to say it was interested in selling the land for conservation,” Karpiak said. “Under state law, we cannot pay any more than appraised fair market value, and The Living Desert readily agreed to the sales price of $1.565 million.”

According to Allen Monroe, The Living Desert’s president and chief executive officer, the transfer increases the area of federally protected land here in the Coachella Valley. He explained why The Living Desert’s board of directors decided to sell the land to the CV Mountains Conservancy.

“This partnership allows us to further our mission of desert conservation, because the conservancy will create a permanent conservation easement protecting the precious desert habitat,” Monroe said.

The conservancy has a long legacy of acquiring land in key areas of the Coachella Valley; in turn, these acquisitions protect threatened and endangered species.

“As land acquired in compliance with the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, its management follows plan requirements and will be coordinated with adjacent conservation lands through the Coachella Valley Conservation Commission,” Karpiak said.

There are three historic buildings located on about 10 acres of land that make up the Shumway homestead. These structures will be protected, too.

“The conservancy will work to preserve (the homestead) as a historical and public educational site,” Karpiak said. “The Living Desert has pledged a significant contribution to assist in renovation efforts.”

Monroe confirmed The Living Desert has dedicated $40,000 to a trust, managed by the conservancy, for the preservation of the historic buildings.

“It saves an important part of our local history, which likely would have been torn down had the land been purchased by a private owner,” Karpiak said. “We also plan to allow use of the ranch as a base for biological or climate-change researchers in exploring the surrounding conservation land.”

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