CVIndependent

Mon11192018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Palm Desert was incorporated as a city just 45 years ago—on Nov. 26, 1973, making it the second-youngest city in the Coachella Valley.

This November, Palm Desert is poised to become the fourth valley city to approve and regulate cannabis-industry retail sales, commercial cultivation and delivery services within its city limits—presuming voters approve the resolution put on this year’s ballot by the current City Council.

Also on the November ballot: Palm Desert voters will choose among five candidates—two incumbents and three challengers—for two seats up for election on the City Council.

The Independent recently spoke with four of five candidates. (Matt Monica, who identifies himself as a retired educator on the city’s candidate-information form, did not respond to the Independent.)

Incumbent Jan Harnik is winding up a busy year of political campaigning. Earlier this year, she ran unsuccessfully for the local Riverside County Board of Supervisors seat. After losing to V. Manuel Perez, Harnik immediately dove into her re-election campaign.

“It’s been exhausting,” said Harnik, who has served on the Palm Desert council since 2010. “But if we pay attention to the lessons, we have an opportunity to learn through these processes. It was pretty valuable in a lot of ways for me.”

Why did she decide to again run for the Palm Desert City Council?

“I’ll share with you that I’m an accidental politician,” Harnik said. “But I’ve found a great passion in doing this work, and in making a difference in our community. In 2013, I pushed for a strategic plan for our city that took over a year to complete. More than 100 community members volunteered to help us create this great plan, and now we have work to do.”

Sabby Jonathan, who is completing his fourth year on the council and this year is serving as mayor, spoke similarly of not wanting to leave work undone.

“I’ve been a resident in Palm Desert for almost 40 years, and I’ve been involved in our community during that time. Currently, my involvement is serving on council,” Jonathan said. “Right now, we’re dealing with creating good things rather than putting out fires. So one of the driving forces that caused me to seek re-election is that we have adopted a vision of what the city will look like in the next 20 years. It’s our strategic plan, which is now embedded in our general plan. We are now in the early stages of implementation, and so I feel that there is unfinished work.”

Challenger Carlos Pineda described his work experience as being in the legal field and working as a medical assistant, attending to Alzheimer’s and elderly patients. “Since January 2017, I’ve been active in attending City Council meetings in each of our Coachella Valley cities to address different issues that affect my communities,” he said. “My frustration stems from the fact that, since day one, when the new (federal) administration took over, we’ve been under attack. I’m a Latino person. I’m an immigrant, and I’m also a member of the LGBTQ community, and when we bring up issues (important to us) with the councils, they’re not listening to us.”

The other challenger is Kenneth Doran. A resident of Palm Desert for 15 years, he is retired.

“My background is in economic development (where he worked for eight years for local government agencies), and I have a master’s degree in public administration, so this is not new to me,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for a very long time, and therefore I think I can bring something.”

We asked each candidate what they felt are the priority issues facing Palm Desert.

“Economic development is one,” Pineda said. “I feel that Palm Desert has come to stagnation. They (the City Council) aren’t doing enough development. As far as the city’s support for businesses within Palm Desert, (the City Council) always focuses on the El Paseo area, but there are a lot of empty stores in the Westfield Mall, and this is affecting jobs. I understand that right now, Sears is having talks about when, and if, they will be leaving that location within the next year. That’s a big concern, because if we start losing more of the big stores, who’s going to want to go to the mall? The foot traffic will suffer. What these businesses are doing is moving to other cities where rents are more affordable, and the traffic is better so they can generate more sales.”

Pineda continued: “Another key point is affordable housing. According to the City Council, Palm Desert is the only city that has a resolution in place that says for every five acres of development, 20 percent of that space has to be allocated for affordable housing. However, it doesn’t mean that (developers) have to build it. So, they (the City Council) are bypassing their own policy. In some instances, they have accepted fees in lieu of (enforcing) the building of affordable housing. That’s a big problem for me, and it’s a big problem for the community.”

Pineda also took the current City Council to task over homelessness: “In the city of Palm Desert, they seem to not want to accept that there are homeless people. But there is a homeless population here, and I feel that Palm Desert should be a lot more active in addressing this problem in our own city. Their response to me has been, ‘Well, the best thing we continue to do is work in a coalition with (the Coachella Valley Association of Governments) and its committee (on homelessness).’ But in my opinion, each city needs to actively start doing something like they have in Palm Springs.”

Jonathan certainly sees the homelessness issue from another perspective.

“I chair the Coachella Valley Association of Governments homelessness committee,” he said. “We’ve implemented a regional holistic approach, and we’ve just received the first yearly report. It’s an evaluation of our first full year, and it is incredibly encouraging. It shows an 80 percent success rate.”

What does that “success rate” mean?

“We engage the services of HARC (Health Assessment and Research for Communities, a Palm Desert nonprofit) to conduct a third-party, objective, data-driven evaluation of the program. One of the measures was to track those who entered and exited the program to see how many have been taken out of homelessness and put into permanent housing, along with wrap-around services. The results stated that it was about eight out of 10. … It is very much a regional and holistic approach, and I’m encouraged by that success.”

Other issues that Jonathan said were priorities included the implementation of the aforementioned strategic plan, and handling the escalating cost of public-safety services.

“That cost is increasing annually at an unsustainable rate, and we’re dealing with it,” he said. “I think it’s important that we continue to address that issue to find a solution.”

Doran and Harnik both put economic development at the top of their lists.

“I want to focus on redeveloping the Highway 111 corridor,” Doran said. “What we have right now is from back in the ’50s, and it’s obsolete. It’s not fitting the traffic that we have now, so I’d like to revitalize that. Also, in terms of economic development, for the past 21 years, we’ve been trying to get a hotel over at Desert Willow (near Cook Street and Country Club Drive). We have hotel pads over there waiting for a hotel to be built. I want to see what kind of incentives we’re offering hotel developers now, and see what can be done to bring someone in there.”

Harnik said: “We recognize that tourism is the (economic) backbone of our community, and we also recognize it is absolutely necessary that we broaden our economic base. Every time we hit a downturn in the economy, we get that message, and we’re doing something about it now. We are really investing in the Cal State University, San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus, and offering relevant education. This will have an impact regionally, and not just on Palm Desert.”

Harnik touted the council’s commitment to a digital iHub in Palm Desert.

“We’re collaborating with CSUSB and the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, and I’m fortunate right now to be the chair of the executive committee at CVEP. We three are collaborating on this digital iHub, and we are bringing over the cybersecurity-study program from CSUSB to be part of our headquarters. We found a building right near the CSUSB Palm Desert campus, and they are going to have some of their (administrative functions) in there as well as the cybersecurity program. There are almost 400,000 unfilled jobs in cybersecurity in this nation, and they’re high-paying, clean-energy jobs. This is a tremendous opportunity for our community and for the region at large.

“When a job goes away due to technology, there are many more jobs created because of that technology,” Harnik said. “So this is an opportunity for somebody in their 40s or 50s to go into a new career. We’re focusing on Palm Desert and the digital iHub, because we have the bandwidth through CENIC (the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California). It’s the only bandwidth (of this magnitude) in the valley today. With this strong bandwidth, as well as our lower cost of living when compared to San Francisco or Los Angeles, we have an excellent opportunity to attract good and different types of businesses here.”

Doran said he’d focus on “community-building” and fixing what he sees as a lack of ethics in the city’s business dealings.

“Would you give a $130,000-a-year position as marketing manager to somebody who does not have a college degree and has no experience in marketing?” he said. “Several years ago, that happened (in Palm Desert). There is a city ordinance governing how persons should be selected for positions in the city administration, and it’s done that way to be respectful to the resident taxpayers. And when it’s not done the right way, to me, it’s a slap in the face to those residents. … If I see things like that happening, I won’t just vote “no,” but I’ll let the citizens know what’s happening.”

All four candidates agreed that voters should pass the cannabis business taxation and regulation resolution on this November’s ballot.

“(The City Council) adopted that resolution that permits adult use of recreational cannabis pursuant to the state’s Prop 64,” Jonathan said. “We were very careful in drafting our ordinance to make sure that we limit the number of cannabis businesses in our city, the types of those businesses, the distances between each other, the distance from schools and so forth. The idea was to step into this new industry very carefully, and that’s what we’ve accomplished.

“We’ve approved 11 permits, and (those businesses) are all in some stage of development at this point. Six of those permits are for dispensaries. The other five are for cannabis manufacturing.”

Harnik added: “When we make a move like this in Palm Desert, we always engage the stakeholders. We had a lot of input from the cannabis industry, including growers, sellers, etc., and we’ve looked at what other cities have done. We’re being far more conservative in the cannabis business than some other cities in our valley, and we feel that going slow and measured is the better way. We’re looking to see how this market shakes out. We do not want to create a situation where all of our really valuable plumbing businesses, tile, decor and construction businesses in the north end near Interstate 10 have their landlords saying, ‘We can make more money if we have somebody growing cannabis in there.’”

Pineda gave the current City Council credit for being “progressive” regarding cannabis businesses.

“There are actually several cities in the valley that are refusing to allow this industry to come in,” he said. “But (the City Council) is estimating that if this resolution passes, it will result in up to $3 million in additional annual tax revenue for the city. That’s not a bad thing if they allocate these new funds to actual projects that are needed. For instance, one could be dealing with retirement-benefit liabilities (for city workers), where they have only $5 million in reserve, and that doesn’t seem to be enough. Or maybe some of this money could go to the police department costs. But it seems that (the council members) are afraid of a major national economic crisis, and I feel that we have to be proactively thinking of what we can do to make sure that Palm Desert doesn’t suffer too much.”

Doran said he supports the new state cannabis law.

“I can assure you that as California goes, so goes the rest of the nation,” Doran said. “Still, our law-enforcement services are having a very negative impact on the city’s financial situation. Those costs are rising tremendously, and it’s not sustainable. So we’re going to have to address that issue, and I think, in my humble opinion, (the current City Council) is trying to make marijuana taxation the solution to all their problems.”

When asked if Palm Desert’s proposed tax rate was potentially too high, Doran said it was.

“That wouldn’t surprise me one bit,” he said. “But let the citizens vote. Honestly, what I think is ultimately going to happen is that the marijuana industry will become more wealthy and more powerful, and they’ll get lobbyists and then start whipping the system, just like everybody else has. When they do, we’ll see laws change, and taxation limits will be introduced. But right now, it’s a new industry, and the city is looking at it as the savior for all its problems.”

Published in Politics

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.

Published in Local Issues

We’re living in a video world. Cameras are everywhere: on streets, tablets, smart phones and satellites.

Cameras can also help protect the public and law enforcement alike when placed in key public areas and—increasingly—on police officers themselves.

However, you won’t find very many law-enforcement cameras in the Coachella Valley. For instance, Palm Springs Police Department officers do not wear body cams, nor do their police vehicles have dashboard cams. The same goes for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, which enforces law and order in Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage and elsewhere.

An early February request to talk about cameras with Alberto Franz, the Palm Springs chief of police, was answered by an assistant who stated that the chief was busy until the end of month. On the contrary, San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman was happy to talk, both one-on-one and via email.

“I am a huge proponent and completely support the use of body-worn cameras on our police officers,” Zimmerman said. “We have 600 officers wearing cameras. By the year’s end, all of our officers working in a uniform patrol assignment (about 1,000) will be wearing them. Having officers wearing body-worn cameras is a win-win for both the officer and the community.”

Meanwhile, here in Riverside County, the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, the union that represents deputies, is going to court in an attempt to stop the county from issuing body cams to on-duty deputies. Deputy Armando Munoz, the public information officer at the sheriff’s Palm Desert station, stated that “nobody … will talk about the body cameras at this point since the whole issue is still in court proceedings.”

While Chief Franz declined to talk about possible body cameras, Sgt. Harvey Reed, the Palm Springs Police Department spokesperson, did talk. He said management has started looking at different makes and models of cameras. Of particular interest is a clip-on camera that attaches to an officer’s shirt below the collar. It shows the area directly in front of the officer, as well as slightly to the left and right, and records in color with sound.

“When policies and procedures are developed, privacy expectations will be taken into consideration,” he said.

Certainly, when it comes to cameras, privacy issues are important. In fact, former police dispatcher Laura Crawford, now enjoying retirement in Rancho Mirage, remembers when officers’ unions even didn’t want global-positioning systems activated in police cruisers.

“It was vital to me as a dispatcher to know where an officer was if all hell broke loose,” Crawford said. “Body cameras have the same issues, as officers feel everything they do is under scrutiny.”

San Diego’s Chief Zimmerman, however, believes the positives of body cameras far outweigh negatives.

“A body worn-camera can be a very valuable training tool for the officer,” Zimmerman said. “Currently, at my department, we are hiring many police officers, and having the ability to see the video will only enhance the training of our officers.”

Surveillance cameras and traffic cameras can also be useful in combating crimes. Yet desert cities are lagging behind when it comes to adopting this technology as well.

David Hermann, the public information officer at the city of Palm Desert, confirmed there are no monitored traffic cameras on public streets in Palm Desert.

Mark Greenwood, Palm Desert’s director of public works, said the city does have a few traffic signals equipped with cameras that allow the signal to change more quickly based on the presence of vehicles. However, these low-resolution cameras do not record, and are not monitored. Palm Desert also has five portable, motion-detecting cameras that are meant to discourage vandalism and graffiti; they take still photos when they detect motion. However, when I spoke to Hermann in February, he said none of the cameras were deployed.

Palm Springs police dispatchers have the ability to monitor 11 cameras, mostly in the downtown area. The video from these cameras, according to Sgt. Reed, is recorded and retained for a period of one year. Palm Springs has 80 intersections with signals.

In the near future, Palm Springs will proceed with the construction of a new Traffic Management Center and Citywide Traffic Signal Interconnect Project. According to Marcus Fuller, an assistant city manager and city engineer, the federally funded, $2 million-plus project will include numerous new traffic cameras, although it has not yet been determined if and how data will be stored.

Stay tuned.

Published in Local Issues