CVIndependent

Fri05292020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Forgive the tortured metaphor here … but the reopening train has left the station. And I don’t think there’s anything this country can do to get it back in the station now—no matter how dire things get.

Late this afternoon, the Wisconsin Supreme Court—in a disturbing 4-3 decision—struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order. The result is chaos: According to the Wisconsin State Journal, some counties have stepped in to issue their own orders, which remain valid. As for the other counties …

“For now, it looks like businesses and restaurants in counties that have not prohibited opening may operate as they wish,” the story says.

Closer to home, two Southern California casinos—Sycuan Casino Resort and the Valley View Casino and Hotel—just announced they’re reopening next week. And even closer to home, Morongo’s Canyon Lanes bowling alley will be reopening on Monday, according to the Facebook page.

All of this is happening on a planet where other countries that have eased restrictions are now needing to tighten things back up due to an increase in infections. Would that even now be possible in Wisconsin, if needed?

What a weird, alarming mess.

Meanwhile, May rolls on. And it’s only the 13th.

Other news from today:

• I am going to start off with some encouraging stories, as I cross my fingers really hard: The Washington Post talked to some doctors about how much they’ve learned about treating COVID-19 in the last two months. They’ve learned a lot, and that increasing knowledge is saving lives.

• From The New York Times: Scientists are working together more than they ever have before to find treatments for this damned virus. That’s leading to some very good things.

• Related: Vaccine-makers are considering joining forces to test their various candidate vaccines in one large trial. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach, however, as CNN points out.

• Public-relations guru David Perry drew my attention to this article, from Foreign Affairs magazine. The headline says it all, and as David presented it, I present it to you—without endorsement or critique: “Sweden’s Coronavirus Strategy Will Soon Be the World’s: Herd Immunity Is the Only Realistic Option—the Question Is How to Get There Safely.

• In a similar vein, here’s a piece from The Atlantic with this headline: “Take the Shutdown Skeptics Seriously: This Is Not a Straightforward Battle Between a Pro-Human and a Pro-Economy Camp.”

• I am holding back tears and counting my ample blessings after reading the opening paragraph of this San Francisco Chronicle piece: “More than 40 immigrants being held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego are alleging that a detainee’s recent death due to COVID-19 was caused by reckless and inhumane conditions, according to a letter begging the governor and other California lawmakers to intervene.”

• Some companies stepped up and offered their “essential workers” what amounted to hazard pay as the pandemic broke out. However, some of that extra pay is coming to an end—even though the hazards have not.

• Our colleagues at Dig Boston have done yet another compilation of alternative-newsmedia coverage of the pandemic, across the country and the world.

• Speaking of kick-ass media: Five media orgs with deep pockets are suing the Small Business Administration for information on which businesses got billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded loans.

The Hollywood Bowl’s summer season is officially cancelled. Surprising? No. Sad? Undeniably.

• If you’re a nerd like me, you’ll be fascinated by this San Jose Mercury News piece on how geneticists mapped the spread of SARS CoV-2 across the country. This data could help guide future travel restrictions.

• From the Independent: Palm Desert’s two new voting districts—which are decidedly unconventional—have been finalized for the 2020 city election. However, the pandemic has delayed the city’s planned adoption of a ranked-choice voting process.

• The federal government has decided some companies don’t need to follow the EPA’s pollution-monitoring rules during the pandemic. Nine states, including California, have filed suit against the EPA as a result.

Bankruptcy courts, alas, are going to probably going to see a lot of filings in the coming months and years. The Conversation shows how the courts are not ready for what’s about to hit them.

• A fantastic read from the Los Angeles Times: Janice Brown spent time at a Victorville hospital after getting sick with COVID-19. She improved, went home … and then the infection came back. This story, while alarming, is also oddly filled with hope.

• More from the “Elon Musk is a dick” files: Some of Tesla’s employees aren’t too thrilled about being rushed back to work at the carmaker’s Fremont plant.

• Creepy, or creative? A restaurant in Virginia with three Michelin stars doesn’t want to feel empty when it reopens with social-distancing restrictions … so it’s “seating” mannequins at unoccupied tables.

That’s enough for today. Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Be kind. If you can spare a few bucks to support quality, independent local journalism, please consider supporting the Coachella Valley Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with whatever craziness Thursday brings.

Published in Daily Digest

After a legal process that took nearly a year, the city of Palm Desert has finally moved to a district-based city voting system … sort of.

On April 30, the Palm Desert City Council—meeting online due to the COVID-19 pandemic—voted 5-0 to enact the new system. One large district, including the vast majority of the city, will be represented by four council members, while the tentatively named Civic Center Core District will have one representative.

The City Council had also planned to adopt a ranked-voting system in advance of this year’s city elections, but instead decided to put that off for two years due to the uncertainty created by the pandemic.

Karina Quintanilla is one of the two plaintiffs who sued the city in June of last year, alleging that the city’s at-large voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. Similar suits have forced cities across the state, including other Coachella Valley cities, to move from at-large to district-based voting in recent years. During a recent phone interview, Quintanilla—who fought for a five-district system throughout the process—said her feelings on Palm Desert’s new voting system were decidedly mixed.

“I cannot say that I’m satisfied,” Quintanilla said. “I can say that I’m disappointed that we did not get the five districts. But I am pleased that we’ve started a conversation. When Lorraine (Salas, the co-plaintiff) and I were faced with the decision (whether to settle the lawsuit), we knew that it’s very difficult to get things right the first time. But our hope was to generate a conversation—a platform to launch forward to the five (districts option). That’s something that I feel we did achieve, so I feel very pleased with that component.

“What we really wanted, though, was the ability to have districts, because that would allow people to relate directly to one representative.”

Quintanilla and Salas agreed to a settlement with the city in November, launching a process in which city residents were asked to offer input on the new voting system. At the first public presentation on the matter in January, city representatives made the two-district system seem like a foregone conclusion, before taking a more open and honest approach in subsequent meetings. Still, throughout the entire map-creation process, not one five-district map was offered to the City Council by the National Demographics Corporation, a company hired by the city to guide the map-creation effort—despite the fact that a five-district outcome was the stated preference of Quintanilla and Salas.

“Our perspective and our desire was to simply make a civic impact and have more people fully represented on the council,” Quintanilla said. “We were just looking at: How do we improve the city? We didn’t feel that draining the city funds through a long, drawn-out lawsuit was going to deliver any benefit. And now I’m even happier about that (decision on our part), because we couldn’t have anticipated that there would be this global pandemic nor the economic impact.

“So now we’ve come full circle, and we’re OK with postponing the ranked-choice voting. The city has much more important things to do, like taking care of its residents, rather than making that shift in the electoral process.”

While Quintanilla said she views the new voting system as just one step in an evolving process, Palm Desert’s council members spoke as if the process was complete—even though the city, at the least, will need to revisit the map after the results of the 2020 Census are released.

“This has been a long, difficult and challenging process,” councilmember Sabby Jonathan said prior to the final vote. “I want to thank all of the residents who came in and offered their input, opinion and perspective. It did help shape the final result. I think this was a situation where there were a lot of competing pros and cons, and benefits and downsides and upsides, and at the end of the day, I’m hopeful, and I believe that we crafted a method for moving forward that creates tremendous balance for all of the concerns that have been expressed.”

The Independent asked Doug Johnson, the president of the National Demographics Corporation—the company hired to help with the map-making process—what the city would need to do once the Census results are released.

“Following the release of the 2020 Census data, the city will have to revisit the adopted map,” Johnson wrote in an emailed response. “If the current districts remain reasonably population-balanced and in compliance with the Federal Voting Rights Act, the revisiting could be as simple as affirming the same lines. But the council does have the option to revise the lines even if population-balanced. It is, however, highly likely that the 2020 Census data will determine the districts are not sufficiently population-balanced, necessitating adjustments to at least bring them into compliance with federal law. California's ‘FAIR MAPS Act’ sets the minimum process the city has to follow for any post-2020 Census revisiting of the districts, including some timeline rules and a requirement for at least four public hearings or workshops.”

Beyond any changes the city may make after the Census data is released, there is always the possibility of another California Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the city and its unconventional new district map.

“According to the settlement agreement,” Quintanilla said, “Lorraine and I are barred from suing the city on this issue. So another resident will have to take over the helm and move it into phase two after the Census is over.”

Quintanilla, however, expressed optimism that the city would be open to input from residents moving forward.

“I had the opportunity to speak with councilwoman Kathleen Kelly, who was very gracious and very thoughtful,” Quintanilla said. “Moving forward, the ability to collaborate will make the city better.”

That olive-branch moment seemed to have resonated with Kelly, Palm Desert’s current mayor pro tem.

“I want, very enthusiastically and on behalf of the city, to thank the plaintiffs for collaborating to assess the appropriate implementation date for ranked-choice voting,” she said at the April 30 meeting. “They’ve shown a true interest in what’s best for the community, and we’re highly appreciative.”

Published in Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quintanilla clarified her and Salas’ intentions with the settlement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Politics

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