CVIndependent

Thu12132018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

With a population of about 25,000 people, Desert Hot Springs is one of the smaller cities in the Coachella Valley—yet DHS has the second-most traffic accidents among the nine cities.

These accidents are often deadly: In 2016, there were seven fatal traffic collisions in DHS, while in 2017, there were eight—and the stretch of Palm Drive between Pierson Boulevard and Camino Aventura seems to be particularly dangerous.

“Our accidents are actually decreasing, but it’s still a major issue for us,” said Desert Hot Springs Police Chief Dale Mondary. “In 15 years, we’ve had at least 25 fatal accidents. It’s not as many as Palm Springs … but that’s still a lot for Desert Hot Springs.”

In an effort to curb the number of accidents, a safety-enhancement zone will soon go into effect on that stretch of Palm Drive between Pierson and Camino Aventura.

“Any fine for a moving violation is doubled in that area,” Mondary said. “That was just another part of our approach to try to get people to slow down and drive safer. There are people who don’t pay any attention to the speed limit. They think, ‘I have to be at work in Palm Desert at 8 a.m., and if I leave my house at 7:20 a.m. and drive 70 mph, I can get there in time.’ They do that instead of getting up earlier and driving the speed limit.

“This is just one way we hope to slow people down. A lot of the offenders are repeat offenders who get more than one citation in that area, so if their fine is doubled, they’re going to think, ‘I can’t afford $700 to $800 for a ticket!’ That’s a tough sell for us, because we are a blue-collar working community, and we don’t want to take money out of people’s pockets that could be spent on their families. But what if you’re driving 65 in a 45, and you run over somebody and kill them? You’re going to be criminally charged and spend years in prison.”

Desert Hot Springs Mayor Scott Matas said a recent fatality helped lead to the safety enhancement zone.

“The last death that happened was Pamela Carrillo; she crossed the street and lost her life,” Matas said. The 17-year-old was struck by a car and killed in March. “We brought the family in and talked to the family members, asking what we could do better. One of the things they suggested was putting together a speed-safety zone. We hope that signage, streetlights, stoplights and restriping the roads will work together. Do we want to cause our residents more grief when they have to pay a ticket? No, but we do want to hold people more responsible for what they’re doing. You can’t go 65 mph up a street when people are walking along the side of it.”

A lot of jaywalking takes place along that aforementioned stretch of road—something the city is also trying to crack down upon.

“Over the past couple of months, we’ve written probably at least 50 jaywalking tickets,” Mondary said. “We need more crosswalks, because the reality is if you live in this particular part of the city, the nearest crosswalk is a quarter-mile away. People are going to say, ‘I’m just not going to walk down that far; I just want to get to the bus stop across the street.’ The problem is they try to run across five lanes of traffic that are in a 45 mph zone.”

Matas said the city has been examining the problem over the past two years with surveying and traffic studies.

“When I became mayor 2 1/2 years ago, one of the priorities I wanted to set with the City Council was so many pedestrian accidents and deaths,” Matas said. “I wanted to make our roads safer. We put together a plan to prioritize the stretches of roads that were the worst. Our staff did an analysis and showed us where the problems were. … We’ve put together a plan on where we needed to put some funding and received a state transportation grant about two years ago. The bids are due by the end of July for construction, and construction (should) start late August through September. We’re going to add an additional stop light on Camino Aventura, and choke and restructure the lanes so they aren’t as wide, which causes people to slow down. We’re going to put better bicycle lanes in, sidewalks on the west side of the street, and crosswalks for the kids, given there are schools close by. We’re going to add 23 streetlights to light up the streets better, and with the new LED technology, they will point straight down onto the streets and not up into the night sky.”

Even after the changes are made, it’ll be up to DHS residents to be smarter drivers and pedestrians.

“(Pedestrians) don’t realize that even though they might have the right of way to cross the street, you’re not going to win a battle with a 2,000-pound car going 55 mph,” Matas said.

Mondary added: “The solution is people being responsible and crossing where they should be crossing.”

Matas said the state transportation grant was a huge help.

“The problem that we have is we know where the problems are; the problem is always money,” he said. “… Traffic safety has always got to be a priority. We just bought a motorcycle for our police department, because we need to slow traffic down. Whether you lose one life or 15 lives, it’s alarming either way.”

Mysterious signs that say “No Matas” have appeared near the intersection of Dillon Road and Palm Drive (see photo below); they also call for a signal light and crosswalk to be put in at Camino Aventura. They were apparently put up by an attorney with the support of former Mayor Adam Sanchez.

“This individual came in and was uneducated about what we were doing, and he tried to make allegations that the City Council wasn’t doing anything,” Matas said. “One of the first things I did (as mayor) was put together priorities of our City Council, with traffic safety being a priority, but it doesn’t happen overnight. You have to find money and put together the projects. We were already in the process of fixing that roadway long before he put up that sign.”

Published in Local Issues

If you live in Desert Hot Springs, you’ve probably heard the mysterious booms that usually happen during the night.

It turns out that those of us who live in DHS are not alone: A quick Internet search turns up stories about and recordings of unexplained noises being heard around the world. Of course, it’s unknown whether what’s happening in Desert Hot Springs is related to these weird noises elsewhere.

I’ve lived in Desert Hot Springs for a while, and anything that goes “boom,” night or day, typically becomes part of a game jokingly called “Fireworks or Gunshots?” However, these mysterious booms are unlike the typical noises heard in the night. The first time I heard one, it was late, and I was out on my back porch. It sounded as if a bomb had gone off, echoing throughout the entire city of Desert Hot Springs. Another one, a few nights later, was loud enough that I heard it over the music playing in my earbuds.

It’s been a while since I’ve personally heard one, but other residents are still reporting them, often leading to discussions among the Desert Hot Springs Neighborhood Group on Facebook. People are demanding answers from Desert Hot Springs Chief of Police Dale Mondary.

Unfortunately, Mondary doesn’t have any.

“Most of (the booms) don’t get called into the police department at all,” Mondary said. “I just notice them on social media when I’m tagged in those posts.”

Mondary said he has no idea what’s causing them.

“We have not been able to pinpoint a specific area,” he said. “Honestly, part of it relates to our geographical location: We’re surrounded by a mountain range, and the sound reverberates. People will call and say, ‘I heard it right here,’ or they post on social media, ‘I heard it right here.’ Then across the town, someone will say, ‘No, I heard it from right here.’ So that’s obviously part of our problem. When we go and check these areas out, we find absolutely nothing—no signs of any explosives going off.”

Has Mondary heard any of these booms himself?

“I have not. Some of my officers have,” he said. “I talked to one of them one night who was up in the southeast part of town and heard it and thought, ‘Ooh, I have to be real close to this, and I’m going to be able to find it!’ Someone else was on the west end of town and heard the same thing and thought it came from the west part of town. That’s just how confusing it is.”

DHS residents have put forth a wide range of theories about the booms, ranging from UFOs to something involving the nearby San Andreas Fault, and from military operations to conspiracies straight out of the Alex Jones/Infowars camp. I thought that perhaps it might involve methane gas escaping from the nearby landfill, but a friend of mine pointed out that such emissions would probably also include a great light show.

Meanwhile, residents keep asking for Mondary to calm their fears by offering an explanation.

“I have no idea what it is. I truly don’t,” Mondary said. “I can’t even speculate as to what I think it is. It can be any number of things.”

Desert Hot Springs residents can take some solace in the fact that they’re not alone—and law enforcement officials and geographical experts in the other places where similar booms are being heard are just as stumped.

The only consensus right now is: “Nobody knows.”

Published in Local Issues

With the trauma of the Dec. 2, 2015, mass shooting in nearby San Bernardino fresh in their minds, Simon Moore—the lead adviser of the Coachella Valley High School Health Academy and Health Occupation Students of America—and his students began planning a community outreach program.

Kimberly Bravo, a senior at the Thermal high school and the captain of the CVHS HOSA community awareness team, noted in a news release announcing the forum that mass shootings have taken countless innocent lives.

“Later, we find out that the people committing these shootings suffer (or suffered) from various types of mental health issues. The question we ask ourselves is, ‘Why didn’t anyone hear these individuals’ cries for help?’” she said.

At the forum, Bravo, her fellow students and the members of the public who attended learned that the premise of the forum was flawed: Most people who carry out mass shootings don’t make cries for help—because they aren’t mentally ill.

“Not all of these shootings are based on mental illness,” said Desert Hot Springs Chief of Police Dale Mondary, one of the panel participants, who worked in San Bernardino before taking his newish job in the desert. “I’d say the majority probably are not. It could be political causes, or religious ideology or some sort of family-relationship issue.”

The fairly well-attended forum attracted a distinguished group of prominent local and national professionals and politicians, all with their own perspectives on the theme.

“Everyone who we invited showed up—and, I mean, that’s just amazing,” Moore said after the forum. “We asked Dale Mondary, the chief of police from Desert Hot Springs, because he’s a new guy to the area who came from San Bernardino. State Representative Chad Mayes, who is a Republican, just showed up and said, ‘Let’s talk.’ And we’re not even in his district. Also we got Supervisory Special Agent Colin Schmitt from the FBI (who was lead incident commander during command post operation for investigating the San Bernardino shootings). And given the acclaim that attendee Dr. James Fox receives among law enforcement as a profiler in the U.S., it was really cool to get him.”

Fox (pictured below) is a professor and interim director at the School of Criminology at Northeastern University who has appeared on numerous television shows, writes a regular column in USA Today and has been called on for his expert opinions by the U.S. Congress, several attorneys general, President Bill Clinton and Princess Anne of Great Britain, among others.

The panel covered numerous topics over the course of the discussion, which lasted more than 90 minutes—and the hard link between mental illness and mass shootings was not the only myth debunked at the forum.

“There’s one tiny flaw in all the theories as to why there’s been an increase in mass shootings in the United States, and that is the fact that there has not been an increase in mass shootings over the past several decades,” Fox said. “Now, I don’t mean to minimize the pain and suffering of all those who have been victimized in these attacks. But the facts say clearly that there has been no epidemic.”

He offered an array of statistics to support this stance.

That position not withstanding, student co-moderator Sergio Ortega asked, “With the growing number of mass shootings in public spaces, what do you think is the root cause of these incidents?”

“In the cases of shootings in public places which are the rarest, maybe 5 or 6 a year,” Dr. Fox said, “they are the ones where mental illness is most likely to emerge. These individuals have a paranoid sense that the whole world is evil or the government is corrupt, and they really don’t care who they kill as long as they kill as many people as possible.”

Schmitt mentioned that shooters often put a lot of thought into where they make their attack.

“Between 2000 and 2013, there were 160 active shooter instances, and 46 percent of them took place in areas that were open to pedestrian traffic. Obviously, it’s unlikely that we’d have an incident like this at an FBI building which is full of armed agents. If somebody is looking to kill lots of people, they are going to go somewhere where there is not a lot of law enforcement.”

After the forum, we asked Moore if he was surprised by the expert opinions that seemed to undermine the basic premise behind the forum.

“No. They knew the discussion was about violence in relation to mental health,” he said. “Dr. Fox’s finding is that most of those shooters are not mentally ill. He told us that among people who commit mass shootings, less than 12 percent have had mental health issues. And Chief Mondary has a specialty of combating crime rather than profiling. I think it was great that they both spoke from their experience with the public.”

So what’s next for the students who were involved in this public-awareness exercise?

“Now it’s time to get the word out,” Moore stated. “When we had a debriefing with the student organizers, I asked if most people who carry out mass shootings have mental health issues, and everyone in the room said, ‘No.’”

Published in Local Issues

After a nasty and bitter campaign to become the mayor of Desert Hot Springs between City Councilman Scott Matas and incumbent Mayor Adam Sanchez, Matas bested Sanchez by just 63 votes.

During a recent interview, Matas said that already being on the City Council helped him settle into the office fairly quickly.

“I think because I was fortunate enough to sit on the City Council for eight years, there really wasn’t a lot of transition for me coming into office,” Matas said. “I think a lot of times, new mayors have made campaign promises and figure out, ‘Oh my God. I got into office, and now I can’t do that!’ So I was very aware during my campaign that anything I said, I was going to be held accountable for.”

However, Matas said he wishes he’d gotten more help with the transition from Adam Sanchez.

“The one thing that’s sad is that my opponent never conceded to me. He never shook my hand; he never congratulated me, and he never transitioned me into his office,” Matas said. “I understand it was a bitter election toward the end, but if I want my programs to be successful that I’ve started, I would transition the next mayor. If I lose my next race, that’s what I plan to do—transition the next mayor into office to make sure he or she is aware of the programs I’ve started and want to see successful in the community.”

Matas said he intends on continuing some of the things Sanchez did during his two years as mayor.

“I’ve spent a lot of time running around meeting with different organizations and different people, trying to see where he started and where he left off, and to keep the momentum going. Little things he did during the two years he was mayor, I want to keep going,” Matas said. “The Martin Luther King Day event is important, and he helped build that event, so I want to see that annually continue. Some of the educational programs he helped build, like Smooth Transitions (a nonprofit that helps at-risk people find employment and education, which recently began serving DHS) … I want to help continue those programs in the community.

“Except for those couple of things I mentioned, I don’t think he accomplished a lot in his two years. One thing he didn’t do that I wish he would have done was set goals for the city staff. On Feb. 5, we’re going to have a meeting with our staff and set some direction.”

Sanchez did help the city move from near-insolvency and near-bankruptcy toward financial stability.

“When I first took office on Dec. 1, I asked the city manager, ‘Do we need to declare another fiscal emergency?’ He said no, and we’re going to have in our mid-year budget about a half-million extra dollars,” Matas said. “At the end of the fiscal year, we’re going to be up $5.2 million. There was no reason to declare another fiscal emergency. We’re healthy. We’re looking out to 2020, which is a fiscal cliff for us with the tax measures ending, so we’re now starting to plan for those measures ending and see if the cultivation of marijuana is going to help our budget overall. We also have to look at the tax measures ending and how much that’s going to take away. If we don’t have those tax revenues in 2020, we could be $4 million in the hole. We have to make sure we measure all that and plan for it.”

While Sanchez did help strengthen the city’s budget, Matas said Sanchez exaggerated his accomplishments when Sanchez claimed during the campaign that the city had accumulated $2.5 million in reserves.

“Mayor Sanchez put campaign banners up that were absolutely not true. We never had $2.5 million in reserves this year,” Matas said. “We were floating with $2.1 million that went down to $1.8 million in ‘cash flow.’ But that’s how you pay your bills: If we put $2.5 million in reserves, the city staff would come back to us two weeks later and say, ‘We have to pay some bills.’ There was no reason for him to say that. … The budget is healthier, and we have to continue to build on that.”

Potential new revenue sources in DHS include a proposed Walmart—and large-scale marijuana cultivation. Matas joked that he previously thought marijuana was consumed simply by “picking a leaf off, rolling it up, and smoking it,” and said he’s learned a lot about the marijuana business—and the healthy amount of revenue it could bring to city coffers. He said he’s also debunked the myth that marijuana dispensaries lead to more crime.

“Cultivation is going to be huge for our community. There are five cultivation operations that are in an approval stage,” Matas said. “The largest one is 1.1 million square feet of cultivation. …. There are many skilled and well-paying jobs involved, and they’re looking for space in the community to start a training program.

“We had our police chief pull numbers, and there were 30 calls for services to the two dispensaries we have open. The 30 calls for service were for things like, ‘Someone looks suspicious outside our store; can you come check it out?’ It’s not contributing to any crime to our community. On the cultivation side, one of them is planning to hire ex-military for their security.”

While dispensaries may not bring an increase in crime, Desert Hot Springs as a whole has crime issues that have painted the city in a negative light. However, things are starting to improve, Matas said.

“Our new police chief, Dale Mondary, has established himself and has good programs going,” Matas said. “The problem with us is we have positive and negative press going every day: They catch some knuckehead doing something stupid, and a press release goes out on social media; it’s a positive and a negative perception on our city. People don’t realize we have less crime than Palm Springs; we get a bad rap for crime.”

For the most part, Matas had kind words about his colleagues on the City Council.

“Yvonne Parks came back to the council after once being mayor. She’s a great ally, and she’ll be there for two years,” Matas said. “Anayeli Zavala is young. She’s 26 and new to politics. She’s probably a little overwhelmed. I know she’s probably been impacted by the community, because anybody and everybody wants to have a conversation with you. She’s made votes on both sides of the issues based on what she believes is best for the city.”

While Matas—a former volunteer firefighter—is generally even-tempered and soft-spoken, he concedes that it isn’t always easy to work with a couple of his fellow council members.

“I think the most stressful thing has been to build consensus with the other council members,” he said. “I have two very strong individuals on the council. Joe McKee is very set in his ways. Russell Betts and I have always had our little differences, but we’ve been working well together.”

Published in Local Issues