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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

Despite a growing economy and decreasing unemployment, the homeless population in the Coachella Valley is expanding—at an alarming rate.

The annual Riverside County “point in time” count in January showed the homeless population had increased from 1,351 unsheltered and 814 sheltered individuals in 2016, to 1,638 unsheltered and 775 sheltered in 2017.

The Coachella Valley cities had 297 homeless individuals in 2016—and 425 individuals in 2017. Another alarming fact: The number of homeless individuals locally without shelter is about to rise, because Roy’s Resource Center, the only shelter for the homeless on the west end of the Coachella Valley, is slated to close at the end of June.

The beleaguered facility in North Palm Springs is shutting its doors largely because some local city governments have not been paying their share to keep Roy’s financially solvent. Before the center opened in 2009, all nine Coachella Valley cities agreed to give $100,000 a year in support. While Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert and Indio have upheld their ends of the bargain, more or less, the other cities have not. In fact, the city of La Quinta has given nothing to Roy’s, although it has given financial support to Martha’s Village and Kitchen and the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission.

Sabby Jonathan, the mayor pro tem of Palm Desert, is the chair of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments’ Homelessness Committee. He explained the reasons behind the closure of Roy’s Resource Center.

“The services and management for Roy’s are being provided by Jewish Family Services of San Diego, and they notified CVAG and the county last year that they wouldn’t be renewing the contract when it terminates on June 30,” Jonathan said. “The reason is for the last several years, they’ve been contributing about $100,000 a year to fund the annual deficit. As service providers, they’re supposed to be getting paid, not putting money in.

“When they announced they weren’t going to renew their contract, we searched for different service providers, and none came forward. The county made a decision to convert that facility as a long-term mental-health facility.”

Jonathan tried to put a positive spin on the conversion, despite the significant loss in services for the homeless.

“It won’t be Roy’s, but it will still be a facility out there in that location providing different services,” he said. “That’s really a plus for the community, because we don’t have that kind of facility (for mental-health services) in the desert at this time, and we really need it. The key will be to replace the services that Roy’s was providing—specifically, housing for 90-plus people.”

The closure will undoubtedly lead to a significant increase in the number of unsheltered homeless—at the time of year when shelter is needed most.

“We just had a ‘point in time’ count, and it shows that if we look at the nine valley cities, the increase in homelessness in the Coachella Valley is 43 percent: We went from 297 to 425. That’s huge. If Roy’s closes down, and we have no provision for the 90 people it currently houses, the increase is even more dramatic, because we’re talking about going from 297 to 515, and that’s crazy. We are at a crisis point, and we absolutely need to come together and replace that facility.”

However, a quick and easy replacement is not in the cards. On April 19, the CVAG Homelessness Committee approved something called the West Valley Housing Navigation Program. The plan, which is not finalized, includes a mixture of diversion and prevention programs.

It does not, however, include a new west side shelter.


On the east side of the Coachella Valley, the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission and Martha’s Village provide services to the homeless—but after the loss of Roy’s, there will be no service providers on the west side, even though more and more homeless people are located in the western Coachella Valley.

“We need to make sure there is housing for those people and more on the west end of the valley,” Jonathan (pictured) said. “The homeless population went from 138 on the west end of the valley to 225; that is Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs and Cathedral City. That’s a 63 percent increase in homelessness on the west end of the valley. We can’t ignore that. We need to create housing for those people. It needs to be on the west end and can’t be on the east end in Indio or in the central valley. It needs to be where they are, and they’re on the west end of the valley—225 out of 425 total.”

Jonathan said the middle-of-nowhere location of Roy’s also played a part in its demise.

“The intent of Roy’s was to create a homeless shelter on the west side of the valley. Unfortunately, while it was well-intentioned, it was doomed to failure due to the lack of transportation,” he said. “That drained over $300,000 from the annual budget just to get the folks back and forth, because (Roy’s) was closed during the day: The residents would be transported to Palm Springs during the day and brought back. That meant that Roy’s Resource Center had to own, operate and maintain a fleet of buses. We’ve learned the lesson, and now our efforts are focused on working with the cities on the west end to create housing in one or more of those locations.”

Of course, due to NIMBY-ism, residents have long fought the presence of homeless shelters near their homes and businesses.

Many have questioned whether or not the homeless situation can be fixed. However, Jonathan offered a couple of success stories.

“It’s true that you can’t eliminate it completely, but you absolutely can make a dent and improve the situation,” Jonathan said. “In the city of Riverside, homelessness among veterans has virtually been eliminated. That’s important, and that’s proof that success, at least in part, can be attained.”

A program in Indio has shown promise as well.

“Another case in point is the program utilized in the city of Indio known as CORP (Community Outreach Resource Program), which is a program that takes homeless people and puts them through a process that is six to nine months, which includes job-training. Health issues and addiction issues are addressed. If they graduate, their case is brought in front of a tribunal, which includes a sitting judge, and representation from the district attorney’s office, probation office and the sheriff’s department. Any outstanding warrants and fines are rescinded. That allows for any homeless person to escape that cycle and re-enter society. Without that, they have debt over their head; they can’t get a driver’s license, and they can’t drive to a job interview. It’s next to impossible.

“Just in the last three or so years this program has been going on in Indio, there have been 91 participants, and 89 have graduated and have had their warrants and fines removed. None of those 89 have returned to homelessness.”


Scott Wolf, the development manager at the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission in Indio, said the mission has seen an increase in the need for housing and shelter.

“We’re completely full,” Wolf said. “We’re always limited in resources, and primarily limited in the beds that we have available. We only have so many beds that we can fill. There are people out there still looking for places, and we cannot absorb everybody.”

Jonathan reiterated that there need to be resources for the homeless on the west side of the valley—and that city governments valley-wide need to address the situation.

“(East valley cities and organizations) are taking on the burden, and that cannot continue,” he said. … “We believe that to be effective in regard to homeless, this valley needs to implement a regional, holistic approach. We can’t have every city on its own taking everyone (who is homeless) down to the Indio jail, and taking four hours of a deputy’s time. Those people are back out on the street immediately, because there’s no room to put them in jail. We’ve done nothing to stop wasting deputies’ time, and nothing to reduce homelessness. … We’re recommending that all cities adopt the CORP program and any other programs that would be effective in their cities, and that we all work together in that regard.”

I asked Jonathan why Coachella Valley cities seem to have a difficult time working together. He expressed optimism that the cities can and will improve their efforts.

“I can’t comment on the inner workings of individual cities, because I’m not familiar with the individual challenges they are facing. But I will say that the way that we are dealing with homelessness in general nationwide has evolved in a positive way,” he said. “We are learning how to be more effective. That’s what the Coachella Valley Association of Governments is for—to work together and figure out how to address problems that are common to all of us, that can only be solved by working together.

“A homeless person, by definition, is not a resident of Palm Springs or Indio; in fact, they move around. If one city makes it uncomfortable to be in their city, they don’t disappear; they go somewhere else, such as the next city over. Part of the evolution in how to better address homelessness is that we can’t work on this issue individually. We need to work on it together, and that’s what’s happening in our valley.”

Published in Local Issues