CVIndependent

Thu09192019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, Palm Springs residents living in the newly drawn Districts 1, 2 and 3 will head to the polls to elect three City Council members.

These elections are the first step in the city’s transition from at-large to district-based representation, to comply with the California Voting Rights Act. The changeover will be complete after the November 2020 election of council members in Districts 4 and 5. (To see the newly drawn districts, visit www.palmspringsca.gov/government/city-clerk/election-general-municipal-election.)

Another change: The city will no longer have a directly elected mayor; instead, Palm Springs will join most other valley cities in designating a councilmember as mayor for a year on a rotating basis.

The Independent recently reached out to the four candidates running for the new District 1 seat. Grace Garner, Les Young and Scott Myer all spoke with us at length; Michael Shogren did not get back to us after repeated attempts to reach him by both phone and email.

Here are their complete answers, edited only slightly for style and clarity, presented in the order in which the candidates will appear on the ballot.


Les Young, Retired Banker, 68 years old

What do you believe is the single most important and immediate issue facing the city of Palm Springs?

I would say that’s homelessness. I think the City Council has done a remarkable job in moving the needle on homelessness. I think that moving to the “housing first” model is an absolute requirement. I think it’s been proven time and again throughout the country, and so I think that migrating in that direction has been very beneficial. Unfortunately right now, most of that solution seems to be (happening) in the east valley, and we need to bring that solution into the west valley. It’s pretty imperative that we do something within those confines. It’s not easy for a homeless person to get transported over to that area in the east.

I’ve been assigned to the homeless task force, because I sit as a commissioner on the Parks and Recreation (Commission). Since homelessness very much impacts our parks, for the last 2 1/2 to 3 years, I’ve sat on that committee. One of the things that I think we do very effectively is (address) what I consider to be low-hanging fruit. We have people who are near homeless or just borderline homeless, and we have plenty of services, not just within the city, but services like Mizell (Senior Center) and Jewish Family Services who do assist people with things like fixing a broken air conditioner to help avoid their becoming homeless. Then there’s the next third, people who have been homeless for awhile, but who would do anything to be facilitated within housing. They are very much interested in making that move. … The last third, which I don’t feel that we’ve been particularly successful (in aiding), are people who are using drugs, or are mentally incapacitated. In the corporate world, when you work on a rock—and I consider this problem to be a rock—you bring in people who really analyze and come up with solutions. You don’t start at one end of the rock and works toward the other end, or start with the most difficult and work toward the easier stuff; you put elements (in place) on each pile to work it down. I think we’ve worked on what I would call the “low-hanging fruit” very effectively. Now we need to focus more on the last third; I think it’s extremely important to try and figure that out.

I don’t think you’ll ever “solve” homelessness. In fact, today, homelessness is so different throughout the United States than it was 10 to 15 years ago. In my corporate life, when I traveled, homelessness wasn’t something that you experienced very often when going to other cities. Whether it was just kept out of sight, I don’t know, but today, if you travel to Los Angeles, or San Francisco, or Chicago, or New York, there are clearly homeless communities. It is a new today for us, so I would love to focus on this and try to wrap a couple of solutions around it. This is an issue that, since senior council members have already been working on it, I wouldn’t get to work on in my first year as a newly elected councilmember. But I can always be building the history, and thinking about things moving forward, and this is one (issue) for me that is very large.

Since homelessness was the topic of our second planned question, would you like to talk about your next-most-important issue?

It’s affordable housing. You know, homelessness and affordable housing are sometimes interchangeable, and sometimes they are one and the same thing. As for affordable housing here, we are sorely behind in developing apartment living at a reasonable cost. But I’d like us to look at sweat equity development of purchasable homes. I’d like to see a young family be able to put in some sweat equity, and also a reasonable amount of money, and be able to get a mortgage and create the American dream, which is to have a home you own and can build equity in. If you live in it for 10 to 15 years, I don’t feel that it should be sold at a less than market rate because you got it as an affordable house. That’s part of the American dream. If the price of the area goes up, then you benefit from that, and that’s how you move on.

I’m really hoping that at some point in time, we’ll be building out multiple kinds of homes. … We live directly across from Coyote Run 1 and 2, which are beautiful examples of well-maintained properties. I look across at these properties and just marvel that they are low-income housing, because they are beautifully maintained on the outside. I mean, these are people who decorate their homes at Christmas and various holidays, just like we do. I will tell you that it’s an honor to live across from this community. To me, it’s a great example of what affordable housing can look like. I worry a little bit about “NIMBY-ism,” the people who say, “Not in my backyard.” But I’m sorry, if you look at (Coyote Run), there’s nothing wrong with that community. So, I’m very supportive of things that (the) Coachella Valley Housing (Coalition) has achieved. I know there’s another opportunity coming up that won’t be in my district, but will be right across from my district at Indian (Canyon Drive) and San Rafael. I think there are about 60 homes currently planned to be built, which will be remarkable. But I think we’re at least a couple of hundred homes behind where we should be, even in the affordable rentals area.

The cannabis industry has come to Palm Springs. How has the city handled it so far? What changes, if any, would you make regarding dispensaries, lounges and other cannabis businesses in the future?

I think the city has done a great job of bringing the businesses in and attempting to set up the requirements for it. But one thing that I’m concerned about is that in District 1, both at the north end and south end, there are grow and manufacturing facilities that are emitting odors, and they are abutting residential areas, so I’ve got a concern about that. I think that we are building a new process that will actually benefit somebody who is going into the business if they are a greater distance from housing. I don’t know if I’ve coined this or not, but I call the I-10 the ‘Cannabis Corridor’ for us in Palm Springs, and Palm Springs (extends northward) slightly past the I-10, so on both sides of the 10 freeway, there are opportunities for warehouses that would be built specifically for grow and manufacturing so that they could more tightly control the odors—and if any odors did slip out in that area, it wouldn’t be close enough to either Desert Hot Springs or Palm Springs to be impacting people.

I’ll tell you that what’s unfortunate is that these are things that are happening in commercial areas that essentially abut less-costly housing—so it is against Desert Highland, and it is up against the Demuth Park area. While they’re both wonderful areas, it seems they are being imposed upon by these (cannabis) facilities. I don’t want to see these facilities not be here; in fact, I love that they are in District 1. But I’d like to see them appropriately placed in (areas) that do not impact our citizens.

I don’t have major concerns about the lounges or the retail outlets, but I do hope that they are equitably spaced for the benefit of both those who are in the business as well as those who are purchasing the products throughout the city. I think there might be a few variances that are being offered, but I don’t really have concerns about that aspect of how we’re doing things.

What can or should be done to decrease crime in Palm Springs?

I sit as the president of the Police Advisory Board, so I do have access to data relative to crimes both through that role and through the ONE-PS monthly meetings, and the mainstream meetings that I attend. I think our police are doing a remarkable job. I think they are highly regarded for the work they do in the city. I think things are very much under control. I’m a very strong opponent to the idea of outsourcing that (policing) capability. I’ve been asked twice in the last month if I could support outsourcing the police department, and my answer was, “Absolutely, I could not.” I’ve lived in multiple cities in our country—Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City—and a few cities outside of our country, and I feel that we have the best police chief that I have ever been exposed to. It’s not just because I sit on an advisory board, but I’ve watched things happen in the last 2 1/2 years in this community that I think many people would have failed (in addressing). This man leads beautifully, and he leads a very effective group. He manages people extremely well, and he leads by example, which I think is one of the most important things. He doesn’t have rules for others that he doesn’t follow himself, so I highly respect him, and I highly respect both our police and fire facilities here in Palm Springs. I think they’re both remarkable, and their leadership is (as well).

So you have no concerns about the level of crime or type of crime that has taken place within Palm Springs in recent years?

I will tell you, having seen closely the impacts of crime, our chief and the force here work to teach people how to avoid crime. So much of the crime we experience today has to do with unlocked doors—garage doors that are left open a few inches because it’s so hot here, and then not locking the kitchen door to the garage. In one of the reports that I read, somebody had left $5,000 in cash and a computer and a purse or a briefcase in view in their car. I marvel that we test things that way. In my working world, I had a laptop, and so often, I had to carry that laptop into a restaurant with me on the way home from work. It had private and confidential information on it, and although it was secured with encryption and access codes, if it were stolen, it would have been reported as a banker’s access to client data. Even to this day, as I’m the president of my HOA, I have books that I carry to the meetings, and if somebody says, “Hey … let’s go out to dinner,” before I join them, I have to go home and put the books away in a safe place.

One of the other things I do worry about is that often times, the laws have softened on some crime to make it difficult for police officers to assist by getting people off the street who are perpetrating crimes. But some of the crime goes back to homelessness. I’ve got to tell you that if you’ve had a hungry day, and there isn’t any resource for you (to obtain a meal), you might actually pick up a half gallon of milk and stick in your pocket to help feed your family. So you walk two sides of the street on that one.

What is your reaction to the proposed construction of a downtown 10,000 seat arena by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians?

I’m excited about it if it happens. I will tell you, a little selfishly, that I’m a Chicagoan, and most of my life, I lived in Chicago. To see a hockey team in my home town after having moved here with my husband from San Francisco, where we had season tickets to the Giants and the 49ers, would be great. … Although my husband is a sports fan, he isn’t much of a hockey fan. But after going to a couple games, he’ll realize what a great sport it is.

Now, do I worry about some of the aspects such as traffic and transportation—I do somewhat, But I have a great deal of respect for the tribe, and I believe that if this is something that they’re doing, then they’re not going to have 10,000 cars at an event blocking up the streets. That’s not their style. They will come up with plans. I don’t know what they are, and they’re not disclosing them yet, but I have total faith in the tribe. I think about things that could help: Could we have a large parking lot close to the I-10, with transportation into the event? That’s possible.

Also, my hope would be that people who come for an event may actually stay for few days to enjoy our restaurants, hotels and the beauty of our city and the mountain. There’s a piece of me that thinks some people will be parked in a hotel five hours before the event, having a bite of dinner and then going over to see that event. I know there will be hockey, and concerts and other types of broad entertainment, and I hope that people will spend the night in their hotel, drive safely and enjoy our city. So, I’m not worried about it. I’m actually anticipating that it will get done quickly, like the garage that they built—and look at the beautiful cultural center that they’re doing.

Is the city of Palm Springs ready for an economic recession?

I don’t think any city can be ready for (a recession). But if there’s a city that’s prepped for it, Palm Springs has done a remarkable job. Again, our City Council has set things up very effectively. Now, personally, I think that there are some areas where we have not done the work we need to do relative to the infrastructure of this city. I’m somebody who is a bit worried about our buildings and whether or not they can survive another 10 to 20 years without investment. Again, I sit as chair of Parks and Recreation, so I spent a lot of time in the James O. Jessie Community Center, and the Demuth Park pavilion and leisure center—and some of those buildings are suffering from age. They are beautifully maintained by our maintenance people, but everything gets old over a period of time. So, I do worry about that a little.

I think that City Hall has had a little bit of a structural facelift over the last four years, and we don’t see buckets (catching the leaks) when it rains anymore. But I do feel that we need to do some work. So while we’re sensitive to keeping reserves well managed, and working on our retirement (benefits) issue, we also need to set aside funds to address our infrastructure issues. For instance, our parks, while in beautiful shape, have restrooms that are in need of some serious work. The commission did a report for (City Manager David) Ready, as he requested, and he’s looking to fund our request to improve the bathrooms. Some need to be torn down and replaced, but some are in historically significant facilities and cannot be torn down, but could be re-gentrified by installing tiles and floors that can withstand stronger washings, and make sure those are done on a regular basis.

What’s your idea of the perfect night out in Palm Springs?

I love walking the entire length of the city. You know, it’s not New York City, and it’s not Chicago, but it has its own charm. Actually, today is Michael’s and my 28th anniversary, and 11th wedding anniversary, so we’re going to have dinner at Spencer’s, which is a place that we very much enjoy. We’ll be eating on their patio which is where a lot of people in the community are.

We have some fabulous restaurants in town. Coming from San Francisco, we were both a little nervous about arriving in Palm Springs and realizing that the food would probably not be what we were used to in San Francisco. Well, we were excited to find out that we were so wrong. There are so many different kinds of food and food opportunities here, and new ones coming in that are wonderful. Wabi Sabi (Japan Living) is doing some pop-ups in places. We really do have very creative people who have settled here over the years and continue to settle here. So, it is nice, and there are some wonderful spots as you walk down Palm Canyon or Indian Canyon, like stores you can go into to shop, and gelato on a warm night is great.

I just marvel that the Thursday night VillageFest street fair happens 51 weeks of the year, weather allowing—and to see the people who come to sell their wares, and the people who come repeatedly to visit that five-to-six-block area is remarkable. I get to work at the “Ask the Chief” booth that (Police) Chief (Bryan) Reyes does for the Police Advisory Board. He comes out and talks to the public. It’s amazing how many people that we meet there, (whether) they’re locals, or from the drive markets around our area, and people who visit from Europe and Canada. We’ve met Australians (and) South Americans—and it’s just wonderful to see the people walking our streets and enjoying our town.

Indian Canyon Drive will soon be a two-way thoroughfare. Yay or nay?

It’s funny: I deal with change like that very cautiously, but I’m excited about it. I was driving back from an appointment today and coming down Indian Canyon, and I thought that we’re down to two lanes, and there’s so much torn up just to change the curbs and doing this little bit of work. But when it’s done, I hope it’s going to present a great opportunity for new businesses to be sitting on both Indian Canyon and Palm Canyon. Also, I’m excited about the fact that the (new Agua Caliente) cultural center is tied into it. So, I think we’ve done the right thing. It does terminate at the right location, which is literally the same street that will be the end of the downtown arena that the tribe is planning. I think it’s going to be right thing to have done, ultimately.

What question should we have asked you that we haven’t so far? And what’s your answer to that question?

Well, maybe a subject: I am a retired banker who had a 40-year career in domestic and international banking, finance, managing operations, customer service, international loans and credit product management, which I feel has given me a strong background to be able to help the city move forward, especially with budgeting and looking at things effectively across the board. These are all things I did while handling sales, and dealing with the heads of corporations that we were selling products to, along with operations partners and systems partners. The negotiations that were required by my role and my staff’s role were pretty extensive.

I did take one year off, as my partner asked, to see if I could be successful at retirement. And I wasn’t. I needed to be able to exercise what I had spent my career doing, so I became a commissioner on Parks and Recreation, and ultimately the chair of that commission. I became a member of the Police Advisory Board as a representative of the LGBT community to the chief and was elected president of that board. I sat on the (Community Development Block) Grants committees for the last three years, where we actually evaluated all the requests for grants, and while we don’t make the final decisions on who gets the grants, we put the decisions before the City Council and that’s been a remarkable opportunity. To be able to facilitate businesses that are requesting sums of money for things that will help them aid the populations that they are required to serve has been great. Also, sitting on the homelessness task force and the downtown park committee has been very educational. So, I bring a background and a passion, and I want to continue to serve this community. So, that’s where I am at this point in my bid for office, and that’s where I want to take it.


Scott Myer, Civil Rights Attorney, 58 years old

What do you believe is the single most important and immediate issue facing the city of Palm Springs?

I think that the current City Council is not really listening to the people at many times. When I was going out and talking to people while collecting nominating signatures, I found they don’t think they’re being listened to. In that regard, I think that the creation of five districts, whether or not you agree with the reasons it was done, is a good idea, because it will bring the people closer to their representatives. So, in that respect, I think the issue has already been solved by the fact that they broke (the city) into five districts.

What grade would you give the city of Palm Springs regarding its response to date to the homelessness problem? What has the city done well, and what future actions and policies would you support?

Do you want a letter grade? I don’t think much has been done, but one thing that’s been done and seems to be helpful is the (opening of the overnight) cooling stations during the first week when it was 120+ degrees (during the day). That was very helpful, but Palm Springs isn’t the only city (with this challenge). Homelessness seems to be out of control, and I don’t know why that’s happened over the last two decades. But I sort of give everyone a failing grade—not just in Palm Springs, but everywhere. It seems there’s something wrong with what’s going on, because every couple of years, there are more homeless people than there were before. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some things that they are doing right (in Palm Springs).

I think there should be more cooperation with charities to try to help the people get back on their feet and give them some sense of well-being (and) some clothes, and help get them where they can go out and try to get jobs, and give them some (feeling of) self-worth. I think that charities might be able to help a lot in that regard.

I do think the cooling stations have been very helpful. But it’s a tough issue, because Palm Springs is by no means the only city suffering from that problem, and it seems to be happening not only in small cities, but large cities as well. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to it, but I think it’s something that we’ve got to try and solve.

The cannabis industry has come to Palm Springs. How has the city handled it so far? What changes, if any, would you make regarding dispensaries, lounges and other cannabis businesses in the future?

Well, as a libertarian, I’m happy to see that society is finally advancing to being more free in this regard and realizing that criminalizing cannabis and some of these other minor drugs is just not the way to go. I’m happy to see that Palm Springs, as well as California and (much of) the rest of the nation, is moving in the right direction on that. In terms of the grow facilities, I’ve heard while talking to people that the one concern they do have is the aroma coming out of some of the cultivation facilities. So, I think there should be some thought (given) to where those are placed so that they are not right next to residences. That’s the one thing I think they need to look at a little better.

What can or should be done to decrease crime in Palm Springs?

We need a strong police department, and it will need cooperation from the public. I know that some people have expressed a desire to have police substations, especially in the northern Palm Springs area. If there was a substation nearby, then the police would be closer to the people.

Personally, I haven’t had any problems with the police. I heard about a home invasion that happened when the owners weren’t home, but aside from that, there hasn’t been a lot of crime where I’m living in Palm Springs, but I’m a little sheltered from that. Still, some people have expressed a concern that they would like to have the police a little more local to them. The other concern they had was the lack of lighting at night. I know that Palm Springs has a policy that the street lights are turned off so that you can see the stars, but in certain areas, (residents) have expressed concern that there’s not enough lighting at night, and it could be contributing to crime. 

What is your reaction to the proposed construction of a downtown 10,000 seat arena by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians?

Overall, it’s positive. It’s going to be helpful to the economy here, and it will create some jobs and help out the hotels and businesses. But the one concern I do have is: How are all these people going to get into town? What happens if there’s flooding on some of the access roadways? So, you have to look at whether the roads coming into Palm Springs are really up to the demand created by all these people coming on a regular basis to a big arena. But if those issues can be resolved, then, for the most part, I’m happy with it, and I think it will be good for the city.

Is the city of Palm Springs ready for an economic recession?

Possibly not, and it seems to me that some of the elements are saying that they’re still recovering from the last recession, like the police and fire departments that are just getting back to their pre-recession levels of staffing. So if they get hit with another recession, say, next year, I don’t think the city would probably be ready for it. We have to try to make sure that our tourism-dependent economy keeps having enough tourists coming here. I think we need to try and expand the base of tourists who come here, so it’s not just people from California and the United States, but try to get people to come from international (locations) as well. The more (worldwide travelers) you have out there, the less likely it is that, if the United States is hit with a recession, there would be a large impact (on the local economy), because there would still be tourist money coming here. One idea I’ve had to increase international tourism, is to develop “sister city” relationships.

What’s your idea of the perfect night out in Palm Springs?

Go to Las Casuelas, the Mexican restaurant, for a margarita, an enchilada and chips with salsa.

Indian Canyon Drive will soon be a two-way thoroughfare. Yay or nay?

The first time I heard that idea, I thought, “What, are they crazy?” But then I listened to why they were doing it and the reasoning behind it, and it seems it has a lot to do with the businesses downtown. Then I started thinking about it, (and realized that) Indian Canyon was really underutilized for such a wide avenue; it had not so many cars, and it seemed that it probably can handle two-way traffic, as they were designing it now. I’m still in the wait-and-see (mode), but I’ve now listened to their arguments and seen their reasons for it, and I’m starting to agree that it’s probably a good idea. Although the proof will come after the fact, and hopefully it works, because I’d hate to see it have to be turned around again. I know they said they told everyone (in the city) about it, but a lot of people didn’t know about it until after it started happening or right before, and then there was a lot of wondering about what’s going on. But making changes like that is always hard. 

What question should we have asked you that we haven’t so far? And what’s your answer to that question?

One issue in District 1 is that we have to figure out a way to stop the frequent Indian Canyon and Vista Chino road closures. Every winter, those roads keep flooding out. Probably Vista Chino needs some kind of bridge on it, and probably Indian Canyon does, too, but it’s so long and probably kind of expensive. But it seems that if they’re not closed for rain, then they’re closed for sand. Considering that those are two major access roads into the city, and if you tie it into the plans for the new arena, I do have a concern. If those roads are closed when there’s a big event at the arena, then everyone’s going to have to use other roads. It does put an emphasis on trying to resolve those issues.


Grace Garner, Attorney, 33 years old

What do you believe is the single most important and immediate issue facing the city of Palm Springs?

It’s affordable housing. Right now, we have a housing deficit in Southern California and in Palm Springs. Housing prices are extremely high in relation to the average earned income, so I believe that we have to get ahead of this and make sure that not only renting is affordable, but also that purchasing a home is more affordable.

Any thoughts on how you might approach that challenge?

We’re seeing a lot more development in the area, and one thing we could do as a city is require that developers (build) a certain percentage of homes at more affordable price points. We could conduct an exit study on housing and determine exactly what percentage we need to be affordable housing, and then require that amount for each new development.

What grade would you give the city of Palm Springs regarding its response to date to the homelessness problem? What has the city done well, and what future actions and policies would you support?

I would give the city an A. I think they’re doing a great job of moving this issue forward. Councilmembers (Christy) Holstege and (Geoff) Kors have been working really diligently on this along with the other members. I think that they’re on the right track and doing what needs to be done. It’s a hard issue. It’s not something that we can solve immediately, and it’s something that a lot of people in the will have different views on and disagree on. That makes it difficult, but I think that they are doing what they need to do in order to move forward.

One of the things that I think would be great is to continue the work with the entire valley. You know, this isn’t just an issue in Palm Springs. It’s an issue for all of us in the Coachella Valley and Riverside County. I think it was great that the city reached out to the county and said, “Hey we need you, and you have to be an active partner in this.” I think more of that understanding between Coachella Valley and the county will help us move ahead. Obviously, it’s a huge issue, and there are things I don’t know about what has been tried, and I’d like to know more first before I recommend what needs to be done.

The cannabis industry has come to Palm Springs. How has the city handled it so far? What changes, if any, would you make regarding dispensaries, lounges and other cannabis businesses in the future?

Cannabis is certainly a big issue. I think the concern from the community is valid in that there are manufacturing and cultivation sites that are right up against neighborhoods. That’s something that just doesn’t work. I think it’s really important that the city change its ordinance to create a larger buffer zone between (the businesses) and neighborhoods. I know that at the last cannabis meeting, councilmembers Kors and (J.R.) Roberts discussed having a possible “green zone” into which we could put all the manufacturing and cultivation sites, and encourage the businesses that are not currently in those areas to move to those areas. I do hope that is something that will come forward as they work on the new ordinance.

I think it’s really important to make sure that community is involved in things like this. It’s not that we don’t want cannabis in the city. It’s more of a matter of how we have it, and where it is located. Right now, it’s located in neighborhoods that are predominantly (populated by) people of color. The city needs to take into consideration who is being impacted by this, and whose voices are actually being heard on the topic, so I would like the city to be more thoughtful in their long term planning on these types of issues. Instead of having to fix it now, I think it should have been considered from the very beginning.

What can or should be done to decrease crime in Palm Springs?

Right now, the crime statistics are pretty good. Obviously, crime at any level is not a good thing, but right now, the crime levels are fairly low, which is a positive. Unfortunately, there was a series of murders that have not been solved, which I know is a big concern to a lot of members of the community. I think that with so much tourism in Palm Springs, there are going to be issues like that. I think that, again, working with the community and creating more of a relationship between the community and the police to give citizens more comfort in wanting to go to the police and talk to the police when (crime) happens could be a big benefit. I know that the police officers right now are working on creating programs. I know they have some now, and they’re working on creating more. including (an initiative to) reach out to the community in Spanish, which I think is really important.

What is your reaction to the proposed construction of a downtown 10,000 seat arena by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians?

Of course, the Cahuilla Indians are sovereign and are able to make decisions about what they would like to do on their land. I think that the arena has the potential to bring a lot of new jobs to the area, and I think it’s important for the city to work with the tribe to make sure that all the infrastructure needs are met, including parking and traffic, and that we do our best to keep the jobs local. We’ll need a lot of people to do the construction, and if we can focus on keeping those jobs local, that would be great. Again, I do have a concern about rising housing costs, and I hope that the city can be thinking about ways that our residents will be able to stay in the city and benefit from the arena and not be pushed out because of rising housing costs.

You just mentioned infrastructure concerns. I’m curious how you view the challenges that are created by the condition of the major north/south routes between Palm Springs and Interstate 10, for instance.

I think that the frequent closures on Palm Canyon are a big deal, not just for residents, but for tourists and for access (to the city) by our neighbors in Desert Hot Springs, too. That route is their (most) direct access to the hospital, and if it’s closed, then people could die. I think it is a concern, and we have to be thinking about how it affects us. I know that the city is looking into working with local conservation groups to discuss what options are available, because I know that some protections will be required for the fringe-toed lizard that lives in that area. But they are discussing barriers and other options. … I do hope that’s something that is taken very seriously, because we need access.

Is the city of Palm Springs ready for an economic recession?

I think the city has been doing a good job of making sure that there is funding in case something like that should happen. I know it’s been discussed during the last few budget processes, and I think that’s something we have to keep in mind even when times are good, because you just don’t know when something could change, and we’d need that additional funding. I would support being mindful of our planning and making sure that we’re repairing things before they are broken. For instance, I know that the bathrooms in our parks need to be updated, and it’s become a big concern, because some of them are often out-of-order. Things like that, we need to keep ahead of, so that we’re not wasting money by having to replace things completely instead of maintaining and repairing things as needed.

What’s your idea of the perfect night out in Palm Springs?

Oh wow! That’s fun. I think … I would probably start downtown. I’ve been really liking El Patron, which is a new taco place. It’s really good and affordable, so I’d probably start there and then make my way either over to Seymour’s for a cocktail or to the Parker’s wine bar, Counter Reformation.

Indian Canyon Drive will soon be a two-way thoroughfare. Yay or nay?

You know what? I’m not sure. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’m a second-generation resident, and for me, Indian Canyon has always been one-way, as is Palm Canyon, so it’s hard for me to imagine it being any different. But it does make sense to me theoretically, that having two ways on Indian Canyon will decrease traffic on Palm Canyon. So we’ll see what happens. I’m kind of withholding my judgment on that either way.

What question should we have asked you that we haven’t so far? And what’s your answer to that question?

One of the things that I’m most excited about with this campaign, and what really drove me to run for office, is that I think it’s important that we bring more people into our city government. Right now, our commissions are not diverse at all, and they don’t reflect the residents of Palm Springs, so I think it’s really important to make sure that the voices of our residents are heard: all ages, all racial backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds—we want to hear from everyone. I think that’s something that’s possible, and that’s something we’re doing with the campaign is reaching out to every single group. Even if they can’t vote, we’re interested in what they have to say, and I think that the city should be too.

Published in Politics

Local news reports as of late have included alarming updates on a spate of disputes that have cropped up involving local water agencies.

For example, there’s the outrage expressed by the Desert Hot Springs-area’s Mission Springs Water District over what it refers to as the west valley-area Desert Water Agency’s “seizure” of groundwater management.

Or perhaps you saw a headline regarding the Imperial Irrigation District’s concern over the recent legislative action taken by local Assemblymember Chad Mayes (right). His Assembly Bill 854 proposed forcing the IID to expand its board of directors from five to 11 members, with the six new members all coming from Riverside County, whose IID electricity customers pay 60 percent of IID’s power-related revenues. Currently, only Imperial County constituents elect the IID board members, which leaves Riverside County customers with no voice in their power company’s operations.

Then there’s the biggest local water dispute—which began in 2013 with the filing of a lawsuit against the east valley’s Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The suit claims the tribe possesses “senior water rights” to all the groundwater in the aquifer under the entire Coachella Valley. The tribe has been seeking control over all decisions, policies and groundwater-management strategies that either agency might implement.

Why is this all happening, and why is it happening now? What is causing this hyper-sensitivity among water stakeholders? What does it all mean for residents?


John Soulliere is the Mission Springs Water District’s conservation and public-affairs officer. During a recent phone interview, I asked what led to the recent lawsuit and public attacks against the Desert Water Agency.

“What we’re talking about here is removing the ability from the five elected board members of the Mission Springs Water District to determine how we will develop our local water supply to meet demand and meet (the requirements) of economic development and growth,” he said. “That right was taken away through a unilateral action of the DWA board, and through a somewhat stealth action by the state, to include (the DWA) in a new state law as an exclusive Groundwater Sustainability Agency without notification to the city of Desert Hot Springs or our water agency.”

The “stealth action” Soulliere refers to was taken by the DWA board back in 2015. So why the aggressive posture now—four years after the fact?

“Prior to taking the action they did in 2015, we had a court settlement with DWA and CVWD, who does pump and serve up in our area (as well). That court settlement put the three of us at the table to jointly manage. We spent $1.3 million developing a management plan. Within that plan, MSWD retained its rights to manage its local water supply and to develop the water as it saw fit—within state law, of course. DWA was, and continues to be, the state water contractor. They are here for the purpose of replenishment. We were functioning under that agreement just fine, (but the DWA’s) 2015 action basically threw that settlement off to the side. The management plan that came out of that settlement may still be in play, but the difference now is that we (MSWD) are removed from the governance and the authority. So it was a very divisive and hostile act that they’ve taken to move us out of the equation so that they can make autonomous decisions related to water in our basin.”

Kephyan Sheppard is the pastor at the Word of Life Fellowship Center in Desert Hot Springs, and the chair of the Mission Springs Water District’s Water Rights Study Group, which just issued its final report. I asked him why this issue had taken on such a sense of urgency now, when the action in question took place in 2015.

“Being a pastor in this community, I’ve been hands-on with the residents for seven years, and for the most part, it appeared that many didn’t even know that there was a dispute going on,” Sheppard said. “Recently, in like the last year and a half, people are starting to find out, and there’s a sense of pride and entitlement saying, ‘Keep your hands off our water.’ There’s a growing understanding of what’s at stake.”

I asked him if he could point to any examples of the DWA not fulfilling its responsibilities, or the DWA doing anything harmful to the interests of DHS residents.

“No, not necessarily,” Sheppard said. “The study group was formed because of the unprecedented action taken (by the DWA) without discussion with MSWD, and so for (DHS residents), that was the main thing. I know (Desert Hot Springs) is projected to have an economic and growth boom over the next decade, and I know that water is integral to everything that’s getting ready to take place. So, we need to make sure that we control our water.”

“Our” water? Doesn’t the water the DWA is managing as a Groundwater Sustainability Agency belong to all Coachella Valley residents?

Obviously, the Desert Water Agency views the dispute differently. Ashley Metzger is the outreach and conservation manager of the DWA.

“The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is a law passed (by the California State Legislature) in 2015,” Metzger said. “We are one of approximately 20 or so agencies statewide that are actually designated by law as exclusive groundwater-management agencies. If you look at the language when we were established in 1961, it was for the purpose of (providing) groundwater replenishment and management. That is part of the reason why we have this exclusive designation. We have the unique ability within our boundaries to provide for both supply and demand management. The MSWD is missing a key part of the equation (replenishment capabilities) if we are not involved. If we are involved, as we have been for decades, then you have both sides of the equation.”

I asked Metzger about Mission Springs’ claim that the Desert Hot Springs agency has been effectively removed from any role in planning for future water-development needs.

“We are and have been a part of the Desert Hot Springs community,” Metzger said. “We have facilities there, and we have the authority to manage the groundwater there by statute. There’s a water-management agreement that’s been in place since 2004. As part of (the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act), you have to submit a plan to the state, and the foundation for that plan was the agreement that MSWD, CVWD and DWA had all signed onto.

“We’re not proposing anything radical. We’re not trying to take any water away. Groups come to our board meetings saying things like, ‘You’re trying to take our hot springs water and provide it in Palm Springs,’ and that’s certainly not true. We’ve been fighting a bit of confusion and misinformation, which has been a challenge. I think our biggest message to people is that we’re planning for the future. That’s a key part of our organizational role. … You know that Palm Springs and Cathedral City are largely built out. So when we talk about planning for growth, we’re thinking about the northern area of our boundary, where there is the most room for growth, which is the DHS area. We’re putting dollars out and committing to spending more money in the future to make all that possible.

“We’ve been communicating with stakeholders in the community and letting them know. I think we may have done ourselves a little bit of a disservice in the past by letting MSWD take the lead on being the face of water in the community out there. So we’re changing our approach, and we’re more active and engaged in the community.”


“Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.” This quote—attributed to Mark Twain, although there’s no evidence he actually said it—seems to apply to the Coachella Valley of today. How else might one explain the recent controversy over District 42 Assemblymember Chad Mayes and his AB 854?

Neighboring District 56 Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (right) recently stepped into the fray, tabling the bill in the Assembly Appropriations Committee (on which he sits), in a successful effort to get the Imperial Irrigation District and the east valley’s Coachella Valley Water District into discussions about “extending the (1934) electricity-service agreement in the Coachella Valley service area.”

The controversial bill was sponsored by Mayes, a Republican, to rectify what some perceive to be an injustice: Some Coachella Valley residents receive their electricity service through the IID, but they are not allowed to vote for any IID board members.

The IID provides no water to Coachella Valley residents, just electricity. This is one reason why Mayes’ call to increase the IID board size from five members to eleven, with the six new members all being from Riverside County (in other words, the Coachella Valley), drew public cries of outrage from multiple directions—including threats that the IID could pull out of the Coachella Valley.

Emmanuel Martinez is the IID’s government affairs specialist.

“The position of the Imperial Irrigation District is that this legislation completely ignores a longstanding relationship and agreement between the CVWD and the IID,” Martinez said during a recent phone interview. “The long and the short of it is that through this contractual relationship, which is the 1934 compromise agreement expiring in 2033, the Coachella Valley was allowed to get water via the IID, and in return, the CVWD leased their power rights to the IID. So, this new legislation proposes to add six new directors to the IID board and is a complete takeover, in our opinion.”

I asked Martinez if it was unfair that Coachella Valley residents had no right to vote on the makeup of the board of the IID, to which they pay their electric bills.

“IID and CVWD are similar agencies in that they are both water districts with competing interests for the same source of water, which is the Colorado River water,” Martinez said. “By virtue of that, this legislation would give double representation to the people of the CVWD, who would vote for CVWD board members and have control of that board, and also vote for IID board members.”

The Independent asked Mayes what prompted him to sponsor AB 854; he responded via email.

“IID has the ability to change utility rates, determine investment in communities, or cut service altogether,” Mayes wrote. “This power over 92,000 disenfranchised voters must be balanced with representation. An individual’s right to a voice in any government exerting powers over them is one of the founding principles of this nation. AB 854 was introduced to honor this fundamental right and extends it to all IID ratepayers.”

We asked Mayes what his next steps would be, now that the bill has been tabled, at least temporarily.

“In order for this bill to pass the Legislature, we must ensure water rights are protected; representation is extended to those currently disenfranchised within IID’s service territory; and there is a strong and dependable public electrical utility in perpetuity in the IID service area,” Mayes wrote. “I’m committed to finding a common ground that both sides can agree on and amending this legislation to reflect that. From day one, I’ve said that IID’s water rights are sacrosanct. I did so publicly, and I did directly to IID. The final version of this bill will not infringe on those rights.”

Assemblymember Garcia, a Democrat, took credit for quelling the tensions raised by AB 854. “Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia Engages to Bring Parties Together for Talks on Future of IID’s Electricity Service in Coachella Valley” was the headline on the press release issued by his office on May 16.

It went on to say: “After speaking with both Imperial Irrigation District and the Coachella Valley Water District, they have both agreed to begin meetings to examine the 1934 agreement and the possibility of extending the electricity service agreement in the Coachella Valley service area. The willingness of parties to come to the table demonstrates good faith efforts on all sides to resolve this matter locally without the need for legislation.”


Last, but certainly not least, is the recent development in the battle between the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the valley’s water agencies.

The tribe’s suit, seeking power over the groundwater underneath the valley, hit a significant wall in April, when U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal dismissed portions of it because the tribe could not prove it had been significantly harmed.

The Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency claimed victory in an April 22 statement.

“The Agua Caliente Tribe was not harmed, because it has always had access to as much high-quality water as it needs,” the statement said. “The judge ruled that the tribe does not have standing, the right to pursue a lawsuit against the local public water agencies, Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency. The only claim remaining in the tribe’s lawsuit is the “narrow issue” of whether the tribe has an ownership interest in storage space for groundwater under its reservation, the court wrote.”

This ruling is as close to a total victory as the water agencies could have hoped to achieve.

“Our top priority is and always has been to protect our groundwater supplies to ensure a sustainable, reliable water future for everyone in the Coachella Valley,” said John Powell Jr., the Coachella Valley Water District’s board president. “We are part of this community, and we are committed to its environmental and economic success.

The statement went on to read: “The water agencies have spent decades ensuring a safe, reliable water supply to all users in the Coachella Valley, including the five tribes in the basin. Both agencies remain committed to long-term water sustainability.”

The Agua Caliente tribe has not said what its next steps will be.

Several days later, the Coachella Valley Water District boasted in an April 30 statement: “An annual analysis of groundwater levels shows significant increases over the past 10 years throughout most of the Coachella Valley.”

The statement discussed studies done on both the Indio and Mission Creek sub-basins, which account for much of the valley’s aquifer. The Indio Sub-basin is located under the vast majority of the Coachella Valley; over the past 10 years, there were increases in groundwater levels between two and 50 feet. There were localized portions of decreased water levels in the range of two to eight feet in the mid-valley area, which will soon benefit from the CVWD’s Palm Desert Replenishment Facility.

Meanwhile, the Mission Creek sub-basin, located under Desert Hot Springs and the unincorporated area of Indio Hills, showed increases in groundwater levels of up to 28.5 feet in most of the area.

So, there you have it: The Coachella Valley’s water supply is in good shape. But don’t expect fights and power struggles over it to end anytime soon.


Coachella Valley Water History Timeline

1918

Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) is created.

Feb. 14, 1934

Signing of the Agreement of Compromise between the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), the Coachella Valley Water District and the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) governing access to Colorado River water.

1953

Mission Springs Water District (MSWD) is created.

1961

Desert Water Agency (DWA) is created.

2004

An initial MSWD lawsuit against DWA and CVWD is settled requiring the Mission Springs Sub-basin to receive supplemental water from the other two agencies.

May 14, 2013

Lawsuit filed by Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians against CVWD and DWA seeking groundwater rights, superseding all other water users in the region.

2013

The Mission Creek/Garnet Hill Water Management Plan is adopted by the boards of CVWD, DWA and MSWD.

2014-2015

California State Legislature passes the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2015; it is amended in 2015.

Nov. 13, 2015

DWA holds board meeting and votes itself to be the groundwater management agency supervising MSWD.

2016

MSWD files suit against DWA opposing designation of DWA as the Groundwater Sustainability Agency over DWA and MSWD boundary areas.

Nov. 27, 2017

The U.S. Supreme Court decides not to review the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision granting superior rights to groundwater to the Agua Caliente tribe.

Feb. 20, 2019

AB 854 introduced by Assemblymember Chad Mayes.

April 19, 2019

U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal dismisses a significant portion of the Agua Caliente’s suit against DWA and CVWD, saying the tribe has not been substantially harmed by the agencies’ actions.

May 16, 2019

Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia issues statement as a member of the Assembly Appropriations Committee placing a hold on AB 854 with the intention of holding negotiations between IID and CVWD.

Published in Local Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Local Issues

Tom Davis is philosophical regarding his work: “I wouldn’t change a thing. I enjoyed having my own business, but when it became tedious, my attitude was, ‘I’m outta here.’”

That attitude was a lucky break for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Davis, 68, a Rancho Mirage resident, was born in Teaneck, N.J., and grew up in Anaheim. He started doing consulting work in the desert in 1990 and made the full-time move from Orange County in 1997.

“I had my own land-planning and development consulting business,” says Davis, “but when the recession that everybody forgets about happened, many of my competitors were heading to Las Vegas because there was so much development going on there. I wanted to expand my business reach and profile, and I knew the desert had great growth potential. Plus, my wife’s parents were here, and her grandma and grandpa had the first liquor store and motel in Palm Desert, so there were personal connections as well as business potential that made this area desirable.”

Davis earned his degree in landscape architecture from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

“My dad always said to be in a profession where you can be independent,” Davis said. “I was strong in math and had an artistic flair—I liked to draw. I also had a strong design sense. They had an accredited program, which was hard to find in the Western United States.

“I met my wife, Debbie, at Cal Poly in 1970 at a Three Dog Night concert on a blind date. A friend said, ‘You need to meet this young lady.’ We were married after less than two years. After school, I went to Denver because I wanted to ski all the time, and I worked for a company planning a ski resort.”

Davis worked for a firm while he was in college that did work in Palm Springs.

“They educated me about the interrelationship between the tribe and the city,” he said. “I was originally out here in the desert working the territory and doing collaborative work with (Southern California planning consultant) John Q. Adams—yes, he’s a real descendant. I was the physical planning guy; he was the policy guy. Then he died suddenly, and a friend he worked for told me about the Agua Caliente looking for a planner. That was in 1992.

“The tribe was looking for an outsider, not someone beholden to local politics. The tribe is an extended family that understands the importance of outreach and the need to be connected to all sides politically.

“For six months, I was doing a variety of different things as staff to the Indian Planning Commission. When I started with the tribe, they had only six employees, with me and their general counsel as outside contractors. Then we got involved with Caesars Palace when the tribe was getting into gaming and expansion. Land development is highly political. You have to go through architectural review committees, planning commissions and city councils. I went to Washington, D.C., and Sacramento. We all learned a lot as we went along.”

Davis is currently the chief planning and development officer for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. He has built the department to a staff of about 35.

A serious bout with cancer changed Davis’ life.

“I used to be really athletic, but the cancer set me back. I go through life now week by week,” he said. “We bought a house in 2008 on a kind of remote mountain at June Lake in the Eastern Sierras. I hike and go fly fishing. It’s pristine and quiet. I might not see another person for days. For me, a bucket-list item would be to visit with an old friend, sit on the porch, and tell stories … although I would like to make it to Italy.”

For a long time after his cancer treatment, Davis was resistant to make use of a support group. “When I got the bad news from the doctor, I was thinking about all the stuff I’d be faced with. They asked me questions like, ‘Are you worried about your treatment?’ Duh.

“Finally, I went to a support group and I was amazed how therapeutic it is. I could speak frankly, and realized that everybody has something to deal with. That was when I began to talk about what I’d been through. We could all cry and laugh. We could all share our experiences and tell others what works. We talked about lots of simple things we take for granted. I came to realize the positive impact of all that. It’s helpful to share.”

After obtaining a master’s degree in education, Davis has been sharing his knowledge of the tribe by teaching classes, including “Agua Caliente: Then and Now,” through the Osher Institute at California State University, San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus.

Davis is also a reader, influenced by Moby Dick and The Godfather, and he is currently immersed in Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World, about the building of the transcontinental railroad. “It’s about a turning point in our history,” he says, “and it’s fascinating.”

Tom Davis’ guiding principle is to work hard and play hard. “I want to tell young people, based on my experience, to do something you love. There are different specialties in every era. Find a profession you love to do, and even if one day you wake up with a layoff or disappointment, you’ll just work harder and still enjoy every day.

“I’ve changed a lot in the last several years. Between my cancer and the loss of both my parents within eight months of each other last year, now I wake up, and I’m just happy to be here.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

On Nov. 7, voters who live in the city of Palm Springs will go to the polls to select two new members of the Palm Springs City Council.

This election will mark a complete changing of the guard, so to speak, after the indictment of former Mayor Steve Pougnet and a couple of developers on corruption charges two years ago. The two new members will replace retiring City Council members Ginny Foat and Chris Mills, and joining three new members who were elected two years ago: Geoff Kors, J.R. Roberts and Mayor Rob Moon.

With City Manager David Ready, this new council will help guide a city that is enjoying the best of times … and, at the same time, suffering through the worst of times.

The city is more popular than ever as a tourism destination—yet it is enduring the aforementioned scandal involving its huge, signature downtown development project. Some areas, such as the Uptown Design District, are enjoying a resurgence—yet the homelessness problem continues to worsen.

The Independent’s Brian Blueskye recently spoke to each of the candidates about these various issues and more. He asked them about the issue of homelessness; the new vacation-rental ordinance; the lack of affordable housing in the city; ethics and transparency;the downtown redevelopment project; and the city’s relationship with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Finally, he asked each candidate whether the city is opposed to fun—a charge against the current council leveled by some, including the Cactus Hugs website.

Here’s what each of the candidates had to say.

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Christy Holstege

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Glenn Flood 

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Henry Hampton

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Judy Deertrack

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Lisa Middleton

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Robert Julian Stone

Published in Politics

Of the six candidates running for the Palm Springs City Council this year, Robert Julian Stone is certainly the most blunt.

The author, film critic and community advocate certainly was not shy about sharing his views during a recent interview—including a conspiracy theory regarding the current City Council and two of his opponents.

But before we get to that … on the subject of homelessness, Stone was rather thoughtful and analytical. He told me the recent film The Florida Project was helpful in exposing the national problem of homelessness.

“The solution everyone talks about is the ‘housing first’ solution,’ Stone said. “It’s the best solution for a certain number of people who find themselves without homes. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that there are three things human beings need to be productive in society: They need food; they need shelter; and they need clothing. If you take any one of those things away from them, they cannot be a productive member of society. That’s the challenge that we’re facing: We must provide shelter, but how you go about doing that is a very expensive proposition, because (homelessness) numbers continue to grow. The ‘housing first’ solution works best for people who are living one paycheck to another. When you fall out of your housing, and you’ve lost your job, or you have a ruined credit rating because you’ve been evicted, or you’re unemployed—what it takes to get back in is the first month’s rent, a security deposit and employment. If that’s not immediately available to you, you’re out on the streets. The ‘housing first’ model works really well. because (these people) aren’t used to living on the streets, don’t want to live on the streets, and want to get back into a stable situation.

“If you’re talking about the people who don’t want four walls and a roof over their heads, or have addiction and mental health issues—those people are more difficult to handle.”

Stone said the vacation-rental situation in Palm Springs has been poorly handled.

“Airbnb is not going to go away, and it’s here to stay. The thing that we need to do is figure out the best way to manage it,” he said. “I don’t think creating a $1.7 million-a-year bureaucracy to handle the problem was necessarily the right way to go. When Palm Springs did their big vacation rental ordinance, they did not run it through the Planning Commission; they didn’t hold public hearings over a period of time. It was mostly Geoff Kors and J.R. Roberts in a back room coming up with this proposal, which went through a tumultuous unfolding when they got slapped with petitions to recall them and recall this ordinance if they didn’t change it. It was badly handled, and the biggest thing they missed was they didn’t do any density controls, and there’s nothing that prevents 98 percent of the homes next to your home from becoming short-term vacation rentals—and that’s a problem.”

Stone didn’t mince words on transparency—especially involving the funding for Measure J, a 1 percent sales and use tax approved by voters in 2011 that was slated to go toward city services, maintenance and redevelopment.

“They’re certainly transparent on the general-fund portion, but there are dozens of other side funds that don’t appear anywhere in the public forum for the city’s residents to understand or (figure out) exactly what’s going on with that money,” he said. “The city budget is $110 million; the other dozens of other funds make up an aggregate of another $110 to $120 million—things like the airport fund, the Measure J fund, the utility tax fund, the gas tax fund—and they’re run like a sideshow. They’re controlled by the city manager, who dips into those funds to transfer into the general fund as he sees fit, or to transfer from the general fund into those funds when they have shortfalls. Some have income; some of them, like the golf course fund, have income and expenses. We never really get a true picture of what our budget is, because half of it is run behind a curtain, and that’s a problem.”

Regarding the city’s relationship with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Stone said the city needs to work with the tribe in a more cooperative fashion.

“That’s a very difficult question, because the city has taken a position that changes from day to day depending on the subject on the table,” Stone said. “Sometimes, they say, ‘They’re a sovereign nation; we have nothing to do with them.’ I’ve heard Ginny Foat articulate that many times, saying they don’t get involved in their business. At the same time, we have a master plan … a bilateral agreement that both sides signed and should be adhering to. But when it comes down to enforcing it, the city never tries to. We need to invite them to the table. … If you look at the history of Palm Springs and the tribe, it’s very checkered. We need to have a better agreement with the tribe; we need to have one that is neutrally supportive. With the way the downtown (redevelopment) project was handled, and the 31 counts of corruption which relate directly to the downtown plan, we can’t really take the moral high ground when it comes to the tribe’s property, given the way the city handled their own downtown development.” 

Stone is not happy with the downtown redevelopment project.

“I think the hotel is a scar on the landscape. It will always be that,” he said. “If you look at the very first building near Tahquitz (Canyon Way) and Palm Canyon (Drive), that building which will house the Starbucks, that’s exactly the scale we were promised: It’s single story; it’s a tall building, and it’s a nice addition to the neighborhood. Then you look at these other buildings, and they’re horrible. It’s better than what we had, because what we had was terrible, but it’s so much less than what we deserved.”

What does the city need to do to be more transparent? Well, here’s where that conspiracy theory part comes in.

“The first thing that we can do is elect me,” Stone said with a laugh. “I also want to talk about where we’re headed if the Lisa (Middleton) and Christy (Holstege) train pulls into the station: We are going to be doing old-school Chicago politics with Councilmember Geoff Kors in the role of Mayor Richard Daley. We’re going have two people seated solely because of the support and the campaign management and campaign contributions that came from a sitting councilmember. Lisa’s campaign is being run by Geoff Kors’ husband. … They are the chosen two—so Geoff Kors will have the two votes he needs if they are seated, and then all bets are off, because it’ll be government by Geoff Kors, for Geoff Kors and about Geoff Kors. If you think that those two women are going to do anything to oppose what he wants, you’re too naive to be talking to—because that’s what we’re going to get, and that’s very troubling, because that’s not good for democracy.”

When I asked Stone whether he thinks the city is opposed to fun—a criticism some have made against the current City Council—his answer, much to my surprise, involved the ethnic makeup of the city.

“They are so not fun,” Stone said with a laugh. “Hell to the no on that! I’m sorry, but we have too many white people living in this town. I lived in San Francisco, and I’m used to living in a very diverse city where Caucasians were the minority. I was born and raised in Detroit, which was largely an African-American city. That’s the kind of demographic I’m used to. I’ve lived here full time for the past 12 years, so if you don’t mind me mixing metaphors: I know where the bodies are buried, and I can hit the decks running when I sit in that chair. I understand the demographic that lives here, because I’m a part of it, but I always wish there was more diversity in the community and diversity on our City Council. I’m sorry—I’m a white male, and I can’t help it.”

After our interview, he emailed me additional thoughts that were a bit more measured.

“Las Vegas has glitz, but Palm Springs has chill,” Stone said. “And chill is cool, sophisticated, and somewhat fragile. We can’t let (the city) be dragged into the vortex of beer bongs and guzzler helmets. So if the City Council may seem a bit stodgy on some points, I think it’s because they have an intuitive understanding of what makes our city special, and a commitment to maintaining it.”

Published in Politics

If elected to the Palm Springs City Council, Lisa Middleton wants to be as transparent as possible, she said, while engaging with the community.

Middleton is well-known as a transgender activist, and she has an impressive work history as well; she retired after 30 years as an executive with the State Insurance Compensation Fund of California, where she was at one point the senior vice president of internal affairs. She’s also a member of the Planning Commission, and was a chair of ONE-PS, the coalition of Palm Springs neighborhoods. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Lisa Middleton since 2013; I met her while I was a volunteer at the LGBT Community Center of the Desert.)

During an interview at her home, Middleton—who would become the first openly transgender individual elected to a non-judicial office in the state, should she win—said the city of Palm Springs is finally starting to handle the issue of homelessness in the right way. She said that the efforts of Well of the Desert and the housing programs proposed by the Coachella Valley Association of Governments are both steps in the right direction.

“The city is making progress when it comes to homelessness,” Middleton said. “We have a dedicated homelessness police officer going from four days a week to seven days a week. … The two additional social workers who have been contracted with the county have produced success, and the city is trying to expand that program. One of the things we found is that it takes multiple interventions for there to be success. There have been, over the last year, 50 people who have been housed, and another 100 who have received housing. It’s been because of these programs.”

Middleton helped to create the ordinances and regulations on vacation rentals that were recently enacted. She said she believes they’re working so far.

“I believe the reforms that were passed earlier this year were very much a step in the right direction,” she said. “The restriction of no more than one (vacation rental) home per person going forward—those who have more than one now are grandfathered in—will remove the investor from the market going forward so that the people getting permits will be the individual or couple who plan to transition to full-time living in Palm Springs. … I came up with the idea through ONE-PS for that restriction. The increase in fines, I supported very strongly, but the most important change was the increase in staffing, and going from a half-time person to nine people in a department, and changing the first responder to complaints from the rental manager to someone within the city, and having them out in cars to where they’re able to respond, as well as being out in cars … (so) they can monitor and drive by. The homeowners and managers are stepping up their game in the review of the people they rent their homes to, because after three strikes, you’re going to lose your license, and could potentially lose your license for good. Those are steps in the right direction, and we need to give this law a chance to work.”

Middleton said she intends to work with local nonprofits to increase the amount of affordable housing in the city.

“I want to work with organizations such as Desert AIDS Project and Coachella Valley Housing Coalition to build more affordable housing in Palm Springs” Middleton said. “A recommendation I’ve made is that … we take and change the public benefit, which is a negotiation that goes back and forth with the Planning Commission and the developer—that it be switched to the public benefit being affordable housing: Either you build a certain number of affordable housing units as part of your project, or you pay a fee to the city to be used to provide funding for other affordable housing projects, based on the value of the project you’re building.”

When it comes to transparency, Middleton said said being accessible and communicating with the public is important, and that she plans to regularly visit each of the neighborhoods in Palm Springs, while making herself as accessible as possible.

“One thing I think would help … is being accessible so people can ask questions and understand things,” Middleton said. “Transparency is extremely important coming from someone such as myself, who managed a public-records office, and I know all of the rules as to what must be released and how it is to be released. Frequently, what I find is somebody says, ‘You’re not being transparent.’ What they really mean is, ‘I didn’t know that was going on.’ It’s that ‘I didn’t know’ that we need to do a better job on … (so that) it becomes easier for them to know what’s going on.”

Middleton said the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has a great relationship with the city. She cited discussions about the plans for the area around the Spa Resort Casino as an example.

“I do think that for almost everyone who was concerned when they saw that dotted line put into the Desert Sun, and then saw this first set of drawings of the new hotel, there should be great relief that the tribe is a great neighbor and has historically been a great neighbor,” she said.

As a member of the Planning Commission, Middleton said she’s happy the downtown redevelopment project is progressing.

“I’m thrilled that we’re finally getting the hotel up and ready for occupancy, and that the leases have been signed and stores will be opening,” she said. “As for the businesses up further on Palm Canyon, they feel like they’ve been in a construction zone for years, and this project has taken longer (than we anticipated) when we voted for Measure J in 2011. There were lawsuits that slowed down construction, and I was part of the Planning Commission that worked with the new City Council in January 2016 that reduced the scale of the overall project by 40 percent. There have been bumps in this road, and we’re starting to move forward, and the vast majority of people in Palm Springs want to see that succeed.

“The Hyatt Andaz,” the long-delayed under-construction project at Indian Canyon Drive and Alejo Road, “has brought up ideas for a change in the approval process. As a part of the planning and review process when the project is approved by the Planning Commission, we need to review the financial viability of the product. Nowhere in the current process do we ask a developer why they feel the project will succeed financially. That can be built into the approval process, and before someone begins construction, they should be required to demonstrate to the city that they have the funds in place to complete construction.”

She believes the best way to prevent more corruption within the city government is to do reviews and make sure everyone has proper information on what they can and cannot do.

“We should sit down with them constantly and review their 700 form, asking them, ‘If you work for other entities, who are these entities?’” Middleton said. “Annually, we have a very clear understanding of what they reported and why.”

Middleton laughed when I asked her if she considered the Palm Springs City Council to be opposed to fun—a criticism some, such as the Cactus Hugs website, have made of the current council.

“I don’t think Palm Springs is against fun,” Middleton said. “I absolutely want it to be fun, and I want our city to keep its sense of humor and be able to laugh with others and at ourselves from time to time, because we need to do so. I was asked this question a few weeks ago: Is Palm Springs a small city of neighborhoods, or is it a world-class destination? The answer is both. Most people want it to be both. That happens when you set balances so you can truly have communities and neighborhoods where people feel safe, secure and quiet in their home and neighborhood—but also a side that can attract people from all over the world to come and have a good time, to go to the parties we have, to enjoy the restaurants, and to enjoy the cultural facilities.”

Published in Politics

Judy Deertrack is one of the loudest and most dedicated critics of the Palm Springs City Council—and it’s no surprise that she again decided to run for a council seat, after an unsuccessful run in 2013.

However, as a voice of opposition, Deertrack—who takes credit as one of the whistleblowers regarding the corruption scandal that led to the indictment of former Mayor Steve Pougnet—is often criticized as being “against” everything and not in favor of much. Deertrack said she’s aware of the criticism—but said her tone is necessary, because the city faces a danger of bankruptcy, and few people are acknowledging the dark cloud hanging over Palm Springs.

When I met with her at her campaign headquarters, she provided photocopies of various information related to the city budget and Measure J—a 1 percent sales and use tax approved by voters in 2011 that was slated to go toward city services, maintenance and redevelopment. The attorney and urban planning consultant has been one of the most vocal voices against the downtown redevelopment project; in fact, she told me she has a storage locker full of this information.

On the subject of homelessness, Deertrack said the problem is due to a lack of affordable housing. She said that the city’s homelessness task force has not been effective and that the city is not devoted to resolving the homelessness issue.

“This is not just a city problem; it’s a state problem,” Deertrack said. “The state is behind in almost 1 million affordable housing units across the state. It’s a crisis at this point. There are multiple causes, but certainly one of them was the loss in redevelopment funding. I’ve looked at housing throughout the valley, and the city of Palm Springs appears to be behind the other cities significantly. There hasn’t been a unit of affordable housing in this city (built) in over a decade.”

As for the new restrictions on vacation rentals, Deertrack mentioned a ballot initiative coming in the summer of 2018 that may decide the fate of vacation rentals—and added that residential zoning laws already define how to handle vacation rentals.

“The primary restriction is set by state law. It’s also set by local law in the general plan update—a general plan that takes years of work with the community working directly with their elected officials to come up with a long term vision for growth and development,” Deertrack said. “One of the first principles of residential development set by zoning laws in the state of California and all across the country is that residential zoning is primarily for residential use of a home for noncommercial purpose, with the outcome to be neighborhood peace and quiet. If you want to put in any type of commercial use, it can only be permitted under state law if you can demonstrate that by adding that … you are not creating a disturbance or not undermining the residential designation. This has been horrifically violated over time, and we have districts over in Warm Sands where you have residential zones … now with major noise problems. I support the people’s vote on it.”

Regarding affordable housing, Deertrack again said the city needs follow its own ordinances and plans.

“There’s a housing plan (city officials) committed themselves to that they abandoned,” she said. “If we do not follow the laws, there needs to be a state audit of the funds in the city, and the state needs to come in with some oversight. Following the general plan would the major part. Bringing in the state oversight due to lack of compliance—part of the problem with that is a good part of California is out of compliance. But I don’t think (other cities) are out of compliance as seriously as this city is.”

Transparency has been one of the key issues in Deertrack’s campaign—and she almost seemed offended when I asked her about it.

“Do you know who you’re asking here?” Deertrack said. “… It’s very unfortunate. We got something (in the downtown redevelopment project) that is five to six times the height and density of what was advertised to pass Measure J. What happened is that they passed a bond issuance a year after Measure J was passed, where they issued $47 million to (now-indicted developer John) Wessman; $42 million went to the project; $11 million that was for the parking structure; and $32 million went into a private escrow account for Mr. Wessman with no auditing powers. To date, when a public request goes into the city, they indicate that they have no powers to check whether the money is there, how it has been used, and what portion of it is remaining.”

Deertrack said she has the experience to maintain good relations with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

“I’ve worked in tribal affairs for over 13 to 15 years in the Taos Pueblo tribal government. My late husband was full-blooded Taos Pueblo,” she said. “I was in a culture where there were 2,000 tribal people, and there were seven non-native people, and I was one of those seven. I lived in the tribe’s restricted area during that entire period. It took years for them to build trust, and it took me years to build confidence and sensitivity to tribal issues, because there is a huge cultural gap. But I’ve had extensive training in tribal sovereignty, and I have enormous respect for tribal culture. We have tribes here that have acted as guardians of this land throughout the millenniums, and I do not intend to see us tear that to pieces.”

The success or failure of the downtown redevelopment project did not seem to be something Deertrack cares about; instead, she expressed concern about the finances of the project.

“Mr. Wessman gets 100 percent of the profits as it stands and gets 100 percent of the ownership value,” she said. “What he did was took the income-producing lots, and got a 75 percent rebate on bed tax over 30 years, which is unheard of. The problem with a project like that is that no one has any information as to the underlying financial structure of it.”

Deertrack said the FBI public corruption task force has a 90 percent conviction rate.

“This isn’t a popular thing to do, but it’s a very necessary thing to do, and I’ve been relentless on this,” she said. “The indictments (include) the names of nine to 12 people who were trading information. Some were on the Planning Commission, and some were on the City Council. … The scandal hasn’t been addressed or touched in this town, and you have a candidate on the Planning Commission who is running, and no one is talking about this. Every person on that Planning Commission should have, when they knew someone was influencing their vote outside of the public-hearing process, had an ethical and legal responsibility to go to the city attorney and report misconduct, or go to the district attorney.”

When I asked her about claims by some that the City Council seems opposed to fun, Deertrack managed to steer even that question toward the downtown corruption scandal.

“They’ve taken the fun out of my life for the past three years,” Deertrack said with a laugh. “They’re pretty protective of the city’s party environment and its diversity. We have an extraordinary level of public events here, and it’s the strength of this town. We do know how to party, and I have a background as a vocalist in Broadway and in opera, and I go out and sing all over town—restaurants, private parties, assisted living, and it’s part of my donated time. That is the one thing we all have in common. We all need to clean up the other things, because (they’ve) created a dark cloud. There’s an imminent threat of bankruptcy in this city, and nothing is going to stop the party faster than that, so we better attend to this business.”

Published in Politics

As the youngest candidate running this year for the Palm Springs City Council, Christy Holstege says she has a lot to offer.

When I met with her at her campaign headquarters, she said the city needed to move forward, and added that as a millennial, she can relate to the younger people trying to start businesses in Palm Springs.

Holstege has extensive knowledge and experience in dealing with the local homeless community as an attorney. She’s served on the boards of Well in the Desert and the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition, and is a member of the City of Palm Springs Homelessness Task Force.

“Homelessness is a crisis that’s affecting cities nationwide,” Holstege said. “Affordable housing is a crisis, especially in California, with (the state) only having a third of the housing stock that we need to house people. We haven’t had any affordable housing built in Palm Springs in 10 years. The waiting lists for the two affordable-housing units in Palm Springs are three years long.

“I think we’re talking about homelessness the wrong way. It’s a complicated issue, and there are different groups of people who are homeless, and there are different problems and solutions for each one. We’re never going to solve homelessness, and I’ve heard some of the other candidates say, ‘I’m going to solve homelessness!’ Homelessness has always existed, and we can never completely solve it; no city has ever done that in the history of the world. We need permanent supportive housing; the data shows the ‘housing first’ model works. There’s a lot of research and are successful models out there, so we just need to adopt them in Palm Springs. We need to create incentives and recruit nonprofits that do this work and build permanent supportive housing in Palm Springs.”

Regarding vacation rentals, she said the current restrictions and regulations are effective—but only as long as they are being enforced.

“It’s a city-created problem in a number of ways, because we failed to enforce (regulations) on vacation rentals and waited until it was almost too late, and there was backlash from residents and neighbors,” she said. “I don’t think our city did enough strategic planning for the future. I supported the new (vacation-rentals) ordinance, because I think the prior problem was a lack of enforcement. The ordinance has teeth and puts an emphasis on enforcement and reasonable regulations against the bad actors.”

Holstege said both affordable housing and a mixed economy are important.

“We need to grow and diversify our economy and grow and diversify our housing market; that way, one can make a living and afford to live in Palm Springs,” she said. “I see that directly affecting our economy, our work force, our city’s diversity and the ability to have families. I’m one of the only candidates who actually works to make a living in Palm Springs, and as a younger person, it’s difficult to afford a house. My husband is born and raised third-generation in Palm Springs, and most people our age … are moving out of Palm Springs because they can’t afford to live here. I’m concerned about what it’s going to look like here in five years if we’re losing out on people who work and have families.”

When I asked her about ethics and transparency, she—like other candidates—noted that information can be hard to find on the city website. She said the city also needs to implement the suggestions of the ethics, transparency and government-reform task force.

“I think we have a lot of work to do on ethics and transparency to regain the public trust after the FBI raid and ongoing criminal investigation, and (the criminal investigation) is for the courts to decide,” she said. “As a candidate, I’m not going to talk about guilt or innocence, even though other candidates are doing that, and I find it concerning. But I support the ethics and transparency government reforms that the task force spent a year working on. I believe we need to implement them right away. It’s a big issue with our city, because we don’t do a great job of updating the public and sharing information.”

Holstege said that as an attorney, she took an oath to be ethical. She also said it’s important to look forward, not backward.

“I’ve made ethics and transparency part of my platform; it should be part of any elected official’s (platform), and we need good ethical leaders for our city,” Holstege said. “We have work to do as a city to improve our oversight and transparency. We’re going to have a new council, a new vision for Palm Springs, and we’ll be moving forward into the future. I really want to talk about the future of our city and what we can do to build together in the next four years—that’s really exciting. I don’t want to spend the next four years of a potential term rehashing things that will be decided by the legal system. People are ready for it to be in the past. We had the transparency election in 2015; we’ve had this conversation, and a lot of us are ready to say mistakes were made. It’s a big issue; it was a big issue for that elected official (Pougnet) which will be decided by a court of law, and we need to improve our transparency processes.”

Holstege called the relationship between the city and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians complex—and said that it needs to improve.

“It’s a partnership, and I think we’ve waxed and waned our relationship with the tribe over the past few decades,” she said. “The relationship has been more strained than it has been in the past. In the past, it seemed we worked together better. We need more collaboration. That starts with reaching out to the tribe, and it starts with respect of the tribe (being a) sovereign entity that doesn’t follow the rules we set for our city. They could build anything they want, essentially, so we need to work together. My concern is that we have two separate entities doing their own thing independently.”

Love it or hate it, the downtown development is here to stay, Holstege said, adding that it’s time to help the property be successful.

“Mistakes were made in the downtown development,” she said. “The developer and the city admitted they messed up and set it way too close to the street—10 to 15 feet too close. That’s a problem when people complain about the height, and part of the problem is it’s just too close to the street. Generally, I think it’s exciting and a good thing for our city and the local economy. I’m glad that it’s going to be finished and up and running soon. I think that will be a huge boon to our city. Too often in Palm Springs, we have a vocal minority that tries to take over the conversation, and they’re extremely negative. It’s easy to be negative about something; it’s easy to criticize, and criticism is cheap. What’s harder is pointing out positive aspects and creating real solutions. I’m really excited there’s going to be retail, because I want to spend my money on things a working professional in this city needs, like shoes, clothes and makeup. We really do need more retail in Palm Springs.”

In recent years, the City Council has been accused of being opposed to fun, as it has enacted roadblocks to food trucks, murals and other cultural things appreciated in other cities. Holstege agreed that the Palm Springs City Council needs to lighten up and allow more innovative new forms of fun into the city.

“I think we’re an incredibly fun city, and we’re the funnest city in the Coachella Valley,” she said. I think millennials and young people are drawn to Palm Springs in particular. I personally live here because it’s fun and I like the downtown, I like the energy, and I like the vibe. But I think sometimes our council doesn’t always have the voices of people who want to have other types of fun. It’s a problem with diversity on our council. We don’t have any young people. I think our youngest council person is 56, so I think it’s a problem: We’re not having fun in ways that are new and innovative, especially as technology evolves.”

Published in Politics

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is at a crossroads.

The tribe, which has some 32,000 acres of land across Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and outlying areas, is making big plans for its prime downtown Palm Springs real estate. Meanwhile, the tribe is involved in a controversial lawsuit against the valley’s two largest water agencies over control of the area’s water rights.

In addition, tribal leadership, with Chairman Jeff Grubbe at the helm, is preparing for an uncertain future that includes online gambling—which may or may not hurt the tribe’s casino revenues.

The late Richard Milanovich (1942-2012) reigned as the tribal chairman for 28 years, during which he placed winning bets on the gambling industry. He led his people from obscurity to become the first Native American tribe in California to own and operate two major casinos—Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs, and Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa in Rancho Mirage.

The Tribe’s 480 members significantly benefit from the casinos. “There’s a direct per-capita payment to all tribal members, both minors and adults,” Milanovich told me in a 2003 interview.

Milanovich was a brilliant speaker and a clever leader who was always open to the media. However, Grubbe is a different kind of leader. He’s not media-savvy like his predecessor was, and prefers to lead from the background.

The current Tribal Council consists of familiar names. Grubbe’s close childhood friend, Vincent Gonzales III (whose aunt Barbara Gonzales was a tribal chairman) is the secretary and treasurer. Tribal councilmember Anthony Andreas III needs no introduction; after all, Andreas Canyon is named after his family. The vice chair, Larry Olinger, 78, is the oldest councilmember; the youngest is Richard’s son, Reid Milanovich, at 32.

Grubbe, who was elected to the council in 2006 and became chairman after Richard Milanovich’s passing in 2012, recently granted the Independent a rare interview. He recalled an occasion at what was then the Wyndham Hotel in Palm Springs when Richard Milanovich “threw him in the fire” to test his mettle.

“It was one of the first times I spoke publicly for the tribe,” Grubbe said. “Richard called me and said he wanted me to speak instead of him, and to welcome everybody to the tribal reservation at this conference. He said it’d be about 20 people.”

When Grubbe got there, he realized there were actually 500 people present.

“I started my opening remarks with how Richard had just pulled an Indian trick on me,” Grubbe said. “Later, Richard told me that I did great, and that at some point, I’d have to talk, anyway.”

During his first stint as governor, Jerry Brown appointed Grubbe’s grandfather, Lawrence Pierce, to the state Water Quality Control Board. Today, Grubbe said, the tribe enjoys a positive and a solid relationship with the governor.

“Gov. Brown has been good to us, and he respected us,” Grubbe said. “I’d been close to the governor. We had dinners a few times, and we talked several times.”

The tribe is presently pursuing two hefty lawsuits, regarding water rights and taxes.

Grubbe said he could not talk about the lawsuits. “But the water issue is that the aquifer is overused, and the quality of the water dumped in is low,” he said. “And for some reason, both the (Coachella Valley) Water District and the (Desert) Water Agency refused to hear our concerns. So we had to address the issue.”

The water litigation is ongoing.

As for the tax lawsuit: Riverside County assesses and collects a possessory interest tax from leaseholders on tribal lands in the valley. In a sense, the tax is a replacement for a property tax. Tribe spokeswoman Kate Anderson claims those taxes are not returned to the valley in the form of services, but are primarily used elsewhere in Riverside County. The tax lawsuit is also ongoing.

From time to time, tribal leadership gets criticized for a lack of transparency.

“I think that is not necessarily true. The tribe has been open, and it continues to be open,” he said. “I just spoke at a Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce meeting before 300 people—local and state officials, business owners and community leaders—and talked about what the is tribe working on. Sometimes, when the tribe does something that certain groups don’t like, they throw in that the tribe is not open enough.”

The tribe has plans for a new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum building on Tahquitz Canyon Way in Palm Springs. However, the tribe wants the community to chip in to help with the $65 million capital campaign.

“It’s a tough job to raise the money for it,” Grubbe said. “My mom’s been on the (Cultural) Museum Board for years. I’ve been talking to the mayor and a couple of City Council members in hopes that the city could possibly get involved, too.”

Grubbe addressed the relationship with the city of Palm Springs, considering the two governments need to exist side by side.

“I try to meet with the mayor nearly every month or so,” Grubbe said. “And there are two new City Council members, Geoff Kors and J.R. Roberts, who seem interested in talking and working with us. But Ginny Foat said some negative comments about us in the newspaper.”

I also asked Foat about her comments, made to The Desert Sun last year, during which she was quoted as saying she “would never do anything on Indian land.”

“I didn’t say what was in the paper,” Foat said. “They took my quote totally out of context. I didn’t say anything negative about the tribe and tribal land.”

Grubbe also talked about former Mayor Steve Pougnet and the current federal investigation of him and the city of Palm Springs.

“We’ve been very careful not to get involved with anything that will put the tribe in danger,” Grubbe said. “I always thought that the mayor (Pougnet) did some good things for the city, and I had no idea about all these other things. I still don’t know what’s going on, and the tribe does not deal with those kinds of things. We’re far removed from it.”

Of course, everyone in the area is curious about the goings-on around the Spa Resort Casino in downtown Palm Springs. Grubbe and the other tribal members have thus far been tight-lipped regarding their plans, although he did offer some hints about what is to come.

“We’re excited about the plans and design for the new downtown hotel, about the style of the rooms, etc.,” Grubbe said.

According to Grubbe, the old Spa Resort hotel had to be torn down because of errors made when the building was constructed in the 1960s. He cited a poorly designed and located entrance as an example.

“We’re looking for possibilities to have a new hotel with an entrance from Indian Canyon (Drive),” Grubbe said. “We’re talking to our membership about all these ideas. We want to build something special to redefine the downtown.”

Tom Davis, the chief planning and development officer who’s been with the tribe since 1992, offered yet more hints. He said it was possible the tribe could construct two hotels downtown.

“I expect that sometime this year, the tribe will come up with a certain architectural plan for a spa development, and perhaps some type of a boutique hotel,” Davis said.

Davis also said the tribe expects the city to return the street portions of Calle Encilia and Andreas Road to the tribe.

“This is consistent with the Section 14 master plan and the existing agreements with the city,” Davis said.

Grubbe—a former football jock who stands tall at 6 foot 2 inches—also addressed the current lack of women on the tribal council.

“We’re a very democratic tribe,” he said. “We have a strong presence of women at our tribal meetings, and they tell us exactly how they feel. In the past, we had an all-female tribal council. We don’t have any women running now for the council, but I’m sure it’ll change.”

Published in Local Issues

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