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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

The year 2015 was not easy for Palm Springs government, especially after City Hall was rocked by an FBI raid targeting documents related to then-Mayor Steve Pougnet’s relationship with various developers and businessmen.

Then came a contentious and at times ugly election season, which ended with businessman and former military man Rob Moon defeating City Councilmember Ginny Foat by 11 percentage points in the eight-way mayoral race—a result that shocked many political insiders.

The Independent recently caught up with Rob Moon at Townie Bagels to talk about his first three months in office. I asked him if anything had surprised him about being mayor.

“The only thing that’s been difficult has been keeping up with the e-mails,” Moon said. “I probably get 150 a day, maybe 200. Just reading and responding to the ones I need to respond to, forwarding the e-mails I need to—it’s vastly time-consuming. Even my executive assistant finds herself 200 to 300 e-mails behind. It’s crazy!”

However, he said nothing really surprised him regarding city government.

“I’ve been following the city for a long time and haven’t missed more than three or four City Council meetings over the past few years,” he said. “I attended Planning Commission meetings, and I was chairman of the Measure J Commission. I had my finger on what was going on.”

Right from the get-go, Moon and the revamped City Council—newcomers Moon, Geoff Kors and J.R. Roberts joined hold-over incumbents Foat and Chris Mills on the five-person council—have been hard at work. Of course, downtown redevelopment has been a major focus.

“The very first night when I took over, we had to vote on the historic designation for Tahquitz Plaza, which we did. That had been hanging for years, and we resolved that our first night,” he said about the Hugh Kaptur-designed midcentury modern buildings at 600-700 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, which once were targets for demolition. “Then we worked on the downtown development project.

“At the last City Council meeting, the staff wanted us to do a public hearing and take public testimony and continue it to a time indefinite. As a council, we said no. It wasn’t fair to the developer, to the residents or the downtown businesses to drag this out. We wanted to make decisions—which is what we were put in office for. We had a meeting that went until 1 in the morning and voted on every single outstanding issue, with the height of the buildings and all that stuff. We did vote after vote after vote. It wasn’t all unanimous, but we did our job that night.”

One of the things the council took action on was the ever-controversial downtown development being built by John Wessman. The council frustrated the developer by limiting the height on one of the proposed buildings.

“We settled the height of the hotel at the City Council meeting, and that’s going to be 49 feet. It’s not going to overwhelmingly large, and it’s a compromise,” he said.

The spirit of compromise shown by Moon and the other new council members has eased the concerns of some community activists, who were afraid Wessman was getting whatever he desired from the previous council.

“It hasn’t really been a struggle,” Moon said. “We made decisions, and we took a good compromise and the developer didn’t get everything he wanted. (Advocates for Better Community Development, led by Frank Tysen) and other activists who didn’t want to see the development done didn’t get everything they wanted, either, but we reduced the density by 40 percent, and we widened some of the streets. So needless to say, everybody got something.”

The Hacienda Cantina and Beach Club—which had been operated by developer Richard Meaney, one of the primary targets of the FBI investigation—is now shuttered, with no revival seemingly in sight. It’s likely to be one of the new council’s major headaches.

“The Hacienda is something I can’t really comment on, because we’re in litigation now, but the previous City Council agreed to give them $250,000 as an incentive, and apparently they did not use that money for what one would expect—to pay their contractors—and no one knows what they did with it,” he said.

Moon said the city budget is a constant concern for him and his fellow council members.

“Any city, state or federal government has concerns about budget, because you can’t do everything you want to do,” Moon said. “We’re really understaffed at City Hall; we have a serious problem with the homeless; we have infrastructure (work) that needs to be done and roads that need to be paved. The library needs to be redone, and City Hall has a leaky roof. There’s a massive amount that needs to be done. We did pass the Measure J tax that adds the 1 percent sales tax that brings in $13.1 million a year; $3.5 million of that goes toward the bond for the downtown development project, which leaves close to about $9 million a year right now to do additional capital projects.”

Moon said one of the biggest challenges for the city is the homelessness issue.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “Councilwoman Foat has a task force she’s working on to get services to homeless people who want services, but what about the people who don’t want services—the ones who don’t want a place to stay, don’t want help, and just want to live in empty lots, panhandle and be a burden on society? That’s a challenge, and I don’t know how to address it. One of our problems is we have a lot of open land in Palm Springs, which the other cities don’t have, which makes it more difficult for us.”

Moon said the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which is currently making plans to redevelop the Spa Resort Casino, continues to have a good working relationship with the city of Palm Springs.

“I had lunch with Chairman Jeff Grubbe a few times, because we have a good relationship, and I’m working very hard to make sure we have a relationship of trust and respect between him and me, and that helps when reaching out to the tribe,” Moon said. “… Chairman Grubbe told me, ‘What’s good for Palm Springs is good for all of us.’ I think that’s important. The tribe only has 400 members and owns half the land in Palm Springs. A lot of the members don’t live here and live elsewhere. They have a very complex governmental organization. What I want to do going forward is make sure we have better communication with them to where we talk to them about what we’re doing, and they talk to us about what they’re doing, and we work together.”

Moon said he’s committed to keeping the workings of the city government transparent.

“Transparency, like democracy, is messy and takes a lot of time,” he said. “We have City Council meetings going until midnight and beyond, because we’ve been debating things in public … and not passing through things quietly. We’ve been bringing it out in the open and discussing these things. Councilman Geoff Kors and I are also heading up a new commission to write some new rules in regard to transparency. We’re both on the finance committee as well and are scheduling public meetings about the budget, and residents can come down and talk about the budget and how they’d like to see their tax dollars spent. We’re also going to have a separate meeting for the City Council where they debate the budget instead of doing it as an agenda item on the regular meeting.”

Published in Politics

“The minority residents of Section 14 … homes were destroyed by a city-engineered holocaust,” wrote Loren Miller Jr. in a 1968 report to the state attorney general.

Bordered by Alejo and Ramon roads, Indian Canyon Drive and Sunrise Way, Section 14 is one square mile. Today, it’s one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in all of the Coachella Valley.

The current exhibit at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, Section 14: The Other Palm Springs, offers a compelling account of how one Native American tribe produced its future despite its past. The sequencing of blown-up maps and newspaper clippings (most with embedded pictures) creates a narrative. Quotes from government officials provide greater context. However, the depth and raw accounting of the Agua Caliente’s existence comes from period pictures, quotes from tribal members and council leaders’ oral histories.

Featuring a series of oversized maps, the front room chronicles the origins of Section 14. The U.S. government created a grid consisting of townships that were further reduced to square-mile pieces of land. After the railroad purchased what it wanted and/or needed, the remaining sections were numbered. The government retained all of the odd-numbered plots, and leased most of the even-numbered parcels in the Palm Springs area, including Section 14, to the tribe.

There is a clear change in temperament between the two spaces that make up the exhibit. The opening room provides the needed fact-based overview of how Section 14 came to be; the maps and charts inform without being overly academic. However, it is the second room that offers insights into the human experience of the Agua Caliente who lived in Section 14.

This part of the exhibit focuses upon the journey of these Native Americans during a period roughly beginning in the 1930s. Some images, likely taken before 1930, show the Agua Caliente working to create the railroad. However, the real narrative is about the Agua Caliente’s self-determination and a focus upon their future. Their efforts produced a radical evolution from subsistence living to becoming an economic and social force within the Coachella Valley—particularly in Palm Springs.

Palm Springs once offered, as Dickens might say, “A Tale of Two Cities,” Celebrities and the wealthy, frequent visitors to the desert, employed the Native Americans to take care of their estates. In sharp contrast, Section 14 could best be described as a dilapidated shantytown.

The east side of Section 14 was pretty much desolate, save a stable and a couple of other structures. While there were some shops along Indian Canyon, the balance of the west side was taken up by housing—mainly shacks constructed from wood, tar paper and other materials, as well as trailer parks. Indoor plumbing, garbage pickup and running water were essentially nonexistent.

The adults, who understood the inadequacies of their living conditions, hid the reality from their children. One oral historian, Renona Peddington, recalls her childhood in Section 14 as “safe” and “free.” Additionally, she recalls that “no doors were locked,” and that during the summer, we “could sleep outside and look at the stars.”

A series of newspaper articles and government reports documents actions and events that redefined Section 14. First, in about 1956, the Agua Caliente elected five women who lived in Section 14 to be their tribal leaders. Vyola Ollinger, Eileen Miguel, Gloria Gillette, LaVerne Saubel and Elizabeth Monk today would be called activists. These women also pushed for innovation. For example, they commissioned a master plan for the section and presented it to the Palm Springs government; however, the local government never signed off.

A second force that led to the rethinking of Section 14 was a growing number of dissatisfied residents and visitors. The group, appalled by the “blighted” area in the center of the city, pushed for radical change. Especially loud were people who did business in the rapidly growing tourism industry.

Most likely responding more to the tourism-industry protests than the activist tribal council, the Palm Springs city government began to push for the demolition of Section 14. Through a series of dubious maneuvers, the city tried to take possession of the property by having the lease revoked. When those efforts failed, the city refused to provide utilities, like power and water. Concurrently, city officials required Section 14 residents to bring their homes up to code. Finally, the city moved to raze the entire square mile. A law requiring residents to receive at least a 30-day warning was frequently ignored: Residents would leave their homes to go to work and return to find rubble.

One realization and legal change—perhaps a bit understated in the exhibit—all but guaranteed a better future for the Agua Caliente. As Ray Patencino, an Agua Caliente oral historian, stated: “We had something that everybody else wanted. It’s called real estate.”

Another big change occurred when the Agua Caliente lobbied for and received rights to establish gambling facilities on Indian property. These rights later extended beyond the Agua Caliente to include all Native American tribes.

The exhibit shows the evolving relationship between Palm Springs and the Agua Caliente. During my first visit, it seemed that a few more images of what Section 14 looked like would have strengthened the exhibit. However, during a second visit, it became clear to me that the images were there, but integrated as collages on the exhibit’s walls.

Something easily overlooked is a group of pieces of distressed wood. They hang, almost like a wind chime or mobile, in the middle of the second room. These pieces survived the razing of the Section 14.

This is a powerful exhibit that tells the tale of a largely unknown chapter of our valley’s history.

Section 14: The Other Palm Springs is on display through Nov. 8 at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, located at 219 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. The museum’s summer hours (June through August) are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and noon to 5 p.m., Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, call 760-778-1079, or visit www.accmuseum.org.

Below: Pieces of wood from the razed homes in Section 14 hang in the exhibit.

Published in Visual Arts

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