CVIndependent

Mon04062020

Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

It’s been a turbulent year for Rancho Mirage’s city government. In October 2019, the city received a letter accusing the city of violating the California Voting Rights Act with its current at-large election system.

Then, in November 2019, a group of residents sued the city after the council had approved an In-n-Out Burger restaurant, with a drive-through, on Highway 111. In January, that suit prompted In-N-Out to withdraw from the development agreement.

It is against this backdrop that the voters of Rancho Mirage are voting by mail to select two members of the City Council. Ballots, which are being sent out to all registered city voters, must be returned by April 14.

The Independent interviewed three of the four candidates. Both challengers, Maggie Lockridge and Stephen Jaffe, agreed to phone interviews. Incumbent Ted Weill agreed to respond via email, while incumbent Richard Kite asked for a list of questions, which we sent. After indicating he would “respond accordingly” by our deadline for this story, he did not.

The Independent asked each of them the same set of questions, on topics ranging from the most-pressing issues in Rancho Mirage to their favorite leisure activities. (It’s important to note these interviews took place before the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic set in.)

Here are their complete answers, edited only for style and clarity.

Maggie Lockridge

Nurse, United States Air Force Nurse Corps veteran

What are your most important reasons for becoming a candidate?

I really haven’t been in politics before, and, I didn’t have any plans really until last fall, although I’ve always met any challenge that came into my life. I attended the In-N-Out Burger Planning Commission meeting of Sept. 12 of last year, I believe. There were so many residents living in the neighborhoods around the site where the In-N-Out Burger was to be built who attended that there was standing room only in the main room, and the atrium was at least half-full of people, too.

There was a representative from In-N-Out Burger, and he told us the basic concepts of what was going to be on the site: 3,800 square feet under roof, and 1,500 square feet of patio for the civilians to enjoy In-N-Out. Who doesn’t like a good In-N-Out Burger? I’m not saying anything about that—but he also stated that the presence of the In-N-Out Burger would have no impact on neighborhoods. At that point, everybody became quite upset, because obviously, 1,500 to 2,000 cars going by in your neighborhood is going to have an impact; there’s no doubt about that. And if you walk out of your home and come face-to-face with an In-N-Out Burger sign, it will affect the value of your property, and there is no doubt about that, either. Your quality of life will definitely be affected by it.

So there were about 20 to 25 individuals, including myself, who signed up to speak. We each had three minutes, and everyone basically spoke about the same situation: the traffic, the noise, the late hours—1:30 in the morning (as the closing time), my goodness! Rancho Mirage folds up at 10 to 10:30 p.m. every night. There’s nothing going on, basically, with Rancho Mirage residents after that hour. The latest (people out) would probably be leaving a movie, and at The River, there’s already a Big 5 hamburger place over there. So, it’s not that we need another hamburger place within two blocks of one another, that’s for sure. It was going to be trafficked probably by people mostly from out of town, particularly after 10 o’clock at night. And the delivery trucks come. And there’s litter. There’s always litter. But, basically, (the problem is) the drive-through line and the number of cars that are idling while waiting to get their pick-ups. That’s probably the longest line in the country because In-N-Out is the most successful burger restaurant in the country. So, that will have a huge impact, and Las Palmas Shopping Center is not very large in regards to most shopping centers. It’s 15 acres while most of them are 30 or more. It’s really going to impede a lot of different aspects of traffic and parking and trying to maneuver around where the burger line might (block) other entrances. It’s not going to work out well.

We did not know at the time what the City Council had done in order to get (the project) to the planning commission stage. We found that out when we started doing our research. But first, let’s go back a moment to the 20 to 25 people who poured their hearts out to the Planning Commission as to why this was not a good idea. There was some very impressive commentary going on up there. One woman was actually in tears, because she has two young children, and they ride their bikes out front, and obviously she could no longer allow them to do that with the additional traffic. A lot of other reasons were expressed too. At the end of that particular public comment (segment), if I had been on that council, I’ll tell you one thing that I would have done: I would have said that I feel we should adjourn at this point for 30 minutes so that the council can discuss what it’s just heard. That was the first time that they had heard from their constituents. They had been so quiet about (the In-N-Out project). They had not discussed any aspect of this development with (anyone) in the surrounding neighborhood. But instead, they went straight to a vote and it was yes, yes, yes and yes, because Mr. (Dana) Hobart had recused himself from the vote, stating “personal reasons” because of (the fact that) Dr. Hirschberg, who opposed the project, had once saved Mr. Hobart’s life. So since Mr. Hobart was going to vote for it, he didn’t want that emotional trauma between he and his friend. But, if you research it, there is no legal reason whatsoever on the books that (says) you can recuse yourself for personal reasons. There are only financial ones. That was very upsetting to me that he would do that, because obviously, what’s being hidden here? What is his interest in that (Rancho) Las Palmas Shopping Center? I don’t feel that that is an accurate reason why he recused himself.

Then, on Oct. 3, I went to the City Council (meeting) where they would do final approval, and I’ll state this on the record because there were witnesses: (At one point) in the very beginning … Mayor Iris Smotrich said quite arrogantly, “Anyone who speaks out of turn will be arrested and taken to jail.” I was shocked. I was emotionally traumatized, and I thought, “What country do I live in?” I turned around and looked at the back of the room, and there were eight uniformed policemen standing there. I thought, “This is not right. This is not my council. This should not continue.” Here they are, threatening their constituents. How dare they. I mean, I was totally outraged. And then they voted. Since then, that comment was removed from the video (of the meeting), never to be seen again in the public eye. I did not take pictures or video of it at the time. I never expected that to happen. But, if you go to their website, there is nothing mentioned at the very beginning of the Oct. 3 meeting about being arrested. She (instead) very nicely starts the whole meeting. They address a couple of events on the agenda, and then she gets to the In-n-Out portion, and she says in a very gentle voice that because of specific laws that are on the books, she does have to stipulate that if anyone does speak out of turn, they will be removed and taken to jail. That was a total re-filming of that section that they (then posted) on YouTube and on their website. So it was upsetting to me. If you say something, then stand behind it. Don’t run away from it, conceal it and deceive your public. I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t have a film clip of it to prove it, but I do have people who were there and witnessed it themselves.

So, obviously, they went to a vote, and they voted yes, yes, yes, yes. And there were about 17 of us there from “Save Rancho Mirage,” the organization that we had, so when they did that, we had agreed that we would all stand up in unison and leave, and we did. I was so upset that, as we went out the entrance, I turned around and said very loudly and emphatically, “You have just killed a beautiful city.” That never showed up on the (archived) video, either. Fortunately, I caught everybody by surprise, and I wasn’t arrested, but I almost wish I had been, because then it would have all been brought to light. So, a group of us met together out in the atrium and agreed that now we would find out what the heck happened to get this to this point.

That was when we really started researching and reading documents. We found out that they were using a traffic study that was way out of date, supposedly from 2014. Supposedly, they had just doubled (the numbers in it), and they figured that was good enough to use as a traffic study for today. But it was taken at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. One thing that In-N-Out has proclaimed out loud is that the busiest time for them is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., so 4 o’clock would not have been an accurate study.

There was a law on the books that there would be no fast-food drive-through restaurants in Rancho Mirage. So although that property was zoned commercially, there was this (other) stipulation on the books. But they decided to just do a “text change” (to the law) saying that there would be no fast-food drive-through on less than 15 acres, because, of course, that (Las Palmas Shopping Center) site was 15 acres. Then we found out that (the City Council designated it) as an “in-fill project.” There had been a restaurant there before, and we believe that they were probably using (the restaurant) CoCo’s which was there 15 to 20 years ago. CoCo’s did not have a drive-through, and it closed around 10 to 11 o’clock at night. So, it was not an accurate in-fill. They said it was an in-fill so that they could avoid doing a (California Environmental Quality Act study) or an environmental impact statement. They did not want to do that, because with 30 cars idling in line, they would not pass in such a small area. So, they circumvented both city zoning law and state CEQA law. They did this in such a deceitful, deceptive and illegal way that it just made us all extremely upset. We had our attorney come before the city Planning Commission, and he very clearly stated that if they put this through, then Save Rancho Mirage would be suing them because of these illegal actions they had taken. So they were forewarned, but they just didn’t pay any attention to it, just like they didn’t (pay attention) to their constituents. So, we sued them and the In-N-Out Burger company.

Twice, the city came back to us after they had received the suit and asked, “What can we do to make you happy and to make you accept In-N-Out?” We said, “Go away.” They offered us all kinds of landscaping around so it wouldn’t show. They offered us gates at our community so that traffic couldn’t cut through. Anyway, evidently, when In-N-Out got their aspect of the suit, I can only imagine that they weren’t aware of all the illegal actions that had been taken to get the approval for them to be on that lot. Or else, they (may have not wanted to) antagonize the neighbors to this point; it’s not good PR. So, they (decided) to withdraw their application and (reserve) the right to do their own CEQA, and if it passes, they could re-apply to build their restaurant. And that’s where (the process) is now.

If everything had been done legally from the beginning, then (neighboring residents) wouldn’t have had any recourse. We would have had to say, “OK. That’s growth.” But by changing the zoning law and doing what they did behind our backs, they just antagonized everybody in the area. To me, having a red-and-white In-N-Out Burger arrow sign on that corner would have been a blight on Rancho Mirage. An, it would have been an illegal blight. I don’t mind an In-N-Out Burger being in another part (of the city); we can bend the rules for them. People do enjoy In-N-Out burgers. But (it should be located) down near Costco, off the Interstate 10, where (property) is commercially zoned, so that you’re not affecting anybody else’s quality of life. And that’s where most of them are. In fact, Save Rancho Mirage did offer to In-N-Out that if they closed at 11 p.m., and they didn’t have a drive-through, we would accept them there (at the location on Highway 111). They do have five other locations where they’ve done that. But they chose not to. So, we did try to negotiate with them. It didn’t work.

If you are elected to the City Council, what steps do you support to resolve this In-N-Out Burger issue, or is the process currently at a wait-and-see standstill?

First of all, I’m no longer associated with Save Rancho Mirage. Once I became a candidate, all relationships were severed. I have to stand alone. I don’t go to their meetings, and I don’t know what they’re planning at this point. Once I’m on the council—obviously, at the moment, the issue is dead. It’s moot. If (In-N-Out Burger) should decide to do their own CEQA, the possibilities of (the CEQA report) coming up and passing, I think are very slim. If it did, legally, they can submit another application. If a traffic report was not a part of the CEQA, then I would require that they do another one at noon, in that location, during high season. The first one was done in August. We all know that we don’t have that kind of traffic here in August. It was so deceptive.

Here’s another point I want to bring up: If you research on how the council has been voting on major issues, it’s always been four “yes” votes or four “no” votes. Dana Hobart is kind of the leader of the pack over there, and they kind of vote leaning toward what Dana would like. I can’t help feeling in my heart-of-hearts that there isn’t somebody (on the council) that is voting against their inner feelings. I would not be afraid. Maggie Lockridge is a Leo. Maggie is a leader, not a follower. If I felt a negative response was warranted when all else were positive, you best know that I would certainly let it be known how I felt. I would not be swayed to vote one way or another by anybody on that council. And you know, two of these council members have been on that council for 20 years—that’s 40 years with just those two members. That’s an awful lot. My inner (instincts) tell me that once you’ve been on a council for 20 years, you’ve got to have a feeling of empowerment come over you. And it gives you a little more leeway to do what you want, and not what the constituents want, so you involve the constituents less in your decisions. I feel that if there’s any type of a major project that’s being considered, such as In-N-Out, then you involve your constituents. They didn’t, because they knew that (the public response) would be so negative. They didn’t want to face such adversity, so they didn’t inform you.

I don’t like that it’s the “good old boy” days on the council. Most of them have been on there from a minimum of seven years to 20-something for Dana. I think there should be fresh ideas, fresh concepts and new people on there. I feel real strongly about districting. We definitely need term limits and districting. Those are two things that I am adamant about. Term limits should be eight years, two terms. That’s plenty. If you haven’t brought your ideas, your concepts and your energy to the council within eight years’ time, you’re old news. You’re gone. I’m sorry. You’re ineffective.

Like many other cities in the state, the city of Rancho Mirage has received a letter from the law firm of Shenkman and Hughes putting the city on notice that it is not in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. What should the city’s next steps be?

I certainly would vote for districting. I’d do whatever needed to be done to put it on the ballot. It shouldn’t even need to go on a ballot. It’s a state law. They should do it—and they’re in non-compliance.

Both (fellow candidate) Stephen Jaffe and I met with Isaiah Hagerman, who is the city manager, many weeks ago, in late October or early November, when we first became candidates. We asked if the council had replied to this letter. He said, “Not to my knowledge.” Then we asked if (the council) had discussed this at a council meeting, and he said, “No.” And I said have they discussed this otherwise, and he said, “Yes.” And I said: Where? He said, “In closed chambers.” You know, they’ve discussed it amongst themselves, and evidently, they’ve decided not to reply. This one affects them being re-elected.

I would go to five districts, so there would be candidates for five (races). The people from each district would have a vote, and it would matter, and that’s important to me. And there would be much more involvement (by the public). Right now, there are five of them up there, and I don’t think that any of them are really keying in on the specific problems and certain aspects of the town.

Beyond what we’ve discussed, what would you say is the single most-pressing issue facing the residents of Rancho Mirage in the immediate future?

Homelessness, without a doubt. Homelessness is only going to become a bigger problem. It’s not going to go away by itself. It’s not going to burn itself out. Do you know if you’re homeless, and in you’re in Palm Springs, if you have to find a place for the night, you have to go to Indio? How in the heck are you going to get to Indio? The (Coachella Valley Rescue) Mission right now is the only place that takes them in, where they can get a walk-in—but also, you can’t keep your dog. A lot of these people have pets, because that’s the one reason they stay alive, is to take care of their pet. You know there was a grant for $10 million made to this valley to solve the homeless problem. But the choice, according to people who do home planning, was to build 30 homes. That’s ridiculous. I’m sorry. You have 10,000 homeless in Riverside County, shall we say, and it’s getting worse and worse every day.

We need a shelter. I want a shelter built out near the I-10, near the commercial (district). I want at least 50 cubicles in this building. So, I want to take $5 million of that for the building. I want 50 cubicles with a bed, and a bureau and a closet, so that they have one element of decency, privacy and humanity in their life, and they don’t have to be in a room with 50 bunk beds. This is not a detox center. We’re talking homeless here. If they have other problems, they’re going to have to get rid of that before they come to us. And you’ll be there at this shelter for either 30 days or 45 days. In the back of the shelter will be a huge area where they will be taught plumbing, or television repair, or how to be a sous chef, or how to sew a seam, some skill that would enable them to get a job when they got out. Just giving them handouts is not going to work. We’ve got to give them some way to make a living. And there will be a placement center in there, and consult rooms and a kitchen and a cafeteria. It would not be the lap of luxury. It would probably be very much a barracks-type place, but it would be functional. It would be a partial solution. The other $5 million (from the grant) would run it for five years. So, if you have 30-day contracts with all these people—and I think they could apply themselves to that time period if that’s all they had—in five years we could help 3,000 homeless. That’s a lot. That is at least starting on the problem.

Plus: We don’t have a place for the seniors to go in Rancho Mirage. There’s no senior center. If you’re not behind a gated community and have a club that offers you bridge and craps, etc., there is no place for our elderly—55 and over—to go. I’d love to have a senior center where they can go and just get out of their houses, so that they’re not so lonely and emotionally depressed, like you can get so easily when you limit your social exposure.

You’re talking about possibly building the homeless transition center within Rancho Mirage city boundaries?

It would be out there by Costco, near the I-10. There’s land available down there. Del Webb (is building) an over-55 community here now, but (homes there) are still too costly. It’s expensive. Del Webb can’t say they’re helping the homeless. But I think (building the transition center) would be a great example to set for this valley. Would I vote for a prison in Rancho Mirage? No. Obviously, no. But a shelter, not around the neighborhoods? These people aren’t going to hurt anybody. You know, they just want to live. They just want to exist and be independent again. They’d have to be vetted to get in. We’re not going to bring somebody in who isn’t going to benefit from the program. But if they show good intention, and good faith, and apply themselves to the project of learning, then I think absolutely we should have a place for them. At least it could be an incentive for them to go to detox, so they can go to the shelter and learn some way to get themselves on an independent basis again.

The incumbent Rancho Mirage City Council candidates in the last two elections have run a “joint campaign.” What advantage, if any, do you perceive that these candidacies gain from this approach?

The main benefit of that is you can share expenses. You can get both on one pamphlet; you can get both on one billboard, on yard signs or whatever. So it’s less expensive to do a slate. Maybe they think it’s easier for the people?

What do you do to relax? What’s your favorite leisure activity?

Well, I’d have to say I putter around my yard. I love gardening. I have a beautifully landscaped yard. I keep it trimmed, and I feed my roses. I used to love to ski, but that’s been curtailed lately. My foundation, Rebuilding America’s Warriors (RAW), keeps me extremely busy. We are still very active, so that takes up a great deal of my time. I’m dedicated to the military, our veterans. They have a very big soft spot in my heart. They sacrifice so much. Being a nurse, you have a certain feeling of being of service to others, and in my nursing career, that’s what I have been. At this particular point, I believe that the citizens of Rancho Mirage are in need of somebody on that council to serve them. So, they’ve been added to my hopes and desires for my future here, in terms of where my professional career takes me.

I love to go to the theater. I go to the McCallum all the time. I love to go out to dinner. I’m weeping about Wally’s (Desert Turtle restaurant possibly) closing. I truly am. If Michael (Botello, the owner) doesn’t find a buyer, he’s going to walk away in the spring—although they do own that building, so maybe they’ll just sell the building. I don’t know. But I’d hate to lose Wally’s. It’s the classiest restaurant we have in Rancho Mirage, and possibly in the valley.

I collect crystal, and I enjoy my crystal collections. I used to collect professional memorabilia, because the love of my life was Ron Fairly, who was a baseball player at one point in his life. He died last October of cancer. It was a terrible year of cancer and fighting for him. So, it’s given me more time on my hands. We weren’t married. We were extremely good friends. We were out three or four times a week at different restaurants or the movies or theater. So, that part of my life has quieted down a great deal—and the City Council has moved in.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about your candidacy and/or yourself?

I’ve lived in this town for 20 years. I love Rancho Mirage. It’s got a dignity to it. When I first came here, I lived in White Sun Estates, then this particular home I live in now came up for sale. It offered me a bigger home, a bigger yard and a view. So, I jumped on it, although it was a bankruptcy home, and it needed everything done to it. Now I love my home. I love my neighborhood. I love my community, and I love my city. And I want to add to it. I don’t want to detract from it.


Stephen Jaffe

Attorney and mediator; animal-rights advocate and mental-health-awareness

What are your most important reasons for becoming a candidate?

Yes, the “Why are you running?” question. I’ll tell you the story of how this happened. My wife and I are relatively new here. We moved down here last summer, about 6 or 7 months ago. A few months after we got here, we were contacted by one person who we met (during the process) of acquiring our home, who told us about (the plans) for an In-N-Out Burger coming into the city. Apparently, they were all up in arms because it was, and still is, a big controversy in the neighborhood, and (the proposed location) was pretty close to where we live. He asked if we’d like to come to a meeting to learn about it. I said we would, largely because we didn’t know anybody, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet some neighbors.

So, I went and found out about the issue, and then wound up going to a City Council meeting. Now I’m not that familiar with how this council works, but with most city councils, they have to pass an ordinance, and then it has to be passed a second time. I wasn’t around for the first time it had passed, but this was the second time they were going to pass it. I was absolutely struck by the way that this body of legislative elected officials ran their business. It was incredible that there was no discussion or debate on the record—and that was for the whole two-hour meeting. They just read agendas and voted. The more I learned, the more alarmed I got about the way the city is run in general. Apparently, Mr. Hobart is kind of an old-school political boss. Everyone I talked to said that he runs the city, and everybody does what he wants. And observing the other four council members during the session confirmed that. Also, aside from the issue of this hamburger place, there was an issue about a notice that had been given to the residents about how (that proposal) had been put through—the transparency of the governmental process and really fundamental democratic issues. So, that’s what really triggered my interest in running.

It’s very important for me to say that my candidacy has absolutely nothing to do with hamburgers, even though my incumbent opponents are trying to spin me as a single-issue candidate opposed to the In-N-Out Burger (project). That has never been, and never will be, the case. It’s really about much deeper flaws in the governmental process that I perceive and I think need to be fixed. So, that’s the short answer as to why I’m running. There are a whole number of issues that I’ve identified and would like to address if I get elected to the City Council.

Like many other cities in the state, the city of Rancho Mirage has received a letter from the law firm of Shenkman and Hughes putting the city on notice that it is not in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. What should the city’s next steps be?

I’m strongly in favor of district elections. I have actually spoken to (the attorney who sent the letter) Mr. Shenkman about this. I don’t know how I could put it more strongly or bluntly, other than to say that I’m for district elections.

Using my 49 years of law practice experience, if the city were to be sued, it would lose. For the same reasons that Palm Springs, Palm Desert and Santa Monica—which was sued and lost—(changed their elections), I don’t think the city has a defense to that kind of a lawsuit. So, I’m for it on political, legal and moral grounds. But they would lose the lawsuit.

Also, I discussed this with the city attorney briefly. I said to him at a meeting that we both (attended), “I saw that (the city) got this letter; what are you going to do about it?” He just smiled at me. Apparently, they’re doing nothing, because they haven’t responded. That’s really bad form. But, politically, people will do what they think they can get away with. A quote from Justice Louis Brandeis, that I use often, says, it is frequently said, sunshine is the best disinfectant. If were to characterize the role I hope to play if elected to the City Council, I want to be the sunshine here, and shine some light into the dark corners of what goes on.

If you are elected to the City Council, what steps do you support to resolve this In-N-Out Burger issue, or is the process currently at a wait-and-see standstill?

For me, it was never opposition to an In-N-Out; my opposition was to the procedures and the ways that particular project was shoved through the governmental process illegally, in my opinion. I have nothing against In-N-Out burgers. I eat them. It’s about process and legality and transparency and public awareness.

I’ll give you another example of what I’m talking about. There’s an entirely vacant square-mile piece of land called Section 31, that’s across the street from what used to be Annenberg estate. It’s bordered by Gerald Ford, Frank Sinatra, Monterey and Bob Hope. So, there’s a monster-size project going through the City (Council) right now that hardly anyone has even heard of. It calls for 2,000 new dwelling units and 175,000 square feet of retail (space) and service businesses. Just like with the In-N-Out Burger, which was snuck through (the City Council) in what I call the “dark of August,” when nobody was here in town, the traffic study (in that case) was done in August when there was nobody on the road. Now Section 31 is being marched along very, very quietly. We’re talking about increasing the population of Rancho Mirage by 6,000 to 8,000 people. And it may very seriously increase the number of businesses here. Look, it’s kind of a beach ball through the snake scenario, and nobody knows about it. So, that’s another example of the lack of transparency.

The incumbent Rancho Mirage City Council candidates in the last two elections have run a “joint campaign.” What advantage, if any, do you perceive that these candidacies gain from this approach?

I think you’ve already had my answer to this one. They’re all being herded and directed by a single person who dominates the City Council, and you can quote me on this, by fear and bullying, and that’s really what he does. One person asked me almost the same question, but in another way. They asked me, “Why do you think they all walk together in lockstep?” They do it because that’s the way they’re set up to operate by Mr. Hobart. Why do they run together? Because they stand for the same things, and they vote together.

As I mentioned in my answer to the first question and what caused me to run: At that first City Council meeting I was at where the In-N-Out Burger issue was being discussed, there is a (public) comment period at the start of the meeting. And there was this very long, passionate parade of people standing up and speaking out against this hamburger location, and talking about how this had happened without anybody knowing about it, which is the transparency issue. And these five people (on the council) sat there like Mount Rushmore, stone-faced and not saying a word. So, for the half hour to 45 minutes that all of these people spoke, there was no engagement, and no exchange of ideas. The only words ever said during that time came from the mayor at the time who said, “Thank you for your comments; now here’s the next person.” And following that, (the council members) did not debate or discuss. Someone read the motion, and they all voted electronically, and it was done. I think I spoke, too, and I pointed my finger at them and said, “You people are not listening to the people who elect you. Your constituents are the residents of this city, not the businesses and corporations. Your constituents are people.” Of course, they just stared at me, and said not a word. So, that’s really another reason why I’m running, because they’re not listening to the people who elected them. It’s supposed to be a representative body, and it is not.

Beyond what we’ve discussed, what would you say is the single most-pressing issue facing the residents of Rancho Mirage in the immediate future?

One of the other issues important to me is term limits for these (council members). Mr. (Richard) Kite sent out an email a couple of days ago in which he’s bragging about his accomplishments. One of the accomplishments he brags about is that he’s been mayor of the city five times … mayor of the city five times. What’s wrong with this picture? I don’t think anybody should be on the City Council long enough to have been the mayor five times. What has happened is that they claim the city is magically run. It’s like Disneyland for adults, and nobody wants a change. Therefore, they equate that to what amounts to a lifetime entitlement to be constantly re-elected, because everything is so wonderful. I think legislative bodies benefit from a change in personnel from time to time. I mean, the state does it. I think there should be a two, four-year term maximum for Rancho Mirage City Council (members). So that’s a big issue.

Crime is a big issue. A lot of people are shocked to know that Rancho Mirage crime stats are not good, particularly in the area of property crimes. Burglaries, car break-ins and things like that all need to be addressed.

I am in favor of public financing of campaigns, which goes hand-in-hand with one of my personally most important issues, which is the elimination of “dark money” from politics. A lot of cities publicly finance or do matching funds to campaigns, so that the influence of outsiders and money is diminished. So, I would be in favor of that.

The CV Link is a big deal, too. I have a really open mind about that. I’m generally in favor of bicycle paths, and, I think the notion of people being able to ride a bike from one end of the valley to the other is a good one. I understand the voters voted against it in the past. I’m concerned about the true motive of the people who opposed it and if it’s really what they say it is. A lot of times I hear, “I don’t want those people here.” Well, who are those people? I don’t have a “for” or “against” position on it. I have an open mind to reconsider it, and I would like to.

Even though it’s a non-partisan election, I know that I’m the only Democrat running in this election as a self-identified Democrat.

What do you do to relax? What’s your favorite leisure activity?

We have four parrots, so I like to spend time with them. I read a lot. My wife and I walk a lot. We also have a rescue dog, so we spend a lot of time with our dog. I’m a political junkie, meaning I’m interested in it. So, I try to keep up on it.

In this day and age, you find following politics closely to be relaxing?

I’m one of these guys who needs to keep his mind going around something. I can’t just sit around and do nothing. That’s why I’m still practicing law at my age. I think I’d go nuts if I didn’t do that. I do animal-rights work with two organizations. I do pro bono legal defense for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and I’m the national legal counsel for what’s called the American Federation of Aviculture, which is a bird organization. And I’m a very passionate and strong advocate for the mentally ill and their families. I’ve spoken to the national convention of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), run support groups and written quite a bit about it. So, that’s a subject that’s very important to me.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about your candidacy and/or yourself?

SJ: I think I’ve given you a pretty good overview of my opinions, and I hope some of my personality came through here. I’m a real open book. 


Ted Weill

Incumbent, real estate developer

What are your most important reasons for becoming a candidate?

Before I got on the council, I served on the city’s Planning Commission and witnessed a tremendous amount of rapid growth. I was first appointed to the council in 2012 to fill the late Councilmember Gordon Moller’s seat, and then ran and won in 2014 and 2016. Serving the city for so many years has been a very rewarding experience for me. I find the work both emotionally and intellectually rewarding because of the challenges presented to the council that allow me to contribute and utilize my business expertise and problem-solving skills to City issues. Although the work can be very demanding and sometimes unappreciated, it provides me with a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction and a sense of achievement knowing I am doing my part in furthering the public good in a real and tangible way for the city overall.

Like many other cities in the state, the city of Rancho Mirage has received a letter from the law firm of Shenkman and Hughes putting the city on notice that it is not in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. What should the city’s next steps be?

Without disclosing any confidential attorney-client privileged information, I can say that based on empirical evidence, the city of Rancho Mirage does not meet the criteria for being forced to revert back to district elections. Rancho Mirage had a district-based election system in place a while ago. While I think it is critical that minorities, such as my wife, should and must be given a real voice and a real opportunity at all levels of our local, state and national political forums and venues such as Congress, state legislatures, county boards of supervisors and city councils, particularly where minorities have been historically shut out of the system, Rancho Mirage is not one of those jurisdictions where the issue is an issue. There is simply no evidence that there has been any racially polarized voting in any of our elections in the city, whether the election included candidates for president, Congress, governor, state elected officials, the State Legislature, water district, school district or City Council. Also, the city does not have a significant population of any under-represented group of persons that would be sufficient to make them a majority in a city-created district. While I truly believe in the benefits of diversity and representation of the under-represented on elected bodies, I don’t believe converting back to district elections will solve an issue that is not an issue in the city

Why did you vote to approve the In-N-Out on Highway 111? Where do you stand now on this question, and what next steps do you support to resolve this matter?

I understand the lawsuit may now be moot, since the developer requested the city to prepare an environmental impact report which will likely involve a new traffic study. Again, while I understand the opposition to In-N-Out by some property owners, I also understand the support expressed by the business owners in the center concerned about the survival of their businesses. I expect that once we process the project again, with an EIR, I will have to engage in the same balancing act that takes into consideration not only the opponents’ testimony, but also the interests of the merchants and the city’s residents as a whole.

Councilman Dana Hobart recused himself from voting to approve the franchise establishment due to a conflict on the matter which he described as “a personal non-financial interest.” Do you believe that the nature of Hobart’s “interest” in any way influenced the voting of any of the council members? 

I do know that Hobart agonized over this issue, which he has made very public. Although he was advised by the city attorney that he was not required to recuse himself from the matter since one of his doctors “saved his life,” I thought it was a very noble act on his part to do what he did under the circumstances.

I constantly remind myself that in the business of local politics, “perception is often reality” and I gather in Hobart’s case, this was a concern. It is critical, legal-wise, that we, as decision-makers, make land-use decisions that are fair, impartial and rational. It seems Hobart may have been concerned that with his participation, it may have tainted the decision-making process, which could undermine the public’s confidence in the decisions we make on development projects. I respected Hobart’s decision to recuse himself under the circumstances. However, I can say his decision had zero influence on how I voted on the project, since I made my decision after balancing all evidence, testimony, etc. Whether Hobart’s decision had any influence on any other council member, I cannot answer that for any of them. If I did know, it could have created the perception that I violated the Brown Act.

Beyond what we’ve discussed, what would you say is the single most-pressing issue facing the residents of Rancho Mirage in the immediate future?

Local control has always been a pressing issue that has a direct impact on the city’s residents. The city is a charter city, which allows the city to adopt a plethora of local policies that are beneficial for the city, even though they may conflict with the general laws of the state. The state has been usurping cities of local control, with various laws and regulations that were once the purview of the city. For instance, the city is now required to approve secondary units without regard to setbacks, parking problems and density. This should remain within the jurisdiction of the local government, since it would hold the local elected official accountable for policies that are either bad for the city’s residents, unworkable, unnecessary or too expensive. Local control allows the city’s future destiny to be determined at the local community level, instead of by the State Legislature or governor’s office, who are total strangers to the concerns of Rancho Mirage residents and local businesses.

The incumbent Rancho Mirage City Council candidates in the last two elections have run a “joint campaign.” What’s the rationale behind this strategy?

Richard Kite and I are not running a joint campaign, although we totally support one another’s re-election. We are very fortunate to have a group of people on the City Council with very different backgrounds and divergent political views that get along as well as we do. Although we don’t socialize much on a personal level, we are constantly with each other at community events, nonprofit fundraisers, ribbon cuttings, city-sponsored events and festivals, and most of us make time to attend. It all boils down to the fact that each of us on the City Council have the same objective in mind, which is to do what we think is best for the city overall—and not for any special interest. This seems to unite us as a City Council, and makes us more productive. The fact that we all get along also makes for good government in general, since it reinforces the confidence that many residents in Rancho Mirage have in the council as a whole, which is a council that does not waste its time nipping at each other’s heels, leveling personal attacks against each other and all the other unbecoming conduct one often witnesses at other council meetings.

With all this said, it just makes good political sense that we support each other’s re-election. Why break a system that is not broken?

What do you do to relax? What’s your favorite leisure activity?

I have always participated in athletics. In college, I was on the wrestling and soccer teams. I later became an active golfer when I moved to the desert. I no longer have the leisure time to spend four hours on the golf course as a result of my commitment to the City Council. However, I start every day by being in the gym by 5:15 a.m. By the time I finish my workout, that includes cardio, stretching and light weights, it is 7:30 a.m., and I am ready to start the day. This has been my routine for many years.

Published in Politics

At noon on March 17, the city of Palm Desert’s public information officer, David Hermann, issued a statement with the headline “Palm Desert Declares Local Emergency—Temporarily Closes City Hall.”

“In response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic and rapidly evolving public health guidelines, City Manager Lauri Aylaian on Tuesday announced the declaration of a local emergency in Palm Desert,” the statement read. “Palm Desert City Hall and other municipal facilities are closed, effective at noon on March 17, and will remain closed pending a public health risk re-evaluation on April 3.”

On this crazy day, Hermann—displaying an impressive degree of professionalism—also took the time to respond to a few inquiries the Independent made regarding the status of the Palm Desert district-creation process for upcoming elections.

To recap: Palm Desert residents Karina Quintanilla and Lorraine Salas sued the city, accusing Palm Desert of not complying with the 2001 California Voting Rights Act. Similar lawsuits have forced cities across the state, including several in the Coachella Valley, to switch from at-large to district-based election systems. Quintanilla and Salas reached a preliminary settlement at the end of 2019—launching a public-participatory process.

That process began with an open-house presentation on Jan. 15, including a somewhat-misleading characterization: The city presented the creation of a system with just two districts as pretty much a done deal, which was not the case.

There was another, more-candid open-house presentation in February, followed by a public hearing in City Council chambers on March 12.

Then the pandemic reality arrived.

After one more public hearing, scheduled for March 26—during which remote input is allowed via cityofpalmdesert.org—the city has scheduled its final public hearing for April 16, when the City Council is slated to select the district map that could define the structure of electoral representation for the foreseeable future. (It is worth mentioning the plaintiffs have approval rights over the district boundaries in order for the lawsuit to be settled.)

The Independent reached out to Hermann to ask if the city has considered postponing the rest of this process until the COVID-19 threat has subsided.

“A postponement is not feasible given deadlines for the November election and the settlement agreement’s requirement that districts be in place for that election,” Hermann replied.

Of course, things are changing by the day, and it’s possible the city and plaintiffs could indeed agree to delay implementation of the district system, given the unprecedented circumstances. But as of this writing, the process is racing ahead toward that April 16 due date.

As of the March 12 public hearing, 10 maps had been submitted for consideration. Seven of them came from five different residents, while three were created by the National Demographics Corporation—a third-party vendor experienced in electoral district-map creation hired by the city—to reflect the city’s input.

At that next-to-last public hearing scheduled for March 26, at least two more map submissions will be considered as well.

All of the maps so far call for the creation of just two districts: One encompassing 20 percent of the city’s population in a majority-Latino area, with the other district encompassing the other 80 percent of the city’s population. The first district would be represented on the City Council by one member, while the second district will elect four members. No maps have yet been submitted illustrating three, four or five districts.

During the public-comment period of the March 12 meeting, Quintanilla expressed concerns that the online map-creation tool provided by the city was not intuitive or easy to utilize, even for someone as digitally savvy as she considers herself to be; as a result, she had not been able to submit the five-district option she would like to see implemented. Councilmember Kathleen Kelly suggested that instructional support be provided to residents if possible.

The Independent asked Hermann if map submissions could still be made. He replied: “Maps for City Council consideration have to be submitted prior to the March 26th hearing.” So that leaves residents, including Quintanilla, without much time—all while dealing with the uncertainty and distress of the pandemic threat.

On multiple occasions, Douglas Johnson, president of the National Demographics Corporation, has mentioned at public sessions that whatever district boundaries are adopted by the city will likely need to be redrawn next year based on the results of the 2020 Census. However, Hermann said this is not by any means a certainty.

“The districting map will only be adjusted in 2021 if it proves to lack the requisite population balance,” Hermann clarified.

What happens next? Stay tuned.

Published in Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quintanilla clarified her and Salas’ intentions with the settlement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Politics