CVIndependent

Sat09222018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

When voters in Rancho Mirage mail in their ballots on or before Tuesday, April 10, they won’t simply be voting for the City Council candidates they prefer; they’ll be voting on the direction in which the city goes.

If residents like the status quo, they can re-elect incumbents Dana Hobart, Charles Townsend Vinci and Iris Smotrich. If they want change, they can vote for Michael Harrington, Robert Mueller and Kate Spates.

The Independent recently spoke to five of the six candidates for the three seats up for a vote this year. Incumbent Dana Hobart declined to make himself available for an interview.

It’s worth noting that the two incumbents with whom we spoke said they wanted to be viewed as a united entry against their three challengers.

We asked each candidate what their top priorities would be if elected, and why they thought they were the best candidate for the job.


The Incumbents

Iris Smotrich, who at 74 continues to manage her family’s varied real estate investments along with her husband, Tom, spoke about the challenges she sees ahead for her city.

“Safety is always a priority,” Smotrich said. “Our budget is always a priority to make sure that we are fiscally responsible. And then, energy is a priority. Our new energy program goes into effect on May 1. It is a way that our businesses and our residents are going to be able to save, in the beginning, 5 percent—and someday, we hope it will be a larger amount.”

Smotrich is referring to the new program through which the city will decide how and where to buy electricity—rather than simply purchasing energy from Southern California Edison.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 10.1 percent of the population of Rancho Mirage lives in poverty—yet homelessness does not appear to be a pressing issue within Rancho Mirage’s city limits. Still, Smotrich noted: “Homelessness is important to everyone. (The Coachella Valley Association of Governments) and many of our cities are working hard to find dignified ways to provide housing, some education, some therapy and, really, a better way of life for those who want it. Not all, but a significant amount, of homeless people do drugs and want to live unrestricted and do what they want, when they want. But with all these professional, caring and loving civic and health leaders working together, I can’t help but be optimistic that we’re all heading in the right direction for all concerned.”

We asked Smotrich if she thought Rancho Mirage had any problems.

“I don’t think so,” she replied. “And if we do, we solve them immediately. We have just added two full-time (police) officers, not because we needed them, but because this is Rancho Mirage, and we want to provide the best.

“I’d just like people to know that the (current) council members all get along. We’re all friends, and we love our staff. We’re not seeking any higher office. We are here to stay. I serve on 18 different committees, commissions and sub-committees, and so do the other City Council members. We don’t just show up at a council meeting and vote ‘Yes.’ We know what we’re doing, and we do it the best way we can. We are not ‘a silo in the desert,’ as one of the other candidates described us. Instead of calling it a silo, I think it’s really more like the Statue of Liberty that is standing for our community rights.”

Charles Townsend Vinci, the current mayor (a position rotated among City Council members), is 76 and a four-year City Council member who retired last year from his Rancho Mirage-based high-end furniture business. We asked him about the issues on which he would focus during a new term.

“Development is one. Business coming into Rancho Mirage is another. Those are things I’d be working on,” he said.

“The homeless situation is another. I sit on the CVAG (Homelessness Committee), which Rancho Mirage and I personally support. The other main thing is keeping a balanced budget for Rancho Mirage. We have a $63 million reserve, and that reserve is not just laying in an account getting 1 percent (in interest). That $63 million is divided into separate categories, including infrastructure, earthquake problems, problems with City Hall or any of our annex buildings, and it’s also for redevelopment funds, so it’s all earmarked.”

According to the Rancho Mirage two-year budget for fiscal 2017-18 and 2018-19, the city’s reserve funds currently total roughly $68 million.

While each Rancho Mirage City Council member receives roughly $33,000 per year, plus benefits (along with an additional annual expense reimbursement of up to $2,700), Townsend noted: “When you’re in a council with these cities down here, you’re not in it for raising a family. You’re not in it to make money. I’m not in it to advance to Sacramento or Washington and use it as a stepping stone to higher office. I’ve been living here for 24 years, and I have a vested interest in Rancho Mirage. I’m not just jumping in and thinking that I can throw everything up into the wind and change things. The next four years will be very important to our development and achievement.”

When asked what else he’d like constituents to know, Townsend replied: “I think they should look at the record that has been set over the last 10 years for their council. In the four years that I’ve been on it, and going back, there’s been a list of accomplishments and achievements that have been done for the best of the city. One of the main things is the pension fund. We paid ours off, and we saved millions of dollars in interest payments. … This council—and I’m not just talking about the three of us (standing for re-election in 2018), but the five of us—have a great spread of wisdom and knowledge and background, and all five of us are dedicated to the city of Rancho Mirage.”


The Challengers

Michael Harrington, 59, is back on the ballot after losing a 2016 bid for a Rancho Mirage City Council seat. A practicing lawyer who has lived in the city for 15 years, Harrington said he feels strongly that the current council is not providing competent or transparent leadership.

“My motivation is to improve the city,” Harrington said. “I think we’re falling behind other cities in the valley. Somehow, the council just has stopped dealing with modern ideas. That doesn’t mean we have to have radical change; it just means that you have to be able to adapt to change, and they seem to have stopped being able to adapt. That will lead to deterioration, which I believe we’re already seeing. There’s an increase in property crime. We’ve seen businesses opening up, then shutting down, because other cities offer them more.”

What would Harrington’s immediate priorities be if elected? “I’d put public safety first as a broad category, which includes road and pedestrian safety, public lighting needs and overall attention to the needs of pedestrians, joggers, pet owners and bicyclists.

“Second would be revitalizing our business community. We have one grocery market, and I think it’s going to stay, but we had to struggle to get just the one Gelson’s market to come here. They’re doing well now, but we could have sped up the permitting process. With shopping in general, people have been going more to El Paseo, and now they’re starting to go to Palm Springs. We can do more with our shopping experience. What about a free shuttle? People like that, and it brings a good feel to the shopping experience. We could look into private-public tax-sharing agreements that have helped revive local cities like Coachella, where more businesses are opening.

“Third, we need more civility and transparency. Right now, we don’t have the civility in dealing with our neighboring cities’ officials. That probably comes from the false fear that’s been propagated (by the current City Council): ‘We don’t want to have anything to do with any of those people, or any outsiders, or other cities. They’ll ruin our city.’ And as for transparency, they should have open discussion. Usually, when the City Council votes, they’re 5-0 on every issue. A City Council member said, ‘We do have vigorous discussions.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Well, where do you have them?’ I don’t see them on the dais at the public meetings I attend. I want it out in the open.”

A first time candidate is Robert “Bob” Mueller, who, at 70, offers considerable executive business experience, but no previous political involvement.

“I moved to Rancho Mirage four years ago,” Mueller said. “When my partner and I were building our home here, during the construction, the City Council took exception to some of the designs, and we wound up having to make some extremely expensive changes. We asked the City Council to let us speak with a City Council member, and when we presented our concerns and asked for some consideration from them, we were told these exact words: ‘If you don’t like the way we run this city, you are free to live anywhere else in the valley that you want.’ Of course, at that point, we had already purchased the land, so it was too late to make a change—but that served to burnish my opinion that the residents of Rancho Mirage can’t feel that the council is receptive to any thoughts that don’t originate with the council itself. So it’s time for a fresh voice.”

When asked what his top priorities would be if he’s elected, Mueller said: “Combatting property crime in Rancho Mirage is certainly one. According to the data I’ve seen, Rancho Mirage has a crime rate of 3,843 per 100,000 citizens annually, which (in our valley) is second only to Palm Springs, with a property-crime rate over 5,700. A number of less-affluent communities have property-crime rates less than half that of Rancho Mirage, and this is not just a blip. It’s been this way for several years.”

The City Council recently approved the hiring of two additional full-time police officers to bolster the force. “When the officers were hired, there was no discussion about funding police patrols in gated communities, which a number of residents have complained about,” Mueller said. “That seems to be another issue that the current City Council has turned a deaf ear to. So it was a great missed opportunity. They spent $664,000 to hire two additional police officers and set no goals for crime reduction at the time they were hired. I don’t understand it.”

Another issue Mueller highlighted was the need for a reserve fund of some $68 million for a city as small as Rancho Mirage.

“A ‘rainy day fund’ reserve typically would be maybe 50 percent of the annual budget of roughly $26 million,” Mueller said. “So, this is far more than just a ‘rainy day’ fund. This is a huge asset that belongs to the taxpayers. Without spending a ton of money, some of this reserve could be used to make Rancho Mirage an international tourist destination. Most of the city’s annual revenue comes from the transient occupancy tax (aka the hotel tax), but three of the four main Rancho Mirage hotels are all 20 years old or more. Meanwhile, new high-fashion hotels are being built in other valley cities, so our city is facing an uphill battle competing with these much-newer and more-fashionable properties. The city needs to hold up its end of the bargain by improving the luster of the city as a destination to help its hotels compete. Also, they could do things to help the businesses in the city that are not exactly thriving. In the summer, when business is tougher to come by, they could do a sales-tax holiday to give the businesses here in the city an advantage over those in other cities that don’t have the means to do something like that.”

Kate Spates, 50, runs her own business-consulting firm, and although she claims little political experience, she currently holds positions on the boards of numerous local civic and charitable organizations.

“I think we have to assess what the people in our community want, and what they need to help improve their lives,” Spates said. “We need to understand what the upcoming generations want in recreation and then look to provide those resources to satisfy the demands, or our community will suffer. And we need to look at our assets like our hospitals, our hotels and all of our large employers. We need to ensure that the workforce is skilled and healthy.

“It’s also extremely important for everyone to maintain property values, which bleeds into another issue: I feel like having areas of our city that are unsightly, and looking abandoned, is not healthy for the surrounding community of homeowners. So I feel that we need to work to attract new businesses and improve the existing businesses through some sort of business retention and improvement program, especially along the Highway 111 corridor north of Country Club.”

Spates has experience in publicity and marketing.

“I think Rancho Mirage has long been a secret,” Spates said. “So I want to shout from the roof tops and get better marketing (for what we have to offer). You know we have four beautiful luxury resorts (including the Ritz Carlton, the Omni Rancho Las Palmas resort, the Westin Mission Hills and the Agua Caliente Resort and Casino) that attract tourists from all over the world. I know that the city has explored, and is interested in attracting, smaller boutique hotels, which are great. Our bed tax (TOT) accounts for a large percentage of our revenues, so it’s very important that we treat those resorts as our partners.”

What message would she like to leave with voters?

“I feel like it might be a secret that 56 percent of Rancho Mirage residents are under the age of 65, because there’s no current representation of that demographic on our council,” Spates said. “So when I talk about representing an under-represented demographic in our city, I’m talking about those people under 65. It’s been on the record where some of our council members will say, ‘This is a retirement community.’ End of story. I strongly disagree.”

Published in Politics

All four of the Rancho Mirage candidates whom the Independent spoke to about CV Link—the 50-mile bike, pedestrian and low-speed electric-vehicle path that, if completed, would connect all eight of the Coachella Valley’s cities—say it’s a dead issue, because the residents of Rancho Mirage overwhelmingly voted against the proposed Rancho Mirage portion two years ago.

And then the candidates keep talking—indicating the issue may not be so dead after all.

Another indication the issue is not so dead: It’s been the most contentious topic so far in the city campaign. Candidate Michael Harrington filed a complaint against incumbent Dana Hobart after Hobart claimed in an email that the three challengers to the incumbents all want to bring the issue back up—perhaps due to the influence of former Goldenvoice chief operating officer Skip Paige, who is in a relationship with candidate Kate Spates.

Both Harrington and Spates have denied Hobart’s claims.

Here’s what four candidates told us when asked where they stand on CV Link. Hobart declined to talk to the Independent, while incumbent Charles Townsend Vinci ended our interview before we could ask him about CV Link.

Robert Mueller: “The CV Link is a big deal, and it’s been a very contentious deal. I think the way that the City Council has handled it has caused the city to become an island. The CV Link was put on the ballot for a vote by the city’s residents, and it was overwhelmingly defeated, with 79 percent of voters coming out against it. I think the voters see it as an externally imposed and expensive disruption without any redeeming benefit. I have no intention of questioning the wisdom of Rancho Mirage voters. They’ve indicated their preference clearly, and I’m not going to try to change their minds. Some candidates may try to make it a campaign issue, but considering that the voters have already indicated their preference, I think that discussing CV Link in the context of this election is an unhelpful academic exercise.”

Michael Harrington: “The Rancho Mirage voters have voted it down, and they’ve said they don’t want it, so it would have to go on the ballot again. I think some of the concerns are about cost and how to apportion those costs. I don’t look at the city in terms of the one issue of CV Link, but somehow, it has become more than just another issue. It’s become some sort of pivotal point where it’s almost become irrational. The incumbents portray it as a threat that will destroy our community. I think that’s irrational. It’s another project, and you look at it rationally and civilly with transparency. But again, the citizens voted it down. I’m open to looking at it again, but I’m not the agent for CV Link. It’s just another project to look at going forward. I’ve reached out to (the Coachella Valley Association of Governments) to discuss with them what might be done with a new City Council. What about having a bike path only in Rancho Mirage? What about cooperating with the people who want to go through our city using CV Link? We need a bike path anyway. I don’t think our bike paths now are really all that good, but we can cooperate with other cities because the riders are going to want to come through here. CVAG is not sharing our trails because of this stand-off. I’d like to look at options to cooperate with the project, even though Rancho Mirage doesn’t want the whole CV Link package, with electric cars and all that. There must be a compromise or a solution, and I’d like to work on it. But I’m not personally promoting the CV Link.”

Kate Spates: “I support the will of the people, and they’ve decided that CV Link should not run through Rancho Mirage. I’m a firm believer in democracy. So, if a wave of people decides to bring it back up, then that’s the only way it’s going to be a part of the discussion. If you ask me, it’s history, and we need to stop talking about it. Although I do receive a large amount of e-mails and calls, and hear voices of support for CV Link, I’m not sure who I’m not hearing from. There have been only a few people who have said, ‘If you’re for the CV Link, then I’m not for you.’ So let me assure (the voters) that there’s not one lone person who can revive the CV Link. And even if all five City Council members decided all of a sudden that we wanted it back, it’s still in the hands of the voters.”

Iris Smotrich (incumbent): “My biggest concerns, and the biggest concerns of the people I talk to, are public safety and property protection. I have to tell you that as a mother and a grandmother and a former chairwoman of the CVAG Public Safety Committee, I’ve heard many concerns through the last four years regarding crime, and accidents, and law-enforcement monitoring, and residential privacy. You have to remember that, according to CVAG’s projections, there will be a huge traffic flow on this roadway, and most travel will be near or in the wash, where there are a lot of communities built. Many of my friends and neighbors and our constituents think there are a lot of problems just waiting to happen. One of the biggest concerns is about homeless encampments. All you have to do is look online at (what’s happened around) similar roadways in the Bay Area, the L.A. River, the American River and the Santa Ana River, and it’s not a nice or a healthy sight to see. It’s heartbreaking, and with this roadway, there (would be) a lot of crime opportunity, drug problems, a lot of health concerns, and privacy issues, especially in the backyards and with windows exposed to the traffic flow of complete strangers going by. I can’t imagine anyone who knows all the details … wanting or agreeing to have any of this. It’s a very difficult situation, and I’m very opposed to it. But we’re going to do an environmental impact study on it for $150,000, even though our residents voted against it, because, someday, things may change. We listen to our constituents, and we listen to our visitors. We want the best for our residents, our businesses and our visitors.”

Published in Politics

Although sexual orientation and dirty-trick campaigning have dominated the headlines regarding the Rancho Mirage City Council election, to my mind, there is a more interesting issue that has emerged: Should only older and more-experienced individuals be elected to represent the city’s residents?

Councilmember Dana Hobart recently made that assertion, casting Councilmember Scott Hines as “younger … (with) just ambition.”

Hines attended the Air Force Academy, earning a degree in political science in 1992, and then master’s degrees in public management from the University of Maryland, and organizational management from George Washington University. With more than 20 years of business and entrepreneurial experience, he is hardly a kid.

Hobart served in the Air Force for four years, then graduated from California State University and earned a juris doctorate from the USC School of Law in 1963. In addition to a long legal career and positions of prestige within the legal community, he successfully argued a case before the United States Supreme Court in 1976. 

Assuming these are both honorable men who want to serve their community, why would age even be a factor? Do older residents only want to see people their own age elected?

Here’s what I’m wondering: Is it time for the younger generations to take over? Remember that old saying, “Never trust anyone over 30”?

Although Hines is well beyond millennial age, a recent poll by Pew Research Center sheds some light on the ongoing conflicts between the generations. 

“Millennials,” defined as people between the ages of 18 and 33 by Pew, have very different views of traditional cultural norms and institutions. The underlying struggle to redefine our society is taking place throughout the country at all levels.

A recent column in The New York Times by Charles M. Blow, discussing the Pew findings, got me thinking. Yes, there is value in the wisdom we hope to have developed over many years of experience, but there is also value in accepting that society’s norms have already changed in important ways, and public policies must adjust to reflect those changes.

For example, 69 percent of millennials believe that marijuana use should be made legal, while only 32 percent of the so-called “silent generation” (those 68 and older) support legalization (although even that number has almost doubled since 2002). On the issue of whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry, 68 percent of millennials support such rights, compared to only 38 percent of the silent generation.

Millennials also largely believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases (68 percent), and that immigrants in the country illegally should be allowed to stay and eventually apply to become citizens (55 percent). 

In the Coachella Valley, particularly the western and central parts, we tend to think of the local population as made up of many retirees. However, according to the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership (CVEP), in 2011, only about 30 percent of valley residents were 55 or older.

Does that mean almost 70 percent of our residents are not having their interests represented when elected officials are from older generations?  Not necessarily. For example, in Rancho Mirage, more than half of the population is 60 or older. Yet, it is worth considering that elected officials are supposed to not only manage current realities, but plan for the future viability of their communities. That may require attitudes and philosophies that encompass the cultural changes we are already experiencing.

Local officials have to consider policy approaches that are necessary for their communities to be seen as welcoming to younger generations. At the national level, “the young-old partisan voting gaps in 2008 and 2012 were among the largest in the modern era,” said Blow. So if Rancho Mirage is largely made up of older people, does that mean their City Council representatives should disdain appealing to younger people? Not if they want their city to survive.

When I first moved to the Coachella Valley in 1985, I remember thinking that all the service employees who worked in local cities—waiting tables, cleaning hotel rooms, maintaining golf courses, working in sales, etc.—could not possibly afford to live in the cities where they were employed, and thus had less invested in making those cities sustainable. I remember when, in 1988, Indian Wells, which then boasted one of the highest per-capita incomes in the state, sought an exemption from having affordable housing built within their city’s borders. Thankfully, they lost that battle, thanks to a veto by the then-Republican governor.

The Pew poll showed that millennials are more racially diverse and less disapproving of government services. They are experiencing higher student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income. However, they are the future, and we need to incorporate their attitudes and needs if we hope to sustain our communities.

So, the question remains: Should only older and more-experienced individuals be elected to represent the city’s residents? Should age trump “ambition”? When Hobart was younger, wasn’t he ambitious?

As Blow puts it: “One might argue that millennials simply haven’t lived long enough to hit the triggers that might engender more conservatism … but it could just as well be that this group of young people is fundamentally different.” 

Is it perhaps time that older folks recognize that younger generations have something to offer as a balance, with a new approach to “the way we’ve always done it.” Our future will be as different from today as today is from the “traditional values” of a mere 50 years ago—a time that some in the older generation still cling to as what should be “normal.” Without that balance, and those new ways of looking at our culture and our institutions, we are only stalling the inevitable.

Maybe it’s time for older folks, myself included, to just get out of the way. Those with experience should teach, mentor and advise—but let younger generations lead.

Published in Know Your Neighbors