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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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