CVIndependent

Sun04052020

Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

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

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

All five candidates for the three Palm Desert City Council seats up for election this year, not surprisingly, say they’re proud of their mid-valley city.

All agree that the city’s wide roads, pleasant parks, good schools and upscale neighborhoods are virtues that continue to make Palm Desert an attractive destination for tourists and new residents alike.

However, the city is facing fiscal and developmental challenges that could threaten the future growth and fiscal stability of Palm Desert.

The Independent spoke with each of the candidates and discussed their concerns, their priority issues if elected, and their views on Measure T. The only city measure on this November’s Palm Desert ballot, Measure T calls for a 2 percentage-point increase—from 9 to 11 percent—in the city’s transient occupancy tax (TOT), charged to every traveler who stays in a hotel within the city’s borders.

On this one issue, the candidates agree: They all say they’re voting for the increase.

Incumbent Van Tanner (right), a retired insurance-company executive and former member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, is wrapping up his first term on the City Council. He was the most outspoken proponent of Measure T.

“Wherever (tourists) go to stay, they’re going to pay a TOT. Well, we’re the lowest in the Coachella Valley, and (if Measure T passes), now we’re going to be right in the middle. So the 2 percent is going to generate $2 million in additional revenue, and it is something that we need to pass. It’s not a question of how we’re going to do it; we need to do it.”

Businesswoman and local pastor Kathleen Kelly explained why she supports Measure T.

“We have the absolute lowest TOT in Coachella Valley, and there’s nothing strategically beneficial to the city in holding that spot,” she said. “We’re not gaining an advantage by being last. We’re just forgoing the opportunity to appropriately look for income to cover the added expenses that the tourism brings with it.”

Susan Marie Weber (right), the other incumbent who is running for re-election as her first term draws to a close, said she’s a libertarian who normally does not like taxation. However, she supports Measure T.

“A hotel tax is a little bit different. It’s more like a user fee, which is a voluntary tax,” she said. “We use the (TOT) money to make sure that the roads are clean, that we have public safety available to keep you safe, and we have our other amenities.

“Two years ago we tried to pass a similar measure, but it was so specific that people living here thought they were going to be taxed,” Weber said. “But this time, it’s clear that the resulting revenue will go into our general fund to be used as we (the City Council) think it should be used. For instance, the police and fire services surprised us with increases, so we sure could use a little more money to offset those costs.”

Gina Nestande is the wife of former congressional candidate and former State Assemblyman Brian Nestande. She said she hopes to contribute her fundraising and leadership skills to the council’s work.

“This one time I am—but it’s only a Band-Aid that the city needs right now,” she said about Measure T. “We can’t rely on raising the TOT every couple of years to help our budget. We need to increase revenues, diversify our economy and keep the young people here—or if they do go off to college, (we need them) coming back here to work. But that will only happen if we have the infrastructure here for them. We can’t just rely on the golf and tourism industries. Tourism is great, and we can be a wonderful tourist destination—but again, we have to think bigger.”

Jerry Martin is a former golf professional, entrepreneur and insurance agent who is the driving force (pun intended) behind El Paseo Cruise Night and several other car-centric events.

“I am in favor of raising that TOT by 2 percent,” he said. “It doesn’t really affect the residents of Palm Desert, and that added revenue is really important. We need to come up and be more in line with the rest of the cities here in the desert. You know there are a lot of additional costs (regarding tourists) involved in operating the city, especially when it comes to fire, police and ambulance service, so those funds will be really important.”

The candidates also largely all agreed on the strong need for improved cooperation among the nine Coachella Valley city governments.

Kelly (right), who moved to the valley at the age of 7, made the case succinctly: “Regional cooperation is increasingly important to our quality of life in Palm Desert. As the Coachella Valley has built out, we have increasingly become one large community. So it’s not possible to go it alone, even if someone philosophically thought that was desirable. Reaching across party lines, generational divides or other potential boundaries to inspire and facilitate collaboration—that’s my skill set.”

All the candidates voiced cautious optimism that the CV Link project—a proposed valley-long pedestrian/bike path—could be completed if no undue burdens were placed on Palm Desert’s citizens, and if environmental-impact studies raised no major concerns.

Some of the candidates identified one key issue on which they’ll work first.

“There’s the redevelopment of Highway 111, which is already in progress,” Martin said. “Many buildings along the highway will be given a facelift, and there are plans to put the stores, markets and services on the first level, with living spaces on the top levels. Younger people are gravitating toward a lifestyle where they can leave their homes and apartments and walk to shops and restaurants.”

Weber sounded the alarm regarding the potential financial risk posed by the generous pension and retirement packages being granted to city employees. “We need to complete a pension review,” she said. “We started a couple of years ago to try to change our method so that when new people were hired, they’d come in under a different pension structure, but we’re still doing like 30-some percent, you know? So if you’re earning $100,000 a year, we’re putting $30,000 aside in pension for you. Way to go, huh? That’s unsustainable, and we’re going to be in a death spiral if we don’t work on that.”

Nestande (right) highlighted education and Salton Sea protection. “I’d like to focus on fast-tracking the Cal State University,” she said. “It is our only four-year university (located in the valley), and it has limited degree programs. I’ve met with the chancellor, and they really have a wonderful agenda to try to increase the number of degree programs offered here.”

She suggested this new approach for saving the Salton Sea: “We need to think regionally and expand beyond Palm Desert. What’s been proposed is that the big stakeholders create an Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District. This plan has to be approved by a vote of 55 percent of the citizens, but if it were to pass, it could raise as much as a couple of billion dollars.”

Tanner said he would focus his work on developing and implementing a new general plan for Palm Desert.

“It’s a systematic way to take our city into new areas over the next 20 years,” he said. “It deals with land use as well as economic fiscal responsibility, because we want to make sure that our tourism stays strong, and our retail sales stay strong. That’s what’s going to create the revenue for our general fund for everything that needs to be done in the city.”

Published in Politics