CVIndependent

Thu08222019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Brane Jevric

The city of Palm Desert is rising up against the state’s tax takeaways by asking its residents to raise a fee on visitors—and this is all unfolding in the shadow of a well-publicized scandal involving the former city manager.

According to city officials, the state of California has taken about $40 million away from the state every year in redevelopment funds. So on July 28, City Council members unanimously voted to place a measure on the November ballot that would increase the local transient occupancy tax (in other words, the hotel tax) from 9 percent to 11 percent, to replace a small fraction of the $40 million the state takes every year. That 11 percent would be on par with what other valley cities charge.

They nicknamed it Measure T. That may sound somewhat familiar to Palm Springs residents, who in 2011 passed something called Measure J. However, the similarities in the ballot initiatives end there: Palm Springs’ Measure J increased the sales tax by 1 percent, while Measure T will affect only people staying at the city’s hotels and motels.

Some of that Measure J money was used for downtown redevelopment in Palm Springs, and was at the center of the high-profile FBI raid at the City Hall which also apparently targeted then-Mayor Steve Pougnet.

Palm Desert Mayor Bob Spiegel was adamant that his city would not end up having any such problems if residents pass Measure T.

“I don’t think it is appropriate or relevant to talk about challenges facing other cities,” Spiegel said. “Palm Desert has earned a well-established reputation for fiscal responsibility and good stewardship of public resources.”

Spiegel said certain steps would be taken by the city to prevent any possible misuse of the funds generated by the proposed Measure T.

“Measure T is subject to strong accountability provisions, including independent audits, public oversight and local control of funds that cannot be taken by state,” Spiegel said.

While Spiegel claimed Palm Desert has a “well-established reputation for fiscal responsibility and good stewardship of public resources,” it is worth noting that the Palm Desert City Council earlier this year gave former City Manager John Wohlmuth a severance package valued at nearly $300,000 after he allegedly showed a nude photo of a co-worker to his colleagues at City Hall.

City officials claimed they approved the severance package to avoid being sued by Wohlmuth.

Anyway, back to Measure T: Spiegel said the Measure T funds would help the city deal with rising public-safety costs.

“For the first time in Palm Desert’s history, public-safety costs have exceeded 50 percent of our annual budget,” he said. “Measure T will provide a dedicated local source of funding.”

Palm Desert contracts with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for law-enforcement services.

“We work closely with the (sheriff’s department) to address the community’s needs,” said Justin McCarthy, Palm Desert’s interim city manager. “If, in consultation with them, additional deputies are required, we would recommend adding them.”

McCarthy, who is being paid $119 per hour as the interim city manager, said Measure T would generate approximately $2.2 million annually.

Palm Desert is home to 12 hotels with 2,171 rooms. There are also numerous timeshare properties that will be affected by Measure T, depending on their vacancy.

“The city has three vacation ownership (timeshare) properties that function like hotels: Marriott Shadow Ridge (1,093 rooms), Westin Desert Willow Villas (268 rooms) and Embarc Palm Desert—Intrawest Resort (88 rooms),” said Palm Desert spokesman David Hermann.

According to Hermann, the three timeshare properties function as hotels when the units are not booked by owners.

“The resorts advertise the rooms on online travel sites, etc.,” he said. “And when guests pay their bill, the resort collects the transient occupancy tax along with the charge for their lodging.”

Measure T would obviously bring in even more revenue with additional hotel development—and city officials say two new hotels are under construction.

“Hotel Paseo is a boutique hotel being built next to The Gardens on El Paseo,” Hermann said. “It will have 150 rooms. The brand is the Marriott Autograph Collection, and the hotel is expected to open in September of 2017.”

A Fairfield Inn, near Interstate 10 and Cook Street, has a projected October 2017 opening date.

Many drivers loathe DUI checkpoints—especially drivers who have had a drink or two.

And that’s exactly the point: Drivers shouldn’t be behind the wheel when intoxicated. Arrests for driving under the influence can cost people more than $10,000 in fees and fines, plus jail time.

But that’s a small price to pay compared to the cost in lives due to DUI accidents. In 2014, nearly 10,000 people were killed by impaired drivers in the United States—with more than 800 of those deaths here in California.

On Friday, Aug. 12, I was allowed to tag along while the Palm Springs Police Department conducted a DUI checkpoint in the 2900 block of North Indian Canyon Drive. Sgt. Mike Villegas, the lead officer of the Traffic Division, was my host.

The night started with a 7 p.m. briefing at the police station. Villegas introduced me to his team of 11 detectives, officers, dispatchers and community officers.

“Be professional; be courteous; and be safe!” Villegas told his team before they embarked on what was, for most of them, their second shift that day. Funding for the checkpoints comes from a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Two hours later, the DUI checkpoint was completely set up, with a primary screening area, traffic cones, reflectors, generators, a DUI enforcement trailer, and a secondary screening area with tables, chairs, another trailer and several police cruisers.

By 9 p.m., Officer Art Enderle, Officer Barron Lane and Det. Miguel Torres had spread out at the path created by the traffic cones. The cops would introduce themselves, ask for the proper documents, and check to see if drivers were drinking that night.

It took only about 15 to 20 seconds to screen a car and its driver, so the line moved fast. Some of the drivers already had their licenses in hand before they were stopped at the checkpoint. 

Villegas came over and half-jokingly blamed Facebook for a quiet night so far. “Right now, friends tells friends on social media where our checkpoint is and how to avoid it,” he said.

At 9:26 p.m., Enderle, after checking the documents of a driver, yelled out: “Runner!” “Runner,” in the jargon, means a driver who’s going to the secondary screening area.

The protocol requires a community officer to drive the car there while the driver is escorted on foot. However, this does not necessarily mean the driver is suspected of driving under the influence; in this case, the driver didn’t have a valid driver’s license. 

Enderle issued him a citation, while Torres called the man’s relatives to come and pick up him and his car. Torres spoke in Spanish to the driver, who quietly sat a chair, seemingly remorseful. Torres is bilingual; his parents came from Mexico.

“My papa was working as a gardener; my mom was cleaning houses, and I always wanted to be a cop,” Torres said. He’s on his second shift for the day, working the DUI checkpoint as overtime—eventually working 17 hours that day.

At 10:45 p.m., Enderle stopped another driver without a valid driver’s license. This time, the screening approach was more rigorous—because the driver had a prior DUI.

Enderle gave him a blood-alcohol breath test. “Blow, and blow again,” Enderle said as the driver sat in a chair. The driver took the test without complaint and passed.

Standing by is Jamie Webber, of American Forensic Nurses, Inc. She’s a phlebotomist who has worked for 26 years with law enforcement, doing everything from blood draws to Taser-dart removals to DNA collections.

“Some time ago, we were on Tahquitz (Canyon Way), and a drunk driver actually crashed into a car in front of him at the DUI checkpoint,” she said. “He was so drunk and didn’t even see the checkpoint. After we pulled him out of the car he asked, ‘What happened?!’”

Back on Indian Canyon, well past midnight on what had become Saturday, Aug. 13, a driver of a luxurious Porsche Panamera nearly drove through the checkpoint.

“Stop! Stop!” officer Lane yelled. When the car finally stopped, Lane determined that the car reeked of marijuana. Both the driver, a woman, and the passenger, her son, were escorted to the secondary screening area on foot and then separated.

PSPD veterans Lane and Enderle conducted a DUI screening on the woman. Lane moved his point finger left and right in front of her face, asking her to follow his finger with her eyes. Lane then asked the woman to walk along a straight line, while Enderle stood behind her. The woman was unstable—but it appeared that the instability was because of a physical disability rather than intoxication. The woman was not arrested.

Villegas said the male passenger, a juvenile, admitted having a small amount of marijuana in the car. The minimal amount of marijuana was located during a search, and the young man was issued a citation for marijuana possession.

I briefly talked to the driver of the car. “I was so embarrassed by it,” she said about her son’s citation.

Around 1 a.m., Villegas and his team began to close down the checkpoint before gathering everyone and reciting the night’s data: “All 527 vehicles that passed through the checkpoint were screened. Eight cars were sent to secondary screening for further investigation. There were four citations issued, but no DUIs.”

Villegas said it’s a good sign that there were no DUI arrests that night: It means drivers were obeying the law.

But obviously, not everybody obeys. Villegas later tells me that from January through June of this year, Palm Springs police had arrested 132 drivers for driving under the influence, and there had been 46 DUI-related traffic collisions.

In those collisions, two people lost their lives.

A Palm Springs City Hall power struggle involving freshman Mayor Rob Moon and longtime City Manager David Ready seems like a classic David vs. Goliath battle.

In this case, the mayor is playing the underdog role of David, while the role of mighty Goliath goes to Ready. Since 1994, according to the city charter, Palm Springs has basically been run by the city manager, while the role of the mayor is largely ceremonial: He’s just another City Council member who also gets to cut ribbons, greet dignitaries, attend events, give speeches and so on.

However, that does not mean a mayor has no power whatsoever: A mayoral term is four years long, which offers plenty of time for a motivated mayor, if he so chooses, to put the pressure on the City Council to use its power to fire the city manager.

That’s exactly what Moon proposed, more or less, back in April, when Moon called a special meeting to evaluate the performance of Ready and Doug Holland, a contractor who serves as the city attorney. Moon’s proposal came in the wake of a turbulent year during which the city was dragged into an FBI investigation.

However, Moon soon learned that he was the only council member who supported removing the city manager. After a closed session on April 13, the City Council voted unanimously to keep Ready.

Today, the power struggle continues—and Moon is now saying he wishes he’d stood his ground and voted to fire Ready.

“I wanted the City Council to go on the record,” Moon said. “I did then vote to endorse the city manager, but I regret that vote. I should have stood my ground and at least made a symbolic vote against it.”

Since becoming city manager in 2000, Ready has largely reigned unchallenged during the terms of four mayors: Will Kleindienst, Ron Oden, Steve Pougnet and now Moon.

Ready offered a diplomatic response to the “evaluation” of his job performance that Moon initiated.

“It is the prerogative of the mayor and any member of City Council to discuss my employment contract,” he said, “and as always, I serve at the will and pleasure of the City Council.”

Ready earned $421,221 in pay and benefits last year, making him the highest-compensated city government employee in the Coachella Valley—and one of the highest-paid city managers in the state. I asked Moon what he thought about capping the city manager’s salary.

“That’s probably a good idea,” Moon said. “… But if there is a cap, perhaps a person who has been around a long time would not like it and would go to work in a big city, like Chicago.”

While Ready’s salary has increased over the years, he said he’s made some personal sacrifices when it comes to his pay. 

“With regard to salary increases, in several years, I have refused to take increases outlined in my contract as we went through the recession,” Ready said. “Hence, salary or salary caps are not an issue for me, personally.”

Both Moon and Ready said they’re awaiting the results of the ongoing probe into city affairs—apparently involving the conduct of former Mayor Steve Pougnet.

“The FBI, the IRS and the (district attorney) seized certain documents, servers, cell phones etcetera,” Moon said. “I’ve no idea what they were looking for. … I expect that sometime by end of this year, my guess, we’ll hear what the outcome of the investigation is.”

Ready said the city has been transparent throughout the investigation and added that documents removed during the raid have been returned and posted on the city’s website for public review.

“Those agencies were doing their jobs,” Ready said about the law enforcement agencies investigating the city. “The city is fully cooperating with the investigation, and we are committed to keeping our citizens and the public updated on any information that we receive.”

However, the city has indeed suffered from some lapses in transparency. Shortly after the Sept. 1, 2015, FBI raid, former Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco—despised by some members of the community thanks to his hard-line role in a 2009 Warm Sands area sex sting that was tinged by homophobic remarks—was hired to “assist” the City Council in the matter. However, that information was not released to the public until this spring—after Ready at one point told The Desert Sun that the city had not hired outside legal help.

Moon said he was shocked when he learned the city had hired Pacheco.

“Right after I was sworn in, we had a closed-session meeting, and Mr. Pacheco was introduced to the new council,” Moon said. “Once I found who he was, I felt that it was inappropriate for us to be employing him, even indirectly. I was one of those people who very strongly led a movement to cut any ties with him.”

Ready said it was not his idea to hire Pacheco in the first place, and instead pointed a finger at City Attorney Doug Holland.

“The city attorney decides to hire outside legal services,” Ready said. “In this case, in order to fully cooperate with the district attorney, the city attorney indicated his decision to hire Mr. Pacheco was based on his extensive knowledge and understanding of the operations and procedures within the District Attorney’s Office.”

Moon is now leading a charge to replace the existing contracted city attorney with an in-house city attorney. Moon is on a city subcommittee working with recruiting firms to find a new city attorney.

“It’s been approved by the City Council, and it’s in the budget,” Moon said. “I’ve strongly felt that we need a city attorney to be a member of our team—actually employed by the city. I would like to get it done in six months.”

Ready said he is indifferent regarding the issue, and added that the matter is out of his hands.

“As with the city manager’s position, the city attorney is a position that is hired by the City Council,” Ready said.

This one may just be eligible for Guinness World Records: Palm Springs resident Tracy McKain has been a victim of vehicle-related thefts four times in the 3 1/2 years she has lived at her current residence.

In fact, her latest vehicle, a 1999 Honda Civic, has been swiped three times since last October. During the most recent theft, in May, the car was taken even though half of the steering wheel had been cut off during the previous theft.

The police report reveals that the car didn’t even have license plates.

“And no gas, nor lights, either!” McKain said. Yet her Honda was again stolen at night, and somehow driven to Desert Hot Springs, where police found it abandoned.

For 3 1/2 years, McKain has rented a studio in a small Stevens Road condo complex not far from downtown Palm Springs. Her front window is about 50 feet away from her designated parking spot. She used to drive a Ford truck, until its wheels where stolen in the middle of the night in that same spot.

After that, she was only able to afford a used late-model Honda. (It’s worth noting that the Honda Civic is the second-most-stolen car in the country, right behind the Honda Accord, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.)

“I’m on state disabilities due to a work injury,” she said. “I’m not working at this time.”

The police reports indicate McKain’s Honda was first stolen from the parking lot at her Stevens Road residence last October. She remembered walking out of her home—and realizing her car was gone.

“I was standing in my empty parking spot, and I just burst into tears,” she recalls.

Eighteen hours later, the police found the car in an empty field in Desert Hot Springs. To protect her car, McKain got “The Club” anti-theft device and placed it on the steering wheel. Nonetheless, six months later, the Honda was stolen again.

“I was sad and wondering: How did they take ‘The Club’ off?” she said.

She got her question answered when the car was found—still running—seven hours later. It was missing half of its steering wheel, as well as the stereo and part of the dashboard.

Less than a month later, the same Honda—despite the crippled steering wheel and the missing stereo—was stolen yet again.

Sgt. William Hutchinson, spokesman for Palm Springs Police Department, confirmed these vehicle-theft reports, and explained what happens after a stolen-vehicle report is filed.

“We take a report and enter that information into a statewide database,” he said. “… Property detectives may potentially receive the case, or the Riverside County auto-theft task force may take the case.”

Hutchinson said no suspects have been identified regarding the thefts of McKain’s car. He added that it would be helpful for the condo complex to install security cameras.

Cindy Anderson, the property manager for the condo complex where the thefts took place, did not respond to an interview request regarding camera placement. Instead, she forwarded it to the homeowners association board.

Lee Bothe manages Community Association Financial Services, a company which works with the property. She agreed that cameras are an inexpensive way to safeguard cars and HOAs.

“With all the affordable technology of today, all that’s needed are cameras and a DVR in a box locked up at the HOA,” Bothe said.

As for McKain, she has bought yet another car, her third since moving to the condo complex. She is keeping her fingers crossed that the HOA will install cameras and motion-detecting lights.

It’s windy and quite hot out on Indian Avenue in Desert Hot Springs. But Yudit Ecsedy doesn’t mind, as the artist paints a traffic-signal control box as part of the city’s Art in Public Places program.

The idea is to turn the ugly green roadside utility boxes into works of art, painted over by local talent as part of an effort to beautify the oft-troubled city.

Ecsedy, a native of Budapest, Hungary, came to the United States as a child. She graduated from UCLA with a degree in art history, and in 2011, she retired to DHS, a place where she had been vacationing since she was a student.

“My parents and I started coming here in the winter for at least a week years ago,” she said. “The place helped my mother’s arthritis. The view, the atmosphere, the healing waters and the ‘time out’ all contributed to creating quality time for our family. I continued this tradition with my husband and four children—and now I’m part of this town.”

The Art in Public Places fund was created by the city in 2008, according to Janice Gough, president of the nonprofit Art Foundation of Desert Hot Springs.

“With utility boxes being the lowest-costing way to bring art to the city, we started getting some of these boxes painted,” Gough said. “There are 111 boxes in DHS.”

Ecsedy became involved with the project in 2013—and the City Council did not like some of her proposed works, because they had religious themes.

“I handed in my designs, some with representations of angels,” she said. “In January 2014, the City Council, after seeing my designs, brought in a law prohibiting any public art with wings. A lawyer from Virginia flew out to sue the city for forcing artists’ subject matter. I chose not to sue the city, being aware of its bankruptcy situation at the time.”

DHS has a Community and Cultural Affairs Commission which evaluates the control-box art applications. In January 2014, Gough became a CCAC commissioner—and things started moving forward. Ecsedy also agreed to do other works that did not involve wings.

“I was allowed to … start on my designs. I have painted one box so far, and have commission for two more,” Ecsedy said.

Ecsedy’s first box was commissioned for $500, and the box on Indian Avenue was commissioned for $1,200. Gough said the financial resources are accumulated thanks to a fee assessed on commercial builders, earmarked specifically for the program. However, the money is not the only motivation for artists like Ecsedy.

“What motivated me is simply helping beautify the town that I love,” she said. “To have my paintings on public display here for years and have local citizens and vacationers see them and respond to them is a special gift in my life.”

It took Ecsedy two months to paint her first box, she said, not counting weeks of preparation as she created the design on paper. The materials used are steel primer, acrylic paints and an anti-graffiti coat.

“The winds there were brutal, and often I had to come home after only two hours of painting because the paint would dry before I could apply it to the design,” Ecsedy said.

Renowned local muralist John Coleman has also painted traffic boxes throughout the valley. One of his creations can be seen on a box on Dillon Road, and though painting a traffic box is not as big of job as a mural, he said it wasn’t an easy task.

“The weather can and does make painting traffic boxes a little tricky at times,” he said. “I don’t mind the heat, but the wind is the most challenging—blowing tools, drop cloths and ladders around constantly.”

He said the reception he receives while painting the boxes is overwhelmingly positive.

“Passers-by often honk and tell me that I’m doing a great job,” he said. “Some folks stop to talk and take photos.”

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.”

Imagine legendary U.S. soccer stars Abby Wambach and Julie Foudy kicking around a soccer ball here in the Coachella Valley … on a golf course.

No, it’s not an April Fool’s joke.

Welcome to the fast-growing sport called FootGolf, a combination between soccer and golf, that’s getting lots of attention, nationally and internationally, across all generations and genders.

Wambach and Foudy, both retired U.S. National Team soccer players, each with two Olympic gold medals to their credit, will participate along with LPGA golf stars in an exhibition match against Japan on Tuesday, March 29, at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, as part of the ANA Inspiration women’s golf tournament (formerly known as the Dinah Shore).

In fact, the headquarters of the American FootGolf League (AFGL) is here in Palm Springs.

“Coachella Valley is the U.S. golf capital; hence AFGL was established here (in) 2011,” said Roberto Balestrini, the founder of the AFGL. The AFGL is the national governing body for the sport and a member of the Federation for International FootGolf.

Balestrini said anybody can play the sport regardless of age and skill.

“The game is played with a regulation No. 5 soccer ball at a golf course facility on shortened holes with 21-inch diameter cups located yards away from golf greens,” Balestrini said.

The point is to reach the cups with as few kicks as possible. FootGolf can be played on nine holes for about an hour, or 18 holes for about two hours. The sport itself does not require expensive gear and equipment.

“All you need is golf attire, a soccer ball and shoes with no cleats,” Balestrini said.

According to Balestrini, the game is on the rise in large part because youth are discovering the sport and coming out to play it. It’s also helping the revenues of some golf courses.

Locally, FootGolf can be played at Desert Willows Golf Resort in Palm Desert, at The Lights in Indio, the Golf Center of Palm Desert and the Cathedral Canyon Golf Club in Cathedral City.

“The AFGL has a partnership with the National Golf Course Owners Association and works very closely with the entire golf industry since it is (the sport’s foundation),” Balestrini said.

There are 125 golf courses in Coachella Valley, so there’s a lot of potential for this new sport to grow.

“The beauty about FootGolf is that it can be as fun or as competitive as you want,” Balestrini said.

The ANA Inspiration’s Footgolf Faceoff: USA vs. Japan will take place at 5 p.m., Tuesday, March 29, at the Mission Hills Country Club, in Rancho Mirage. Admission and parking for the event are free; park at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, 32250 Bob Hope Drive, in Rancho Mirage. Complimentary shuttles to the course begin running at 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.anainspiration.com/footgolf.

A bottle, perhaps two, of Barolo might have helped cost the city of Palm Springs a fortune.

The Italian red wine was served during a meeting in 2010 between Steve Pougnet, then Palm Springs’ mayor, and developer John Wessman. Before the meeting, Pougnet had publicly talked about filing eminent-domain proceedings against Wessman’s Desert Fashion Plaza—which the developer had kept largely empty for almost a decade.

The following day, at the State of the City luncheon, Pougnet announced a deal with Wessman and a “new downtown vision that will benefit all of Palm Springs and the valley.”

The bond between Pougnet and Wessman grew after that. The mayor was hired to work for the Palm Springs International Film Festival—which has long included Wessman as a board member and vice chair. IRS records show that the Palm Springs International Film Society, the nonprofit that runs the festival, paid Pougnet $37,500 in the fiscal year 2011-2012, while Wessman Development Co. was paid $90,638 for building rent.

That was not the first time Pougnet and Wessman would find their financial interests linked.

In 2012, according to public records, Wessman purchased a property at the foot of the Tramway Road for $1.1 million. The property, known as Pedregal, was once owned by developer Dennis Cunningham, who lost the development. In addition, the City Council, led by Pougnet, awarded Wessman $4 million that Cunningham owed in bonds on the property.

The high-profile FBI raid of Palm Springs City Hall on Sept. 1, 2015, gathered documents and other evidence regarding Pougnet’s deals with developers, including Wessman. But beyond the ongoing scrutiny and the corruption probe, Wessman finds himself busier than ever.


Despite his high profile, Wessman remains an enigma: Not much is known about the man himself. His age is even hard to pin down; a Palm Springs Life article from May 1980 said he was 40 then; if accurate, that would make Wessman now 76 or so.

Wessman—who did not directly respond to requests to speak to the Independent—grew up on a farm in Hemet, surrounded by his six brothers and Swedish-born parents. As a teen, he worked in construction and never finished a college.

In 1964, he was employed by a construction company owned by Warren Coble and Arthur Press. A year later, Wessman bought out Press, and in 1972, he parted with Coble as well.

He’d soon develop one of the most unusual—and profitable—developing philosophies the valley has ever seen. In that aforementioned Palm Springs Life piece, he stated: “… I make more money from keeping property than I do by building and selling.”

The most prominent example of Wessman’s business strategy can be found smack-dab in the midst of downtown Palm Springs. It all started with the Desert Fashion Plaza, which he managed to keep largely vacant after purchasing it in 2001. Over the years, he held on to the property—and wore down many of his critics, a group that at one time included Pougnet.

Then in 2011, Palm Springs voters approved Measure J, a 1 percent increase in the city sales tax slated to be used on various city projects. Soon thereafter, the Palm Springs City Council, lead by Pougnet, opened the city’s wallets for Wessman Development Company.

“In the initial round,” said local real estate broker Robert Stone, “he got $32 million in public funds to help with the private improvements to the Desert Fashion Plaza parcel. It was simultaneously accompanied by another $11 million for streets, sidewalks and infrastructure improvements that are typically a developer expense.

“Then there were a bunch of change orders to the original giveaway,” Stone said. “When Wessman failed to provide adequate open space as required by the city’s specific plan for the site, the city bought a large parcel from him and made it permanent open space. They paid him $5.3 million for it, based on an appraised value which considered the value of the parcel if fully developed.”

One of the key elements of Wessman’s development is a Kimpton Hotel, rising quickly where the Fashion Plaza once was. However, Wessman has never built a hotel before.

“The 155-room Kimpton Hotel is our first hotel project,” said Michael Braun, the senior vice president at Wessman Development Co.

According to Braun, who’s also Wessman’s son in law, the Kimpton will be first new relevant large hotel in Palm Springs since 1988, when what is now the Renaissance was built.

Wessman recently announced plans to build yet another significant hotel downtown: a 150-room Virgin Hotel. Some opponents of Wessman’s project have expressed concerns about density, traffic and parking space for the proposed 69-foot-tall hotel. According to Braun, there is no problem.

“Based on current approvals, the downtown site has more parking spaces than required,” Braun said.

Another problem is the current occupancy rate for Palm Springs hotels, which is less than 60 percent. Additionally, other hotels may be built soon, including one by the Agua Caliente tribe on its downtown property.

Again, Braun said there was no problem. “You have to distinguish between various hotel-product offerings,” he said. “Palm Springs needs several new four-star products to attract a different tourist segment. The … occupancy rate is irrelevant, as it relates to all product offerings in Palm Springs.”

According to Judy Deertrack, a local urban lawyer, the downtown project morphed over time into something quite different than what was in the original plan.

“There has been no attempt at a market study or feasibility study since 2011, even though the project has grown from an expected $110 million in construction costs to its current estimate of $350 million,” Deertrack said.

“All the way through, the downtown development has shown a lack of public hearings and transparency, (and an) inappropriateness (in) the way the entitlements have gone through on the consent calendar and new business agenda without public notice, hearings and citizen review,” she said.

Over the years, Wessman has been associated with at least 44 companies, according to public records; 33 of the companies are still active.

“About five years ago, I did a search to find out how many parcels Wessman owns personally or in conjunction with other investors under his many DBAs,” Stone said. “At that time, he owned 135 properties in the valley. They were all commercial properties or unimproved land.”

Deertrack expressed serious concerns about the ongoing FBI investigation.

“The elephant in the room,” Deertrack said, “is the connection between the ongoing public corruption investigation, for possible fraud or undue influence, and the extraordinary entitlements granted to Wessman. The cities are prohibited from granting contracts or land entitlements to a developer or party who is a source of income to any City Council member, the mayor included.”

As for the FBI probe, Braun had only this to say: “It is company policy not to comment on any ongoing investigation.”


Meanwhile, Pougnet is no longer part of the City Council. While the new council slate seems to be keeping a more watchful eye on Wessman’s project, new Mayor Rob Moon said via email that construction will definitely continue.

“At our last City Council meeting, our council agreed unanimously that we were not content with continuing to ‘kick the can down the road’ on the downtown development. As I said at that meeting, further unnecessary delay is not fair to the developer, the residents, and certainly not to the downtown businesses who have been impacted by construction and the associated traffic, dust and noise. The council therefore stepped up to the task for which we are responsible, and we voted on each and every designated block and decided on height, density and setback for each of them.”

Moon said that while Wessman is currently planning to build two hotels, he has agreed not to build a third—at least not for a while.

“Wessman Development has agreed not to build a third hotel, currently described as a JC Marriott, until the members of the downtown hotel association have two years of occupancy over 62 percent,” Moon said. “That is a request made by the other hoteliers, which our Planning Commission has publicly supported, as well as the City Council. Nobody, least of all the other hotel owners, want to saturate the market.”

As for what Deertrack called the “elephant in the room”: What would happen to the city funds given to Wessman if he or Pougnet were ultimately prosecuted?

Moon said he did not know the answer to that question, and that he would forward the query to City Manager David Ready. Ready, in turn, forwarded the question to City Attorney Doug Holland.

“The developer’s obligations are secured by a performance deed of trust, and in the event the developer defaults on its obligations, the city has the right to exercise its rights under the performance deed of trust, and ultimately force a sale of the property for which financing has not been secured, and building permits have not been issued,” Holland said “This is the city’s primary enforcement tool.

“The city has acquired the parking structure and certain lots, and therefore, the payments for these assets would not be part of any default. Two properties have been released from the performance deed of trust (the Kimpton parcel on Block C-1 and the “West Elm” building on Block A) because these properties were fully financed, and building permits were issued. The remainder of the project is still subject to the performance deed of trust.

In other words … since the Kimpton and West Elm properties have been released, the city would have no real recourse regarding those parcels should criminal charges be filed.

Nejat Kohan is an Iranian Jew who, like many immigrants (myself included), came to this country in hopes of creating better life.

Kohan’s dream was to become a big-time developer. One of the first projects he was involved with here in the desert was the reconstruction of the historic Spanish Inn—nowadays known as Triada—the iconic hotel on Indian Canyon Drive in Palm Springs.

The property has been a hot spot for Hollywood celebrities since 1939. Lana Turner and Elizabeth Taylor frequented there, as well as Howard Hughes and Alan Ladd. In 1995, Los Angeles-based investor Hormoz Ramy bought the deteriorating hotel; Kohan stepped in as his business partner in 2002. Kohan threw all of his financial resources, time and energy into the reconstruction, he said.

“The project I was working on was a massive undertaking,” Kohan said. “There are three complexes within the 65,000-square-foot lot. The underground parking alone is 14,000 square feet.”

Since the property was a historic site in the famed Movie Colony neighborhood, the renovation was done slowly and carefully.

“Many of the hotel’s precious 1930s tiles have been restored to their original condition,” Kohan said. “Most of the damaged Spanish barrel roof tiles were replaced by ones from old 1930s homes located in the L.A. area. It took a lot to make it right.”

While Kohan was focused on the details, the city of Palm Springs began placing requirements on the developers—including the Movie Colony Traffic Calming Program.

“At first, I considered the city’s request for a traffic plan as a normal procedure when such reconstruction was under way,” Kohan said. “The city approved the shared cost of the street improvement with the clause about reimbursements.”

According to Kohan, the deal looked fine on paper, as the city’s demands obligated other surrounding properties to contribute; both the Spanish Inn and the Colony Palms Hotel were asked to put in an estimated $100,000 each.

But by 2007, as Kohan has indicated in documented complaints to the city, trouble was brewing.

“The city approved a covenant for Colony Palms Hotel, reducing its share for the street improvement from $109,000 to $45,000, without my knowledge,” Kohan claims. “That left me to cover the $362,000 cost for that project and then seek reimbursements from several surrounding properties.”

Meanwhile, the cost of the street improvements skyrocketed.

“In 2008, I finished the street plan at the cost of over half a million,” Kohan said, “and the Spanish Inn reconstruction was delayed by it for two years.”

By 2010, according to Kohan, his complaints to the city regarding reimbursement were accumulating—with no visible results. Kohan said he was quite desperate, and that is when the city’s mayor, Steve Pougnet, called him.

“On Monday, Sept. 27, 2010, Steve personally called me around 5:30 p.m.,” Kohan said. “He said: ‘This is Mayor Pougnet. I’m going to come visit your project, the Spanish Inn, right now! Would you also make a check for $500 to my campaign?’ I told him: ‘Yes!’

“The mayor came in a few minutes, and I toured him around,” Kohan continued. “The mayor told me that he was impressed with the progress of the project,” which was then about 80 percent completed. “I gave him the check. He spent about 10 to 15 minutes with me at the Spanish Inn.”

Kohan gave at least three other checks to Pougnet, too—all dated on the 27th day of a month, starting with a birthday check on Pougnet’s birthday, April 27.

“I attended the mayor’s birthday party in one of his friend’s homes and again donated the money to Pougnet’s campaign,” Kohan said. “Later, I was invited to a party at the mayor’s residence and contributed again to his campaign. I did feel that I was obligated to donate to Steve’s campaign in order to get his attention to Spanish Inn problems, particularly to the city’s agreement for the traffic plan.”

But it was all for naught.

“The city never paid anything for the traffic plan which was imposed as a pre-condition for building permits,” Kohan said.

After funding $7 million as a construction loan, the lender stopped financing the Spanish Inn project in 2011, Kohan said.

“I have lost about $2 million in my Spanish Inn investment and general contracting fees,” Kohan said. “Furthermore, there are some claims and liens up to $6.5 million for my personal guarantee. In 2011, the Pacifica Group bought the Spanish Inn in a trustee’s sale for $3.5 million.”

In 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Colony Palms Hotel, about the same size as Spanish Inn, sold for $15 million.

Kohan said he questions Pougnet’s actions.

“I think I was discriminated against, and I believe that the discrimination was based on my origin,” Kohan said. “I also absolutely believe that Pougnet took advantage of my situation as a developer when he asked me for the donation.”

Pougnet did not initially respond to various requests for comment. However, after the initial version of this story was posted, Pougnet sent responses to some questions that had been emailed to him. He said he recalled receiving one “unsolicited contribution from Mr. Kohan in 2010.” In response to a question about whether he discriminated against Kohan, Pougnet responded: “Absolutely not!”

Marcus Fuller, the Palm Springs deputy city manager and city engineer, confirmed the street modifications were a requirement imposed on both the Spanish Inn and Colony Palms Hotel by the City.

Today, Nejat Kohan is no longer a developer. He is now an attorney—with an emphasis on business law and construction.

(Story updated at 5:35 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 18)

San Bernardino police recently made national news thanks to a creative operation.

Cops, dressed in plain clothes or as homeless people, walked up to cars stopped at an intersection. The officers held signs, but instead of saying something to the effect of “need food,” the signs said something to the effect of “S.B. Police. I am not homeless. Looking for seatbelt and cell phone violations.”

Of course, many drivers didn’t pay attention—they were busy texting, talking on a phone or even eating.

Those drivers received citations.

The Palm Springs Police Department also recently conducted a creative operation, of sorts, to combat a common Palm Springs crime: bike theft.

In broad daylight, a marked police department bike was placed as bait, in Sunrise Park and in other areas of the city frequented by homeless people and the less fortunate. Of course, plain-clothes cops were on the watch.

During the operation, three people, all Palm Springs residents, were arrested for grand theft: Gilbert Langford, 43; Marcos Gonzalez, 29; and Charles Wunderlich, 30. Langford was also cited for violating parole; Gonzalez was on probation at the time of his arrest; and Wunderlich allegedly had drugs on him.

Bike theft is a growing problem in Palm Springs, according to the police.

“In 2014, 303 bicycles were stolen in the city,” Sgt. Harvey Reed said. “From Jan. 1, 2015, to July 31, 2015, 191 bicycles were stolen in Palm Springs.”

Lt. Mike Kovaleff declined to discuss details of the Bait Bike operation, because “it would jeopardize future details.” So I headed to Sunrise Park, where there are always plenty of folks who use bikes as their only means of transportation. Everyone I spoke to told me they’d heard of the Bait Bike operation. Kenny, a young fellow with a nice bike (who only wanted to use his first name), said he even served time due to Bait Bike.

“Yep, the cops nabbed me at the Circle K, midday, about eight months ago,” he said. “Got six months for a felony, had priors, served about a month and a half.”

Kenny recalls how it went down. “The bike (had) a carbon fiber frame, cost about $1,300. The cops were in a van, watching it all. They got me on the bike.”

Kenny stopped, scratched his head and reluctantly continued. “I was duped! A lady asked me if I wanna buy the bike. I fell for it. It was entrapment!”

Evidently, the judge didn’t buy Kenny’s explanation. As far as entrapment claims regarding Bait Bike, John Hall, the information specialist for the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, was not able to comment.

Jose, another young fellow with a cool bike, explained what usually happens to stolen bikes.

“They go on bricks, man! No fool’s selling them to pawn shops; the owners work with cops,” he said. “A ‘hot’ bike is taken apart, and those parts are used to repair other bikes. Bikes are all we got, man!”

Sgt. Reed offered some useful tips on how to protect a bicycle from being stolen. Beyond having a photo of and the serial number for your bike, always lock the rear and front wheels to the frame—as well as the seat.

Most importantly, Sgt. Reed warned: “Never leave your bike unattended or unlocked, even if it's just for a minute.”

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