CVIndependent

Sun02182018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Kevin Fitzgerald

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.”

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.”

The 2018 edition of the PGA CareerBuilder Challenge ended late on Sunday, Jan. 21, after four days, four regulation rounds and four sudden-death playoff holes—with Jon Rahm celebrating his second career PGA win, just moments before a dramatic Sunday sunset.

After Day 1, Rahm was in the lead by one shot. At the end of Days 2 and 3, he remained within a few shots of the leader, and came from behind to tie Andrew Landry after 72 holes. Then came sudden death.

In the post-match press conference, the 23-year-old Rahm—the latest in a long line of dominant PGA Tour players from Spain including Seve Ballesteros and Sergio Garcia—described the drama of play on those final sudden-death holes.

“On the first hole, I hit probably one of the best (shots). Actually, each time I played 18, I hit probably one of the best 3-woods I'm going to hit all year,” he said. “(Then, I) hit a great shot to nine feet. … I was really confident I was going to make that putt. I know the break; I know how it was, and I think that the nerves might have gotten the best of me, and pulled it a little bit.”

After two more deadlocked holes, Rahm and Landry came back to the 18th for yet another attempt to anoint a winner. “Once we got back to 18,” Rahm said, “I was really aware that it was going to be probably the last hole that we were going to play today, and I did not want to come back the next day and play it. I was really glad I had the opportunity to putt first. I wanted to putt first, because I felt something in me. I just trusted myself, trusted my stroke and hit (the ball at) a little-bit-below-perfect speed and caught the lip, and (it) went in. I’m sure glad Andrew didn’t make the last putt. But again you got to give props and congrats to Andrew.”

Other notable winners were revealed on Saturday, when sponsor CareerBuilder announced the awarding of 500 scholarships to four Boys and Girls Clubs in the Coachella Valley. The scholarships will enable 125 underprivileged children to enroll at each of the four participating clubs by covering the costs associated with sending a child to one of the clubs for a year. Roughly 80 current members attended the announcement and spent the day learning about the professional commitments from the tour pros, while enjoying the action on the course—as well as on the concert stage, where the Goo Goo Dolls performed.

One young valley resident fell short of his goal Charlie Reiter, the popular Palm Desert High School senior playing in the pro section of the draw courtesy of a sponsor exemption, missed the cut for Sunday’s final round after shooting 5-over par on Saturday.

See more photos from the tournament below.

Jon Rahm, the current No. 3 player in the world, carved up the La Quinta Country Club course on his way to a 62—and the lead of the 2018 PGA CareerBuilder Championship after the first day of play.

Familiar names in the PGA golfing world like Patrick Reed, Canadian fan favorite Mike Weir (back after missing last year’s tournament) and player ambassador Phil Mickelson were among the field playing over the three competition courses—the PGA West Stadium Course and Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course, and the La Quinta Country Club course.

But the talk of Day 1, both among players and fans, was the debut appearance of 17-year-old golfing phenom and Palm Desert High School senior Charles Reiter. Reiter performed well, shooting a 4-under-par 68—which put him two shots ahead of that all-time fan favorite, Phil Mickelson, at the end of the day.

After several days of primetime press attention, the self-described nervous teenager overcame all the pressure.

“From the beginning, I kind of was just trying to have fun,” Reiter said at a post-round press conference. “I was trying to settle my nerves on the first tee, took a little slow start, and then I kind of got settled in, and had a lot of fun out there.”

With his father dealing with some health issues, Reiter’s longtime coach, Dave Stockton Jr., took over caddying duties for the precocious golfer. “It's actually really nice to have somebody who is … one of my really good friends. I’ve known him since I was 10,” Reiter said. “Having him on the bag, knowing that he's played out on these courses and won out here, allows me to be more comfortable on the course, knowing that he will be able to help me play through the course.”

Reiter’s ability to crush his tee shots has drawn quite a bit of attention from the other players in Coachella Valley this week. So what are his expectations for this weekend?

“Just go out and have fun—that’s it,” he said.

Tickets for the remaining days of play are $30 per day and include access to tented viewing venues, offering lots of different food and drink options, as well as end of day concerts—Huey Lewis and the News on Friday, and the Goo Goo Dolls on Saturday.

See photos from Day 1 below.

A new grassroots community organization wants this to be the “Year of Indio”—and the first step the group is taking to make that happen is supporting a candidate running against controversial Indio Mayor Michael Wilson.

The group, calling itself Year of Indio, announced its formation and the candidacy of Waymond Fermon during an early January news conference.

“We (in the Year of Indio group) are a group of individuals who care for the city of Indio, and want to see it thrive,” said Tizoc DeAztlan during a recent interview. DeAztlan, an experienced political campaigner who has contributed to the successful election efforts of Rep. Dr. Raul Ruiz and State Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, among others, is an adviser to Fermon’s campaign for the new Indio District 2 City Council seat.

Starting with this year’s election, the members of the Indio City Council will be elected by district, rather than city-wide. This means Fermon will go up against City Councilmember Michael Wilson, who recently rotated into the mayor’s chair. To date, no other candidates have announced an intention to run in this district.

“Recognizing that Indio is a critical cog in the Coachella Valley at large, we have to take ownership of its future and create change on our own,” DeAztlan said. “So, as a collective, knowing that Indio has a tremendous amount of strength if it’s utilized appropriately, we realize that the most impactful thing we can do right now is have Waymond on the council.

“That being said, Waymond is just one part of the puzzle. There are two other council positions up for grabs (in Indio this year), and if Waymond, as well as the other candidates supported by the Year of Indio collective are elected—that’s something that can dramatically change the landscape of Indio moving forward. Waymond is a natural fit, so he’s the first move, but there will be more moves.”

We asked Fermon what motivated him to jump into the District 2 race.

“I think it started when I was a kid,” Fermon said. “Growing up, I watched my mother give her last to help other people out, and as I got older, I started to see that all of our (Indio) residents were not being treated fairly. I think Indio is a thriving city, but I think some of the communities are thriving more than others, and I’d like to even that base out.”

Fermon, 38, is a father of three who works as a California Department of Corrections officer. He attended Indio public schools including Kennedy Elementary, Hoover Elementary, Jefferson Middle School and Indio High School, before attending College of the Desert. He said that if elected, he’d focus on certain community challenges he has long worked to overcome.

“One is our youth,” Fermon said. “You affect change with the youth. If they’re going to grow and raise children themselves here in Indio, you have to have something for them to do that keeps them away from crime, like working to gain a higher education. I’ve always had a passion for working with youth.

“Second is the homeless issue. You know, last night, I went out with a couple of folks just to talk to some of the homeless people in the city. I just wanted to listen to them. I believe that putting your feet on the ground and actually seeing it for what it is—you get a better perspective on it. You can’t just keep throwing money at situations. You have to fix some of the underlying issues.”

The fact that a new group including Democratic political operatives is backing a candidate against Wilson should come as no surprise, considering Wilson is a conservative who has spoken out to criticize Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren and the media, among others. However, Fermon insisted his campaign is more than just an attempt to unseat Wilson.

“As far as I go, I don’t worry about what anybody else is doing,” Fermon said. “I have my goals and my plans and my agenda that I’d like to bring to the table. I live by a mantra which is: ‘I focus 120 percent on greatness, because failure is not an option.’ So right now, I’m focused on having a successful campaign and getting there (to the Indio City Council).”

DeAztlan said he does see a need for change regarding the City Council’s makeup.

“What we see as a big contrast (between these two candidates) is how each reaches a decision on policy matters,” DeAztlan said. “What’s your value set? What are your concerns, and what are you thinking about when you make decisions? Whether it’s public safety, economic development, education or transportation, all these things affect people’s lives directly. You want somebody who is considering you and cares for you when they are considering all the decisions before them on the dais.

“What we have in Waymond is someone who’s a family guy, connected to the community, and whose value set is in step with yours, whether you’re Republican, Democrat, independent or just someone who doesn’t vote usually. He’s talking the talk, and walking the walk. He wants more for his community than what he sees now. People are frustrated. The incumbent on the board now (Wilson) is someone who recently did some infamous tweeting that showed his concern wasn’t for immigrant families and those who are suffering, but instead, his concern was that people were attacking a president that most people in his district do not believe in and do not support.”

While DeAztlan was willing to go on the offensive against Wilson, Fermon insisted that he was going to remain positive.

“I’m about positive vibes and a positive life,” Fermon said. “And if I can bring that positivity to the City Council, and to the city of Indio, that’s going to be great. I’m looking forward to the future, and I see some great things happening.”

Every year as of late has seemingly brought about a major change to the CareerBuilder Challenge, the Coachella Valley’s annual PGA Tour event. The latest big change: In early September 2017, Lagardere Sports acquired complete operational control of the golf tournament.

In some years, golf’s biggest names have not bothered to visit our backyard for the January event—even though the tournament’s lineage stretches back to the heyday of the Bob Hope Classic. This latest rendition does not even aspire to reclaim the star-studded glitz and glamour associated with its history.

That’s what Jeff Sanders, the newly appointed executive director of the CareerBuilder Challenge (and the executive vice president of Lagardere Golf Sports events) said when I spoke with him recently about the tourney, currently played on three courses in La Quinta: the PGA West’s Stadium and Jack Nicklaus Tournament courses, as well as the La Quinta Country Club.

“Forty-five years ago was the last time that Arnold Palmer won the Bob Hope Desert Classic,” Sanders said. “We’re going to honor Mr. Hope and Mr. Palmer forever. But we also need to change—and the change is our entertainment, golf-festival-event model. With all due respect, it’s time to change this thing up, make it different and make it fun.

“In our business, if you get the question, ‘Who’s playing, Jeff? Who’s playing?’ Well, let’s see. Phil Mickelson is playing. And John Daly is playing. That’s crazy. That’s good. But the problem is that if that’s where it stops, then all you’ve got is a golf tournament. What I want to have is a tournament where the golf element is the centerpiece, and everything else around it makes it an event. That’s the difference—the food, the wine and these amazing green side pavilions on the 16th, 17th and 18th finishing holes of the PGA West Stadium Course where you can go in, have a drink and watch a little football on big-screen TVs all add value for the ticket-buyer. And then you can always look out the window and say, ‘Hey, there’s Phil Mickelson out there making a birdie on 17.’ You’ve got to make it more than golf.”

This year, anyone who buys a $30 daily general-admission ticket (and most likely pays a $10 per-day parking fee) will get access to all of the best viewing stands and refreshment centers—and be treated like a VIP.

“We want this event to be fun for everyone,” Sanders said, “and at the end of the day, we want to give back as much money as we can to local Coachella Valley charities. Our theme this year is ‘Golf Fore Kids,’ and so local children’s charities will be our donation recipients. And for us, success is judged by the size of our crowds. La Quinta is one of the best destinations in the country for great weather and great activities in the winter months. There are plenty of people here in La Quinta and throughout the desert in January to have a big crowd at our tourney.”

Another part of the Lagardere formula—and included in the price of admission—is music concerts. Huey Lewis and the News headline the show on Friday, Jan. 19, and the Goo Goo Dolls will do the same on Saturday, Jan. 20. Both shows are slated to begin at 4:30 p.m., right as the day’s golf play concludes.

“This year up in Napa (at the Safeway Open tournament, which Lagardere manages as well), we had six nights of concerts, Monday through Saturday,” Sanders said. “The year before, we had only two shows. So here at the CareerBuilder, (in 2019), we’ll have more than two concerts—I can guarantee you that. Whether it’ll be three shows or six, I don’t know. … We’ll certainly add more music and other fun things each year.”

Mike Taylor, a 45-year resident of the desert, is a golf enthusiast and former bartender at famed local establishments like Lord Fletcher’s in Rancho Mirage who served many of the film, music and political personalities who frequented the valley in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Taylor regaled us recently with a few tales of those halcyon days of the Bob Hope Classic.

“One of my fondest memories was watching Jackie Gleason playing with Bob Hope,” Taylor said. “Gleason was wearing a sweater vest and tie. He was ‘dressed to the nines.’ The Saturday I saw them, it was on Bermuda Dunes, and Gleason didn’t play well. From what I understand, he had a massive hangover, because I also understand that he was a pretty handy drinker. He stayed at the Spa Hotel for the whole week, and because the celebrities who played in the ProAm didn’t get any money (from the organizers), he did run up a pretty good tab of around $10,000. I heard he said, ‘Give it to Bob Hope,’ when he checked out. But I think he was probably worth it, because there were enormous crowds when I was out there. I mean, you could hardly walk.”

Even back then, the weekend wasn’t only about golf. “One of the fun things about the tournament experience at that time was that each night, after play ended, there’d be impromptu jam sessions at various hotels in the valley, and they’d be packed,” Taylor said. “You never knew who you’d run into having fun at one of those happenings. That was in the old days when the Hebert brothers were still playing on the PGA Tour … Jay and Lionel Hebert, and you had Jimmy Demaret from Texas. These were all fun-loving guys who liked to sing. But you could wind up seeing Arnold Palmer sing, and (Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop) Maury Wills playing the banjo and singing. There was Jack Lemmon playing the piano. It was just so much fun, like a Mardi Gras in the Desert.”

Alas, those days are gone and never coming back—and Sanders and his team aren’t focused on competing with the past or the PGA major championships.

“This isn’t Augusta National, OK? It’s not the U.S. Open or the British Open,” Sanders said. “This is a regular PGA Tour event. It’s phenomenal golf, but it’s not one of the majors, which people flock to mostly just for the golf. And by the way, why would you make the weekend only about golf when you’re in La Quinta in January? It makes no sense. There’s so much more to do here. We’ll have fun activities around the grounds at PGA West. We’re going to create autograph opportunities for the kids, and the parents, too. The fan experience will be awesome.”

The CareerBuilder Challenge takes place Wednesday, Jan. 17, through Sunday, Jan. 21. For more information, visit www.careerbuilderchallenge.com.

As the turbulent year of 2017 churns toward its conclusion, you may be looking for a place to grab a dose of the Christmas spirit.

I found a place—the Mizell Senior Center in Palm Springs, which administers the Meals on Wheels program for the Coachella Valley.

“We just put our Christmas ‘giving tree’ up,” said Ginny Foat, the executive director of the center. “Our Meals on Wheels drivers—who are professionally trained full-time employees and not volunteers—come back from their routes and give us the names of clients who are just really poor. We sent each of those poorest clients a flier asking them what they wanted for the holidays. When they send us their wish list, we attach them to ornaments which we hang on the ‘giving tree.’ Then, people voluntarily come and pick an ornament and go out and buy specifically for that one person. The kind of lists we get are for books, stationery, electric razors, socks, slippers or new blankets. We never get lists asking for perfume, jewelry and computers. It’s really heartwarming to see all these people voluntarily come take the ornaments off the tree, and then come back with all these wrapped presents that we deliver to client homes on Christmas Eve.

“Another thing we do is deliver holiday bags to every single one of our clients that are filled with items donated by the community,” Foat said. “In the beginning of December, we collect toiletries, socks and other essentials, and then we deliver a huge bag of stuff to each client right before Christmas.”

To the staff of 23 people who enable the Mizell Senior Center’s Meals on Wheels program and provide year-round nutritional support to the neediest seniors living throughout much of Riverside County, generosity of spirit and acts of caring are a way of life every day.

“Our nutritional program has two initiatives: the congregate sites where people come in and have lunch together at different sites that we handle, and then we have the home delivery (via Meals on Wheels),” said Laura Castillo, the director of nutrition and operational services. “… Through Meals on Wheels, we deliver some 465 meals per day. Both the congregate sites and our home-delivery clients range from Whitewater to the west, and all the way east to North Shore, Mecca, Thermal, Coachella and Indio, as well as Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, (other area cities) and two senior communities in Palm Springs, along with our Mizell Center here. Also, we’ll probably start serving Palm Desert’s Joslyn Center at the beginning of our next fiscal year (July 1, 2018).”

Along with these primary responsibilities, the Meals on Wheels team does other things that aren’t necessarily in the job description.

“Sometimes, our delivery drivers are the only person who our clients will see in the whole day,” Castillo said. “That’s part of what makes this program so great. Yes, it gets hectic and frustrating when there’s not enough of this or that, but the support this program gets from the Mizell Senior Center itself is huge. It’s become such a great community.”

The requirements set by Riverside County for participants to qualify for Meals on Wheels service are strict.

“You have to have no one in the house who can cook or go to the grocery store,” Foat said. “You need to have no means of transportation.”

Whether or not a client can qualify for Meals on Wheels, the center’s staff is always looking for ways to improve every senior’s life.

“If a client can find a way to come into the center to get their meals, we encourage it, because they’ll make friends and have a motive to come out of their homes,” Castillo said. “I had a client two years ago who didn’t want to leave his house. I told his kids, ‘He’s mobile, and you need to get him to come to the center.’ So finally, his kids got him to come. Then, six months later, I hadn’t seen him for awhile, so I called the family, and they told me that he was in Oregon. When he came back at the end of the summer, I found out that he had married one of our other clients who he met here at the center. That was so cute. So, it’s a social program. It really is.”

All these good works require a lot of funds—funds that aren’t always readily available.

“Right now, we’re under-budgeted (for the volume of service we provide),” Castillo said.

Foat said Mizell’s Meals on Wheels program never lets any eligible senior go hungry.

“One of the things I think is so unique about our program is that we serve one-third of the (Meals on Wheels) in Riverside County, but we are the only purveyor for the county that does not have a waiting list,” Foat said. “Others start a waiting list each year when the county funds run out, but we fund-raise. This is a hard thing to do, but our board has decided that food is the most important thing for anyone, since without food, you can’t exist. You can’t do anything. So we’ve committed to never having a waiting list, and we have to fund-raise constantly to support this ideal.”

The Riverside County contract supplies the center with not quite 80 percent of the funding required. That means Mizell’s staff and board need to raise the money to subsidize 20-plus percent of the total—or the cost of roughly 34,000 meals, plus the cost of 20,000 extra meals that are not subsidized by the county.

“This year, because the county funds were much reduced, we’ll probably be looking at 50,000 meals that we’ll have to raise the money to pay for,” Foat said. “But it’s so important, since a lot of the clients that we deliver to are so dependent on that meal. Without it, they would not be eating.

“Also, another good part of our program is that we deliver pet food to seniors who have pets. We partner with the Palm Springs Animal Shelter pet-food bank, and twice a month, we deliver either cat or dog food, because we found that sometimes, our seniors’ only companion is their pet.”

To donate money to the Mizell Senior Center and its Meals on Wheels program, visit www.mizell.org, or drop off a check at the center, at 480 S. Sunrise Way, in Palm Springs. To donate essential goods for holiday gift bags or participate in the “giving tree” effort, simply stop by the center.

Below: The Mizell Senior Center kitchen staff: Kelly Wills (executive chef), Laura Castillo (director of nutrition and operational services), Mike Williams (kitchen assistant 1), Pedro Hernandez (kitchen assistant 2), Steve Bautista (sous chef), AJ Pelen (kitchen assistant 2), Irma Hernandez (kitchen assistant 2), Keith Strother (volunteer) and Mindy Burnett (cook).

On Oct. 8, the Trump White House released a long list of demands that the president had given to Congress—demands that Trump said would need to be met in order for the fate of young undocumented immigrants, often called DREAMers, to be determined.

“These findings outline reforms that must be included as part of any legislation addressing the status of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients,” Trump said. “Without these reforms, illegal immigration and chain migration, which severely and unfairly burden American workers and taxpayers, will continue without end.”

The list of demands disappointed advocates of DREAMers—young men and women who could face deportation if Congress does not act.

Hadley Bajramovic is a Riverside County immigration attorney for both the Consulate of Mexico and the Consulate of Guatemala. She said the proclamation by Trump did not surprise her.

“I don’t know that it was shocking,” Bajramovic said, “but the recommendations (the Trump White House) made are very harsh from our point of view. A lot of the principles and policies that are talked about in that memo are already in place. So, for me, there are parts of it that are just a big eye-roll.

“I noticed a theme of using criminality as a scare tactic—like we aren’t protected from (immigrants). ‘We need to protect the U.S.A. from these people,’ but the protections are already there.”

Bajramovic highlighted some of the positions outlined in the White House directive that she found to be misleading and/or inflammatory.

“The administration is suggesting that the border is still porous, and it is not,” she said. “I work with people who come to the border and declare asylum or ask for protection, and also people who crossed the border illegally. In the past two to three years, I have not had anybody come to my office who recently crossed without inspection. It was very common up until about 2007-2008 that people would either cross through the desert or come in (with the help of) a coyote. Now the people I am seeing were admitted or paroled in by the Border Patrol because they established that they could be eligible for relief. So the notion that the border is still porous is wrong. Building a wall is unnecessary. It’s an unnecessary expense.”

“But what was interesting and eye-opening is that whoever drafted these policies was aware of the protections coming into place under our local laws to help undocumented people or people with immigration issues who have criminal convictions. Most recently, California passed a law that allows attorneys to submit motions to vacate criminal convictions if it can be proven that the defendant was not fully aware of the immigration consequences of accepting a plea deal. This law, California 1473.7, went into effect this past January and says that before a person can do a plea deal, they must understand what they are doing. It’s a due-process protection, and it’s fair. This memo attacks that type of due-process protection and is calling it a part of the ‘sanctuary status.’ It calls for prohibiting states or cities from giving that kind of a remedy. That’s really disturbing.

“Another point that is really important: California provides services and benefits to aliens,” Bajramovic said. “In fact, the California Department of Social Services just opened up federal funding (to access by the public) of $45 million to fund immigration relief for undocumented people. Now this memo says they want to restrict grants to states that do that.”

Megan Beaman Jacinto is a La Quinta-based immigration-rights attorney.

“I’ve seen some phases of reaction and response (among current DACA beneficiaries), beginning with the time leading up to Sept. 5, when Trump declared that DACA would be ended by executive order. There was dread mixed with terror leading up to that date—but after, it was just terror,” she said. “There was a lot of uncertainty immediately about whether that announcement meant that Immigration and Customs Enforcement would just be coming for everyone who then possessed DACA. That was the initial reaction, I think, both in the advocate community as well as the DACA-recipient undocumented community.”

Beaman Jacinto pointed out a less-obvious consequence of the Trump administration’s ongoing anti-immigration stance.

“There’s been an interesting political framing of the DREAMer community as the one, limited group of people who are deserving of immigration protection,” Beaman Jacinto said. “It’s like they were the victims of their parents (actions and decisions). I appreciate, and agree, that the group we call DREAMers should be protected, but it sort of requires that we vilify everyone else. The parents of those kids are not DREAMers, even though they came here to provide a better life for their families. And the kids arriving now are not DREAMers, because they didn’t arrive before the deadline and the passage of the DREAMer legislation. It’s an interesting and arbitrary set of guidelines that have established this one deserving group that’s received protection both from Obama’s DACA executive order and now, most likely, from the (new Trump iteration) of the DREAM Act which we think will become law, hopefully next year. If that passes, it will be really great, and a step in the right direction—but it has required throwing a lot of other people under the bus.”

“If the DREAM Act does pass, or even if it doesn’t, we need to do the right thing for other people who didn’t fall into that so-called DREAMer category—because we’re all dreamers.”

Since 2007, the California Legislature has worked to encourage the development of telephone and Internet access through the California Advanced Services Fund. The fund provides financial assistance to both large telecommunications companies—including Frontier, AT&T, Charter and Cox—and independent broadband projects driven by community organizations that partner with smaller Internet service providers.

Thanks in part to the fund, the Legislature has grown closer to its goal of deploying broadband Internet service to 98 percent of Californians by 2017. But as the end of 2017 drew closer, many California legislators wanted to update the broadband-support program. The result: AB 1665, aka the Internet for All Now Act, which was authored by eastern Coachella Valley Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia.

After overwhelming approval in both houses, the bill now sits on the governor’s desk, as of this writing.

“We know that having broadband Internet access improves the state’s economy, enhances educational opportunities, and benefits public safety, (as well as) our medical field and patient care,” Garcia said during a recent phone interview. “Even in the Coachella Valley, civic participation requires a connection to the Internet now. So this law supports a program that invests in and ensures that the infrastructure is in place for the purpose of allowing carriers to connect all these homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, clinics and public safety services in remote areas, allowing them to communicate. It’s vital to what we all do on a daily basis.”

Garcia said the Legislature set the 98 percent connectivity goal about a decade ago. “We have now gotten to about 94 percent or so, and that last (unconnected) percentage happens to be in mostly underdeveloped areas like the eastern Coachella Valley, Imperial County and other rural parts of the state. So that’s what this program will do.”

However, the bill did not make it to the governor’s desk without controversy.

Stephen Blum is an executive team member of the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, a California Public Utilities Commission-funded group engaged in broadband planning and development in the state, He’s also the president of Tellus Venture Associates, his own broadband-development consulting agency. He is not fan of the Internet for All Now Act version that made it to the governor’s desk.

“There have been attempts in the last legislative session and the two previous sessions to put more money into the (CASF) fund, more or less keeping the program as it was,” Blum said. “This year, things changed. The incumbents (large corporate ISPs) including AT&T, Frontier and the California Cable and Telecommunications Association jumped in and said, ‘We want the bill to be X, Y and Z.’ … Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia took it and started adding language that reflected the desires of these cable and telephone company incumbents.

“The bill went through three revisions, and each time, more perks were added for the incumbents. So as it’s written now, AB 1665 is going to put $300 million into a CASF infrastructure grant account and make it virtually impossible for independent projects to be funded. Essentially, then, it becomes a fund for AT&T and Frontier to use at their discretion.”

Blum said some of the changes made to the act baffled him.

“One of the things this bill does that boggles my mind is it lowers California’s broadband speed levels—and it’s a significant change,” he said. “Right now, an area is fundable if there’s no existing service that provides 6 mbps (megabits per second) download and 1.5 mbps upload speeds. That’s the standard. This bill changes it to 1 mbps up. Now, that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is, because the difference between 1.5 or 1 mbps up is the difference between 1990 DSL systems and contemporary copper system architecture and electronics. You can take a 1990 DSL system, do relatively minimal upgrades to it, and reach the 6 down, 1 up speed standard required. You can’t get 6 down, 1.5 up without going in and doing substantial work. That’s the change that AT&T and Frontier pushed very hard for, because that allows them to do minimal upgrades in rural areas to meet their obligations. Now they’re going to have to invest even less money—because the state will pay for it.

“If you’re in an area that falls under the CASF umbrella … you’re looking at a future where you’re going to have service somewhere in the 6 to 10 mbps download range, and 1 mbps upload range, and that’s not going to change for 10 to 20 years, because once this stuff is in, there’s no point in upgrading it.”

Garcia defended the changes made to the bill.

“There are places throughout the state that still have absolutely no Internet service whatsoever,” Garcia said. “The intention of the bill is to get people connected. The debate was: Why would we allow for certain areas that are already connected to increase their speed capacity? We laid out a goal, through a bipartisan effort of Republicans and Democrats from both rural and urban parts of the state, to make sure that the primary focus of this legislation was to serve the unserved populations. We had people push back, saying that we should be trying to get higher network speeds in places that already had connectivity, and we wrestled with that. What we decided is that we could (try for higher network speeds) after we connect everybody to some service in the areas still having no service. So, modifications to the bill were made where we were not able to appease everyone, but get enough support to move the bill forward.”

Another controversial aspect of the bill: For “last mile” projects that connect established “mid-mile” broadband pipelines to end users like homes, hospitals or businesses, those end users will have to participate financially in the funding of their access. Is that reasonable or fair when the target population is disadvantaged?

“The thought was that there should be some investment, or ‘skin in the game,’ on everyone’s part in order to be considered for access to CASF grants, and ultimately be connected,” Garcia responded.

The Independent asked whether there is some sort of means test built into the bill in order for disadvantaged end users to obtain financial support via the CASF.

“There is a means test through the CPUC,” Garcia said. “There was some confusion that this bill was attempting to just give people free Internet access—that it was like a welfare-type of program where if you signed up, you got free Internet. That’s nowhere near the real case. We’re talking about infrastructure being developed, and that makes it that much more accessible for people to connect to some type of broadband service.”

Blum said when we spoke that he was hopeful the legislation was not a done deal.

“When it gets to the governor, I think there’s a conversation to be had at that point,” he said. “We think that’s where the final decision will get made, and we feel that’s still an open question.”

In April 2016, the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) held a rally to highlight its achievements in bringing safe, clean and potable water to schools in the Eastern Coachella Valley via its Agua4All campaign, which installed 75 clean water-bottle-filling stations for student use.

For many of these local children, these stations offer the only consistent and free access to safe drinking water they have. (See “Potable Progress: Agua4All Meets Its Goal of Giving East Valley Students Access to Safe Drinking Water—but There’s Work Left to Do,” May 8, 2016.)

Since then, however, Agua4All’s progress has slowed significantly. Just those initial 75 stations are operating; no others have been installed.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that the program has stalled,” said Olga Morales, the RCAC regional manager. “Originally, we had two pilot programs, in the Coachella Valley and Bakersfield. Most of our resources were utilized in those two communities. Then, we expanded our program into other counties throughout the state, and arguably, the available money didn’t go as far as it did when it was concentrated in one specific area.

“Our whole program thus far had been funded strictly by foundation and bank money. It takes a lot of effort to attract those kinds of dollars. … In the end, it doesn’t really go very far.

“We did succeed in expanding the program into other counties across the state,” Morales continued, “but there have not been sufficient resources to increase our outreach in Riverside County and the Coachella Valley. However, in the last two months, we were awarded what’s known as a ‘technical assistance (funding) program’ for our drinking-water-in-schools program, which is hosted under the State Water (Resources Control) Board. Under this new program, we’ve been directed to work with schools to identify the need either for access to, or treatment of, drinking water on their campuses. The program officially launches next month, and it has $9.5 million set aside for drinking water infrastructure to be installed at schools in primarily disadvantaged communities.”

Unfortunately, Morales said only school districts in cities with populations less than 20,000 can apply for that assistance for the first nine months—meaning most of the Coachella Valley schools in need will not qualify.

However, there is good news to report regarding infrastructure access in the Eastern Coachella Valley.

The Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), in partnership with other governmental offices and community stakeholders, is poised to deliver some lasting improvements to East Valley communities. CVWD Board Vice President Castulo Estrada, who represents the East Valley, talked about the positive signs for valley residents who have struggled with a lack of access to potable water for decades.

“During discussions at the CVWD Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Task Force meetings (chaired by Estrada), we can put some focus on the water needs of the east side, which is due to a lack of infrastructure,” Estrada said. “… Over this last year, our group at the meetings has grown to include a lot of the people who need to be part of the conversation, and who are essential to ensuring that these projects get done. Our group now includes the assemblymember’s office (Eduardo Garcia), the congressman’s office (Dr. Raul Ruiz) and the county supervisor’s office (V. Manuel Perez). We have folks from the Riverside County Transportation and Land Management Agency, which is the department in charge of issuing permits. We have folks from the United States Department of Agriculture, folks from Building Healthy Communities (BHC), folks from the leadership council, and folks from the housing coalition. Now folks from the Desert Recreation District want to join us.

“Our meetings now provide a place where everybody can talk about the projects that they’re working on, and it allows everybody to have a sense of what’s happening, and that way, things can get done better.”

Estrada mentioned the San Antonio del Desierto sewer-extension project as an example of how the task force is making progress.

“The county was holding back a grading permit that was stopping progress with the project, and as a result, we had to request at least two extensions for a grant from the USDA,” Estrada said. “Then, when Supervisor Perez came in, I spoke to him about it, and there was a big meeting called. After that, things got done. So now that project is going out to bid (for construction contractors) this month after a whole year of hiccups and delays.”

Supervisor V. Manuel Perez agreed that the CVWD task force’s work is leading to much-needed solutions to the East Valley’s longstanding needs for potable water and sewer-system access.

“Castulo’s attempts to ensure that we have reliable water infrastructure on the east side deserve recognition, particularly when it involves safe drinking water, which I view as a social-justice right.” Perez said. “This has been an historical issue for us for a very long time.”

District 56 Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia was also optimistic about the progress being made in the East Valley—including possible forward progress for Agua4All.

“From my perspective, we’re going to continue to build off our efforts with the legislation AB 2124, which included dollars to ensure safe, clean drinking water for our schools and communities in and around our school grounds,” Garcia said. “That was part of the Agua4All campaign, which received approximately $10 million in support of their efforts.

“In this last budget approved by the governor, there is roughly $17 million budgeted toward these types of efforts. That’s specifically a result of our advocacy and the advocacy of other legislators who represent similar geographic districts that are primarily rural, agricultural economies, where you have remote housing circumstances, as we do here in the Coachella Valley, that are unable to centralize infrastructure. … My job, and the job of Castulo Estrada, and the job of RCAC is now to try to bring those dollars to our backyard.”

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