CVIndependent

Wed02262020

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Kevin Fitzgerald

On Nov. 1, 2019, District 28 State Sen. Jeff Stone, a Republican, resigned to become the western regional director of President Donald Trump’s Department of Labor. On March 3—the day of California’s primary election, as well as Super Tuesday nationally—voters will start the process of choosing Stone’s replacement.

Five candidates—three Democrats and two Republicans—are running in the district, which reaches from Temecula Valley in the west to the Colorado River in the east, and includes nearly the entire Coachella Valley. Presuming no candidate gets a majority of the vote, the top two finishers will move on to a special vote on May 12, and the winner will serve the final two years of the term.

The Independent recently spoke to all of the candidates and asked each of them the same set of questions, on topics ranging from the Salton Sea, to their personal accomplishments, to California’s primary format. Here are their complete answers, edited only for style and clarity, and presented in the same order as the certified list of candidates.

Anna Nevenic

Retired registered nurse, nonprofit director and author

Democrat, 72

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

We have been talking for some 20 years about it, and we should have started doing something about it years ago, because you can’t fix that problem in one day or one year. But we haven’t done any of that. We’ve just been researching and analyzing and wasting more money in the process.

My plan always has been that we can’t save the whole lake. So we (should) cover the area with trees, so that we have a big park, which will also be good for the wildlife. They should have done that right away. Then (we) use what revenues we have and work together with the private sector to use the algae, because we have a lot of algae, which are good for renewable energy. There’s talk about bringing water in from the Sea (of Cortez) and using recycled water to help regenerate the sea. But you have to be sure before you can say there’s a plan.

People can say, “This is what I want,” but it has to be realistic.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

As a community activist working in the health-care profession for the last four decades, I’ve been working to have health care for all, because health care is the most important asset we have. It should not be treated like a commodity, because our bodies should not be for sale. We can save money, too, if we take measures and prevent people from becoming disabled. Prescription-drug treatment is a key component of any individual’s health care plan, and we need to be increasing access to safe and affordable prescription drugs. It is unacceptable that Americans pay inflated prices for vital medications. Health care for all ensures that health services are appropriate, effective, cost efficient and focused on consumer needs. Preventative care will play a major role in meeting health-care needs. Prevention works, costs less, and it saves lives.

Also, we should be diversifying our economy. Most of the jobs created in our area are low-wage jobs in hospitality and the restaurant business and so on. A lot of them are part-time jobs, which are OK for senior citizens, but are not OK for the young people, because they don’t have health care overage or retirement plans. We need to bring high-tech industry (into our district). It’s growing in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, but in the entire Inland (Empire) area, we have maybe a few startups, but nothing really. And that’s very important to bring wages up, especially for young people who are supposed to be our future.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

I’ve been a community activist and rallying for health care for all for the last 40 years. I’ve been going to Sacramento and trying to get a bill passed. Every year, we lobby for that … but it’s the regular citizens who are making this happen. So I’ve been working with the environmental movement, and fighting for sex education in schools. Each time, you have to gather signatures on the petitions, and then you go and lobby for the bill. I’ve been doing that for the last four decades. I’ve educated many people as to why they should get involved, why it’s important to go to alternative media like PBS to get the information you need. I give lectures to young people wherever I go, and I’ve spoken to thousands and thousands of young people explaining what the generations before them did to provide them with things they all enjoy today like civil rights.

I never got married … that’s my point. So I’m proud I didn’t do it. Instead, I’ve spent thousands of hours of my time going to different conferences, and participating in annual summits where you talk about the economy, and other issues of importance to the average citizen. I’ve spent more time doing that than making my own living, because I felt as a young girl that there were many people who were not as strong as I, and they needed help in some way.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

The only reason I’m running is because I hope to educate enough people that influence and money is a problem, and (they should) not to be influenced by the establishment that only promotes people who raise big money while ignoring the others. I feel that, because of my professional background, my educational background and my civic engagement, I’m the most prepared for this position. I have traveled, and I’ve seen how other countries deal with their health-care issues. If you listen to all these powerful voices like the (American) Medical Association or the trial lawyers or big pharma, somebody’s always standing in the way. So I try to educate as many people as possible that they have to use their own minds.

There is a solution to every problem, and for every dollar we invest in preventing problems and intervening early, we save $7. So, I believe that one person can make a difference. That’s why I wrote a book called Out of the Shadows about American women who changed the world. I do believe that I could influence (legislative) colleagues to put the money in the right place where we really need it.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

From when I was about 11 years old, I saw all these horrible movies about war and misery and what people are capable of (doing to each other), and I always thought that when I grew up, I might be able to help make a better world, and a better society by working together rather than against each other. I’ve been a peace activist all my life, and I still am. People don’t understand that $1 trillion is going to the military, and how are we going to pay for all the other problems that we have? We have such a broken system. But if you believe in the Constitution, you know that it says, ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people.’ It doesn’t say anything about being led by the professional politicians. I think it’s a problem, because we have people (in elected office) who want to stay there forever, because it’s a good position, right? But I just want two years, and I believe that if I’m elected, I’ll be able to put my agenda in front (of my legislative colleagues) and say, ‘OK. There’s already a solution for this problem, and this one, and this one. So let’s do it!’

I’m an independent voice. I will do what is right for the people who elected me, and not what’s right for wealthy corporations and individuals. I will never change my positions. I don’t blindly obey any policy platform. So if I’m elected I will take the approach that everybody matters. Every child matters. Every person matters. And all my decisions will be based on human needs, not on corporate needs.


Elizabeth Romero

Assistant vice chancellor of governmental community relations at UC Riverside

Democrat, 36

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

As a resident of the eastern Coachella Valley, obviously I have firsthand experience and knowledge about what is happening in and around the sea, especially related to some of the environmental-justice issues that are currently impacting our communities. I think the most important thing is that we have to ensure that we are moving forward in a way that is founded in science and research, so that we can find the best solution to mitigate—not only the current dust (pollution being dispersed into the air), but also find long term solutions that allow us to restore the sea, not only for habitat (redevelopment), but for economic development, as well as long term continuity of the sea.

If we have an option to bring water into the sea, which is something that I think has been on the table and is still being explored, then we should pursue that. So there are various proposals out there, and I’m open to listening to and assessing all of them. But what I think is really important now is to also leverage the $220 million in funding that has already been allocated in the budget through the water bond so that we can actually get some projects moving.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

There are several issues that I’m passionate about addressing. I don’t think there’s one single issue that we need to point our finger at, but there’s a whole host of things that are intersectional and that we need to focus on. Those include the state’s affordability issues, which some would say is what’s pushing us into the crisis around homelessness. But it’s deeper than that. It’s about people having access to affordable and diverse housing in the region, which means (we need better) transportation access, health care and quality education. There is this whole host of different issues that I think it’s really important that we focus on. … We’re finding that as we talk to people, there’s not one single issue. People want quality jobs. People want a quality environment and quality education. So, (overall) we want to make sure that we’re focusing on issues that matter to the residents of the 28th District.

When you mention “diverse housing” as a need, what exactly are you referring to?

I think we need to have entry-level housing and affordable housing, (which can be done) obviously by expanding access through California’s Section 8—a government funded program that aims to help low-income families find housing—but also through self-help programs. We need to have first-time home-buyer programs and veteran housing programs. So there are many programs that exist, not only through the state, but through the federal government that we need to leverage and expand here in the desert. This housing needs to be built throughout the Coachella Valley, so that our communities are built out in a way that allows people to live closer to where they work.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

Most recently, professionally, as assistant vice chancellor of governmental community relations at UC Riverside, I’ve been very focused on helping to expand the number of doctors serving our region. I’ve worked to help raise $100 million to build a School of Medicine education building that will double the size of the current class at UC Riverside from 250 (per class) to 500 over time. Also, we’re focused on leveraging the state funds to fully fund residencies and programs that are addressing direct health-care access needs in our region. As you know, we have a health care crisis in our region (due to the fact) that the underserved communities of our region don’t have the same number of doctors that the more affluent communities do. So we’re trying to level the field in terms of having primary-care physicians who are focused on serving the entire region. The best way to predict where a doctor will actually start their practice is (determined by) where they did their residency. So that’s why it’s important to embed these doctors in our communities throughout the 28th District. That way, we will be able to deal with the health-care shortage we’re experiencing long term.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

My career in the region has spanned over 20 years of serving the greater Coachella Valley area, and throughout Riverside County. I’ve been elected for 13 years in a very purple part of the district (to the Coachella Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees and then the Riverside County Board of Education). I’ve been successful in serving this area for a couple of reasons, and I think they underscore the qualities that you’re speaking to: I’m a coalition builder and a good listener, too. Even though I may not agree with someone’s point (of view), I’m always willing to engage in the conversation. Also, I’m someone who’s able to bring people together to solve issues. My campaign currently has the support of Republicans and Democrats and everything in between. I’ve worked on both sides of the aisle. I’ve served for county supervisors in a nonpartisan office, and I’ve sought to just do the work. I think that’s really important for this race.

Moving forward as a state senator, I think we need somebody who’s focused on getting results, and addressing the issues that matter to everyone. There are issues that are cross-cutting. People, regardless of their party affiliation, want to have quality schools. They want to have access to healthcare. They want quality jobs that have benefits. So I think it’s important to focus on the issues that matter to the people in our region, and work across the aisle to make things happen.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

Obviously, it’s the system that we have. I think it’s important to communicate, as a candidate, to the voters. So, in all fairness, I think it’s definitely a process that allows us to put the best candidates forward, and have them come to voters who can participate in the democratic process and decide (which candidates) they want to move forward.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I’d be honored to have the votes of your readers. As a lifelong resident and a homegrown candidate that has served this community for over 20 years, I am poised to hit the ground running on day one. I can ensure that our voice will be heard in Sacramento and that we will be leveraging the state resources that we need to address the issues that are important in our region. So, I would be honored to have the vote of all of your readers on March 3.


Joy Silver

Businesswoman; housing adviser; political activist

Democrat, 64

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

I’m really happy to talk about (this issue), because, for me, running for this office is the continuation of working on the things that I’m already doing. A lot of times, politicians get elected and say, “When I get elected, I will do this and the other thing,” and they elucidate some things that they’ll accomplish should you elect them. But for me … it’s about continuing to finish what I’m already pursuing. … What’s important to know about the Salton Sea is the “sea-to-sea” solution which has received traction throughout the desert cities. Resolutions have been passed through a number of those city councils (supporting this approach) as an answer to stopping the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea.

The recommendation of the Salton Sea Coalition—of which I’m a member—is to put the engineering in place to start what is called the “ocean water import.” Now, the second part of this is to support the declarations of emergency that have been passed by Imperial County. The first declaration of emergency regards the local emergency for air pollution. The second one addresses the stoppage of emptying raw sewage into the New River. Both of those emergency declarations are of critical importance to overcome the delays that have happened (while trying) to implement any of the projects. What is great about these declarations is that they mitigate the permitting issues, procurement issues and agencies getting in each other’s way, including using money, because once the declarations of emergency are accepted, (any corrective actions) can be paid for without another bond. The total state revenue is $146 billion, and the “rainy day fund” has $16.5 billion, and the budget surplus is $21.5 billion. So the money is there to move forward and mitigate the declarations of emergency on both the raw sewage and the air.

Getting that into forward motion will push solutions toward getting done. We’ve got to use the available funds to clean the water and update sewage treatment. This needs to be for both the New River and the Salton Sea itself, since there’s been an increase in pesticides (flowing into the sea) along with the raw sewage and military munitions (contamination). The Region 7 State Water Control Board has been non-compliant around these issues for the past 27 years, and that has to change. (The region covers approximately 13,000,000 acres, some 20,000 square miles, in the southeastern portion of California.) There have been funds earmarked (by the state) for the Salton Sea, and we can use them to start the engineering plans to begin water import. There have been about 11 proposals for importing ocean water already submitted, and we need an unbiased agency to evaluate those proposals. That will determine what the actual cost is for importing ocean water. Ocean water, with salinity management, offers the most feasible path to restore the Salton Sea and protect the region from environmental disaster.

The good thing that’s happened is that (Arturo) Delgado is the assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency. He has made the commitment to the community that there will be an open and unbiased evaluation of those ocean-water import proposals, and that’s really major, from our point of view. You know, the connection (from the Salton Sea) to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez was actually there at one time, so, fully restoring the sea would restore the environment, and bring back the birds and the plants, restore boating and fishing, and help with economic development in the area. All of that will mitigate the health issues (including elevated) asthma and respiratory illness rates. Right now, as that sea water evaporates, the playa just releases more and more toxins into the air.

It’s so interesting to me that people who are unaware of the challenge happening with the Salton Sea don’t realize that they’re actually breathing in the toxins released. We breathe the same air (all over Southern California). So, this is not simply a problem in Brawley, or Salton City, or Imperial or Riverside County. This is a problem for California and further. I think that understanding needs to be made clear to Sacramento, and that would be my job, to advocate for moving (a solution) forward in some way.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

Here’s where I have difficulty with this question: “the single.” The reason it’s so challenging is because the issues that we face are integrated. So, there is no one solution of one item that’s going to solve that very issue. See what I’m saying? Unless things are going on along, at least, three tracks, you can’t really solve any issues without the other things rolling forward.

That being said, what I would look at as one of the pressing issues that we’re facing is the need for affordable housing—whether it’s for seniors on fixed incomes or veterans in need of support services due to (post-traumatic stress disorder) challenges, or entry housing pricing for young families and work-force housing for those with jobs in the district and have to drive far out of their own neighborhoods. This (housing initiative) goes further in that it helps create solutions as well for the homelessness crisis. My intention to address this is to develop a legislative initiative—which I’m working on right now—that refocuses the funding efficiencies of the state to allow for easier permitting and funding when criteria has been met that is not dependent upon federal funding sources.

What actually is the strategy as to how you would go about accomplishing such objectives?

Well, we have to reallocate our existing resources to developing efficient strategies for funding affordable housing. Part of the funding of affordable housing relies on federal tax credits, for example. We see legislators who are putting together bills to mitigate the timelines of how long it takes to go through the processes to bring affordable housing into line and to go into construction in communities. Some of that has to do with the permitting process, and some of it has to do with conditional use of permits, which means that municipalities get to choose the location for what the use of the land can be. (What’s needed) is bringing municipalities on board to find land to integrate affordable housing communities. So, how do you fund that? It has to be more state focused. There has to be more incentive through the state, so that the competition for funding is lessened, and there are more no-profit developers who can begin the process of construction. So that’s one of the big issues that we’re facing.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

For me, we’re still on the subject of affordable housing, and what I’m most proud of is that, when Palm Springs says we have land available, but we can’t find a developer to come in and build an affordable housing community, I said at the time to someone who was on the City Council during that time period, “I’m going to bring a really good organization into Palm Springs to do that.” So, consequently, I did, and I now work as a consultant for that nonprofit organization (the Community Housing Opportunities Corporation) as their regional director for Southern California, and we’re bringing more affordable housing communities into Riverside County right now. I’m very proud of that.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

A couple of things. The first thing is that I am not a career politician, and that’s important, because I can afford to be strong in my stance to represent our district. Also, I have skills and experience in the real world that I bring to a legislative body. That’s important, because when you represent people, you represent those who actually are in the work force, who have experience in creating business, who actually provide health care and these are the kinds of skills that I have. So when a piece of legislation is put forward, knowing how things actually work in the real world can help that legislation be stronger and not simply be developed without being able to see that it may cause obstructions that no one intended, because they actually didn’t know how the thing itself works. I think that’s an important piece. I’m also able to motivate people into taking action, and that’s a quality that’s really critical in moving something forward. That’s why I got into running for this office, because I was already mobilizing and motivating people to move forward, and so I thought, “OK … we’re moving forward, but we have some challenges in getting things done—like with the Salton Sea Coalition or other things that I was moving forward with—so it’s time to move those obstructions out of the way on the state level.” We haven’t really had any representation in District 28 that moved things forward. Basically, we had representation that was saying “no” and keeping things at status quo, and certainly not fighting for our fair share of resources to get those things done.

Also, I am persistent, with a laser focus on goal attainment. I possess an awareness of different community needs throughout our district, because I’ve been out there talking to people for a good three years now. I hunt down the truth, and I stand up for solutions when they’re for the common good. (Because I’m not) a career politician, even if (the position) is politically unpopular, if the solution is for the common good, then I’m willing to take that stand. So, meeting people where they are in this district that’s more than 6,000 square miles means a lot of travelling. But I’m willing to go out and meet with people throughout the district, and I bring those people together to move things forward. I’m a fighter. I’m inclusionary, and I’m a negotiator.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

Here’s the thing: I’m not really sure about this, because my senate races have been my first such races (both in 2018 and the current 2020 campaign). I don’t know what it would be like in a different environment. I think what we’re seeing right now is the different political parties having their primaries let the political party’s strength (in a particular region) decide who is the stronger candidate. That could be advantageous, but not having experienced that (scenario), I don’t know for sure. Having the run-off election be between the two highest vote-getters can be difficult, because I don’t think it offers (the voters) the same amount of choice as, potentially, the party primaries do.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I would like to let your readers know that I’m a working-class kid who was once out on the street, but I worked my way up from an entry-level job at a health-care clinic to the executive suite. I have said before that I’m not a career politician, and I have real-life experience in health care, senior care, housing development and renewable fuel technology. I’m the renewable-energy-economy candidate, actually. I’m not running to get things done when I’m elected. I am running to get the things done that I’m already doing.

My agenda for change will focus on reducing the cost of prescription drugs and opposing harmful cuts to health care. I want to tackle the homelessness crisis and provide housing, also for homeless veterans. And I will fight for our fair share of state funding, because you know what? Riverside County cannot afford to wait any longer.


Melissa Melendez

U.S. Navy veteran; California District 67 assembly member

Republican, 52

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

From the people who I’ve talked to about this issue, and from the things we’ve seen coming through Sacramento, I can say from the beginning that we really need more money. The government really needs to step up here and help us out. But I do think there are things we can do in conjunction with that, which range from some wetland development along the edges and the open areas. We can partner with state, local and federal entities on that. I would say we could be creating some habitats in there, too. These would be habitats that the community could access as well. We could provide some other amenities in there to really get community buy-in. The reality is that we need more water out there, which we can do in the future by bringing it in from new sources.

I feel like we’ve just been standing still on this issue. A little bit of money gets thrown in there, but then the situation doesn’t change. I think that some of the things I mentioned are things we can do immediately. I think the governor promised about $220 million, but that is contingent on the bond measure passing. So what happens if the bond measure doesn’t pass? I don’t think that’s a fair solution. While I appreciate the (governor’s promise to direct) $220 million, let’s be honest: It’s going to take more than $220 million to solve this problem.

Is there any particular restoration strategy that you favor?

Yes. More water. We know that the issue is that we need to fill the sea back up. We have to do that. Years ago, my great uncle lived near the Salton Sea, and I remember him talking about it as the place to be, and the place to go. But now you look at it and say, “What the heck happened here?” Why has it been neglected for so long? So, it’s got to be a group effort, and now is not the time to point fingers and argue about whose fault it is. Let’s get something done.

I’ve heard talk about a “sea-to-sea” water replenishment strategy. Do you think that’s a viable approach?

The problem we always seem to run into is that environmental groups come in and challenge whatever is trying to be done. That’s always going to be an issue. The question is how we can get everybody to at least agree to some (restorative actions) in the middle, because it’s a health hazard out there. People are getting nose bleeds, and there are asthma problems and other respiratory problems. This is not something that we can argue about all day long as far as environmental concerns, and then do nothing. People deserve better than that.

I’m in the western part of our district, and there are times when we can smell the Salton Sea where we are. And that (polluted air) wafts over Los Angeles, even. You’d think that they would say, “Hey, what’s going on here?” So, everybody thinks that there’s just one answer, but there isn’t. I think people need to be mature about this and (understand) that you’re not going to come with some silver bullet. This calls for a multifaceted solution, and we have to stop trying to find that magic wand to wave and fix everything, because that’s not going to happen.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

I think the two top issues, in the whole state really, are affordability and the homelessness crisis. That’s what people have been talking to me about, and that’s what we’ve seen in the polling. The cost of living is pretty darn high in California, and it impacts every aspect of our lives, from housing affordability to long commutes and the time that people are spending on freeways. I will say that I have personally authored legislation. … I’ve even offered bills to re-purpose the high-speed rail funding and put it into the building of new housing. There is a bill that we put forward to make sure that the gas tax money is actually going to (maintaining) the roads instead of other pet projects which everyone is frustrated with.

The homeless issue—which I think is the No. 1 polling issue in California—everyone’s concerned with that. I did put policies forward to address chronic homelessness that can be lessened, or averted, by providing more mental-health funding, because we know that there’s a large contingent of homeless out there who have some mental-health issues. They really need some help, so we’re going to beef up the funding for that, in addition to making sure that those out there who have substance abuse issues are getting the help that they need too.

Relating to “sober living” homes: Basically you (or anyone) living in your neighborhood could open a “sober living” home. As long as you have six or fewer clients living there, there are no regulations that you have to follow. It is literally the wild west. It’s kind of insane. So we put a bill forward saying there are certain standards that have to be met, because people have been coming out here from all over the country to get help. But, once (the patient’s) money runs out—their health insurance or whatever form of payment they’re using—they kick (the patient) out. They have a term for it: They call it “curbing.” Talk about dehumanizing someone. And (the patients) don’t get the help. So, now we’re back to square one. I think that’s all pretty important when we talk about the homelessness issue. It’s not just that people can’t afford a place to live, although that is a portion of it. But there’s a whole host of other issues out there that we can do something about and adjust.

These policies that you’ve been referring to: Are some of them still pending in the Legislature, or have they been passed already?

These are bills that have been introduced and have failed to get passed in the Legislature. We’ve gotten further with them each year we bring them up. Apparently it takes like 50 attempts to get something meaningful through, but we’re working on it. Even on the “sober living” homes bill, we had the coalition of the (home) operators who came forward in support of the bill. Their feeling is that they run a legitimate organization, and they want the bad actors to be gone. They want rules to be followed, because (the bad actors) aren’t helping people. But the other side is saying that when it comes to addiction issues, (the patients) are a protected class, and we don’t want to get into a situation where we’re somehow violating their civil rights by saying where these “sober living” homes can and can’t operate, which we weren’t trying to do. We were just trying to say that there are certain rules and certain standards to make sure that they are actually helping people.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

That’s an easy question. That would be marrying my husband and going on to have our five kids. They are the best thing ever. You know, politics is short-term, and even a career is not forever, but family is forever, and I’m very blessed. We’ve got great kids: the oldest one is a (United States) Navy diver; we’ve got one in college, and two in high school; one in eighth grade, and they are the loves of my life. That’s definitely the thing I’m most proud of.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

It’s a precarious situation at the end, but I think it’s important for all of us who are serving to remember that we serve the people that we represent. We are not to be serving the special interests that dominate the halls in the state capitol. I made that commitment to be their voice when I first got elected, and I’m going to continue to be their voice. I’ve hosted over 100 town halls since I’ve been in the Assembly. We do two a month: one during the day, and one in the evening. We do that because voices need to be heard. I always tell them that I can’t represent them effectively or well if I don’t know what’s on their minds and how they feel about the issues. Frankly, I wish every legislator would do that. It’s been very helpful, because sometimes we have bills that come up, and they are definitely partisan bills, and I have to ask my constituents what they want me to do. We had the late-school-start bill last year—and party politics don’t come into play there—and went and asked (constituents), ‘What do you want me to do?’ For everybody who has kids, this is going to affect you. So, I think I’ve been most effective and best represented the people, because I do that. You know, when you win your re-election (races) for the state Assembly by large margins with (backing) from Republican, Democrat and Independent voters, that means they like when their representatives listen to them and come talk with them.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

I get a lot of complaints about the “top-two” (primary format), and I have to remind people that the Legislature did not do that; the voters of California actually did that. I think (the voters at the time) were convinced that it would bring forward candidates who were more in the center (of political ideology) rather than on the fringes. But I have not seen that happen, actually, so I don’t know that it worked. But I know that people are really irritated when they look at their ballot, and if they’re a Democrat and they only see two Republicans, or if they’re Republican and they only see two Democrats—they don’t like it. They want choices. So has it served the public? I don’t think so. I don’t think it changed anything, to be honest with you, other than frustrating the voters.

From your perspective as a candidate, does it matter?

I think it does. I mean, if you have to make a choice, you’re making a choice ideally between two different things. But when you have two people in the same party, then it becomes (a question of), “How different are they, really?” Maybe those candidates aren’t really different, and it just comes down to who has more money. And, who has more special interests backing them. I don’t think that’s fair to the voters. They want clear and distinct choices, and that’s very hard to get when you have two people in the same party on your ballot. I mean, imagine how left out you feel as a voter if you’re in one particular party, and nobody from your party is on the ballot for you to choose from. When you talk about voter apathy, that could have something to do with it, because people say, “You know what? Someone I would prefer to support isn’t even on the ballot. So, why bother?” It has an effect on every (race) down ballot, too. If you don’t go in to vote for your state Assembly member or your state senator (for instance), because somebody from your party is not on there, that means maybe you’re not voting for ballot initiatives, either. And your vote could be very important (in terms of) determining whether or not something passes.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I do want to point out that I have the endorsement of the (Riverside) County sheriff, of the county district attorney and of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. I think that should let people know that I take public safety very seriously, and I take protecting their tax dollars very seriously, too—considering the fact that we’re going to have a ballot initiative in November that is going to tinker with Prop 13 and how property taxes are assessed.

I want people to know that I didn’t get into politics by design. Politics is not exactly where I expected that I would be. I got into because, after leaving the Navy, it’s just kind of a way of life. You go serve. You don’t just take care of yourself; you go serve everybody in your community. So, that’s how I look at it, and public service is pretty much all I’ve done for my entire adult life. I hope (the voters) see that in the work that I’ve done, and in the ways that I’ve communicated with my constituents, the outreach that we’ve engaged in. When I get emails from my constituents, I answer every single one of them myself personally. I don’t do it by email; I hand-write my response, and I like doing that better. Frankly, all we ever get in the mail now is bills and junk mail, and, it’s nice to have someone actually write something to you. So, I answer them all by hand, and I hope (constituents) recognize that I do that because I think that’s what (each constituent) deserves, and they deserve someone who respects them regardless of whether or not we agree on a particular issue.


John Schwab

U.S. Marine veteran; owner and operator of a residential facility for developmentally disabled adults; real estate broker/mortgage broker

Republican, 43

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

Ever since I was stationed at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base, they’ve been talking about cleaning up the Salton Sea forever—and they just haven’t done anything. So we really need to take care of it, because it’s just become more of a problem with all the respiratory infections out there.

I’m willing to work on coming up with a solution to help start cleaning it up. I’ve come up with some ideas that can help the area out there, because they just keep kicking the can down the road. Nothing’s getting done, and it’s just getting worse

Any specific thoughts you have on how to attack the problem?

I’d like to talk to a lot of people about the environmental impact reports for that area and what needs to be done. We’re talking, in my estimation, about years of cleanup. It’s not going to happen quickly, but it is something that needs to be addressed.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

My No. 1 priority is traffic. I’ve lived in this state since I was 18 years old, so it’s been 25 years now, and traffic has gotten worse and worse. With more housing and more people, we still have limited space on the freeways and roads. So, I’m willing to work with the California Transportation Commission and the California Department of Transportation to come up with solutions to many of the issues that we have with traffic.

Do you have any particular strategy that you think could help alleviate this serious problem?

These are just some thoughts: scheduled commute times, more (traffic) lanes, maybe some roundabouts in certain areas and on certain roads, and maybe even look at additional roads. In this area, (to travel east-west), you’ve got to take the Interstate 10 freeway, and that’s it. It’s been that way forever, and if something happens on the 10, you’re not moving. I listen to the radio most of the time, to calm me down and soothe me. I even put the classical music on.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

It would be my personal life, because I’ve got really good kids. They’re very respectful, and they (reflect) what I grew up with. I’m originally from Richmond, Ind., and my kids are very respectful of their elders and people. They’re polite and well-mannered. When I started this campaign, I was trying to get signatures for the nomination, and you’d be surprised how people treat each other. So, just by raising great kids (who will be) great stewards, that helps make the state, counties and the cities better. That is the future, right?

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

I just look at the facts. I’m not all about fluff. I’m not going to sit here and promise you everything, and not deliver. What I talk about is coming up with solutions and trying to solve problems in the district. I’m not going to cure everything, but I’m going to work hard and diligently, and, it may be behind the scenes. I don’t have to be out here speaking in front of a crowd. I don’t need to be telling (people) what I want to do. I just need to put my nose to the grind, work with professionals who can give (me their) expert opinion, and try to get things done.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

I don’t have a problem with the best two (moving on). The top two vote-getters after the primary going (into the runoff election) is fine with me.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I’m just a regular neighbor, a father and husband; my kids are still in school. I’m just trying to do the best we can for the people in the district. I’m not a career politician. That’s not what I want to do. I’m just trying to stop some of the ridiculous laws, and lessen the tax burden that the state (government) keeps putting on the people of this state. I love California, but a lot of my friends and family are looking at the future, and trying to figure out if California is somewhere they want to stay, because (the state government) is burdening a lot of the people who live and work here. So, I decided to run for those particular reasons specifically.

I’m not an attorney. I don’t have any hidden agenda. My (focus) is on traffic, public safety and lowering fuel prices. I wasn’t a political major in college. I am really for the people, and that’s what I’d really like to share. They’re the ones who sit down and, hopefully, do the research. They look through the fluff and the rhetoric, and then they get to decide for themselves.

After enjoying pizza and salad compliments of the city of Palm Desert, more than 100 residents—including the two plaintiffs in the ongoing legal process spawned by the city’s previous failure to move from at-large elections to district-based elections—convened on Feb. 12 for the “Public Open House No. 2: A Conversation About District Boundaries for City Elections” at the Palm Desert Community Center.

During a similar January event, city officials implied that a new elections system with just two districts was a foregone conclusion—even though it was not, as we learned in subsequent conversations with the city attorney and an unhappy plaintiff in the lawsuit, based on the 2001 California Voting Rights Act. However, city representatives at the Feb. 12 gathering were, at times, more candid, with more of an effort made to explain the steps involved in the city’s adoption of the lawsuit settlement.

Still, remarks and presentations made by City Manager Lauri Aylaian and Douglas Johnson, president of the National Demographics Corporation—hired by the city to help facilitate the creation of the districts—were met by shared groans and chuckles from residents in attendance, who seemed skeptical of the assertions being made.

After the meeting, Karina Quintanilla, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against the city, said she was pleased by the turnout. She and her co-litigant, Lorraine Salas, agreed to the preliminary settlement, they said, to save the city from an expensive court fight, in hopes that city residents would speak up in the mandated public forums—and that’s what happened at the Feb. 12 gathering.

“My impression was that the residents are trying to hold the city accountable for what (the city’s) intent is in pressing for only two districts,” Quintanilla said. “It made me feel pleased, because what Lorraine and I intended was to have the settlement foster community engagement and people to voice their opinions. It was wonderful to see that. It was great to be able to speak to a couple of the residents and give them my firsthand (input) on our decision to settle, as well as our commitment to continue to work for five districts.

“But during the Q&A portion of the meeting,” Quintanilla continued, “I was very displeased that, when City Manager Aylaian was asked, ‘Who proposed two districts?’ she mischaracterized (our position) and implied that we had proposed having only two districts That’s why I made sure to speak up and clarify that we never made that decision.”

Johnson urged residents to construct their own election-district maps and submit them to the City Council via the NDC’s online platform. (Residents can also print out a hard copy of their map and send it to the City Council.) We reached out to the city’s public information officer, David Hermann, via email to ask how seriously the council would consider any resident proposals.

“Residents may submit two-district or five-district maps,” Hermann replied. “The five-district maps will be kept in the records and provided to council, but only processed and posted if council directs that they be processed.” In other words, according to Hermann, the City Council retains the right to dismiss any residents’ proposals out of hand: There is no requirement that the council share proposals with the plaintiffs or other city residents.

In response to another question, Hermann said district plans could not be put up to a vote by residents because of a lack of time: “Plaintiffs wanted a solution implemented in time for the November 2020 council elections.”

Quintanilla clarified her and Salas’ intentions with the settlement.

“(The final settlement agreement proposal from the City Council) was so terrible that we just decided there was no point to dragging out things behind closed doors,” Quintanilla said. “So, one of the results was to bring it out (in front of the public), but we did not say, ‘Let’s get this over with and get on to the election.’ That was, by far, not our intent.”

While Quintanilla was heartened by the public turnout at the Feb. 12 meeting, she was disappointed by what she perceived as an unnecessarily confrontational stance taken by city representatives toward the plaintiffs and inquiring residents.

“Many of us found it to be a derogatory expression when they kept saying that it was a ‘tsunami of changes’ coming through (as a result of the Voting Rights Act non-compliance lawsuit),” Quintanilla said. “Is it really a tsunami, which is a devastating, terrible natural disaster? Is democracy a natural disaster? How is civic engagement a natural disaster? Change is not a bad thing.”

As for those map proposals: Quintanilla said she and Salas definitely planned on submitting a five-district map to the city for consideration.

“Now that we’ve been to the meeting and seen the (map-creation) tools that were presented, we’re going to submit a map,” she said. “We want to have the discussion be about, ‘What is the goal for the city of Palm Desert?’ Is it all about El Paseo and beautification? That is not what defines a city. The city (representatives) have said repeatedly that the (advantage) of having the ‘at-large’ council was to preserve unity, community and working together. So, how does creating two or more districts impede that?”

Palm Desert residents who desire more information about the ongoing process, offered from the plaintiffs’ point of view, can go to the Facebook page created by Quintanilla: www.facebook.com/District1PalmDesert. Residents who would like to take advantage of the Palm Desert district-map creation digital tools may visit www.representpd.org.

If you want to join in the fun of the annual 11-day celebration of midcentury architecture and design known as Modernism Week, we have good news and bad news.

First, the bad: The week, taking place from Feb. 13-23, has gotten so popular that a lot of events have been sold out for weeks.

Now, the good: The week, now in its 15th year, has gotten so big that there are still tickets available for an array of tours, lectures, sales and parties—including a host of free and lower-cost events.

Lisa Vossler Smith is the executive director of Modernism Week, a nonprofit organization. Smith and her team, including more than 450 volunteers, will produce hundreds of events and activities across the Coachella Valley over those 11 February days.

“This is my seventh year (working for) Modernism Week,” Smith said. “I’ve been involved with the organization since its beginning. My husband and I volunteered for years with Modernism Week before I came on staff. … It’s near and dear to my heart, and I’m really looking forward to our 15th anniversary.”

In recent years, Modernism Week has realized impressively rapid growth in attendance levels, which has led to increases in revenue—for the organization itself, the charitable scholarships and grants it funds, the vendors at the sale events, and countless merchants throughout the Coachella Valley.

“We can tell already that it’s going to be a big year,” Smith said about the 2020 events. “Our sales have been strong, and we’re on pace with last year, when we had 152,000 attendees. So we feel really confident that we’ll have at least the same size crowd or even larger.

“Over the last seven years, our (attendance) growth has been 20-30 percent each year.”

Modernism Week events are not limited geographically to the Palm Springs city limits.

“We’re in Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City, Palm Desert and Indian Wells,” said Smith. “There’s midcentury-modern architecture throughout the valley that the architects were working on in the same era. We’ve had homeowners and businesses participate by conducting tours in all of those communities throughout the Coachella Valley. That’s part of our continued growth—that we’ve been able to expand into other cities outside of Palm Springs.”

The Modernism Week team estimates that about a third of all tickets are purchased by locals, so we asked Smith for tips and advice.

“I would tell people to figure out what day they’re available, and then look at our website and sort by that date to see what tickets are available for that day,” she said. “If you’re looking to go on multiple days, then try to see a little bit of everything. Try to take a house tour; take a walking tour, and learn a little bit about the history of Palm Springs. Go to a lecture, and learn about architecture and design globally. And then certainly go to a cocktail party and have a martini by a pool at an architecturally significant house. Touch on all the cornerstones of our activities, which are all related to midcentury architecture and design throughout the Palm Springs area.”

While a single ticket to some of the swankier events can run upward of a couple hundred bucks, there are many free or low-cost events and activities—although it’s important to head to the website to get tickets even for the free events.

“Free and low-cost events are something that Modernism Week is always committed to maintaining, because we really want to invite the whole community to experience Modernism Week,” Smith said. “So whether someone’s into architecture or classic cars or vintage furniture, there’s something happening for everyone.”

If you’re convinced that you want to attend an event or two, then Smith offers this additional bit of advice.

“Always, my recommendation to attendees is that (when they arrive), go to CAMP”—that’s the Modernism Week Community and Meeting Place, located at 575 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs—“and figure out what you want to do, what tickets are available, and then you can purchase them right there at our box office,” Smith said. “Also, during the event, our website home page has a link to tickets still available for that day, which will make things easier for people to find events last-minute.”

If “free” is your favorite way to go, then take note: “I love the Modernism Week Vintage Car Show, which is a free event featuring a great selection of lectures for people who are interested in learning,” Smith said. “The show attracts a large and diverse (collection) of cars. It’s really popular, and we’ve been doing it for many years.

“Also, the Modernism Yard Sale is really fun. It’s on the last day of 2020 Modernism Week. People from all over Southern California come in and have a flea market in the H3K parking lot.”

As for lower-cost events: “All of our lectures at the Annenberg Theater or at CAMP are priced between $12 and $15, and you can see close to 80 lectures scheduled throughout the week.

“People really treat (their time at Modernism Week) like they’re going to summer camp. They show up every morning at CAMP, attend some of the lectures, and then they take off on their tours in the afternoon. It really is like having a spring break for adults. And almost every day, the Dreamboats (musical group) are playing at happy hour. They’re a wonderful throwback rock ’n’ roll band that actually gets people up dancing—even though it’s only 4 o’clock in the afternoon.”

Finally, there is one event that Smith wanted to point out that’s important for the community as a whole.

“The Palm Springs School of Architecture event is a big deal, because Cal Poly Pomona and College of the Desert are going to collaborate to offer an undergraduate program in architecture at the new Palm Springs campus,” Smith said. “This event, which is free and open to the public at the Annenberg Theater (at the Palm Springs Art Museum at 10:30 a.m., Friday, Feb. 21), is actually the public announcement about that collaboration. … The collaboration with Cal Poly Pomona will not only allow local COD students to pursue an architectural degree, but it will also bring a reciprocal program with students from Cal Poly Pomona, who will be able to use the campus in the desert as a lab for architecture. So, it’s really, really exciting.

“These kinds of programs are at the very core of why Modernism Week was founded. Locally, we’ve had such a strong group of grassroots supporters for the architecture and design community that it was everyone’s dream that someday, we would have architecture students who would graduate from the desert and then come back to work here as architects in the future.”

Modernism Week takes place from Thursday, Feb. 13, through Sunday, Feb. 23, at locations valley-wide. For more information, including a complete schedule and ticket information, visit www.modernismweek.com. Below: Modernism Week’s Community and Meeting Place (CAMP), open for free to the public, should be the first stop for anyone looking to enjoy the week for the first time. Photo by David A. Lee.

The settlement that would resolve a lawsuit accusing the city Palm Desert of not complying with the 2001 California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) is not so settled after all.

The first public forum—held by the city to explain the two-district settlement, proposed in December to plaintiffs Lorraine Salas and Karina Quintanilla—gave attendees the impression that breaking the city into two voting districts was a done deal.

However, after a conversation with Palm Desert City Attorney Robert Hargreaves, I now understand that it’s not a done deal: If a resident believes that a total of three, or four, or five districts would provide a better solution to the lawsuit, then it is still possible for a resident to push for those changes.

In other words … everything is still on the negotiating table—and that negotiating table seems to be standing on wobbly legs.

“We were very displeased with the city’s offer to do one (new) district,” said Quintanilla, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit driving the city’s attempts to transition to a district-based system before the November election. “It almost seemed kind of patronizing (for the city) to say, ‘All right, fine, we know we’re not in compliance, and if we go to court, they’re going to make us do it anyway. So how about if we do just one district?’ That seemed very odd to us. … It seemed that the City Council was failing to understand that we’re a series of communities with different needs. We were not at all pleased with the settlement offer, but we felt it was best to let the public know what the city’s intentions were. It would be best to just save the tax-paying residents more (potential legal) fees by settling instead of continuing this in court. (Agreeing to settle) was done knowing that no matter what we did, it would still need to be presented in public meetings. So, we felt that this was just the very first step.”

What are the next steps from here? For example, if a more-diverse City Council is the goal, should the city consider perhaps adding a district in the northwest area of Palm Desert? According to the demographic map distributed by the city, Latino residents make up some 25 to 65 percent of the total population in several neighborhoods in that area. After all, if the plaintiffs or other residents resist the current, two-district direction, then the whole matter could wind up back in court—and ultimately, in the worst-case scenario, the court could decide to draw the map itself.

Mayor Pro-Tem Kathleen Kelly said she feels that the two-district plan puts the city on a path to a short-term resolution without litigation, and a longer-term future marked by flexibility and accommodation.

“As a resident, I would tend to favor an ‘at-large’ system, acknowledging that there could be some advantages to a ‘district’ system,” Kelly said, adding that she was speaking only for herself and not the entire council. “In response to the lawsuit, there was certainly a need to try to be accommodating, to hear the plaintiff’s concerns, and try to structure a system that would be responsive to that. What resulted was really a hybrid system, which will give us in Palm Desert the opportunity to experience, perhaps, the advantages and disadvantages of both systems. Once everyone has had some shared experience, and some basis for comparison, there’ll be further discussions that will be informed by that experience.”

Why, then, did the city seemingly create confusion and misconceptions by leading residents to believe a two-district future was a done deal? For instance, an early January postcard from the city requested residents’ attendance at the first public open house on Jan. 15. It stated, in part: “Starting in November 2020, Palm Desert will move to a two-district City Council system. … The Open House on Jan. 15 offers an opportunity for you to tell us what’s important in the transition.” Sounds like a done deal, right?

During her introductory remarks at that open house, Palm Desert City Manager Lauri Aylaian told the audience: “Our immediate fear was that we’d divide ourselves up into five districts, because we have five council members. We would have individual portions of Palm Desert fighting against one another to get the same money, to get the same resources, to be able to do the projects that they want to do in their areas. We thought we’ve been so well-served by working together; we don’t want to lose that.”

Later in her remarks, Aylaian said: “We were able to reach the terms for a settlement agreement with the plaintiffs who had filed the suit. Now, we’re on to the next part, which is how do we make the settlement work, and the CVRA work, and represent the best interests of Palm Desert? So what we came up with was completely different from what other cities have done. We have proposed a two-district solution, rather than dividing the city up into five—which is what most of the other cities in California have done. … We’ve been working on it for a long time, and we were able to implement a two-district solution.”

Again … sounds like a done deal, right? This was furthered by a slide in the onscreen presentation made by the city that read: “Today’s meeting—purpose—inform the community about the City’s New Election Process and learn from community members what’s important for them as we undergo this change.”

There’s yet another element of the city’s plans that plaintiff Quintanilla is not so sure about: a desire to move to a “ranked choice” voting system: According to Ballotpedia, “A ranked-choice voting system is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority. This system is sometimes referred to as an instant runoff voting system.”

Quintanilla said now was the time for Palm Desert residents to speak out if they don’t like these proposed changes.

“Like I said, when we received the settlement (agreement from the city), we were very displeased. Very displeased,” Quintanilla said, “But I finally came to the understanding with myself that this was a settlement. It’s not meant to be (a situation) where both parties are delighted with the process. It’s supposed to be a middle ground—not as far to the middle as we might have hoped, but again, it was our intent to make this first step and to open the door to this conversation. Now, it’s up to the rest of the city’s residents to come forward and say, ‘We don’t like this,’ and then they can speak up against that ranked-choice voting (proposal) and decide that’s not what they want.”

The city’s second open house is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 12, at a venue yet to be determined.

“It’s about taking action when it needs to be (taken), because there are greater goals to focus on,” Quintanilla said. “That’s what Lorraine and I were doing. Our city is right in the middle of Coachella Valley. We’ve got College of the Desert. We’ve got Cal State (San Bernardino). We’ve got UCR (the University of California at Riverside). We’ve got many opportunities here, and we need to be able to respond to the needs of the growing valley. So our decision was that, instead of having this tied up behind legal back and forth, and closed-door sessions and private conversations, it was time to let this (proposal) come to a community forum.”

Back in October, a mulch fire ignited at the Sun Valley Recycling Center near Thermal, on land owned by the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians. The smoke plagued schools and neighborhoods for several weeks, creating health concerns for thousands of residents in the eastern Coachella Valley.

Communities and school boards called for help—and one of the organizations that answered that call was the recently expanded Desert Healthcare District, led by newly elected Board President Leticia De Lara, and Chief Executive Officer Conrado Barzaga.

“There were funds (accessible to the DHCD) that were identified for clean air and to address some of the air-quality issues related to the fires that were burning in the east valley last October,” De Lara said during a recent phone interview. “Our CEO, Conrado, was able to identify these funds and some partners who could bring some immediate health-care resources to the residents, including Borrego Health, Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo, federally qualified health clinics, the Coachella Valley Unified School District and the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians tribe. Also, (Barzaga) was able to identify some funds that were set aside to address issues like this in the future, and (allow potential responders) to avoid the chaos that resulted … (by facilitating) their coordination.”

This would not have been possible a couple of years ago: In November 2018, Coachella Valley residents voted to expand the Desert Healthcare District beyond its original, antiquated Cook Street boundary, all the way to the eastern end of the valley. Since then, seven districts were re-drawn and approved by the DHCD board, and directors were put in place for each. As 2019 drew to a close, the DHCD was starting to make its supportive influence felt in these historically underserved east valley communities.

In another recent dangerous health-related incident that drew substantial attention, the management of the Oasis Mobile Home Park in Thermal proved to be incapable of supplying reliable access to clean drinking water for its nearly 2,000 residents; the drinking water drawn from wells on the property, also owned by the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, was found to contain unacceptably high levels of arsenic. Immediate attempts to import clean water proved insufficient.

“At our December meeting, we allocated some funding to be used in partnership with the county of Riverside to address some of the water-quality issues affecting the mobile home park in the Thermal area,” De Lara said. “And we also funded a request from Martha’s Village back in October. So, those are some examples of what’s already been accomplished” in the expansion territory.

The arrival of the DHCD as a new funding option in the east valley is welcomed by established nonprofit health service providers working with east valley residents, including the Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine (CVVIM).

“It’s nice to see new things happening,” said Doug Morin, the executive director of CVVIM, in a phone interview. “There’s about $300,000 for east valley funding. So, when you consider all the (health-care-related) charities serving residents in the east valley, (the funding) is limited, but anything is better than nothing.”

Morin said he had just submitted an application for a $50,000 grant to be used to defray the costs of the east valley patient services his nonprofit provides. He hopes his proposal will get approved by the DHCD board in February. However, when compared to the roughly $120,000 annual grant that CVVIM has received from the DHCD to serve its west valley population, the geographic discrepancy in available support becomes apparent.

De Lara said the disparity comes from the fact that funding going toward efforts within the previous DHCD boundaries is not being reduced to fund efforts in the expanded portion.

“We’re continuing to provide the same level of funding for the west valley. … We are continuing to address homelessness and (work) for a regional solution,” she said. “We believe that in the west valley, there are some major gaps in services (for the homeless).”

According to the June 30, 2018, audited financial statements, the total outlay of funds to west valley grant recipients was $5,076,039 for fiscal year 2018, the last full fiscal year prior to the expansion eastward. However, efforts by the DHCD to raise comparable funds to support east valley service grants are foundering. Given this reality, it’s impossible for the grant levels to reach parity across the valley without cutting the grants to providers serving west valley residents. However, as De Lara indicated, that is not a likely scenario for the DHCD board to pursue.  

Morin sees his CVVIM as somewhat unique among Coachella Valley health-care service nonprofits, because it has served residents at both ends of the valley for years. He said the distinction and disparity between funding levels for the original DHCD territory and the new expanded territory is obvious and challenging.

“Their max funding request (for the recent proposal he submitted to serve east valley patients of his clinic) was $50,000, which is what I requested,” he said. “They don’t have that restriction on the west valley, because, of course, they have more funds for the west valley.”

How can the DHCD address this funding imbalance?

“I think we’re realizing that there’s going to be a need to include other partners,” De Lara said. “Sharing costs on some of these long-term visions, I think, is important. Also, there’s the potential to bring in dollars from the state and federal governments by communicating to them in a much better way, through our assessments and studies, where the gaps are, and how they can help us. We can put together a really strong, compelling case statement for some funding. I think the potential to bring in grants that add to our current resources is a very promising possibility for funding.”

In the past, DHCD representatives have approached Riverside County and the state government about various tax strategies designed to generate the new revenues necessary to fund the annexed east valley needs. However, that outreach has so far proved fruitless.

“The possibility of going to the voters or the county for some assessment is something that we have not discussed, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying where we’re at on that, because we’re nowhere,” she said. “But in the last board meeting (of 2019), we actually approved two positions to take the lead on exploring funds and grants to help support the work that we’re going to be doing on behavioral health. So I think that we’ll start with grants to try to generate more revenue.”

Despite the immediate challenges presented by the revenue shortfall, De Lara said she sees a bright future for her organization’s ability to enable much-needed quality health care through its grantee nonprofits.

“We have to think strategically,” De Lara said. “We have to think incrementally, and we have to think partnerships. I think that’s how we’ll be approaching the mass of the needs that we (face) now because of the additional area, as well as the district we had before. We’re one Coachella Valley. We’re one district, and we have to keep asking, ‘Are we advancing toward our mission, and are we doing it in a fair way, a smart way and collaboratively?’”

While Morin said the funding disparity is problematic, he praised the efforts the DHCD is making.

“They’re a great foundation,” Morin said. “They’re very transparent about everything that they do, and I like their plan of this ‘One Coachella Valley.’ Their (east valley) impact will be felt immediately, once we receive those (requested grant) funds. Even though I may wish that (those funds) were more, it’s a start. … Sources of funding in the east valley are somewhat limited, so this is valuable. It’s important for us, and it will allow a number of agencies to provide more services. So they’re out there doing their own fundraising, and hopefully, over the years, the amount of funding available to the east valley will increase, and that’s a good thing.”

January marks the start of the “high season” of activity at the world-famous Empire Polo Club—and before the huge music events arrive in April, the grounds will host the 34th edition of the Southwest Arts Festival, and its sumptuous display of works created by roughly 250 talented artists, from Thursday, Jan. 23, through Sunday, Jan. 26.

Josh Bonner is the president and CEO of the Greater Coachella Valley Chamber of Commerce (GCVCC), the host organization of this valley tradition. He explained how artists get selected to participate.

“Artists from across the country will put in their applications to be at the show,” Bonner said. “As part of that process, they submit multiple pictures of their artwork. Also, they will submit a photo of the display they use at shows, so we can see what it would look like if they were at our art show. That all goes before our panel of judges. … Primarily, the jury pool is made up of artists, because we want (applicants) to be judged by their peers.”

The number of applications is much larger than the allotted number of spots, in part because the Southwest Arts Festival is viewed as an artist-friendly show.

“Art shows operate in two different ways,” Bonner said. “One way is (organizers) charge a very large upfront fee, like $700-$800, for the artist to come out. Then (the artists) keep all of their sales. We charge a much lower upfront fee of $350, and then they pay a small percentage commission on their sales. We do it that way, because, in our opinion, it helps the artist. If the artist comes out and has a great show, then he or she has a great show. But if they come out and they don’t have a great show for some reason, at least they’re not out that huge upfront investment.”

A lot of selling indeed goes on—Bonner said last year’s sales exceeded $1 million—and those sales do a lot of good for local nonprofits.

“The GCVCC is an interesting organization, because we are not like other chambers,” Bonner said. “We’re sort of an umbrella chamber. The GCVCC puts the festival on, but underneath us, you have the chambers of commerce from Indio, Coachella and La Quinta (among other cities), and the Desert Advertising Federation, which is an association of marketing professionals. All of those nonprofit entities benefit from the show.

“In addition, we’ll also designate two or three other local nonprofits who will benefit from a portion of the proceeds. In the past, we’ve had proceeds that benefited the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission and ABC Recovery Center.”

Bonner said the 12,000 to 15,000 festival-goers can enjoy a variety of experiences.

“One thing we realized is that when you come to an art show with some 250 artists, it takes time for you to get through all those artists. People are normally on the grounds for a few hours; they don’t just show up for five minutes,” Bonner said. “So, because of that, we work with the Empire Polo Club, and every year, they help out with food and beverage. They bring in different culinary experiences. … There are several different restaurants there that people can choose from to eat lunch, or a snack, while they’re at the event. There are bars with drinks available throughout the venue as well.

“We have interactive art displays. We’ll have an area where kids can paint, and sometimes, we’ll have (hands-on experiences with) glass-blowing or metalwork. Or we’ll have live canvas painting going on, so that people can see the artistic process taking place. On top of all of that, we have live music as well. At every point during each day, we’ll have some type of live performance music going on.”

Bonner said attendees will get exposed to a lot of art with which they’re unfamiliar.

“I get asked a lot: ‘Hey, do you have famous artists?’” Bonner said with a laugh. “My answer is always, ‘No.’ But I think that’s also the allure of art festivals and to the people who like to go to them: They get to discover new art, unique art. It’s not the Picassos who everyone knows about, but these are really talented local artists from around the country who come to show their wares, and you get to see things you’ve never seen before. That, to me, is the allure of the Southwest Art Festival.

“We have a local artist, Richard Curtner, who operates out of Cathedral City. He does these wonderful collages where he takes like different newspaper (clippings), and he’ll manipulate them to form this beautiful picture. … It is fine art, and these are extremely talented artists, but the beauty and allure of it is that these are artists that you probably have never heard of before.”

The Southwest Arts Festival takes place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 23-26, at the Empire Polo Club, 81800 51st Ave., in Indio. Tickets, which are good for all four days, are $15; or $13 for seniors. For tickets or more information, visit www.eventbrite.com/e/the-southwest-arts-festival-indio-2020-tickets-76332928845.

On the sun-dappled winter morning of Dec. 12, Jane Garrison—the founder and president of the nonprofit Save Oswit Canyon, Inc.—was joined by a large group of supporters at the mouth of Oswit Canyon to announce that their dream of raising $1 million in just 5 1/2 months had indeed come true.

The funds were needed to fulfill the group’s negotiated contribution to buy the Oswit Canyon development property. Over four years of engaged activism, the group’s goal has been to keep Oswit Canyon, on the southern portion of Palm Springs, as a pristine retreat—by stopping the profit-driven housing development that had threatened the dream.

During a recent phone interview, Garrison said that even though her group’s goal had been reached, supporters should not become complacent.

“It’s a big hurdle (we’ve cleared), but we’re not there yet,” she said. “I think that’s the important thing that people need to understand: It’s not a done deal. We are not the owners of the property yet, but we’ve actually (cleared) a huge hurdle.”

So what happens now?

“(Our nonprofit is) going to be opening an escrow (account) with the developer in the next month or so,” Garrison said. “But the process is pretty long over the next couple of months. Right now, the appraisal has been completed. These three steps are the biggest: the certifying of the appraisal by the (state) Department of General Services; the approval by the California Wildlife Conservation Board for their grant; and the approval by the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy of their grant. Also, we’re getting money from the federal government through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of the grant money we’re getting is because of the endangered species that live on that property.”

Those endangered species have become persuasive allies in the fight.

“You have the peninsular desert bighorn sheep, and you have the Casey’s June beetle,” Garrison said. “We know that the bighorn sheep live (in Oswit Canyon), but we’re not sure yet if the Casey’s June beetles are there. The property has never been adequately surveyed. So, we are receiving the grants because of the bighorn sheep.”

More than 1,000 unique donors have contributed, in amounts from $10 to $153,000. Garrison said that while some of those donations came from addresses outside of the area, the bulk came from locals.

Finding the right approach to generate the kind of enthusiasm that would motivate people to send money proved to be a formidable challenge, Garrison said.

“Back in July, when we did the press conference, also at the entrance to Oswit Canyon, announcing that the developer was willing to sell, we thought, ‘Oh, now our story is in the media, and everyone’s going to send donations,’” Garrison said. “And when we weren’t getting the amount of money that we needed to meet the deadline of Dec. 31, we went the traditional route, like most fundraising efforts do—and we started doing mailings. Those also did not bring in what we needed.

“Then I realized that people really needed to hear what we had to gain and what we had to lose with this canyon. In talking with people, I realized that if I had some time to explain (what was at stake), and if I had time to explain about the efforts that have been put in over almost four years, and how close we were, I knew they would understand. So that’s why we launched our house parties. We did 14 house parties in five weeks, as well as about a dozen speaking engagements at various clubs and organizations—and that’s how we raised much of the $1 million in five weeks, which is astonishing. But that’s how important this issue was to the community.

“It’s really exciting that the canyon is not being saved by one or two wealthy individuals. It actually is truly a community effort.”

In a best-case scenario—if the various grant-approving boards work quickly—the land buyback will close sometime between March and July. Who will own the title?

“Save Oswit Canyon, Inc., is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit land trust,” Garrison said, “and we have also been accepted as a member of the Land Trust Alliance.”

The Land Trust Alliance is a national conservation organization representing more than 1,700 land trusts across the United States.

“So since we’re set up like that, we are hoping to be the organization that holds the title and becomes the steward of that land, because we feel no one would protect that land like we would,” Garrison said. “The city (of Palm Springs) has expressed an interest in holding the title as well. But we are working with the city in hopes that they’ll agree to let us hold the title.”

During this anxious period of time, the Save Oswit Canyon leaders have a legitimate need to keep the donations flowing.

“When we take title, we will have property taxes,” Garrison said. “Eventually, we will become exempt from property taxes, because we are a nonprofit land trust, but that exemption will take 18 months—so we would have over $100,000 in property taxes. We’ll have liability insurance (costs), and a mounting legal bill, because we’ve been fighting for four years.

“Also, we will have the cost of maintenance and a cleanup. Unfortunately, over the years, people have dumped a couch and various trash. Also, we want to create some (informational materials). We don’t want visual clutter, but we do want like a big, beautiful boulder that has a plaque on it explaining how this canyon was saved by the people of Palm Springs. We will need trail signage and such. But the biggest thing is that we need a buffer. If any of these grants fall short, we won’t be able to delay the closing process. We’re going to need to have that money in the bank to fill any gaps.”

If you are interested in making a tax-deductible donation to Save Oswit Canyon, Inc., visit www.saveoswitcanyon.org. Also, Save Oswit Canyon accepts donations of stock.

“That’s a really great way for someone to contribute,” Garrison said. “Here’s something I learned: If someone has a stock, and they have a capital gain this year, if they donate that stock to a nonprofit, they don’t have to pay the capital gains (tax). So, stock donations have been very popular for us, which is great.”

As Save Oswit Canyon stands on the brink of realizing its goal, Garrison said she sees a more valuable and exciting byproduct of the campaign.

“I feel that this canyon has brought the community together like no other movement ever has in Palm Springs,” she said. “We are going to continue to protect the environment and protect open space. It’s amazing how many people care now about the environment, and they also see that they can make a difference. That is a big issue.

“So many times, especially now in our country, people feel so helpless. But this is proof that you actually can make a difference.”

The California State Auditor’s Office recently launched a new tool, available to anyone with an internet connection: an online dashboard that aggregates, compares and ranks the financial stability of more than 470 California cities, based on detailed and publicly available information.

“For the first time, Californians will be able to go online and see a fiscal-health ranking for more than 470 cities based across the state,” State Auditor Elaine Howle proclaimed in a news release announcing the launch. “This new transparent interface for the public, state and local policymakers, and other interested parties, is intended to identify cities that could be facing significant fiscal challenges.”

The most compelling feature of this new dashboard is the interactive map of California. To uncover relevant financial details, any user can run their cursor over the geographic area correlating to any one of the 470 cities whose financial data is included. When the cursor hovers over a given city, a box opens to show the name of the city and its rankings in the 11 different indicator categories: overall risk, liquidity, debt burden, general-fund reserves, revenue trends, pension obligations, pension funding, pension costs, future pension costs, OPEB (other post-employment benefits) obligations and OPEB funding. It quickly reveals information that, until now, was difficult to obtain.

The data, however, is a little outdated: The city evaluations and rankings are based on 2016-2017 fiscal-year numbers, the most-recent complete data set available for all the cities represented.

“We are in the process of getting the 2017-18 information, so we’ll be able to provide that information on our dashboard as well,” said Margarita Fernandez, chief of public affairs for the California State Auditor, in a recent phone interview. “The (dashboard) tool is now established, so we’ll be able to put up the information for 2017-18 as soon as it comes in. Eventually, you’ll be able to look at it yourself and see trending information like, ‘Here’s how they were doing in 2016-17, and now here they are in 2017-18, etc.,’ and whether things are improving, or they’re not improving.”

Despite Fernandez’s attempt to explain the older data, some city representatives see this as a serious defect in the state auditor’s effort at transparency.

“These numbers are two to three years old, and I think that our financial state today reflects that,” said Brooke Beare, the city of Indio’s director of communications and marketing, during a recent phone call.

The nine Coachella Valley cities are, in the category of overall risk, ranked as follows:

  • Palm Springs: No. 46 (moderate risk level)
  • Cathedral City: No. 105 (moderate)
  • Indio: No. 118 (moderate)
  • Coachella: No. 121 (moderate)
  • Desert Hot Springs: No. 308 (low)
  • La Quinta: No. 434 (low)
  • Palm Desert: No. 444 (low)
  • Rancho Mirage: No. 454 (low)
  • Indian Wells: No.  466 (low)

The good news is that none of the nine Coachella Valley cities were ranked in the “high risk” category. The bad news is the three worst-ranked—Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Indio—all were rated as “high risk” in four of the 11 indicator categories studied by the state auditor. It was on this basis that the Independent reached out to representatives of each of those three cities.

As of our deadline, only Indio representatives—Beare, and Assistant City Manager and Finance Director Rob Rockwell—responded. A city of Palm Springs finance executive did reply to an email requesting a phone interview, and asked that the Independent deliver its questions via email. The Independent complied, but received no response to those questions.

Rockwell, Indio’s finance director, applauded the state auditor’s dashboard.

“I think the reporting itself is good, and I appreciate it. I think it’s useful,” he said. “I don’t think it necessarily tells the whole financial story, but I think there are bits and pieces that will allow organizations or municipalities like Indio to go back and do some double-checking on some things, which is exactly what we did in Indio.”

He discussed various actions taken in the last two years by the Indio City Council. “Two of the four areas where Indio was considered ‘high-risk’ were pension funding set-aside, and OPEB (other post-employment benefits) set-aside,” Rockwell said. “In regards to the pension funding, just this year, the Indio City Council committed $1 million to setting up a pension trust … and that money is set aside and can only be used for pension obligations. So the issue of us not having money set aside has already been addressed.

“In regard to that OPEB funding set-aside, in February of 2014, the city created another … trust that in this case is basically for retiree medical costs. We’ve been committing money to that on an annual basis, and (as of Sept. 30), it totaled $1.77 million. So, the City Council recognizes the need—but it’s not been a super-high priority, in the sense that the City Council has been focused on capital infrastructure improvements in the city of Indio.”

Given the pension-funding liabilities currently shown on Indio’s balance sheet, the $1 million currently in the pension-funding trust wouldn’t make much of a dent. Rockwell told the Independent that the point of setting up the trust wasn’t to offset the entire debt amount.

“To think that we’re going to put $50-plus million aside (to cover the amount of unfunded liabilities)—that’s a striking number,” he said. “Really, the purpose of this trust is to set up some money so that, if a recession occurs, instead of having to make cuts to services to pay our pension costs, we can reach into this trust and pay our annual pension costs for a year, or maybe two, maybe three, maybe five, and not have to reduce services (to residents) in years where our revenues might be short due to economic impacts.”

Mounting pension obligations are a concern for all of our valley cities. It was a major topic of discussion in this past November’s Palm Springs City Council elections.

“I think that most California cities, including those here in the valley, are having a tough time dealing with these increasing pension costs,” Rockwell said. “I don’t think it’s a surprise that a lot of cities are even having to face some service reductions to fund their pension obligations. I think obviously that the return on investments that were originally expected did not come through. … The obligation is real, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Cities are just having to adjust, and there are various mechanisms to do that. A lot of cities have changed their retirement formulas. Clearly, the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act (which took effect in 2013; it includes compensation limits and establishes minimum contributions by employees) has changed pension funding. I have to say that for the city of Indio, the number of employees that we’ve hired under PEPRA is occurring at a faster rate than we expected. I don’t know how much that’s going to help the unfunded liability, but I can definitely say that there’s a change taking place.”

To view the State Auditor’s Local Government High-Risk Dashboard, visit www.auditor.ca.gov/bsa/cities_risk_index.

If your holiday schedule is not yet completely packed, take note: Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre is bringing back its popular Twisted Broadway fundraiser.

What makes these revues of show tunes twisted? According to the press release, Twister Broadway “will feature a lineup of talented Broadway artists performing songs that were originally written for the opposite gender, as well as songs they always wanted to sing, but couldn’t, because they would be miscast.”

“We did it two years ago,” said Ron Celona, CVRep’s founding artistic director. “We wanted to see how people would react to it, and people had so much fun. It was a great, different way of raising money compared to the thousands of other fundraisers out there for different nonprofit organizations. So we decided to do it again this year, and in our new venue. For the first time, it will be under our own roof.

“And this time, we’re doing two shows: One at 4 p.m., and one at 7:30 p.m. In between the two shows, there will be receptions that come with each ticket.”

The funds raised will not only help CVRep continue to put on professional Equity theatrical productions; it’ll help CVRep as it expands its education programs via the CVRep Conservatory.

“We built a school,” Celona said, proudly. “Adjacent to our new theater was a Mexican restaurant. We own the whole property, so we spent the last year and a half gutting the restaurant, and building a two-room schoolhouse, basically, with a soundproof wall in between the two classrooms. We opened our first semester in the new school (a couple of months ago), and we had 80 students for that first semester, which I think is pretty damn good. Also, we’re going to have a holiday semester, and then we’ll open our winter/spring semester. My goal is to double the attendance in those winter/spring classes.”

CVRep is offering a wide range of courses, beginning with “Broadway Babies” for ages 4-7; acting for ages 8-10 and 11-14; “Stage Combat/Sword-Fighting” for daring high school students; and adult classes including “The Art of Auditioning With Monologues,” “Voice and Movement for the Actor” and improv classes.

“We get a lot of middle-aged to senior citizens in these adult classes,” Celona said. “Also included in our educational programming is our outreach program. We have teaching artists who are out teaching in the schools. Right now, they’re at Cathedral City High School. So, we go there instead of them coming to us.

“Lastly, another project we have is a comedy and improv festival that will be happening at the end of May 2020. People will apply to be a part of that from all over the country.”

Back to Twisted Broadway: Celona said he borrowed the idea from Broadway itself.

“The concept, which has been done in New York for years, (comes from a revue) called Broadway Backwards, and that is an annual fundraiser for the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fund. I got the title, Twisted Broadway, from a show done by a company in Australia that uses the same concept. I thought that was a much more fun title.

“But, ultimately, some of these concepts by other companies are just gender-bending. I thought that could become boring, so I’ve expanded the concept, and I’m including parodies of favorite show tunes, and that’s a lot of fun. There will be some group numbers that will be parodies, and then I have an individual artist, Robert Yacko, who’s going to be doing two parodies: on Sondheim, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Then, in the arena of gender-bending, (we’ll have) a moment that comes from a wonderful show called Side Show. There are two sisters … conjoined twins who are attached at the hip, and the whole musical is about them. We’re going to have a man and a woman attached, so it’s just twisting it and making it different and, hopefully, funny. The most important part here is that all of the songs are comical.”

Celona said Julie Garnyé, who had been listed as appearing in the show, had to pull out of the production due to a conflict. “I’ve replaced her with Alyssa Simmons, who’s currently doing Frozen at Disney,” Celona said. “(She joins) Jeffrey Landman, who is doing Frozen as well. They’ll be playing the twins in Side Show. Since they already know each other, that will help the chemistry.”

Other performers slated to appear include Randy Brenner, Erica Hanrahan, Loren Freeman, Sal Mistretta, Perry Ojeda and Kristen Towers Rowles.

Twisted Broadway, a fundraiser for the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, will take place at 4 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 12, at the CVRep Playhouse, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Cathedral City. Tickets are $150 to $300, and include receptions between the two shows. For tickets or more information, 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

For the 27th year in a row, the unique WildLights holiday extravaganza at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert will be one of Santa’s favorite stops in the Coachella Valley—so much so that plans call for him to visit the animal and environment conservatory on 16 separate nights from Nov. 26 through Dec. 28.

A visit with Santa is just one of the varied experiences being offered at the 2019 edition of the zoo’s key annual fundraising event. A sparking tunnel of lights synchronized to holiday tunes, life-sized desert-animal lanterns, and more than 1 million lights await visitors.

“There are a variety of activities that happen during WildLights on a nightly basis,” said Erin Scott, the senior manager for brand, marketing and public relations for The Living Desert. “Guests can visit with Santa. They can also just wander through the light displays around the zoo. New this year is what we’re calling ‘The Dazzling Gift.’ It’s a 15-foot-by-15-foot light installation that will be on Africa’s Savannah Landing. It’s a really big installation.”

For an additional fee, visitors can ride the Polar Express on a magical train ride through Gecko Gulch with falling “snow.” Guests can ride a carousel—specially decked out for the holidays—and make s’mores.

“We expect about 35,000 guests to enjoy WildLights this year,” Scott said. “WildLights is just an amazing community tradition. It’s a great way to get into the holiday spirit. We have local residents and members who come year after year, as well as visiting guests. It’s a great way to spend time with family and friends, and get into the holiday spirit.

“The Living Desert is a magical place. And, when you add the glow of holiday lights, it becomes even more magical. It’s just a great holiday tradition.”

The Living Desert is a zoo, of course—and visitors will get to enjoy the presence of animals that come out at night.

“Visitors will be able to see African wild dogs, cheetahs, bighorn sheep, the giraffe and zebras as they stroll the park under the lights,” Scott said. “Being able to see these animals at night adds an interesting element to anybody’s visit. Also, animal encounters will happen nightly between 6:30 and 8 p.m. in our amphitheater. A rotating variety of our animal ambassadors will be available to guests at these times. Guests will be able to get up close and meet some of our desert (animal) residents, get some good photo opportunities, and learn about these special animals. Also, there will be three ‘(zoo)keeper chats’ held throughout each evening: one at the African wild dog (station), one at the cheetah, and one at the warthog.”

The funds generated by WildLights ticket sales provide a lot of the financial support The Living Desert needs for park operations, as well as education and conservation programs.

“On an education-program level, The Living Desert welcomes about 40,000 school children each year through school field trips,” Scott said. “We partner with local schools and organizations for community outreach as well. We welcome guests of all ages to learn about and appreciate The Living Desert, as well as all the deserts of the world. We want to educate our guests about why deserts are important, and just how special deserts really are.”

What exactly does it take to stage a production of this scale every holiday season?

“It’s really a team effort,” Scott said. “The setup begins in September and continues until we’re ready for the opening in late November. There’s internal staff and external teams involved. So, it’s definitely a team effort from all sides.”

WildLights gives visitors a chance to see The Living Desert in a new light.

“There are so many activities around the zoo, and it’s a great way to get into the holiday spirit and enjoy the beauty of the desert, and offer valuable support to The Living Desert at the same time,” Scott said.

WildLights opens with a members’ only event on Tuesday, Nov. 26, and is open to all from 6 to 9 p.m. on select nights through Dec. 28 at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, at 47900 Portola Ave., in Palm Desert. Admission is $14; $12 for members; and $10 for children ages 3-12. For tickets and more information, including a complete schedule of WildLights nights, visit www.livingdesert.org/events-and-tours/signature-events/wildlights.

Page 1 of 15