CVIndependent

Thu05242018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Kevin Fitzgerald

Wednesday, March 9, was a beautiful day in many ways at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

At 9 a.m., under brilliant blue skies, long-estranged Women’s Tennis Association champion Venus Williams made her first official appearance at the tournament since 2001. She took to Practice Court 1 to begin her preparations for her first match, which will take place on Friday, March 11. Before only a dozen onlookers—only members of the media and security guards—Venus worked on her game. She seemed anxious and a bit surly; while casting surreptitious gazes at the few strangers present, she maintained a serious expression.

At 10 a.m., as her workout entered its second hour, the gates to the grounds opened up for fans—and a crowd of spectators quickly formed around her court. She worked out in brief spurts, taking frequent breaks to rest in the shade, talk on her phone or grab sustenance from a Whole Foods shopping bag she brought with her. During one of those breaks, as the stands filled, she looked around and caught sight of a young girl holding a sign that read: “Welcome Back Venus!”

A smile broke across her face.

As she returned to the court for more work, a healthy round of applause spilled out from the gathered fans.

The tension had been broken. She laughed, and it was pretty clear she was starting feel comfortable at the site of some of her earliest career victories.

Later, when she left the practice court, she walked across the great green area where players regularly congregate for impromptu soccer matches, calisthenics or other activities. Dogged by the ever-present photographers (present company included), she seemed a bit guarded, but then veered off to a crowd of autograph-seekers behind the fence, where she spent a few minutes signing and chatting. Then she was off again.

The final surprise sighting of the newly returned Venus Williams came at the start of her sister Serena’s practice session, around 12:30 p.m. As Serena, the current top-ranked WTA ranked player, laced up her tennis shoes and talked to her entourage, Venus appeared on the court to greet her sister. They spent 10 to 15 minutes together, laughing, dancing and talking with Serena’s guru-in-residence, Patrick Mouratoglou.

With a kiss and a smile Venus left. But make no mistake: She seems happy to be back, and regardless of the ill will from 15 years ago, her fans are happy, too.

With the trauma of the Dec. 2, 2015, mass shooting in nearby San Bernardino fresh in their minds, Simon Moore—the lead adviser of the Coachella Valley High School Health Academy and Health Occupation Students of America—and his students began planning a community outreach program.

Kimberly Bravo, a senior at the Thermal high school and the captain of the CVHS HOSA community awareness team, noted in a news release announcing the forum that mass shootings have taken countless innocent lives.

“Later, we find out that the people committing these shootings suffer (or suffered) from various types of mental health issues. The question we ask ourselves is, ‘Why didn’t anyone hear these individuals’ cries for help?’” she said.

At the forum, Bravo, her fellow students and the members of the public who attended learned that the premise of the forum was flawed: Most people who carry out mass shootings don’t make cries for help—because they aren’t mentally ill.

“Not all of these shootings are based on mental illness,” said Desert Hot Springs Chief of Police Dale Mondary, one of the panel participants, who worked in San Bernardino before taking his newish job in the desert. “I’d say the majority probably are not. It could be political causes, or religious ideology or some sort of family-relationship issue.”

The fairly well-attended forum attracted a distinguished group of prominent local and national professionals and politicians, all with their own perspectives on the theme.

“Everyone who we invited showed up—and, I mean, that’s just amazing,” Moore said after the forum. “We asked Dale Mondary, the chief of police from Desert Hot Springs, because he’s a new guy to the area who came from San Bernardino. State Representative Chad Mayes, who is a Republican, just showed up and said, ‘Let’s talk.’ And we’re not even in his district. Also we got Supervisory Special Agent Colin Schmitt from the FBI (who was lead incident commander during command post operation for investigating the San Bernardino shootings). And given the acclaim that attendee Dr. James Fox receives among law enforcement as a profiler in the U.S., it was really cool to get him.”

Fox (pictured below) is a professor and interim director at the School of Criminology at Northeastern University who has appeared on numerous television shows, writes a regular column in USA Today and has been called on for his expert opinions by the U.S. Congress, several attorneys general, President Bill Clinton and Princess Anne of Great Britain, among others.

The panel covered numerous topics over the course of the discussion, which lasted more than 90 minutes—and the hard link between mental illness and mass shootings was not the only myth debunked at the forum.

“There’s one tiny flaw in all the theories as to why there’s been an increase in mass shootings in the United States, and that is the fact that there has not been an increase in mass shootings over the past several decades,” Fox said. “Now, I don’t mean to minimize the pain and suffering of all those who have been victimized in these attacks. But the facts say clearly that there has been no epidemic.”

He offered an array of statistics to support this stance.

That position not withstanding, student co-moderator Sergio Ortega asked, “With the growing number of mass shootings in public spaces, what do you think is the root cause of these incidents?”

“In the cases of shootings in public places which are the rarest, maybe 5 or 6 a year,” Dr. Fox said, “they are the ones where mental illness is most likely to emerge. These individuals have a paranoid sense that the whole world is evil or the government is corrupt, and they really don’t care who they kill as long as they kill as many people as possible.”

Schmitt mentioned that shooters often put a lot of thought into where they make their attack.

“Between 2000 and 2013, there were 160 active shooter instances, and 46 percent of them took place in areas that were open to pedestrian traffic. Obviously, it’s unlikely that we’d have an incident like this at an FBI building which is full of armed agents. If somebody is looking to kill lots of people, they are going to go somewhere where there is not a lot of law enforcement.”

After the forum, we asked Moore if he was surprised by the expert opinions that seemed to undermine the basic premise behind the forum.

“No. They knew the discussion was about violence in relation to mental health,” he said. “Dr. Fox’s finding is that most of those shooters are not mentally ill. He told us that among people who commit mass shootings, less than 12 percent have had mental health issues. And Chief Mondary has a specialty of combating crime rather than profiling. I think it was great that they both spoke from their experience with the public.”

So what’s next for the students who were involved in this public-awareness exercise?

“Now it’s time to get the word out,” Moore stated. “When we had a debriefing with the student organizers, I asked if most people who carry out mass shootings have mental health issues, and everyone in the room said, ‘No.’”

On June 7, Coachella Valley voters will go to the polls to cast their votes in the California primary—and the Republican Party is going all-out to reclaim the 36th Congressional District seat, currently held by Dr. Raul Ruiz, a Democrat.

So far, two Republicans have declared their intentions to take on Ruiz (who did not return repeated requests for comment for this story).

“When I entered the field, there was no Republican who had thrown their hat into this race and stayed in the race,” novice candidate Dwight Kealy told Independent. “We’re looking at a district where a strong Republican should have a good showing. Historically, it’s been a Republican district.”

That historical advantage was altered dramatically in 2012, when Ruiz, then a novice candidate himself, upset heavily favored Republican incumbent Mary Bono Mack in a tight race. In 2014, Ruiz won re-election, handily beating Brian Nestande.

“Right now, there’s a pretty likable Democrat in office, quite frankly,” Kealy admitted. “He’s from the district, and he obviously appeals to the Latino vote as well.

“(The Republicans) needed someone with a good story, so I was encouraged to explore this opportunity. I talked to a bunch of people throughout the district and introduced myself, and they were excited about it. I talked to the state leadership and at the national level to the Republican Party. They all seemed really excited.”

But not long after Kealy had committed, 24-year political veteran Jeff Stone, currently serving in the state Senate, made public his intention to challenge Dr. Ruiz as well. (Shortly after this story was published, Kealy announced he was dropping out of the race.)

“When the paperwork becomes available, we’ll expeditiously acquire the general-nomination papers and get them filled out,” Stone said. “We’ll get 40 registered voters in the district to sign those, which should not require much of an effort, and we’ll get them filed, and we will be officially in the race.”

Stone said he has been working hard to gather endorsements and raise funds for his likely battle against Ruiz, who already has $1.5 million in the bank for his campaign.

Is Stone concerned how voters will react to his decision to run for national office less than halfway into his four-year term as a state senator?

“I have to balance my responsibilities as a state senator, which are going to come first,” he said. “I’ll use what spare time I have to get into the district and talk to constituents—and, of course, you’ve got to be able to raise money to get your message out. So we have roughly 10 fundraisers that are planned between now and June at various areas of the district, in the state of California, and some that will actually be outside of California.”

Stone said his decision to jump into the congressional race resulted from a string of unexpected occurrences, beginning last March, when he made a trip to Washington, D.C.

“I went there to hear Benjamin Netanyahu and to show that there were a number of us in the country who did not believe the Iran deal was a good deal,” said Stone, “and also to lobby members of Congress to not support that deal the president was proposing with Iran. I walked the halls of Congress and met with our state delegation, including Dr. Raul Ruiz. While we were sitting with Dr. Ruiz, he made it very clear he was going to stand with Israel. I walked away from that meeting, just as many people did, thinking he was not going to support this horrific deal.”

But according to Stone, Ruiz broke his word when he ultimately voted to support the deal.

“He got a message from (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi that he had to support the president of the United States, and he was pretty much told what to do, and he flip-flopped on the vote. I was so disappointed, because that rarely has happened in the 24 years I’ve been an elected official, that somebody would make such a major policy shift on such an important issue, namely national security.”

Stone wrote a “Valley Voice” piece for The Desert Sun, voicing his opposition to the nuclear deal, last September.

“After that, I was getting phone calls and emails from people saying, ‘Senator Stone, where do we sign up? And where do send funds?’ And I said, ‘Well, what are you talking about?’ And they said, ‘Aren’t you running for Congress?’ I said, ‘I’m not running for Congress.’”

In November, Stone said, he returned to Washington, D.C., to lobby for federal assistance for his California district, and encountered two longtime Republican congressmen from California, Darrell Issa and Ken Calvert.

“‘You know Jeff, we really need you to get into this race,’” Stone recalled them telling him. “‘This is a race that’s about 50-50 Democrat-Republican. And frankly, Dr. Ruiz has been in Congress now long enough that he has a record that can be scrutinized. … So we’re asking you to step up to the plate.”

Although Stone has been in his state Senate seat for less than two years, he also has a voting record that is scrutinized by some groups. For instance, the California League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club California and the California Teachers Association all gave Stone unfavorable ratings for the votes he cast in 2015 on legislative matters affecting their interests.

On the other hand, the National Rifle Association gave him high marks for the votes he cast.

“There are many things that will show a dramatic difference between Dr. Ruiz and myself,” Stone said. “People will have a clear choice on one ideology and vision for our country or another. I look forward to challenging Dr. Ruiz to a series of debates. I’m hoping we can get five debates in before the primary (June 7) so that the wonderful constituents of the Coachella Valley and the Hemet Valley and the Idyllwild area will have an opportunity to vet both of us.”

How did first-in candidate Dwight Kealy responding to Stone’s candidacy before dropping out?

“The goal has been to have the best Republican candidate. So if every one in the Republican Party and all the groups get together and say, ‘Hey, Dwight, Stone’s better than you, and we’re not giving you any money or any votes,’ then this would be a horrible hobby to spend my next six months doing.”

Play began in this year’s Coachella Valley PGA tournament stop—formerly known as the Bob Hope Classic, more recently as the Humana Challenge, and now as the CareerBuilder Challenge—on Thursday, Jan. 21.

Tour pros teed off at the La Quinta Country Club (the only layout to return from last year’s competitive three courses), the Nicklaus Tournament Course and, most surprisingly, the TPC Stadium Course. Players took on this challenging 18 holes for the first time—and, until this year, the last time—in tour competition in 1987.

It’s fair to say quite a bit has changed in the pro-golf world in the interim—much of it fueled by the impressive amount of money at stake. In 2016, the total purse for the entire tour season is roughly $330 million. Also, the simple game of golf—hit a ball with a well-manufactured but twisted stick until you knock it into a hole—now generates some $3.4 billion annually in consumer revenue in the U.S. alone. This gold mine has given rise to lucrative commercial-sponsorship opportunities

For each well-sponsored pro, every Thursday marks the first day of competition for that week’s tour stop—and it also signals the day they have to acquiesce to a skilled inspection by Palm Desert resident Buff White and his colleagues at the Darrell Survey Company.

“When people read golf magazines, and there’s a statement of fact regarding golf equipment and accessories—like a company says, ‘We have the No. 1 wedge on tour,’ or ‘the No. 1 fairway wood,’ then it would have to be verified by a third party, which is the Darrell Survey Company,” White said during an interview at the TPC Stadium Course this week. “We’ve been doing that since 1933.”

White, who became a permanent resident of Woodhaven Country Club in 2010 but traveled 46 weeks for the job last year, has been going through pro and amateur golfers’ bags on the first tee of every tournament’s first day of competition for 29 years.

“We check the equipment that the players are actually using to make sure that they are living up to their sponsorship contracts,” White said. “And, for the PGA, we’re making sure that nobody has illegal equipment in the bag, or too many clubs, or if they’re breaking any PGA regulations.”

Since the Coachella Valley stop comes so early in the calendar year, it presents special challenges to these PGA compliance representatives.

“For the first four events in January of each year, equipment changes like crazy,” White said. “These guys have had a few weeks off, so they’ve been able to practice with new golf balls, new wedges, new putters and new drivers, and everybody is always tweaking their equipment a little bit. This tournament is always tough, because you have amateurs playing, and the manufacturers always want to know what clubs are in their bags as well. But the amateurs sometimes don’t know what’s in their bag, so that makes it really tough, because they may have too many clubs, or they’ve got seven hybrids—and it’s a little bit disconcerting.”

What are the ramifications of these last-minute survey inspections? Is any corrective or punitive action taken right there and then as players are about to start?

“Sometimes, but usually nothing happens right then,” White said. “We’re not there to get into their heads. They know if they’re trying to use an illegal club, and sometimes they’ll do weird things. Like sometimes, they’ll tee off without a driver in their bag, and they’ll leave it on the third-hole tee box and pick it up when they get there. Or a guy will (think), ‘I’m under contract with company “X,” but I don’t want to play that driver,’ so they’ll show you the right driver, and then they’ll go pull a different one out of the starter’s tent on the first tee. So we’re always on our toes and looking for that guy who’s trying to figure out a way to get around the rules or his deal obligations.”

On rare occasions, though, if a player blatantly flouts the regulations, he could be penalized strokes or be disqualified from the tournament.

“Usually, other players will rat a guy out” said White with a chuckle. “If they think one of the guys is spinning the ball like crazy, they’ll go to a rules official and say, ‘We want you to look at this guy’s wedges,’ and the official would go right to the player and tell him that they need to verify the grooves on the club face.”

When White approached the bag of fan favorite Phil Mickelson on the first tee at the La Quinta Country Club on yesterday’s first day of play, you could read tension in the exchange between White and Phil’s caddy, whose nickname is Bones. (See the first picture below.)

“Phil doesn’t change anything in his bag usually very much, and Bones, his caddy, isn’t the easiest guy to deal with at times,” White said afterward. “He makes the tee box seem like it’s his office space, and it’s not like a golf course to him. So when he’s done with you, he’s done with you. But Phil had made a lot of changes today, which, like I said, he normally doesn’t make. But Bones was courteous enough to say ‘OK, did you get it all?’ Phil asked me the same thing. So, it took me right up to the last second, but, yeah, I got it all. It was all right.”

So, too, should be this year’s PGA Career Builder Challenge, which wraps up on Sunday, Jan. 24.

In the United States, 20 people are physically abused by intimate partners every minute of every day on average, according to a 2015 National Coalition Against Domestic Violence report. That equates to more than 10 million victims annually.

While there was a steady decline in the number of incidents reported in California from 2005 to 2012, the last two years for which statistics are available have seen increases, according to the California Department of Justice. In 2014, the nine cities of the Coachella Valley recorded 1,317 domestic-violence incidents; more than 20 percent involved the use of a weapon. On average, that works out to just less than four reported incidents per day in our valley—where Shelter From the Storm (SFTS) provides one of the only sources of hope to frightened and often desperate victims and their families.

“There’s a high need, and we’re still the only provider out here,” said executive director Angelina Coe during an interview in her office, located in a strip mall surrounded by a commercial area of Palm Desert. “The demand is there, but it’s a question of getting people to come in for help. It’s about the stigma of being in a shelter, which is still very negative. The fear factor involved in leaving the cycle of domestic violence, and leaving safely, has an impact on people coming into shelter.”

Coe has worked in the nonprofit, family-services, domestic-violence and homelessness-services sectors for almost 20 years, and came to SFTS in October 2012.

“These are not the easiest type of shelters to run, because you have to consider safety and security,” Coe asserted. “You have women with their children who are in serious need, and their resources are limited, because most of them do not have an income and won’t be able to establish an income in a 60-day time span (which is the normal period permitted for transitional housing assistance). They don’t have any skill sets, because they were young when they got married or got into the abusive relationship. They don’t have any family support system, because there’s a lot of fear and intimidation.

“You have to deal with their medical issues that result from being physically abused, and there are mental-health issues that come from being verbally and psychologically abused for years, and the trauma that happens to the children. It’s not that victims are choosing to stay because they don’t want to leave; it’s just harder to leave because their life is at risk: ‘I’ll kill you if you ever tell the police,’ or, ‘If you leave me, you won’t make it another night,’ or, ‘I’ll take the children away from you,’ or, ‘No one will believe you,’ or, ‘I’ll have you deported,’ which has become a big threat with many of our undocumented victims.

“There are often drugs and alcohol involved—not just on the abuser’s part, but the victims are forced into usage as a means for them to be kept under control. Also, the victims worry about the uncertainty: ‘What happens after I go to the shelter?’ ‘How am I going to live?’ ‘How am I going to provide for my family?’ ‘How am I going to provide for myself?’ ‘At least he (or the abuser) gives us a home. It’s not safe … but it’s a home.’ The victims kind of learn to live around the abuse: ‘OK, don’t do this so he won’t get angry, or if he is angry, do this so that he’ll de-escalate.’ ‘Wear certain things to avoid the injuries being more serious.’ The children become buffers sometimes.”

As if trying to protect and resuscitate the lives of victims isn’t hard enough work, SFTS is being forced to do more with less: Last year, SFTS saw a major portion of its funding abruptly cancelled.

“We lost our critical $150,000 in funding from (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) this past August, because their priorities changed, and they were no longer funding transitional housing programs. Instead, their focus was more on permanent housing solutions for homeless people in our society,” Coe said. “That was a devastating cut for us, but we were able to reach out to the community, and we received donations of about $40,000 which helped us to get through to the end of last year.”

The shortfall did lead to a cut in services in 2016, however.

“Our transitional, longer-term housing program, where victims and their families could be housed by SFTS for up to two years, was discontinued as of Dec. 31,” Coe said. “Fortunately, the families we did have in that program at the time were able to move onto permanent housing, so they are stable and moving forward, and remain connected with us for community counseling and outreach services if they need.”

Thankfully, some additional funding is arriving this year.

“We got an increase in our California (Governor’s) Office of Emergency Services funding, and that’s helping to supplement a lot of the overhead expenditures at our shelter, although we have downsized some,” Coe said. “But our main priority is to continue to provide quality care for the women and children and deal with their healing process which we’re doing through our hotline, our crisis shelter and our community counseling and community outreach. All those core services are still going and flourishing and fully funded for the majority of the year ahead.”

What is the status on the housing front? “We do still have our emergency shelter where victims and their families can stay for up to 60 days, and if we have a family that’s in need of longer-term housing, we can work with that family on a temporary transitional basis at that shelter as well. Then we work with other out-of-town facilities that … have longer term housing.”

The 22-person full-time SFTS staff has its hands full. So what can community members do to help?

“We very much appreciate monetary donations,” Coe said. “… And there are also donations of goods that we are always in need of and appreciate receiving.”

For more information or to donate, call 760-674-0400; visit www.shelterfromthestorm.com; or send mail to 73550 Alessandro Drive, Suite 103, Palm Desert, CA 92260.

The annual Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Awards Gala provides a cadre of A-list film actors and directors with oddly titled awards for their trophy cases—along with a low-stress, fun night in Palm Springs, the “home away from L.A.” for many celebrities.

This year’s honorees at the Saturday, Jan. 2, gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center included Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Bryan Cranston, Michael Fassbender, Cate Blanchett, Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, Alicia Vikander, Rooney Mara and Tom McCarthy.

The 11-day festival proudly presents a broad gamut of films within nearly every genre, produced both here and abroad; some of these films receive little or no viewership in the commercial marketplace otherwise. In contrast, the celebrity cast of honorees and presenters—Michael Keaton, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet and Ridley Scott were among the latter this year—as usual included a host of attention-grabbing nominees for the rapidly approaching major award season in Los Angeles. This proven strategy creates fund-raising fodder for the mix of industry players and local philanthropists who pay to get inside the Convention Center event. This year, more than $2 million was raised to support the year-round community service and film appreciation activities of the Palm Springs International Film Society, organizers said.

However, for me, the night proved to be a bust. While larger national media sources received prime space on the red carpet, the stars—most of whom were accompanied by a phalanx of PR representatives—were quickly whisked past those of us at the very end of the carpet where media outlets not offering national outreach were banished. (As for photos … the Independent was denied a photo credential, period … hence the mediocre smart-phone pics below.)

Special recognition was earned by Mr. Depp, who took time to amble at a leisurely pace, offering smiles and a couple of mumbled responses to urgently proffered inquiries.

In summation, I offer, for your enjoyment, a few freeze-frame stills and a brief video I shot to prove that I did, in fact, cover the event.

Enjoy. 

As the calendar turns from 2015 to 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown and his Sacramento conservation team are pleased with the results of California’s statewide drought-emergency restrictions.

However, they’re not happy with the efforts of Coachella Valley’s largest water agencies—despite significant cuts in local water usage.

“Californians have reduced water use by 27.1 percent in the five months since emergency conservation regulations took effect in June,” wrote Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), in her Dec. 1 monthly press release. “In October, when outdoor water use—and the opportunity for significant savings—typically drops off from the hot summer months, the statewide conservation rate was 22.2 percent, down from 26.4 percent in September. Adding to the challenge, October brought temperatures that were well above normal for most of the state. Nonetheless, average statewide water use declined from 97 gallons per person per day in September to 87 in October.”

Meanwhile, representatives of the Coachella Valley’s two major water agencies expressed pride over their customers’ conservation achievements—and frustration with SWRCB delays in addressing multiple requests for reductions in their state-high 36 percent reduction targets, and the lack of transparency in the state’s process to levy onerous fines against them.

“I think our customers have done a really good job,” said Heather Engel, the director of communication and conservation for the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), which provides water to most of the eastern valley. “We’re averaging 27 percent savings over 2013, and honestly, that’s pretty impressive. But—and unfortunately, there is a ‘but’—that 27 percent is not enough to make the state happy.

“We were fined $61,000 by the state, because they don’t think our customers are doing enough. It was very disappointing to receive that fine, because I think we’re doing a good job. But we’ve got to move on.”

How often may fines be levied? “They haven’t made that clear. In fact, when they released the October numbers at the beginning of this month, they did not announce any new fines. I don’t think anyone knows when to expect another announcement of fines.”

On the western end of the valley, Ashley Hudgens, the Desert Water Agency (DWA) public information officer, expressed concern over the CVWD fine and a similar fine levied against the Indio Water Authority (IWA). So far, the DWA has avoided a penalty.

“The hard thing about this is that the state’s action here is kind of arbitrary,” Hudgens said. “If you look at Indio, and you look at CVWD, there are very different circumstances there. Each of them had very different levels of contact with the state before the fine, and there wasn’t a real pattern (of which agencies the state fined). We crunched the numbers a dozen ways: Was it suppliers who missed their targets by volume, or was it those who missed by gallons per capita, or was it those who missed their target by percentage? There was no rhyme or reason necessarily to link the people the state chose to fine in any of the calculations that we did. So we don’t know if we’re in peril of a fine.”

Repeated attempts to contact Brian Macy, general manager of the IWA, for comment were unsuccessful.

Hudgens reiterated the DWA’s disagreement with the 36 percent reduction target assigned to the agency.

“The 36 percent target in our minds is arbitrary, and it’s disproportionate to the circumstances here (high average temperature and lack of rainfall) and our (existing) water supply,” she said.

Hudgens also praised her agency’s customer base for achieving a cumulative savings through October of 29.2 percent—above the state average, but below the state’s mandate to the DWA.

“I’m incredibly proud of our customers for doing that, but there is still more to do,” she said. “Everybody needs to do their part. I think the city of Palm Springs has set an incredible example. They’ve done a really good job of conserving—and since they’re our biggest customer, that’s been huge for us.”

In response to the state fine, the CVWD implemented heightened restrictions as of Dec. 1. All residential and commercial customers are now prohibited from any outdoor irrigation on Mondays and Thursdays. Also, penalty fees for exceeding water-usage allotments have increased close to 100 percent.

“In the cooler months that we’re entering now, your landscaping doesn’t need water seven days a week,” Engel said. “The plan is for people who don’t normally cut back to do so for these two out of seven days. If they do, then they are reducing their water use by about 28 percent. If we have a large segment of customers who do that, it could have a significant impact on our overall savings. We don’t know for sure if that will generate enough savings to allow us to reach our 36 percent target, but we’ll see what the results are.”

We’ve all heard forecasts predicting heavy precipitation due to a strong El Nino condition in the Pacific Ocean. Could that break the drought and relieve the pressure on valley residents to limit every drop of water they use?

“We’re waiting to see what happens and how it impacts our reality,” CVWD’s Engel said. “If the state gets a lot of rain, and if the lakes get full, and there’s snow in the Sierras, then the state might lift the drought emergency. But it would require a lot of rain and snow for that to happen.”

They’re also in wait-and-see mode at the DWA.

“We are trying to be cautiously optimistic and remind people that even if we do have a wet winter, it’s going to take a lot to get us into a sustainable level in terms of the state’s aquifers,” Hudgens said.

Speaking of sustainable levels: How are the two largest valley agencies coping with the revenue shortfalls caused by the reduction in water usage by their customers?

“We are still experiencing a large drop in revenue because of the conservation, and it is mostly being made up with penalties revenue each month,” the CVWD’s Engel said. “So that has allowed us to only dip into our reserves a little bit each month. As a result, we’re in really good shape financially, because we have those healthy reserves.”

But at the DWA, there are no penalty fees, nor is there a tiered rate structure as part of a conservation strategy.

“We are in a revenue shortfall situation,” Hudgens said. “Before this year began, we adjusted the budget downward since we assumed this is where we would be—so we’re coping with it. We are going to have to look at rates, and I think that’s on everyone’s mind out here. I think all the local water agencies are going to be looking at rates. I would guess probably sometime in 2016 we will see a rate study. Of course, that’s up to our board of directors.”

I moved to the Coachella Valley some four years ago from Los Angeles, where I had worked in the media and entertainment industries for roughly 30 years. “Jaded” was my middle name.

Not long after my wife, Linda, and I took up residence in Palm Desert, we were invited to a "desert drink the night away" party where I first met Mike Taylor. He regaled all listeners with stories of his “salad days,” as he would say, bartending for many of the celebrities who roamed the Palm Springs-to-Rancho Mirage range back in the ’70s and ’80s.

To say that Mike is “an original” would be an understatement—and his storytelling skills have been honed to a glistening point over his years behind the bar.

In this video, longtime area bartender to the stars Mike Taylor recants some of his favorite tales of serving drinks to, and hanging around with, Ol' Blue Eyes himself. Saturday, Dec. 12, marked Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday, so kick-back, watch and enjoy just a few of Mike Taylor's funny moments with Sinatra and friends, and brace yourself for some heavy duty celebrity name-dropping in this four-minute ode to Mr. Sinatra.

At the recent 2015 Coachella Valley Economic Summit, hosted by the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership (CVEP), roughly 700 representatives of the valley’s elite businesses and employers listened to rosy reports about the current national, state and local economy.

According to presenter Michael McDonald, of Market Watch LLC, job growth in the valley in 2015 was at its highest level since 2005. Employment in the leisure, hospitality and health care sectors is at 15-year highs, while hiring in the professional/business services sector is higher than it has been since 2008. Median home prices have rebounded to match prices in early 2008, when they began the free-fall precipitated by the widespread economic downturn.

It was a good day for CVEP, founded in 1994 “to promote a diversified, year-round economy by facilitating programs that stimulate job creation in key industries through business attraction, retention and expansion, and unite business and education leaders to create well-trained and educated future workforce.” CVEP published its first Economic Blueprint, described as “an ambitious, forward-thinking, market-based strategy to advance the region through the downturn (of 2009-11) and position it for long-term growth and prosperity,” back in 2009.

“The Coachella Valley is kind of an oasis that’s friendly to business (in a way) that you don’t get in other parts of our state,” CVEP’s director of marketing, Steven Biller, told the Independent in a recent interview. “CVEP can do things as a group and as a region that the cities can’t do individually, because they don’t have the budgets or our negotiating leverage.

“The cities expect us to bring them business and create jobs. That’s how we’re judged. And we’re trying to get the valley workforce built up to be able to take those jobs.”

CVEP has adopted a three-pronged approach to achieve these goals: Workforce Excellence, an effort to improve the local workforce through advanced educational and career opportunity; the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), which assists startup and established businesses with financial planning, capital, marketing, sales, human resources, technology and more; and the iHub, which launches businesses and hopefully creates local high-paying jobs.

CVEP officials claim these efforts are paying off. At the SBDC, since 2010, more than 355 jobs have been created, with 223 jobs retained and more than $25 million in loans and equity generated. At the iHub, more than 30 companies have received assistance, resulting in 100-plus new full-time jobs. Through the Workforce Excellence program, 136 business organizations have engaged with the valley high schools to impact career and college aspirations of 3,331 students—while providing 2,152 scholarships.

“We have a low college-attendance rate here in Coachella Valley, and CVEP is fighting that,” Biller said. “We give out between 300 and 325 college scholarships a year to kids going to community college and university. They all have to be seniors, and they have to demonstrate financial need. Right now, most people who apply and qualify are getting the scholarships, because we tend to have more scholarships available than we have kids applying for them. That’s a big story: There’s so much money being left on the table, it’s crazy.”

The average value of the available scholarships is $2,500 per semester to a student attending community college, and $5,000 per semester to a public university student.

While the local economy is doing well, however, not all is well in CVEP’s world. Back in 2009, five-year funding agreements were reached between CVEP and Coachella Valley’s nine independent municipalities. Several of the cities have since reduced their funding commitment to CVEP—or eliminated it completely. Coachella, La Quinta, Indian Wells and Desert Hot Springs discontinued the funding, while Cathedral City ceased specific support of the iHub program, but continues its $25,000 annual contribution to CVEP overall.

Representatives of Indian Wells, Coachella and Cathedral City expressed a recurring theme: City budget shortfalls forced the funding curtailments.

Indian Wells City Manager Wade McKinney told the Independent: “The city’s economic position has been significantly affected by the recession and by the loss of redevelopment, and so our support to many Coachella Valley organizations was eliminated. We created a community grant program with a fixed funding level of about $250,000, which increases consistent with city annual revenue increases.”

Would CVEP would be eligible to receive any of that available funding? “I believe they are eligible; you just have to be a non-profit, but I don’t believe they’ve applied to us for any grants,” McKinney said. “It’s certainly very competitive, and we receive lots of applications.”

CVEP’s Biller had a different take: “Indian Wells can find the money, but they just don’t want to,” he said. “Now they should, because what about all the people working in their resorts? Do they want good hospitality and hotel and restaurant work staff?”

Coachella City Councilmember V. Manuel Perez explained: “What caused us to make the unfortunate decision to opt out of CVEP for 2016 was the need for budget cuts. We had to cut our fire and police budgets, so we felt compelled to make cuts in other areas as well. Unfortunately, CVEP was one of those.”

Biller perceived a somewhat different cause for the Coachella City Council decision: “In the cases of La Quinta and Coachella, which just dropped their funding support, they’re more interested in retail business development, and we are not a retail organization except, through the SBDC. So those two cities are going to take the $10,000 each that they were giving to CVEP annually and make their own strategic choice to create a new entity they call the East Valley Coalition, and do their own retail outreach. The East Valley Coalition happens to be based in CVEP’s Indio office. So, although it sounds antagonistic, it’s not. These cities need to put their dollars where they think they’re going to get the most impact.”

Biller said he hoped cities would see the light and begin funding CVEP again at some point.

“Hopefully, in the future, people will understand that they should be part of a regional strategy, because a rising tide lifts all boats,” Biller said. “We’re not going to stop providing scholarships to the kids in Coachella and La Quinta. We’re not going to stop serving businesses that come to us. We’re not going to stop anything. That would be crazy, because it goes against everything that CVEP is about.”

Coachella’s Perez agreed with Biller. “This new East Valley Coalition’s main focus will be economic development in the eastern Coachella Valley, which is one of the priorities of the new Coachella City Council,” Perez said. “But we want outcomes that we can measure for success. It is my hope and the hope of the city that, after this year, we go back to CVEP. This is not a long-term decision.”

It’s been a turbulent couple of months for the Cathedral City Public Arts Commission.

The way interviews were done for potential commission members raised eyebrows. The fact that almost all of the newly seated commissioners live in the same area caused concerns. Then the commission made a major change in direction, with new commissioners pushing an aggressive slate of programs and projects that they say will bring increased artistic opportunity and expression into the daily lives of Cathedral City residents.

“You know, frankly I was rather surprised at how it all went,” returning commissioner and new co-chair Alan Carvalho said regarding the interview process. “When I was interviewed before being selected last year, it was in a closed City Council session. This time, it was done in the open, and I don’t think that they were ready for so many people to be applying.

“One of the focuses of the City Council, from what I understood, was that they were looking to give new people an opportunity to contribute to the city. Also, I know that the mayor (Stan Henry) was concerned that we keep at least one person on each of the commissions who was a veteran.”

Another factor that could have influenced this year’s selections stemmed from the ability of the City Council to appoint commissioners who lived outside of Cathedral City. That policy did not make sense to newly appointed commissioner and co-chair Simeon Den.

“I felt, ‘You guys couldn’t find enough people in Cathedral City who would volunteer their time and want to be there on the commission?’” he said. “We got the council to make a commitment that first, we should try to get Cathedral City residents on to the Public Arts Commission.”

Some people have groused about concerns that a vast majority of current commissioners live in the Cathedral Cove area of the city, a fact confirmed by Chris Parman, communications/events manager of Cathedral City, “Of the five commissioners newly appointed, four of the five candidates live in the Cathedral City Cove neighborhood. Please note that Public Arts Commission candidates are not chosen based on where they live in the city.”

To some, it is curious to note that Jim Cox, then the commission chairperson, was recommended for re-appointment to the commission after the interviews on June 6; however, when the June 10 City Council meeting took place, Cox, who is a Cove resident, was not re-appointed, while commissioner Pam Price, who lives further north in the city, was reappointed.

As far as the new co-chairpersons were concerned, the appointments came down not to geography, but the strategic direction the Public Arts Commission would take.

“The group of commissioners prior to us had a different mindset about how they thought the Public Arts Commission should be,” stated Den. “You know how there’s a group of people who consider themselves to be the experts, and kind of top-down want to dictate what should be considered good art and what should be bad art. When you’re working in the government and for the community, the approach and the philosophy needs to be different. You shouldn’t go from the top down; you go from the bottom up.”

Carvalho expanded on that theme.

“With the previous commission I was a member of, there were very few opportunities for people to feel they could come as the public and just be part of our meeting,” he said. “So I really wanted to make sure that those citizens who applied for commissioner positions and didn’t get seats felt that their contribution was wanted and needed.”

Now that the new Cathedral City Public Arts Commission has been seated, Den and Carvalho are painting a picture of a community-service-driven, geographically agnostic agenda. They passionately described plans they say will deliver real value to local citizens looking for support in their artistic endeavors, recognition of their cultural heritage, and the opportunity to experience good art in their neighborhoods.

“This commission would like to continue what was started last year and bring a sculpture that honors the Agua Caliente tribe to the corner of Landau and Ramon, where the city has built a platform for the use of Public Arts,” Carvalho stated. “The Ramon Road project was partially funded by the tribe.”

Den emphasized several efforts. “Alan Carvalho and I are doing a murals project throughout the city, and particularly in the north end, over by Vista Chino and Ramon. We’re considering local artists, and particularly Latino artists, who could create murals that would add to the cultural identity and enable young people to become part of the process. There are kids who I’ve met who grew up here and went to Cathedral City High School. I’ve contacted two of them, and one who’s been doing a murals project in Oakland and grew up here on E Street is going to paint a mural for us.”

Also high on Den’s list is the “Art Block” project, an ambitious proposal to reclaim the Boneyard property at 36600 Cathedral Canyon Drive from the city for use as a workshop and learning center.

As for high-profile events, the commission is sponsoring an exhibition at City Hall of work by well-known painter and part-time Cathedral City resident Ilona Von Ronay. Also, the Taste of Jalisco Festival is slated for downtown Cathedral City on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 13 and 14; it will feature a screening of the documentary Lalo Guerrero: The Original Chicano, musical and dance performances, a parade, food stands and a kids’ zone.

“Cathedral City has been known as the ugly stepsister of the desert cities, and we always think of it as the Cinderella, because we love it here,” Den said. “We do have such a rich history that we want to bring forward again.”