CVIndependent

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Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Kevin Fitzgerald

The film Selma is one of the most acclaimed movies heading into awards season. It’s nominated for four Golden Globes, including Best Drama, even though it doesn’t open in wide release until Jan. 9.

A week before that opening date, the film was the star attraction as the official opening night screening of the 26th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival, at Palm Springs High School, on Friday, Jan. 2.

On the unusually crowded red carpet, director Ava DuVernay and two of the film’s actors, David Oyelowo and Common, graciously posed for photographers and spoke with news crews and reporters about the controversy stirred by the powerful film.

“We couldn’t have prepared for this. I’m just thankful that we made a truthful enough film that it is meeting this moment in a real and potent way,” said Oyelowo, who portrays Martin Luther King Jr. in the film, referring to current tension happening after the deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement officers in Ferguson, Mo., and many other areas across the nation.

“Seven years ago when I first read this script, I felt God tell me that I was going to play this role,” Oyelowo continued. “There were very frustrating moments along the road where the film just wouldn’t get made, so to look at this divine timing of it coming out now, for me, I don’t think it’s an accident at all. I just feel very honored and humbled to be at the center of it.”

Scroll down to see some photos from the red carpet.

In 2003 and 2004, an ambitious group of young Latino community organizers and activists, all raised in the eastern Coachella Valley, returned home after earning college degrees.

They were known as over-achievers in their hometowns, and they searched each other out, they say, because they were determined to make a difference. They wanted to improve the lives of their friends and loved ones in the barrios and farm fields of the eastern valley, in part by gaining power via the political process.

A decade later, it’s clear: These organizers and activists, all Democrats, are making a mark and attaining many of their lofty goals.

V. Manuel Perez recently was elected to the Coachella City Council after three terms in the State Assembly. Eduardo Garcia swapped places with Perez, sort of: He just joined the State Assembly after serving as Coachella’s mayor. Maria Machuca is the president of the Coachella Valley Unified School District Board. Most notably, Dr. Raúl Ruiz is beginning his second term representing the Coachella Valley in Congress.

We talked to these young leaders about how they attained their current success—and what they have in mind for the future.


“I grew up in Cochelita, which was one of the toughest areas in Coachella Valley at the time, and we saw the injustices at an early age,” recalled V. Manuel Perez, who successfully ran for a Coachella City Council seat this year after a failed bid for the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. (He was term-limited out of the Assembly.) “Why was it that in my barrio, there weren’t any parks, so we had to play football and tag in the middle of our street, where drive-by shootings were ongoing? And why was it that my parents would come home from work as farmworkers late in the day, only to go to work early the next day so that they were too tired to help me with my homework? And why, whenever I had a toothache, did we have to wait until the end of the week to go to Mexicali to see the dentist, because we didn’t have health insurance?”

Garcia was first elected to the Coachella City Council in 2004 and became mayor two years later, not too long after finishing college. “What I remember quite vividly is that there was a group of us who happened to be returning to the Coachella Valley from other endeavors,” Garcia said. “In my case, I was returning from finishing my undergraduate work at UC Riverside. Manny (Perez) had been organizing and working in the central and Northern California areas (after his graduation from UC Riverside and Harvard University post-graduate work), and a few others were returning from college. We all got together and really started organizing community events in and around the cultural and art arena, with a specific objective to raise consciousness about issues affecting our community.”

Machuca (right) graduated from Coachella Valley High School and continued on to Cal State San Bernardino. “And I always said that my goal after getting a college degree was to come back home regardless,” she said.

Josseth Mota, the current community services coordinator for the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition, introduced Machuca to the group of young men, including Perez and Garcia, who had started meeting regularly to launch a community-service organization that could make a difference in their hometowns. She was already doing work with the Fair Housing Council and the Mecca Community Council.

“They told me they’d really like to get some women involved in their group, because then, it was a whole bunch of guys,” she recalled. “They said, ‘We need mujeres (women), because when a movement is going on, it’s pretty much the mujeres who move things forward. So I was interested, but I was going to be the only girl in this group with these guys who I’d only heard of back in high school.

“I knew Eddie Garcia, because he was a year ahead of me at Coachella Valley High School. Victor Manuel (Perez), I had heard about when I was in elementary school, because he was the guy who went to Harvard, and that was huge for us. And Raúl Ruiz, I knew because when we were in high school, some of us wanted to start an Aztec dancing club, and Joe Mota said he knew this guy who could teach us how to do the Aztec sun dance. The problem was that this guy was waiting to hear if he would be accepted at UCLA to go to medical school. … Back then, really, nobody from our background made it to that kind of college.”

After teaching several lessons, Ruiz indeed went off to medical school. “The next time I saw him was when he came back after he’d gotten his medical degrees. He was working at Eisenhower Medical Center, and he joined our Raices meetings,” she said. (More on those meetings later.)

Perez has known Ruiz—whose office did not respond to an interview request for this story—since he was a kid.

“Raúl and I grew up together and played Little League ball together,” Perez said. “We were in high school for four years together, and he was always president, and I was his secretary, treasurer and director of assemblies. When he went to UCLA, I was at UC Riverside, where I was an organizer, and he was organizing at UCLA. So we would have lots of discussions, but once he went off to Harvard Medical School, I kept strong ties here locally. Then I went out to Harvard as well, and Raúl and I were roommates there for a short time. So we would talk about these issues, but as far as the strategy to run for office and build a political infrastructure in Coachella Valley, that began in 2003-2004. When Raul came home, that’s when he began to engage. That was in 2008, and that’s when he decided to run for office as well.”

By the time Ruiz returned to the valley, Perez, Garcia, Machuca and others had already started building what they called their Raices infrastructure.

“Its emphasis was to educate politically, perform community outreach, and find individuals who we can transition from the conscious to the critical consciousness—so that perhaps they recognize their self-power, their self-agency, so that they can say, ‘You know what? There are things that we can change here. There are things we can transform,’” Perez said.

However, Perez was quick to point out that Raices also stemmed from the efforts of leaders from generations before, “from the Coachella Valley Voters League organization, whose members really put an emphasis on building political capital in the eastern Coachella Valley, to the movement of Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers, in which many of our parents were engaged.”

Perez was the president of Raices when it was founded in 2004.

“I always felt while organizing that we have to hold ourselves accountable to each other, and the best way to do that is by having an infrastructure, an organization that has a mission,” he said. “Because what I’ve learned through organizing in other areas throughout California is that if you identify someone who should run for office, and if these individuals are not accountable to an entity larger than themselves, they stop working with the collective and for its goals.

“We felt we had to form an organization that would do three things. First was to build and develop the political voice of the eastern Coachella Valley; second was to develop and create access to healthier communities; and the last was to utilize the cultural arts for social activism. Those were the three points of emphasis for Raices that exist to this day.”

Machuca said the development of Raices into a fully formed nonprofit organization was the organic result of the group’s shared aspirations.

“When we started meeting around founding Raices, it was weird how we had known of each other years ago, but now we were connecting to do something for our communities,” Machuca said. “So it felt genuine; it felt real; it felt like we were going to make a difference for the generations that came after us and give them something that we couldn’t have, and didn’t have. We were meeting once a week, and then it became twice a week, and then it became almost every night, because we were that passionate about putting this organization together and getting it off the ground.”

The group was initially called Youth for Change, but the members eventually decided the movement needed to involve everyone, not just young people.

“It was at one of those meetings that we came up with the name Raices,” she said. “It was supposed to be an acronym for something, but we never came to an agreement on what those words would be.”


Garcia said a key moment in Raices’ history came when the group screened a documentary by Antonio Gonzalez Vasquez called Living on the Dime: A View of the World From Along the I-10.

“This video had to do with the growth and development of the Inland Empire and the impact of building the Interstate 10 freeway right through those communities,” he explained. “And by impact, I mean how the I-10 divided communities into east/west/north/south, how it brought about different socio-economic groups in the region, and how the political structure began to govern in a way that gave us a division between the haves and the have-nots.

“We showcased the film at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Coachella with the idea of beginning a conversation among the residents about the importance of growth and development in Coachella and the eastern end of the Coachella Valley. This was at a time when we were just beginning to see all the development and building activity that was going to occur. So that was our first real ‘action’ that triggered the discussion about responsible growth and development strategies for the city of Coachella, and whether areas of the city were being planned out responsibly to benefit both existing residents and the new residents in terms of developing public amenities like city parks and community centers.

“From there, members of the group moved on to discussions of direct involvement and representation of our Latino citizens at the government level. So, I’m simplifying things here, but that really was the first action that led ultimately to several of us running for public office.”

In 2004, Perez ran for the CVUSD school board, while Garcia ran for the Coachella City Council. Their campaigns did not go off without a hitch.

“As we started organizing some of the campaign events and actions, we began to feel the division between us and some of the elders in the community,” Machuca said. “We wanted to work with them, but it seemed that they saw us either as young and naïve, or as being in over our heads, as we were trying to change our world. At first it, it wasn’t too bad, but then as people began declaring that they were going to run for so many local positions, the division became a reality. It became: ‘How dare you disrespect us elders by running against us!’ Although it was never really said in so many words, it felt that way.”

Still, Perez and Garcia went on to win their races.

“We bonded even more during the real grassroots effort of those campaigns,” Machuca said. “We learned so much about the dos and the don’ts of campaigning and just how dirty things can get. We tried to play nice, because at the end of the day, we didn’t want the community to be divided. And we had a lot of community support, which showed in the results of the elections. We were young, had new ideas, and we grew up there. Some of the opposition ran their campaigns on platforms criticizing the fact that we left our communities to get college degrees. … But we came back!”

Despite the political wins, some of the people within Raices did not like the political direction in which the group was going. “They wanted to stick only with the arts, culture and community-building aspects of our mission,” Machuca said.

Ultimately, those dissenting members prevailed, as the original organization has been transformed into Raices Cultura.

“Today, Raices is focused on its nonprofit work and bringing about opportunities for Latino youth by utilizing our indigenous art and culture as the anchor,” Garcia said. “But everything is done with a community focus to create a critical consciousness in our youth to look at ways to improve their lives and the lives of others in their community, despite the barriers and challenges that many times exist in communities like ours. That is the focus of Raices today.”

While Perez may see more of a link between the nonprofit and the development of future eastern Coachella Valley community leaders than Garcia does, he perceived a change in direction as well.

“It’s morphed over the years,” Perez said. “When we first started, we recognized that we needed to continue to think of ways we could change things politically and change the institutions of power. But at the same time, we knew that as we grew older, eventually, the next generation will need to take the lead. So back in the day, what we would do, for example, is bring in computers and provide tutorial services on how to access higher education in the hope that afterward, they’d come back home. Now it’s more about offering instruction concerning cultural identity, and for that matter, self-love. A lot of courses are based on spirituality and the teachings of the Aztecs and the Mayans, a lot of indigenous culture … .

“Also, there’s an emphasis on trying to influence individuals toward self-love as opposed to self-hate. What we’ve seen for years is youth violence—youth-on-youth shootings, and gangs, drug abuse and domestic violence. A lot of that comes from the anger that develops in a person because of the oppression that they’ve had to endure for so many years. So the teaching that goes on today is helping to develop individuals with more positivity in their lives. That spirituality piece is really, really important.”


What’s in store for the political arm of this heavily Latino community-service collective? Perez said there’s a lot of work left to do.

“We identified people over the years who have engaged in our campaigns,” he said. “In the Ruiz campaigns and also in mine, you’d see a lot of youth out knocking on doors, passing out literature and phone-banking. So that’s kind of a training ground where the young people get to see up close what we as candidates go through. … Some of these youngsters have gone on to higher education and are now leaders with organizations that are registering people to vote, like Voto Latino, or for that matter, are doing organizing work with UFW (United Farm Workers).”

Perez said he always made it a point to offer internships to youths who wanted to learn about the policy-making process.

“What does it really mean when you work on an issue, and then pass a policy?” he asked. “How do you connect those dots? For instance, what does it mean if we pass legislation on a safe route to school that has some funding attached, but in Coachella or Mecca or Thermal, there’s a lack of sidewalks? … It’s not about an individual; it’s about a collective, a movement. And ultimately, it’s about achieving social justice through policy, organizing and developing the human being’s capacity as social capital, and to finally turn our community around in ways that are very positive.”

To accomplish those ends, the policy-making representatives of these eastern valley communities need to maintain their political presence. Garcia envisions a solidification of power in a more formal organization informed by the Raices Cultura ideals.

“The question is: Will Raices Cultura programs and participants influence the development of a democratic political structure that weighs in on issues of local, state and national significance? The answer is yes,” Garcia said. “It happens by natural progression, and I think what’s missing here is the actual organization of an official Democratic club which attributes its beginnings to the formation of Raices 10 years ago, and is a political organization and framework … able to lead the charge on issues of policy and importance to our community. I think we’re getting there, and will very soon create an organization from the eastern Coachella Valley that is strictly political and on the Democratic side of the spectrum.”

Below: Eduardo Garcia: “I think what’s missing here is the actual organization of an official Democratic club which attributes its beginnings to the formation of Raices 10 years ago, and is a political organization and framework … able to lead the charge on issues of policy and importance to our community.” PHOTO BY KEVIN FITZGERALD

The 2014 holiday season has officially arrived, and while many of us are busily planning schedules around parties and shopping, more and more of our neighbors are facing formidable food and resource shortages.

“Over the last 24 months, we’ve seen the monthly average number of people served meals in our region increase from 80,000 per month to 90,000-plus,” said Chantel Schuering, community relations director for the FIND Food Bank. “We get those numbers directly from each organization that partners with FIND to acquire food resources, and then we aggregate them here.”

Those partner organizations include almost all of the agencies who provide meals on a regular basis to those in need of food assistance. One such partner is The Well in the Desert, based in Palm Springs.

“I wish we had fewer customers, but we don’t, unfortunately,” remarked Arlene Rosenthal, president of the board at The Well. “And around Thanksgiving and Christmas, we get a lot of people who don’t use our services regularly, but at the holidays, find it difficult to provide totally for themselves.”

While the realities of life can be discouraging this time of year—especially to those working to lessen the impact of hunger on a daily basis—the holidays can be a time of happiness and encouragement as well.

“We usually get about 1,500 people on Christmas Day, and these are a combination of the working poor, seniors on fixed incomes and the homeless,” Rosenthal said. “We open the doors at noon, and we have hundreds of people waiting to attend. They walk down this aisle formed by volunteers on each side who are shaking hands and high-fivin’ with the kids and seniors and the homeless. I’ve seen people in tears. It just brings out the best in everybody, and it’s become my favorite event.”

At Martha’s Village and Kitchen in Indio, the demand for holiday assistance increases as well.

“We certainly do see a huge, huge increase of folks coming on the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Since they don’t have families or others to go to, they utilize our services,” said K. Magdalena Andrasevits, the president and CEO. “That’s why it’s so important that the community comes together, as they always have. So I always say thank you, thank you, thank you to the community for helping us to do what we can to help our neighbors in need.”

However, Andrasevits points out that hunger and a need for help aren’t just seasonal issues. “I probably echo every other service provider when I say that the need isn’t just at the holiday season; it is year-round.”

For Mike Thompson, executive director of the LGBT Community Center of the Desert in Palm Springs (which also operates the NestEggg Food Bank), one focus of his organization’s holiday assistance is on people’s emotional and psychological needs.

“What I would like to call attention to is our mental-health program, and specifically, our low-to-no-cost counseling services for older adults,” Thompson said. “The holiday season can be stressful times for those living alone who might feel isolated, so we’d like to highlight this counseling program and make sure that people understand this help is available.”

Thompson also mentioned specific holiday-time events that are being held by The Center. “We’ve got a ‘Paws and Claus’ event where people can bring their pet to see Santa Claus, and that takes place (in December). These events are designed to bring people together.”

How tough is it for assistance organizations to attract needed funds today?

“You know nonprofits are always in need of funding support, whether that be in-kind donations, volunteer time or financial resources,” Thompson said. “As people begin to think about their end-of-the-year tax-giving, we like to remind them that The Center is here, and remind them of the programs we have here that benefit the valley’s LGBT community, and ask that they consider supporting us.”

We asked Schuering of FIND how concerned she and her colleagues are about the increasing demand for services.

“It’s a constant state of concern,” she said. “But when you feed 90,000-plus people a month, no single donation will make or break your effort. When demand goes up, as we’ve seen recently, we’re always trying to connect people with other resources so that food doesn’t have to be the thing they give up in their lives. We do a lot of work connecting people with the food-stamp program, for instance. Some of the crazy rumors people hear are just horrible, and it’s enough to keep them from applying for funds that are set aside for them to use for food.”

In closing, Schuering offered this sobering holiday thought. “Every month, there are tens of thousands of Coachella Valley residents going hungry. Every month. We only have 440,000 residents year-around, so if 90,000 of them are hungry every month, that’s one out of every five of our neighbors. Those are numbers that you cannot ignore.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION OR TO HELP:

FIND Food Bank: 760-775-3663; www.findfoodbank.org

The Well in the Desert: 760-327-8577; www.wellinthedesert.org

Martha’s Village and Kitchen: 760-347-4741; marthasvillage.org

LGBT Community Center of the Desert: 760-416-7790; www.thecenterps.org

Locals often tell visitors to the Coachella Valley that they must sample the high-end shopping and dining experience that is El Paseo, in Palm Desert.

The pristine boulevard is the valley's answer to renowned destinations like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills or Fifth Avenue in New York City. However, the stores and restaurants aren’t the only things worthy of the window-shopper’s attention; there’s also El Paseo’s incomparable 18-sculpture fine-art exhibition, which runs down the center median of the boulevard between the intersections with Highway 74 to the west, and Portola Avenue to the east.

“A lot of cities use Palm Desert as a model,” said Deborah Schwartz Glickman, of Palm Desert’s Public Art Department, who manages this ongoing exhibition. “For instance, someone looking to start a similar exhibition program contacted West Hollywood, which has an amazing program of their own. They sent that person to me for advice, so I know we’re a respected program within the art community, both by artists and art administrators.”

The exhibition program was initiated in the mid-to-late 1990s, according to Schwartz Glickman. The city is slated to spend $486,800 on its entire Art in Public Places program this year, according to budget documents on the city’s website; much of that money comes from a special fee for public art that’s levied on new development.

“It is structured as a two-year exhibition of 18 sculptures that are loaned to the city for that timeframe either by the artist or a gallery. The artwork comes from across the country and often from around the globe,” she said of the El Paseo exhibit.

It requires no small effort on the part of several city employees to bring each of the program’s iterations to fruition for the public’s enjoyment.

“It takes about a year to go through the whole process,” said Schwartz Glickman. “We start by putting out a call for artists. I always say it goes to anyone who will listen. Then artists apply either with existing artworks or proposals for artworks. All are reviewed by a subcommittee of our Art and Public Places Commission, which selects the 18 sculptures and usually two or three alternates. Those choices are taken to the full Art in Public Places Commission, which, after a review, recommends their choices to the City Council, which must approve the selections.”

Next is the logistical challenge of removing, or “de-installing,” the outgoing exhibition and installing 18 new pieces for the new two-year display. This year, that process began in October, and continued through mid-November. Brett Fiore, an experienced sculpture restoration and maintenance professional who owns Signature Sculpture in Palm Desert, managed the process, as he has done since 2008.

“This is now the fourth collection that I will have installed and had my hands on,” Fiore said. “I’ve seen all of these pieces come and go, and it’s nice. When the artists get their pieces here … they take a deep breath, and they can’t believe that they’re on El Paseo. They’re just overwhelmed that they’ve finally made it to the top of the mountain.”

But for Fiore, aided by friend and colleague Jeff Fowler (a sculptor and restorer), as well as the rest of his team, the work is just beginning.

“I tell the artists that the trip’s not over, because we need to make sure that the piece looks just as good two years from now as it does today,” Fiore said. “So I help formulate a maintenance program with the artist and the city to make sure that we do everything to keep the pieces in their best condition.”

What goes into that maintenance effort? “For every piece, there has to be some sort of washing or waxing or cleaning,” Fiore explained. “So, for instance, if the piece is made of glass, there has to be some basic dusting and washing. When you add on enamels or auto-body-type paint, you may take an approach to maintenance like you would with a Ferrari or a Porsche by washing and waxing it often, and in the same manner. For bronzes, we use special waxes that are made for bronze.”

Local artist Patrick Blythe, whose piece “Harvest” was exhibited during the last two years, appreciated the opportunity.

“It’s been a great adventure,” Blythe said. “I’ve loved having it here on El Paseo, and I think the city of Palm Desert Art in Public Places (Commission has) been a wonderful host. They’ve taken good care of the piece, and it looks as good as the day it was installed.”

The just-installed exhibition includes works by several area artists, including David Reid-Marr (who created “Cloud” specifically for El Paseo, pictured below) and Gerald Clarke, both of Idyllwild, as well as Mitchell Taylor of Joshua Tree, Janice Osborne of La Quinta, and Mario Pikus of Rancho Mirage.

For residents or visitors who would prefer a more-informed viewing, guided tours are available.

“We have a pool of trained docents, and we offer tours as part of our first-weekend event,” Schwartz Glickman said. “Every month September through May, there are tours on Saturday mornings at 9 a.m. of either El Paseo’s sculptures, the art work at Civic Center Park, or the art in the Palm Desert Library. But anyone who’s interested can schedule a free private tour just by contacting my offices.”

For more information on Palm Desert’s Art in Public Places program, visit www.palm-desert.org/arts-culture/public-art.

So here’s the good news: Coachella Valley residents and businesses have raced to take advantage of the turf-buyback conservation programs offered by both the Desert Water Agency on the west end of the valley, and the Coachella Valley Water District on the east end.

Here’s the bad news, especially if you’re a DWA customer: The agency totally underestimated how strong the customer response would be. With $250,000 earmarked this fiscal year to fund the turf buyback, DWA customers have already applied for $1.3 million in rebates—and that’s just in two months since the announcement of the inaugural plan on Aug. 1.

“As soon as we launched the program, we were absolutely flooded with applicants,” said DWA public information officer Katie Ruark. “I personally feel that’s incredibly encouraging. We wanted to take out grass, and, boy, are we going to do it.

“The bad news is there are people who didn’t get their applications in right away—and (people) who maybe got them in pretty quickly—who missed out on the funding. Of course, those people are disappointed. We’ve stopped accepting any more applications.”

The picture is brighter in CVWD territory, albeit still challenging. The agency allotted $950,000 specifically for turf-buyback rebates this fiscal year, and in two months, CVWD customer requests have burned through almost all of those funds—yet the applications keep coming in.

“We have seen such an overwhelming response to our programs,” said Heather Engel, CVWD’s director of communications and conservation. “It’s been amazing. In fact, we’re already almost out of money, and we’ve had 158,972 square feet of grass removed in our district just since July 1 of this year.”

The CVWD has offered some form of a turf-buyback rebate program to its customers, in an effort to decrease the amount of water-guzzling grass, since 2010. “In the first three months of fiscal 2014—that was July through September—we received applications for 2 million square feet of turf conversion,” CVWD conservation coordinator Dave Koller said. “It took us four years previously to reach the 3-million-square-foot total.”

The severe drought conditions prevailing in California have definitely impacted valley residents’ awareness of their use of water resources, and as a result, the turf-buyback program has become more popular.

“I think it’s because of the declaration of the drought emergency by the governor in January, and our board-mandated water restrictions in August,” Koller said. “Combined with the public outreach and publicity on the drought and turf conversions, I think it’s all just coming together. It’s a good thing, because once turf is converted, it saves 70 to 80 percent of the water that turf would need.”

What plans do the agencies have to increase funding to meet the unexpected demand? On the CVWD front, Engel said, “We’ll be going to our board on Oct. 28 to see if we can get a little more funding.”

Will there be a decisive vote at that meeting?

“Every time I’ve gone to the board for increased funding, they’ve been agreeable to it,” said Koller. “They put a high value on conservation, so I’m optimistic, but we’ll see.”

(Editor's note: The CVWD board did indeed approve more funding at that meeting. According to a news release: "The additional funding of $1.8 million will sustain the turf conversion, smart controller and nozzle programs until approximately Dec. 31, 2014. After this funding has been depleted, new applications for landscape rebates will be accepted beginning in the next fiscal year.")

Ruark said the DWA board “has sent the issue for research to the finance and conservation subcommittees and asked for them to come back with recommendations as to what they’d like to do. So that’s where we are right now. I don’t have dates as to when it will come before the board again or what the process will be from here.”

The DWA’s response to the buyback situation has irritated Paul Ortega, a longtime Palm Springs resident, a landscape design consultant and the co-founder of the Desert Horticultural Society of the Coachella Valley.

“There’s a large group (of buyback applicants) that has been told they have been placed on a wait list—or (in) what I call ‘the limbo phase,’” Ortega shared. “They’ve been told that they are not going to get a site inspection, which is a critical part of the DWA’s application process, because without that happening prior to the work, if a customer should decide to move forward with their own turf-conversion plan, they would disqualify themselves from participation in the DWA rebate. This is unfortunate, because the DWA is not giving these people any incentive to stay engaged in the DWA turf-conversion effort.”

Ortega added: “I did meet with DWA board president Craig Ewing. He believes that a subcommittee recommendation will be made to the board to increase the turf-buyback funding allotment by at least an additional $250,000 or more in the very near term. But that action won’t address the other applicants who represent some $800,000 more in requested rebate funds. He’d like to see the board approve funding now that’s sufficient to cover all of the pending turf-buyback applications.”

What does the DWA advise their “limbo phase” customers with unaccepted applications to do? Wait to do the work until they can get an application approved? Move forward at their own expense?

“Those who can wait may do so,” Ruark remarked. “Those who cannot and can afford to do their conversion without a rebate should do that. Each homeowner should do what is best for them.”

Ortega believes that stance is inadequate.

“For the DWA to put so much effort into this whole initiative, only to shut the program down a couple of months after launch due to lack of funds, is really unfortunate,” Ortega said. “If they don’t give their ‘limbo phase’ customers some reason to hang in, then they’re not going to—and they’re going to be pissed. And they already are. I hear it a lot. People are disappointed, you know?”

Updated on Oct. 30 with info from the Oct. 28 CVWD meeting.

Between June 2011 and October 2014, 32 California cities eliminated their red-light-camera enforcement systems—including the city of Riverside in September, according to watchdog website Highwayrobbery.net.

However, the system continues to operate in Cathedral City.

The city’s contract with American Traffic Solutions (ATS) of Tempe, Ariz., expired back in February, but the City Council voted 4-1 to renew the contract in May, after negotiating more-favorable terms. Still, the program remains unpopular with segments of the city’s population (as well as residents of other desert cities who regularly drive through Cathedral City), particularly those who have been captured on video and in freeze-frame images that result in costly citations.

There are three cameras, watching the intersections of Date Palm Drive and Ramon Road; Ramon and Landau Boulevard; and Vista Chino at Date Palm.

“People don’t like getting citations and having to pay fines for violations,” said Cathedral City Police Department Operations Captain Chuck Robinson. “It’s funny, because a lot of times, we get folks who don’t like the fact that they got one, but when you go back and look at the video, it’s a clear red-light violation that they were involved in. So the question you have to put to them is: ‘Do you think it’s OK to run a red light? And if you had stopped, would you have gotten a ticket?’”

Robinson said Cathedral City police receive few complaints about the system.

“I would say out of 200 to 300 citations issued per month, we get a couple of complaints,” he said. “You’d be surprised. We’ve had this system in place since 2006, and we don’t get the number of complaints that you would think based on the attention that the media and other proponents or opponents pay to the system.”

A few months ago, Cathedral City Mayor Kathy DeRosa told local TV stations that the system was worthwhile, even though it was a money-losing proposition for the cash-strapped city.

What was the rationale that drove that one-sided 4-1 vote? “The program actually worked; it did exactly what it was designed to do for us,” said Robinson. “We saw the results that we were hoping to see, which was a reduction in collisions, which means less property damage, fewer injuries and fewer response calls from public-safety agencies. Then it came down to: ‘Was it worth the price for the benefits we were getting out of it?’ When the mayor commented that it was losing money, she was 100 percent correct.”

A request for statistics supporting the claimed decrease in accidents at the intersections in question could not be fulfilled prior to our deadline, reportedly due to staff reductions resulting from city government cutbacks. However, for an Independent story first published in September 2013, Robinson offered statistics that were mixed: The figures showed that the number of accidents at the three intersections were higher in both 2011 and 2012 than they were in 2010, the first full year that all of the cameras were operational. In 2010, there were 15 such collisions at Cathedral City red-light camera intersections. In 2011, that total rose to 25 collisions. In 2012, the number decreased to 17. He also said that the first year the red-light camera was at the intersection of Date Palm and Ramon, the city saw a 30 percent reduction in the number of collisions.

Can Cathedral City afford to support potential additional costs if the system does not pay for itself by taking in sufficient violation revenues? Robinson said new contract terms with ATS should keep the system in the black.

“We used to pay $15,000 total, per month, for the system, or $5,000 per camera. Now we’ve dropped the per-camera cost to $3,500 per month, which is more than a 30 percent reduction in the system’s cost,” Robinson said.

Another element in the cost-benefit analysis is a marked increase in violations revenue since the start of 2014. According to data provided by Robinson, in all of 2013, there were 1,237 red-light-camera citations issued to drivers, while through just September of 2014, 2,181 citations had been processed.

What’s driving this sudden increase? “I’m not sure of the actual time frames (in 2013) without going back to do a bit of research, but I do know that we had quite a bit of construction going on, and I know that as a result, we did experience a lot less violation activity,” Robinson said. “Now, all intersections have opened back up, and if we’re seeing increased activity, that could be the reason why.”

The Independent reviewed data provided by the website highwayrobbery.net, which indicates that construction closures affected two intersections from July to October of 2013. However, the data also revealed that a year-to-year comparison of the months January through May—when there was no construction—showed a substantial growth in citations.

Concerned citizens can take heart, though: The upcoming Nov. 4 elections are guaranteed to result in three new City Council members, so perhaps the council will have a change of heart.

“We built into the contract a clause saying that on 60 business days’ notice, we can terminate the contract,” Robinson said.

After the November election, California Assembly District 56 will have a new representative, because incumbent Democrat V. Manuel Perez has reached his term limit.

That new representative will be either current Coachella Mayor Eduardo Garcia, a Democrat, or Republican Charles Bennett Jr. The heavily Democratic-leaning district covers much of the north and east portions of the Coachella Valley, including parts of Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Indio, Coachella, Thousand Palms, Bermuda Dunes, Thermal and Mecca.

Bennett is a self-proclaimed political neophyte.

“This is the first anything I’ve run for,” said Bennett.

That’s not the case with Garcia.

“It’s been an ongoing process that goes back to 2004, when I ran for (Coachella City) Council. Manny (Perez) ran for the school district. We shared a vision that if we set good groundwork and assisted in electing good, quality candidates to these organizational bodies, then we could build toward a higher goal—and back then, that was the California State Assembly. Then in 2006, I ran to become the first (elected) mayor of Coachella. … I’ve been in office in Coachella city government for a total of 10 years. Fast forward, and here we are today.”

What motivated Bennett to jump into politics?

“I do security and public-safety consulting and advising,” he said. “A year and a half ago, I joined the Indio Chamber of Commerce. As I started going to events and meeting more people currently elected, or people running, I started seeing more of the political end of things, and what people were doing, and weren’t doing. Then I found who my opponent was. You know, he’s a career politician, and he wanted to move up in politics and take over the district. With his background (on) the City Council, (the district) was just going to keep going in the same direction—or down even further. So I decided to go ahead and jump in.”

The candidates have differing perspectives on the challenges facing the 56th District.

“The most important issue right now is the economy and jobs, especially in this district, because this district has the highest unemployment rate of all the districts in the state,” Bennett said.

Bennett’s correct: As of August, the unemployment rate in the district was a state-worst 16.3 percent, compared to 7.4 percent for the entire state, according to the California Center for Jobs and the Economy.

Garcia’s perspective on these numbers is slightly different: “A couple of years ago, the unemployment rate in this district was close to 20 percent, and we’ve dropped that down … (with) a significant decrease, although still not where we need to be,” he said.

Garcia is also correct: District 56 unemployment in July 2011 was actually 23.2 percent, according to the California Center for Jobs and the Economy.

Bennett said burdensome government intrusion was harming the business climate in the area.

“We have fewer businesses wanting to come here, while some are unable to expand, or some are just leaving,” he said. “I’ve talked to business owners who have been here 15 to 20 years who told me they’re just so sick of all the regulation, the taxes and just red-tape for everything, that they’re waiting for the outcome of this election to decide if they’re leaving the state or not.

“We have to work on lowering our tax rates, and pulling back on environmental regulation and permitting requirements. If we can improve those conditions, we can start drawing businesses back to California.”

Not surprisingly, Garcia has a much more positive view of business development in the district.

“We’ve been able to build an infrastructure worth $150 million to $160 million in our city alone over the course of the last six years,” said Garcia about Coachella. “We’ve been able to beautify the city and bring some national brand businesses to the city, like Big 5. There’s a new grocery market on the corner of 48th Avenue and Jackson Street that has a couple of hundred employees. We brought in some medical services, which was at the top of our economic development priorities (list). We’ve targeted these various industries and tried to facilitate this growth process at City Hall by cutting red tape and making sure they can get in and get out and start delivering services.”

What makes Bennett think he’s the best man to represent the district?

“I’m a leader,” Bennett said. “I’m not a politician, OK? Politics and career politicians have gotten us into the condition that we are now, both in the state and in this district. We need somebody who’s not afraid to bring forth new ideas, and to fight for things, politics aside.

“The time for change is now. It’s time to end politics and career politicians. Let these career politicians go get a real job in the economy that they’ve created. It’s time for leadership, and it’s time for the Democrats to go.”

Garcia answers the same question this way: “I believe I’m the best candidate based on my accomplishments and my connection to this district. As a Democrat, I recognize that this region (Coachella Valley as a whole) is, by majority, Republican. I’ve been working with my elected Republican officials as colleagues for eight years, and I want to build on that. Although I am the Democrat running for this position, the issues that are important to the Coachella Valley are not partisan issues. From a pragmatic standpoint, having someone like me in Sacramento from the party that’s going to be able to get things done is extremely important. I think I’m in a better position to deliver for this entire region.”

Sept. 11, 2001, started off as just another day for Dr. Harry Marshak.

“I was working then at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary in Manhattan, which is maybe two miles away from Ground Zero,” recalled Marshak, who now practices ophthalmic plastic and facial surgery in Palm Desert. “We were in the middle of surgery when a nurse came in and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Everybody thought, ‘Well, it’s just a small plane that must have gone into the building.’ But people kept coming in with reports, so (when) we were done with surgery, we went up to the roof.

“The tower that we could have seen had already fallen. Everyone was in shock. So the question was what to do next. The hospital had an emergency protocol which we went through—but we had only one, not-too-severely injured fireman brought in. And then it was quiet.”

Marshak had been living in New York City for 11 years at the time of the tragedy.

“We were watching TV at the time, and there was a call out that they needed doctors at St. Vincent’s Hospital, which was the closest hospital to Ground Zero,” he said. “So, with some other doctors, I went over. When we got there, they had discharged everybody from the emergency room. There were no patients. There were empty beds lined up in there. They had gurneys outside covered in sheets. They were expecting hundreds of patients, but there was nobody there.”

Marshak shook his head gently as he spoke. “Now, the inclination is to find where the need is. So next, I ended up at Chelsea Piers. The city took over these piers on the westside in the ’20s, and they had this emergency plan set up that went into action. There were maybe 50 folding tables set up as operating tables with some cushions, and they had surgical equipment. They were organizing teams of four doctors for each table: a surgeon, an anesthesiologist and two other medical professionals. We got assigned to these teams—and then we were waiting, and there wasn’t anybody there.

“But there was another room where people with minor injuries were just walking in or brought by ambulance,” Marshak continued. “I found all these people who had eye problems, because a lot of debris was getting in people’s eyes—fiberglass and chemicals were in the air—so I got involved in flushing out people’s eyes, and pulling things out of their eyes. I was the only doctor there with eye training, so I taught others how to flush out an eye. Some of the firemen had contact lenses and needed to get them cleaned out and put back in without losing them, so they could go back out and do their job. I mean, they were minor ailments, but if you didn’t know what you were doing, then you could do more harm than good.”

Marshak took a deep breath. “So I stayed there until pretty early in the morning (of Wednesday the 12th). Then I went home for a few hours, got up and went back. I took a bunch of supplies from that Chelsea facility, put them in my car and drove down to Ground Zero.

“It was kind of just chaos down there. I remember walking through thick muck on the ground. You would put your foot down, and it would just stick. It was debris and water from the fire hoses. And the air—I was carrying a heavy box of irrigating fluid, and I was having trouble catching my breath because of the smoke and the difficulty walking. Finally, I found other doctors, and there were people to treat, but, again, it was minor injuries. Most of the people we were treating were rescue workers.”

After a moment’s pause, Dr. Marshak added: “After two days, what became clear was that when the planes hit, either you got out of the towers, or you didn’t. We hadn’t seen injuries directly related to the tower strikes. Almost none.”

As the week unfolded, both the determination of New York’s citizens and the impact of the terrorist attack on U.S. soil were revealed.

“Now the rescue workers weren’t just professionals—they were all these people trying to go through rubble and getting hurt,” Marshak said. “Just anybody in New York was coming down. People weren’t looting. They were trying to help, but people were getting hurt.

“We ended up in the American Express building, which was right next to the WTC complex. There were makeshift triage centers. Hospitals were sending in supplies. And then they started giving us masks, so we started handing out masks to everyone. As time went on, we’d get better masks, and then (even) better masks. We began to wonder: What have we been breathing in? But that’s the way it goes.”

Marshak said the scale of the violence perpetrated on Sept. 11 became more evident as the days passed. “A morgue was set up in the atrium of the American Express building. I recall the remains of maybe 20 or 30 people, and there were priests giving last rites.” Marshak said. “When you were walking around down there, you can’t imagine the size of the rubble. ‘The Pile,’ they called it. I mean, the enormity of the destruction was beyond words—to see a building on its side across the West Side Highway. Tower 7 was tilted over and still smoldering. There were people climbing up the side of the building to see if anyone was inside. I mean, these were just civilians, you know. There was just so much destruction.”

Raised in the Los Angeles area, Marshak has now been a resident of the Coachella Valley for nine years.

“Before that day, I was complacent. I liked the ophthalmology and eye surgery that I was doing, but I wasn’t passionate about it,” the doctor said. “So I decided to do ocular or ophthalmic plastic surgery, which is reconstructive for the eyelid and the eye socket—basically, the upper two-thirds of the face. Also, how I approach medicine became more hard-core.”

He would soon leave New York for a fellowship at the University of Southern California, starting in July 2003.

“During my fellowship at USC, I was on call 24-7 for two years, and I operated almost every night in the middle of the night,” he said. “That’s what I wanted. I needed to immerse myself.”

And today? “People say that I’m a workaholic now. But I just like what I do, and I’m passionate about what I do now,” he said.

Why did he choose to set up his practice in Palm Desert? “I first came out here to do some training, and I saw the need for ocular plastic surgery out here. There are enough surgeons in L.A.”

For more information on Dr. Harry Marshak, visit www.drmarshak.com.

Since 2008, Republican Brian Nestande has represented much of the Coachella Valley in California’s Assembly.

However, that will be changing this year: Nestande—the former chief of staff for the late Congressman Sonny Bono, as well as Bono's wife, Congresswoman Mary Bono—is running for the U.S. House of Representatives against one-term incumbent Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz, who upset Mary Bono Mack in 2012.

So the field was wide open during June’s primary election for Nestande’s District 42 seat. The contenders included two well-funded and politically established Republican candidates—Chad Mayes and Gary Jeandron—and one Democratic candidate, Karalee Hargrove.

Jeandron, a former Palm Springs Police chief, and Mayes, the current chief of staff for San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford, each raised six figures plus for the race in the predominantly Republican district. Meanwhile, Hargrove, a member of the board of the Morongo Unified School District, barely raised five figures. So it was a surprise to many that, in a district (including the high desert and much of the western Coachella Valley) where registered Republican voters outnumber Democratic voters by a little more than 8 percent (41.7 percent vs. 33.8 percent, as of May), Hargrove was the top vote-getter in the open primary, getting 37.8 percent of the vote. Chad Mayes, with 34.4 percent, finished second and is now facing Hargrove in the general election; Jeandron was eliminated, with 27.8 percent of the vote.

“I chose to run way back before the primaries because there was no Democrat and surely no woman running for this (office), so why not give it a shot?” explained Hargrove during a recent interview with the Independent. “I think we’ve been lacking leadership in this Assembly district, and that’s something that I can bring.”

Make no mistake, though: Hargrove remains a big underdog in the general election, and Mayes is acting very much like an elusive front-runner: The Independent reached out to Mayes via both telephone and email for this story. In response, we received an email from Joe Justin, a Sacramento-based political consultant with a history of working for Republican candidates. He stated that Mayes would be unavailable to talk to the Independent due to scheduling conflicts.

On Mayes’ campaign website, we found this third-person analysis of what motivates Mayes to seek the District 42 office: “One overarching goal has defined public service for Chad Mayes: to bring a spirit of responsive servant leadership to every position he’s held.” Mayes was elected to the Yucca Valley Town Council in 2002, and was re-elected in 2006 and 2010. Mayes was twice chosen by colleagues to serve as mayor during those years.  

The candidates do share some mutual concerns. When asked what are the most important issues, Hargrove stated: “No. 1 is education. Second would have to be water, and third would be bringing jobs through renewable energy.”

The Mayes website lists campaign objectives as: “Deliver high performance government; fix failing schools; build a new jobs climate; step up the fight for local control.”

We asked Hargrove what specific actions she’d back to positively impact those issues. “With education, I’d like to see more money going to career technical programs,” Hargrove said. “I give out diplomas and wonder, ‘Well, this student isn’t enrolling in college, so what are they going to do?’ Also, we could get back some adult high school education funding, and for those adults who may not have their diploma, include them in the high-school courses and trade occupations we would offer.”

As for educational reform, Mayes’ site tells us, “California schools can regain their position as No. 1 again by giving parents a greater role and responsibility in their child’s education, returning local control to school boards, ensuring our schools are safe, and extending collegiate level choice to college bound students and a quality career technology courses that prepare graduates to compete for the best jobs.”

Returning to Hargrove’s platform, she told the Independent, “With the water issue, I’d really like to dig deep into how much water we’re using for agriculture. If 70 percent of water usage is going to agriculture, we need to focus on that first. Of course, conserving is huge, and I think the state of California is making good strides in that regard.”

Regarding job creation, Hargrove said, “I’d like to look at getting renewable-energy sources into the 42nd District while creating union, high prevailing-wage positions. Also, improving educational opportunities will help build the local economy.”

Regarding the same issue, Mayes’ website said: “We need to reform California’s job-killing regulations and reduce the tax burden to not only keep the jobs we have, but to expand and strengthen our economy.”

We asked Hargrove why she’s the best candidate for office. “I know I’m the best candidate because I have not been bought by special interests or corporations,” Hargrove said. “I have worked a minimum-wage job. I’ve been a single mother. I am still a double full-time college student, so I get these real-life issues that people in the 42nd District deal with, and I feel I’m very comparable to them.

“I’m not doing this for any glory. I’m doing this to see that things get done. Once I accomplish my goals I don’t intend to be in politics for 30-plus years.”

We don’t have Chad Mayes’ answer to this question. After all, he was not available for comment.

Much of the state of California is currently facing a water crisis, thanks to a record-setting drought. Yet here in our desert environment of the Coachella Valley, the happy anomaly of apparently plentiful and affordable water continues as the status quo.

However, that does not mean all is settled regarding water in the Coachella Valley.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (ACBCI) has filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court to obtain senior water rights over the shared Coachella Valley aquifer. The suit, filed on May 14, 2013, against the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) and the Desert Water Agency (DWA)—stewards of much of valley’s public water supply since 1918 and 1961, respectively—is expected to go to trial no later than February 2015.

On May 13, the latest legal maneuver occurred when the U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion, which has since been granted, to join the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Heather Engel, the CVWD’s director of communications and legislation, said the agencies did not object to the move.

“The Department of Justice has a stake: They own the tribal land, so it makes sense for them to get involved,” she said.

Craig Ewing, president of the DWA board of directors, agreed.

“The federal government owns the tribal lands,” he said. “The fact that they want to join their tribal trustees in the lawsuit is no surprise. It poses no real significant change for us, so we didn’t oppose it.”

The Independent contacted Kate Anderson, the Agua Caliente director of public relations, to request a one-on-one interview with an ACBCI representative. That request was denied, and we were told to instead submit a list of questions.

We asked what the tribe’s objectives are in filing the lawsuit. The response: “The tribe’s objectives would be (1) having the court affirm the tribe’s preexisting, senior rights to groundwater; (2) having the court order DWA and CVWD to implement a plan to cease any withdrawals of groundwater that infringe upon the tribe’s rights or cause the aquifer to be in a state of overdraft; and (3) requiring DWA and CVWD to use high quality water—be it treated Colorado River water or water from another source—to recharge the aquifer.”

Engel explained some of her agencies’ objections to the tribe’s claims. “If we start with the senior rights, the CVWD believes that, based on current law in California, nobody owns the groundwater,” she said. “Anyone in the Coachella Valley, anyone in the state of California can drill a well and pump groundwater. So it’s not our water to give them senior rights.”

Ewing, again, agreed. “No one has the (exclusive) right to the water currently, because it is a public aquifer. Anyone can put a pump in the ground and pump it, including the tribe. So for them to say that they have a right to the water goes against our understanding of the legal status of the aquifer today.”

Why did the ACBCI choose this to file this lawsuit—which some say redirects resources that could be better spent on conservation and replenishment—at this time? The tribe’s response: “The water agencies admit that ‘overdraft’ (a condition created in the aquifer when water pumped out exceeds the amount replenished on an annual basis) has been a problem in the valley for over 75 years. The agencies are exclusively dependent on (an) imported water supply from the Colorado River, a known polluted water source.”

The tribe continued, “The agencies have turned a deaf ear to the tribe’s written complaints about this situation for going on 20 years.”

Ewing argued that the tribe’s claims that Colorado River water is polluted are off-base.

“Colorado River water helps recharge (replenish) the basin and has for 40 years,” he said. “That Colorado River water meets all federal and state clean water standards. So to suggest that it is somehow inferior water is to us just plain wrong.”

A report from the California Department of Water Resources released in April, “Groundwater Basins With Potential Water Shortages,” seems to refute the tribe’s claims that overdrafts are a serious problem in the valley, at least in recent years. A map of the monitoring of wells located in the area between Palm Springs and the Salton Sea indicates that from 2013-2014, an overwhelming majority of those wells reflected groundwater-level gains or minimal declines—which was not the case in much of the rest of California.

When asked about the benefits of cooperation compared to an expensive lawsuit, the tribe responded strongly.

“The tribe and the United States attempted for many years to work in concert with DWA and CVWD to address the issues in this litigation,” said the ACBCI response. “CVWD and DWA continually refused to acknowledge the tribe’s rights or to engage the tribe in any meaningful dialogue. The decision to initiate litigation came only after attorneys for the water districts informed the tribe that they saw no reason to continue discussions with the tribe.”

Finally, we asked each of the involved parties what they think will result from the lawsuit.

From the ACBCI: “By establishing its ownership interest in the valley’s groundwater, the tribe will have a seat at the table when it comes to the management of the aquifer. It is too early in the lawsuit to predict how these issues will be resolved or identify specific steps that the tribe will take at the lawsuit’s conclusion.”

Engel of the CVWD said: “The bottom line is that obviously the CVWD thinks we’re doing a good job managing the groundwater supply. There is a plan in place. This is not something that’s new to us. We’ve been managing the supply since 1918, and we think that we’ll continue to do a good job for all the residents of the Coachella Valley.”

The DWA’s Ewing speculated that the lawsuit could have a rather complex outcome. “Well, the courts will determine what the policy is. If they determine that the tribe does have senior water rights, then the thing to remember is that this is not an aquifer that is currently divided between (just the) Desert Water Agency and CVWD. There are lots of other players who have pumps in the ground—farmers, country clubs and some industries out in the more rural parts of the valley—and all of them will have to get in line with the courts to determine how much everybody gets if one entity gets something. It could take a long, long time to sort out who gets what should the courts decide that the tribe gets something.”

Ewing added that the legal wrangling could continue for many, many years.

“The tribe has raised several issues in their lawsuit, and if they take as long as they could take through appeals and further hearings and a full adjudication, in my own opinion, the lawyers who will settle this case haven’t been born yet.”