CVIndependent

Sun05272018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Kevin Fitzgerald

It was Day 5 of the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival, and I wanted to talk to the leader of the festival’s critically important volunteer team.

Of course, this was not the best time for Rochelle Koch to take a few moments to chat with a pesky reporter. To put it mildly, she was kind of busy.

However, Koch, who is in her third year as the PSIFF volunteer coordinator, seemed happy to take some time to chat about her “wonderful team.”

“It’s my volunteer family, is how I refer to it,” said Koch (pronounced “Cook”), who comes across as a focused bundle of energy. “‘Our Volunteers Are The BEST!’ is what I put on my business card and on my emails—and it’s the truth.”

Festival director Darryl Macdonald was also happy to take a few moments out of his busiest week of the year to share his perspective.

“The volunteers’ contribution to the festival’s success is invaluable in every way,” he said. “This is one of the top three festivals in the U.S. in terms of attendance, with well over 130,000 attendees last year. So the manpower needed to support 15 screens showing films from early morning until well into the evening each day, the number of hands needed to deal with hundreds of filmmaking and press guests in town, coming and going throughout the festival … there are just so many fronts where extra hands and brains are needed that it is utterly true that without our volunteers, there is no way we could run a festival of this size or pursue the kinds of ambitions we have.”

Remember how we mentioned that Koch is kind of busy? Well, we were putting it mildly.

“I have over 3,500 shifts to cover at the five screening venues and various events over the 11 days of the festival,” she said Koch. “The main responsibility for myself and volunteer assistant coordinator David Gray is to manage and schedule volunteers, and making sure all of our shifts are covered when volunteers have to cancel their commitment, because life does happen.

“So out of our standing database of more than 2,000 registered volunteers, we have between 700 and 800 working at this festival—and we couldn’t do it without them. They’re wonderful people from all walks of life—a CEO to a dishwasher in a restaurant. They’re from different nationalities and different races. That’s what, I think, gives us our strength.”

The volunteers are organized into 19 active teams: Theater Operations, Transportation, Balloting, Special Events, Black-Tie Gala, Guest Services/Hospitality, Concierge, Credentials, Film Society, Film Review, Front Desk, Merchandise, Office, Opening/Closing Night, Street Team, Village Fest, Volunteer Department, Interpreter and—last but not least—the Lead Team, which supervises the Theatre Operations and Ballot volunteers.

“We rely on them to take care of everything from taking tickets at the door, dealing with customers at the merchandise outlets, (and helping) our guests in the hospitality suites, to travel support. Literally, we have volunteers who drive into Los Angeles to pick up filmmaker guests and drive them to Palm Springs,” Macdonald said. “There is not a single front of the festival that volunteers are not an integral part of.”

Few people realize that the Palm Springs International Film Festival volunteer effort is a year-round affair.

“We have a volunteer corps which helps out in the office year-round, and there’s a preview screening team made up of 16 volunteers that help us critique submitted films as they come in,” said Macdonald. “… We also do the Palm Springs ShortFest each June. It’s the largest short-film festival in North America, and last year, we got over 3,400 entries. So we’ve put together this crew of programming assistants from our volunteer corps. These are people who have long been immersed in film who help us with the grading process by actually watching the films and then recommending which films move forward in the process. It literally takes five or six months even for this group and our staff programming team to watch 3,400 films.

“I’m not entirely sure that some of us wouldn’t be wearing inch-thick glasses or be locked in a booby hatch somewhere, bouncing off of rubber walls, if it wasn’t for the help we get from our volunteers.”

Only a select few can claim to have been a part of the now finely tuned PSIFF volunteer effort from the beginning.

“We have three wonderful volunteers—Dee Thomas, and Sidel and Lionel Weinstein—who come out every season, and they’ve all been here since Sonny Bono started this festival 25 years ago,” said Koch. “And they are all such neat people.”

Of course, these three will be among the honored invitees to the annual post-festival “thank you party” for the volunteer staff, at which Macdonald and festival Chairman Harold Matzner will show their appreciation.

“When compared to all the various film festivals in the country, our volunteers have a wonderful reputation for being the friendliest and the most helpful, since they know film themselves, and they know what they’re doing,” said Koch. “All of our volunteers do a wonderful job, and they’re great ambassadors for Palm Springs.”

Those interested in becoming a PSIFF volunteer should visit the website at www.psfilmfest.org/society/work/volunteer.aspx. People who register will be contacted via phone by a volunteer representative.

The Palm Springs International Film Festival kicked off over the weekend with some of the fest's biggest events.

On Friday, Jan. 3, the Opening Night Gala Screening, featuring the film Belle, took place at Palm Springs High School. And on Saturday was the biggest event of all: The Black Tie Awards Gala, at the Palm Springs Convention Center.

Here's how the Los Angeles Times described the awards affair:

The Palm Springs International Film Festival gala or, as Tom Hanks called it, "This little, intimate, Sonny Bono rec-room chicken dinner get-together for two-and-a-half-thousand people," took place Saturday night. Meryl Streep picked up an award. So did Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, Bruce Dern and Matthew McConaughey, among others.

And though they were all seated within a few feet of one another in the airport-hangar-sized Palm Springs Convention Center, these Hollywood stars were more or less allowed to eat their pot-roast dinner in peace.

That's because Bono was in the house.

That's Bono, the singer from the Irish rock band U2, not Mary Bono, the widow of another singer named Bono—Sonny, the man who started the film festival 25 years ago when he was mayor of Palm Springs.

The Independent was there; here are just a few pictures from the events. And watch CVIndependent.com all week for more coverage of the festival. Enjoy!

Fish-farming—also known as aquaculture—was the fastest growing segment of agriculture in the United States back in 1998, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

At that time, the Imperial and Coachella valleys generated roughly 70 percent of the farm-raised fish coming out of California, according to the same Times story. In 2012, the production of farmed fish worldwide surpassed the production of beef for the first time in modern history, according to an article from environmental think-tank Earth Policy Institute. That same piece notes that this year, the worldwide consumption of farmed fish may surpass the consumption of fish caught in the wild.

But here in the Coachella Valley, the aquaculture industry has suffered setbacks as the demand has grown.

"The whole fish farm industry in the U.S. has been hit by high feed costs and energy costs," said Riggs Eckelberry, CEO and inventor with OriginOil, a Los Angeles-based company that develops water-cleanup technology. According to him, the problem got so bad that some California fish farms closed as the Great Recession set in back in 2007 and 2008—including some here in our valley. But Riggs Eckelberry and his brother Nicholas, OriginOil’s co-founder and chief inventor, believe that their new technology can bring about a resurgence of aquaculture in Coachella Valley.

On Wednesday, Dec. 18, the pair were present at Thermal’s Aqua Farming Technology fish farm, which farms tilapia and catfish, as OriginOil unveiled its relatively new Electro Water Separation (EWS) Algae screen S60 process, which couples with the Aqua Q60 water-purifying process to form the foundation of a relatively inexpensive solution to sustainable organic fish farming here and around the world. Aqua Farming Technology has partnered with OriginOil to become their permanent showcase facility.

“This farm is owned by a company that is trying—with the combination of solar panels to provide cheaper energy—our algae feed for nutrition and our inexpensive water cleanup solution, to create a package that will enable the restart of all the fish farms in Coachella Valley,” explained Riggs Eckelberry. “They want to make us part of their secret sauce. Hopefully, it won’t be so secret soon.”

The media event was attended by State Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez and Coachella Mayor Eduardo Garcia.

“Today’s a good day,” Mayor Garcia (right) said. “Anytime we can introduce a technology that is clean and green, and can address a wide range of issues here in our region, such as job creation and environmental matters ... it’s a good day.”

Of course, the other big-picture environmental matter that was discussed most frequently on this day was the threat to the survival of the Salton Sea.

“Working with partners like OriginOil,” said Pérez, “we can integrate and bring in academicians, engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs and those who believe in sustainable communities to advance efforts to restore the Salton Sea.”

In fact, Nicholas Eckelberry said he already has at least a partial solution to the Salton Sea problem. The lake’s future is being threatened by a decreasing water supply, and increasing salinity and pollution.

“I’ve designed a system for ocean cleanup which could effectively clean up the Salton Sea—at least all the suspended solvents,” said Eckelberry. “The technology we’re showcasing today is applied to algae-harvesting. Then we apply this same technology in a different format to ammonia-reduction. And we apply it in another format to frack-water-cleaning in the oil industry. And in another format, we can apply it to waste water treatment as well.”

One immediate positive local impact resulting from the OriginOil presence is a newly established alliance with the Green Academy of the Desert Mirage High School in Thermal. Lead teacher Tony Korwin brought nine of his pupils (below) with him to gain some first-hand knowledge of this new technology in their neighborhood.

“The Green Academy is a school within a school,” said Korwin. “ These students study green energy—solar, wind, geothermal. We were invited to come down here today, and they want to partner with us for continued education and potential scholarships for my students.”

Riggs Eckelberry said he sees real value for all participating partners.

“The Coachella Valley can be a source of organic fish-farming, which is not only invaluable to this community, but will set an example for the rest of the world and change perceptions of farmed fish. We’re super excited.”

There is but one ice rink operating in the Coachella Valley: Cathedral City’s Desert Ice Castle, offering “the coolest fun in the desert,” according to its slogan.

While the Desert Ice Castle is open to the public, it also has a mysterious element to it—including the fact that it’s a main training spot for a potential 2014 Olympic medalist. I wanted to talk to the owner—Anthony Liu, a former Olympic men’s figure-skater and a seven-time Australian champion—about the Desert Ice Castle. But for weeks, he eluded my phone calls and requests to talk.

So at 7 a.m. on one recent Saturday morning, I went to the DIC with my camera, hoping to photograph and talk to Liu. I’d been told that he was back in town briefly between international trips to skating competitions being held in preparation for the Olympics—two of which had been won by his star pupil, Japanese Olympic medal contender Tatsuki Machida. On this morning, he was coaching some advanced skating pupils and was already on the ice when I got there.

Shortly after I started taking pictures, I spotted Liu through my telephoto lens: He was staring right at me, and did not look pleased. I lowered my camera, smiled and nodded across the ice. With a curt nod of his own, Liu skated toward me.

I introduced myself and explained why I was there. He smiled and said: “Please don’t mention me in the article.”

“Don’t mention you?” I replied, quite surprised. “But you own this place.”

Again, he smiled. “Well, you can mention I’m an owner, but please don’t use a picture of me. Thank you.”

He turned away and stepped back onto the ice. With that, the hoped-for photo session and interview came to an end.


On a recent warm winter day, as I followed assistant manager Jennifer Gonzalez (right) into the rink area, I was met by an Arctic air blast. The Ice Castle was indeed living up to its aforementioned slogan.

What brings the most people to this Perez Road facility? “The hockey leagues definitely bring in the most money right now,” said Gonzalez. “We have four travelling teams for the kids (ages 4-17), and an in-house adult league with six teams, one of which is made up entirely of players from the 29 Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat base.

“The public skating is pretty popular, too, along with the birthday-party-room bookings, and it’s particularly busy on the weekends,” Jennifer said. “Friday and Saturday nights, the crowd is mostly younger folks without parents, while Sundays, we get mostly families skating together. And we’re always busiest in the summer, because it’s so cool in here.”

There must be obstacles to keeping the ice in good condition during those steamy desert summer months. “In the summer, it’s very expensive to run the three compressors needed to create and maintain the ice,” Gonzalez concurred. “And another challenge is to manage the condition of the ice, because the figure-skaters need soft ice, while the hockey teams must have hard ice, or the surface gets so chopped up that it’s unusable for figure-skating.”

The DIC is a family business. It’s owned by Liu, and managed by Andrew Luczynski, Liu’s father-in-law. Caroline, Liu’s wife, plays a substantial role as well.

Built on the site of a former Coca-Cola bottling plant, the DIC development effort began in earnest in mid-2010. The management team projected the rink would open in April 2011, but financial and construction challenges pushed back that date to Sept. 9, 2011. During construction, the common belief in the international competitive figure-skating community was that the Desert Ice Castle was built to complement the training capabilities of a Southern California sister facility, the world-renowned Arrowhead Ice Castle, which had been bought by Liu in 2003.

For several decades, the Arrowhead Ice Castle was the picturesque training site of choice for many of the world’s most-serious Olympic figure-skating contenders, as well as their coaches, including the legendary Frank Carroll. The reigning 2010 Olympic men’s figure-skating champion Evan Lysacek had trained there, as had Michelle Kwan, Robin Cousins, Nicole Bobek, Surya Bonaly and Chen Lu. The list goes on.

When the DIC opened, Frank Carroll (who has a home in Palm Springs) committed to using the new rink as his training base. But in May 2013, an announcement came that he was returning to his former host rink, the Toyota Sports Center, in El Segundo. “Our figure-skating department is thrilled to have the return of this elite level of training,” said Juliette Harton, the director of skating at the Toyota Center, in a press release issued at the time. “Mr. Carroll brings strong, respected leadership to a superb staff deep with Olympic, world and national level coaches.”

That development was followed by another surprising move, made this past August: Liu closed the beloved Arrowhead rink. The announcement shocked the competitive figure-skating community. Liu cited the inability to get enough revenue from the community-participant activities such as hockey leagues and public sessions, and invited all of the coaches and athletes still working there to follow him to his new rink in Cathedral City. It’s unclear how many have.

Today, when you walk into the DIC foyer, you are confronted immediately by the wall of competitive figure-skating coaches who work there—headed up by Frank Carroll. Given Carroll’s publicized departure, one wonders why his photo still leads off the coaching display.

So who has replaced Carroll as the Ice Castle’s most-accomplished coach? It’s none other than Liu himself, thanks in part to his tutelage of Tatsuki Machida, who trained often at the DIC in 2013.

But no photo of Mr. Liu can be found on the coaching wall of fame—or anywhere else I saw at the DIC, for that matter.

Why does Anthony Liu insist on keeping such a low public profile, when promoting his professional stature could benefit his Desert Ice Castle endeavor? And what will happen to the stature of Liu and the Desert Ice Castle if Tatsuki Machida wins an Olympic medal, with the whole world watching?

Stay tuned.

The sun is descending behind the San Jacinto Mountains as the classroom portion of the daily First Tee of the Coachella Valley program gets under way in the pro shop/education center of the First Tee golf course in Palm Desert.

“I show respect for my surroundings by picking up trash wherever I see it,” declares James, a member of the “Player 3” group (ages 7 to 9). He is addressing his fellow First Tee students, a few parents, lead instructor Jeff Harrison and LPGA-USGA program director Amy Anderson.

This group is learning how to incorporate into their daily existence the “nine core life values” emphasized by the program. Instilling these character traits in each and every participant is the primary mission of the First Tee staff here in Coachella Valley—and all of the chapters worldwide.

“We want to make them good citizens,” says executive director Glenn Miller. “I don’t really care if they become great golfers.”

The First Tee international organization lists the United States Golf Association, the PGA, the PGA Tour, the LPGA and the Masters Tournament as founding partners. So wouldn’t it be correct to assume that another underlying objective is to develop the next Tiger Woods or Stacy Lewis to represent U.S. golf on the international stage? “No, I don’t think that’s the case,” insists Miller. “Of all the young people who come through our program, I’d say about 99.9 percent of them will never be great golfers. Fair to good, probably, if they keep playing. But the next Tiger Woods? Well, it could happen, but that’s not what our program is focused on developing.”

That focus is on teaching students the appreciation of, and adherence to, the values of honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment in every aspect of an individual’s life. In addition to these basic “nine core life values,” the Coachella Valley chapter has incorporated instruction about “nine healthy habits.”

“We’re trying to get our kids to eat better, walk more and do things that are healthy for them,” Miller says, “get them to think about eating apples, grapes, oranges and yogurt rather than only potato chips and soda.”

In order to promote the budding self-esteem of committed participants, at the end of each school semester, the First Tee national office honors all participants who present a school report card showing an A/B level of achievement by presenting them with a certificate for their hard work and perseverance.

“Our First Tee team focuses heavily on the A/B scholar classroom accomplishments of our youngsters,” says Miller. “We’re looking for transformation in how they conduct themselves. We get input from the parents who tell us how much more reliable, confident and poised their child becomes, and we get great satisfaction from that feedback.”

First Tee was founded in 1997; Coachella Valley’s chapter started up in 2007. Palm Desert City Council members Dick Kelly (who passed away in 2010) and Robert Spiegel (who still serves on the council) were the catalysts in bringing First Tee to the valley under the supervision of the Desert Recreation District. They supervised the ownership transfer of the current 27-hole, par-three First Tee home golf course on Sheryl Avenue, just off Cook Street, from the city of Palm Desert to the Desert Recreation District. The program’s reach into the community has grown rapidly since then.

“We have about 1,350 student participants enrolled in all phases of our program in 2013,” Miller says. “They range in age from 4 years old to 18. We have four full-time instructors and about 150 volunteers who give regularly and generously of their time and effort. In each of our sessions, which are categorized by age and learning accomplishment, we have one instructor or volunteer present for every four students.”

The First Tee depends on community support for almost all of its operational funding as well. “The First Tee national organization contributes roughly $20,000 per year to our chapter,” Miller says. “So we rely almost completely on our fundraising success. The H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation was one of the first supporters to come to the table. Also, the Houston Family Foundation and the First Foundation have been strong contributors.

“Most of the funds that come in are utilized for equipment and scholarships for a lot of our youth,” Mr. Miller continued. “We don’t turn anyone away—we just don’t. We want to make First Tee available to any kid in the valley who would like to learn golf and those core values that come with it. The challenge is: How can we help them succeed in life?”

Assistance comes from several of the golf and country clubs in Coachella Valley. “The people at the Springs Country Club have been a godsend for us!” says Miller. “All together, they’ve raised some $200,000 through their fundraising tournaments for the First Tee. Our kids have access to play at the Classic Club, Desert Winds in 29 Palms and the Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage.

“The Marrakesh Country Club has welcomed our kids, and this Dec. 14, they’re staging their inaugural First Tee Golf and Putting Tournament benefit. And next Feb. 15, for the first time, we’ll be staging our annual First Tee Benefit Golf Tournament and fundraiser at the Bermuda Dunes Country Club.”

Given the First Tee’s strict policy that its students demonstrate the core values of honesty, integrity and responsibility at all times, what is the official First Tee stance on the use of mulligans during a round of golf?

Miller pauses for a second. He then diplomatically replies, “Mulligans are very good for fundraisers.”

For more information on the First Tee of the Coachella Valley, visit www.thefirstteecoachellavalley.org, or call 760-779-1877. Memberships are $120 per year, although discounts and scholarships are available based on income.

Below: First Tee of the Coachella Valley executive director Glenn Miller: “Of all the young people who come through our program, I’d say about 99.9 percent of them will never be great golfers. … That’s not what our program is focused on developing.”

About 30 miles east of Indio, perched on the high ground of Chiriaco Summit, stands the General Patton Memorial Museum.

It is located at the heart of what was the Desert Training Center, established by Gen. George S. Patton in 1942 to train American troops in desert warfare in preparation for the invasion of North Africa. In its brief, two-year existence, it became the largest Army training facility in the United States, through which passed 60 divisions and more than 1 million soldiers.

On Monday, Nov. 11—Veterans Day—a crowd of some 1,000 dignitaries, honorees, veterans and their families will gather in this space with local citizens to recognize the contributions and sacrifices of all American veterans. This year, the traditional event will serve a dual purpose: It will be a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the museum as well.

“This 25th anniversary celebration of the museum’s opening is a very big thing to our board,” said Mike Pierson, the newly appointed general manager of the museum, “especially to co-founder Margit Chiriaco Rusche, who still operates the café family business next door and acts as our first vice president. Also, original founding board member Leslie Cone gave her input for this event.

“For 25 years, this has been a labor of love for both of them and for all who have served on the board.”

The ceremony—which is open to all—begins at 11 a.m. “We’ll begin with an air salute flyover of World War II aircraft flown by Warbirds West,” said Pierson, a U.S. Special Forces veteran who served on the Patton Museum board before becoming the general manager. “Following will be a re-enactment of World War II battles. We have the consulate general of the Republic of South Korea coming in from Los Angeles as our special guest to unveil our new Korean War Memorial Wall. Gen. George Patton’s daughter Helen, who lives in Europe and is the president of the Patton Foundation, will be our keynote speaker.”

Pierson said U.S. Congressman Raul Ruiz, Assemblyman Brian Nestande, Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez and Supervisor John Benoit are all expected to attend the free event, which will include a chili cook-off and a raffle.

“Most of all, we’ll recognize all the veterans who have served from all the war eras. It will be quite a party,” Pierson said.

Museum general manager Mike Pierson.While the Veterans Day celebration is always the highlight of the museum’s calendar, the future is filled with plans for many additions and improvements to the museum.

“Friends and community supporters are going to build us a new room for both storage and to use as a vault,” Pierson said. “Some members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars are going to renovate and re-locate the last remaining original building from the former Camp Young to our grounds for use as a maintenance office. One of our board members is restoring our 2 1/2-ton truck right now; another friend is rebuilding our vintage World War II Sherman tank, which we should move to the position right up front in our tank yard. We’re going to create a botanical garden of indigenous desert plants in our garden and tank yard, and develop an approved school course curriculum to offer for credit to student groups who visit the museum to learn about the history of U.S. warfare or to study the vegetation of the desert. We’ll build an education center out in the chapel area.

“I have a lot of ideas, but never enough time,” Pierson chuckled.

Like many museums, the General Patton Memorial Museum depends on memberships, sponsorships and donations to stay afloat.

“It is difficult to keep the doors of the museum open relying only on the small amount we charge for admission and our small amount of gift-shop sales,” Pierson said. “Our operating expenses are more than most people realize. For instance, we have to maintain a constant temperature in our buildings in order to preserve the perishable artifacts like books, uniforms and weapons.”

The main focus of that fundraising outreach has been the sale of memorial tiles, which are engraved with the names of former service personnel and then mounted permanently on one of the museum’s memorial walls. These include the West Coast Vietnam Veterans Wall, the new Korean War Veterans Wall, and the Defenders of Freedom Wall.

“The campaign to attract donations for tiles from service units like bomber groups, Marine battalions and Navy shipmates as a whole group, and not just as individuals, is an initiative of mine,” Pierson said. “It started from my desire to honor veterans from my own high school. First, there were the four who lost their lives in Vietnam. I knew all four of them personally. And by honoring them, I wanted to honor all those who served in Vietnam.

“The first year, in 2010, we unveiled about 48 names. Nine of those veterans had never talked to their family or children about their service—and to see them in front of that wall on Veterans Day three years ago with their families, and with assemblymen and congressmen shaking their hands and taking pictures with them in front of those memorial tiles … well, word got out from those nine about what a spiritual and healing thing it was for them. They were actually crying.

“So last year, 11 others showed up from my high school, because we put two more tiles on. And this year, the fifth and final tile will be mounted, totaling 102 service members from the tiny town of Imperial, California, who served in the Vietnam era.”

General Patton himself would be moved, perhaps, by the commitment of those who have nurtured this namesake destination.

“General Patton joined our Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post right here at Camp Young, in 1942, I believe, along with all of his line officers who had served in World War I,” said Pierson. “And he stayed a member of our post, and his granddaughter, Helen, is a member of our ladies' auxiliary. It’s kind of neat to have that tie.”

The General Patton Memorial Museum is located at 62150 Chiriaco Road, at Chiriaco Summit, located off Interstate 10 about 30 miles east of Indio. The museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., daily; admission is $5; $4.50 for seniors; and $1 for kids age 7 to 12. Children 6 and younger, active members of the military, and card-carrying members of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars are all admitted for free. Admission is free to all on Nov. 11. For more information, call 760-227-3483, or visit generalpattonmuseum.com.

More than 40 cities in California have terminated red-light camera programs within the last 10 years, according TheNewspaper.com, “a journal of the politics of driving.”

San Diego announced the end of that city’s program—in which drivers were mailed tickets after tripping sensors and then getting photographed in the act of an apparent traffic violation at an intersection—in February of this year. Numerous cities in other states have similarly ended participation in this well-intentioned, but often ill-conceived approach to traffic law enforcement. At least eights states prohibit the use of red-light camera systems, including Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Yet Cathedral City is sticking with its red-light camera program—at least for now.

Since March 2006, the city has had a red-light camera at Date Palm Drive and Ramon Road; in February 2009, the city added two more: At Date Palm and Vista Chino, and at Landau Boulevard and Ramon.

“It’s a cost-benefit exam,” said Capt. Chuck Robinson, the Cathedral City Police Department’s public information officer. “When we look at the system over the first five years, we saw a lot of good things come out of the safety aspect. A lot of the issues that have been brought up as arguments against the system, we’ve essentially nullified, because we did it right. We did it right from the beginning, and we did it for the right reasons.”

Public officials generally cite two reasons for supporting red-light camera programs. The first is that they benefit public safety by reducing vehicle collisions in the targeted intersections.

However, the statistics provided by Capt. Robinson show that the number of accidents at these 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 soared to 25 collisions. In 2012, the number decreased to 17.

As for the statistics at those intersections before the cameras were installed, Capt. Robinson said he couldn’t provide them. “We had a crime analyst who we lost during all the cutbacks last year. That crime analyst had all the historical data, especially the red-light camera stuff. So when we lost him last year, basically we lost all his work.”

However, he did recall one statistic: “I know anecdotally that the first year we had the red-light camera at the intersection of Date Palm and Ramon, we saw a 30 percent reduction in the number of collisions at that intersection.”

The second rationale is that the fines—almost $500 per ticket—imposed on drivers provide a revenue stream to cash-strapped municipalities. However, in the case of Cathedral City, that’s not the case; in fact, only the company that manages the program is making big bucks.

Along with the red-light statistics supplied to the Independent by Capt. Robinson, he wrote, “The cumulative revenue generated by the program since March 2006 to present is $1,455,817. The cost of the program management by ATS (American Traffic Solutions, a company based in Arizona) over that same time period is $933,227. The city acquired approximately $522,580 over these last seven years, which equates to approximately $74,654 per year in revenue.”

Capt. Robinson continued: “The personnel costs associated with reviewing each citation, handling citizen inquiries and complaints, attending court and processing public-record requests during the year is about $65,000.”

That means the Cathedral City Police Department is reaping approximately $9,654 per year from the cameras.

“That sounds about right, because the whole intent of the program was to be cost-neutral,” Robinson said. “We didn’t install (the red-light camera enforcement system) to generate revenue. … Over the last seven years, the overall revenues versus what we’ve expended and paid out are negligible.”

Meanwhile, a review of public records by the Independent shows that the city’s justifications for starting the program in the first place may have been less than accurate.

The original Cathedral City authorization document for initiation of the red-light camera program, dated May 25, 2005, shows that the proposal by then-Police Chief Stanley Henry—now a member of Cathedral City’s city council—offered only one example of a successful red-light camera: Indian Wells.

The “Background” section of the document states: “Indian Wells has had a successful program for approximately four years.” It then goes on to mention: “According to their public safety manager, the Red-Light Camera Program has been part of their overall traffic strategy. He reports more awareness, less speeding and collisions. … The cameras have created few complaints and according to the Public Safety Manager have been well-received by the community. He said Cathedral City will be happy with the results.”

However, at the time of that writing, the city of Indian Wells was already in the process of terminating its red-light camera program. In fact, public records show that Indian Wells shut off its red-light camera system sometime in 2004, and officially ended the contract for services in July 2005—no more than two months after the City Council of Cathedral City cited them as a program to be emulated.

So why did Cathedral City cite Indian Wells as a red-light-camera success story when, in fact, it was not?”

“At the time that the Indian Wells program was in effect, they were very satisfied with it,” said Capt. Robinson. “The problem that Indian Wells had was that the initial technology they were utilizing was wet-film-based. The technology was in its infancy, so for them, it was very labor-intensive, which is why I think they ended up getting rid of their program.”

However, Indian Wells’ personnel director and public safety manager, Mel Windsor (who was working in the same capacity while the city’s red-light camera system was operational) differed on some of these points. Regarding the Indian Wells citizen satisfaction levels described in the Cathedral City Police Department’s proposal to the City Council, Windsor recalled, “When we first implemented the system, I fielded complaint calls all day, every day, beginning as soon as I got to my desk each morning.”

What about technical challenges in Indian Wells' system? “No, we never had any technical problems. We contracted with ACS/Lockheed Martin, and they had pretty well worked out any bugs in their system while managing their system in San Diego. … We shut down the system because it cost too much to run, and the city council made the decision to use any funds earmarked for the red-light camera system to hire additional motorcycle deputies, who can operate in more of a stealth mode and address multiple driver behaviors that pose a danger to the public safety.”

Today, some Cathedral City officials may be reaching a similar conclusion.

“The bell curve on safety benefits has flattened out,” said Capt. Robinson. “I don’t think we’re going to see any more safety that we can get out of the program in those intersections. We’re looking at the program from the standpoint of: Is it cost-effective for us to keep it? There have been a lot of costs aside from just paying for the system itself and the service behind it. So all those things have to be weighed together, and we’re in the process of doing that now.

“Our contract expires in February or March of 2014. We don’t have any addendums or extensions; it actually expires. So we’re already heading down that road where we decide if it’s something we want to continue with, or if we try something else.”

When a decision is reached by first quarter of 2014 on whether or not to extend the Cathedral City red-light camera program, will that decision be announced to the public with any fanfare?

“You know, that is a very good question,” Capt. Robinson said. “From a safety standpoint, I would say it would be in our best interest to make that as quiet as possible. But … I also realize that in a lot of areas, the popularity or unpopularity of the red-light camera systems is political. … I would say if it were up to me, (we’d) go quietly into the night. If people still believe it’s there, then they’re still going to behave. But word travels fast. I mean, it’s a small valley, so regardless, (drivers) are going to know at some point, anyway. But whether it’s with fanfare or not, I don’t know.”

Saxon Burns contributed to this story.

On Friday, Aug. 9, more than 500 followers and believers of UFOlogy and the extra-terrestrial contact movement gathered for the first Contact in the Desert conference at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center.

Over three days—through Sunday, Aug. 11—35 experts on these belief systems are offering lectures, workshops and panel discussions.

Although the auras of spirits were not visible to the naked eye, vendor tents ruffled in the strong desert winds, and participants sought out shelter from the hot sun as the first day's activities wore on.

For more information, visit contactinthedesert.net. Below are a few photos of the conference experience.

Contact in the Desert is “a gathering of the superstars of UFOlogy.”

That’s how spokesperson and lecturer Michael Luckman described the event, slated for Friday, Aug. 9, through Sunday, Aug. 11, at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center. Organizers hope Contact in the Desert—which will feature lectures, workshops and interactive experiences conducted by 32 renowned experts in the topics of UFO sightings, extra-terrestrial contacts and proactive ET-signaling—will become an annual event.

“More than 400 military personnel have given videotaped depositions worldwide saying that UFOs are real. They’ve had sightings and encounters,” said Luckman, “When so many military eyewitnesses come forward, there really is very little left to debate.”

Luckman is also the founder of Cosmic Majority, which calls on “the governments of the world to implement an early warning detection system designed to reduce the growing meteor and asteroid threat.”

Contact in the Desert comes on the heels of the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure, which brought researchers and government/agency witnesses from 10 countries to Washington, D.C., to testify before six former members of the U.S. Congress on April 29 through May 3. Organizers said the purpose of the hearing was to present evidence supporting the truth of an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race, and a government policy to embargo that truth.

“There’s no question anymore that we’re being visited,” Luckman said. “Exactly who they are, whether they all come from the same place, how friendly they are. … These are all matters for speculation.”

Such speculation will certainly be the focus of Contact in the Desert activities. Highlights of the three-day event include: Friday’s lecture entitled “UFOs: A 21st Century Approach” by author Richard Dolan; a panel discussion, “Are We Alone? The Right To Know,” on Saturday hosted by conference headliner and emcee George Noory, of the syndicated AM radio show Coast to Coast; and a Sunday night “Field Work Experience and Training Event” conducted by Steven Greer involving the practice of his personal CE-5 contact protocols—“signaling techniques” he developed as the founder of the center for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CSETI).

Joshua Tree National Park, which is slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island and sits in close proximity to the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, has reportedly been the site of more than a dozen reported UFO sightings since 1968.

Worldwide sighting reports reveal that many of these incidents take place in the vicinity of earthly military bases.

“UFOs have been spotted in nuclear-weapons storage facilities,” said Luckman. “But, in my opinion, it’s not for any bad reason. These are like UFO peacekeeping forces that are surveilling and keeping us from blowing our planet up.”

With its wide open vistas of the night desert skies, the Joshua Tree Retreat Center is a perfect locale for the UFO community to come together. Participants can discover, contemplate and discuss the myriad issues raised by the basic question of whether other highly intelligent and technologically advance civilizations exist beyond our solar system—and, if they do, what impact contact with those beings would have on our planet.

Contact in the Desert has been scheduled to coincide with the Aug. 11 onset of the Perseid Meteor Shower. As event press-information rep Susan von Seggern told us, all participants at the conference will be invited to gather outdoors around 11 p.m. to share in “a true intergalactic experience … when meteors will appear to ‘rain’ into the majestic desert sky from the constellation Perseus.”

Contact in the Desert takes place Friday, Aug. 9, through Sunday, Aug. 11, at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, 59700 Twentynine Palms Highway, in Joshua Tree. Advance registration starts at $225, or $200 per couple; meals and optional tours are extra. For more information, visit www.contactinthedesert.net.

Brandon Viloria, 8, was running wind sprints in 95-degree weather at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday (July 10) outside of the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino. His mother, Shannon, was by his side.

What would possess a kid to do such a thing? Turns out Brandon is the current California boxing champion in the 8-to-10-year-old, 55-pound bantam weight class, and he was slated to compete at the 12th Annual Desert Showdown tournament at Fantasy Springs this weekend.

“He’s got to drop 1.4 pounds right now so that he can make his weight limit at the weigh-in,” explained his father, Dominic. “We’re trying to become the Desert Showdown champion now.”

Brandon’s commitment and determination is typical of the aspiring boxing champions who have converged on the Coachella Valley in July to compete in boxing coach and promoter Ralph Romero’s dream event. As the USA’s second-largest amateur boxing tournament, the Desert Showdown has become a normal step for many amateur boxers as they try to climb to the top.

Beyond the roughly 600 participating fighters’ skill level, the fact that they are learning the discipline and focus required by a boxer’s demanding lifestyle can be a valuable reward in itself.

“With this tournament, everything’s for the kids,” says promoter Romero. “They’re the ones who take the hits. I’m just here to guide them—help them do right, get through high school, go to college, make a career. School first, boxing next. That way, if they get out of boxing, they’ve got something to fall back on.”

Director of the Coachella Valley Boxing Club, Lee Espinoza—who trained the world champion brothers Julio and Antonio Diaz, and has 22 fighters competing in this year’s tourney—concurs.

“I started training kids 33 years ago, and I had just three boys to work with,” recalls Espinosa. “Today, guys I trained when they were 6 years old have 6-year-old sons. They’re doing fine, and that’s great.”

As Thursday’s weigh-in drew to a close, one happy competitor stepped off the scale. With tired smiles and “No. 1” hand signs, the Viloria family celebrated their chance to capture a Desert Showdown belt: Brandon had made his weight.

Scroll down for the photo gallery, and watch this story at CVIndependent.com for more photos throughout the weekend.

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