John Wessman was a mighty developer, known for his lucrative deals across the Coachella Valley—and his significant influence at Palm Springs City Hall.
The high point of his career was supposed to be the Palm Springs downtown revitalization project, currently estimated by experts at $350 million in value.
Today, however, Wessman is better known for being indicted on numerous counts of alleged bribery involving former Mayor Steve Pougnet—and involving that downtown development project.
Wessman effectively retired upon the indictment and is not talking to the media. So, in an attempt to find out the latest news regarding the downtown development project—which has benefitted from millions of dollars from Palm Springs taxpayers via Measure J—we reached out to city officials, all of whom still publically support the downtown project. We started by trying to talk to Mayor Robert Moon.
We received this response from Amy Blaisdell, the city’s communications director: “Mayor Moon asked me to reach out to you regarding your request for an interview. He and the other councilmembers along with the city manager will not be granting interviews at this time regarding the investigation and recent indictments.”
This was a lie: Three weeks later, Robert Moon, City Manager David Ready and City Councilman J.R. Roberts sat down for a chat with KMIR.
In any case, we reached out to Judy Deertrack, a local urban lawyer and activist. She is a land and government-affairs consultant, and a legal specialist in land-use law. She is a Palm Springs resident and has lived and worked in the Coachella Valley since 2004. Here’s an edited version of our chat.
Let’s dig in from scratch: When did the trouble start brewing with the Palm Springs downtown project?
The problem with the downtown plan is that it was processed as … a relatively modest redevelopment project for the Desert Fashion Plaza that involved demolition and renovation.
How was Measure J entangled with the downtown project?
In early 2012, the state of California (ended cities’) redevelopment powers and financing, but the city went on to enlarge this project anyway, and financed it with a municipal bond issuance for $47 million that is paid back through Measure J funds at $3.3 million per year for about 25 years.
What was Wessman’s cut in the whole deal?
Since the original release of $47 million in 2012, change orders, (the) purchase of the event center lot, and its proposed approvals have added about another $20 million. Wessman has also gotten an additional $150 million in hotel subsidies coming to him through a bed-tax rebate. This project originally did not anticipate hotels. That is inching toward a quarter-billion in subsidies.
Has the $47 million been spent by Wessman, and has it been spent solely on capital improvements?
No one knows, but $32 million went into a private escrow account owned by Wessman for this project, and the city claims it has no access to know the status of that account currently.
How did the city of Palm Springs end up in such a mess?
I can’t in a few words give an exact story of what happened. Suffice to say, the permits started going through as project finance agreements rather than engineered diagrams. The city and Wessman kept the conceptual plans fairly private and vague enough that the dimensions could be changed at will, and there was no clear planning process in sight. A lot of this bypassed public hearings, except for the hotels.
So Wessman was also given a lot of freedom?
There appeared to be no upper limits … because the city used and abused the planned development permit (PDD). The specific plan set limits on height… and setbacks, and bulk, and floor-area ratio. Then the PDD took those limits away.
Is it possible the city violated any significant regulations and laws?
California’s environmental-review laws say that when cities set limits in their general plan and specific plan, it creates an environmental threshold for impacts, and when they build in excess of those limits, violating the threshold is a “significant environmental effect” that creates the need for further data, evaluation, public hearings and mitigation of project impacts.
How exactly did the city get away with such inconsistencies?
Palm Springs exceeded the limits of its plan on downtown, and then concluded there was no significant environmental effect of doing so—and made what I consider to be false findings that the project “was consistent and in conformity” with the general plan and specific plan, when, in fact, using the PDD and the project finance agreements to set the project development standards and requirements was a violation of those mechanisms.
The resulting “inconsistency” between the project and the specific plan is why in January 2016, the new City Council went back in and re-did about 50 percent of the wording of the specific plan to eliminate all of the outstanding inconsistencies. It was a major cleanup—but is not allowed in the state of California. A plan cannot be later amended to conform to illegal approvals that violate the plan.
It appears that the whole downtown affair is far from over.
Well, the original specific plan is lost to time and many, many changes. All of this occurred during an alleged racketeering scheme between the mayor (Pougnet) and the developer where the mayor, in the words of District Attorney (Michael) Hestrin, was paid to influence the vote of a majority of the sitting City Council. And no matter what was happening, and how illegal the permit processing became, there was always a majority vote—and tremendous pressure put on the architectural and planning commission boards to pass this project up and along, not on evidence, but on influence.
There were some attempts by the city to clean up the mess, correct?
That awful specific plan cleanup … in January 2016 was the tail wagging the dog! … The city over time absolutely bastardized the development restrictions on this project, and now City Hall is bragging they have cut the size by 49 percent. How unique! This sounds like a retail fire sale where the prices are increased 100 percent, and then cut back 50 percent, and we are told we just got a bargain.
What can be done to remedy this downtown quagmire?
This city and its citizens should be demanding change—a lot of change—and a lot of explanation for what has happened. Instead, we are allowing ourselves to be bullied and hoodwinked. The citizens of Palm Springs have been far too compliant with this outrage. Part of the problem is that no one is demanding information. Virtually no one is challenging the inconsistencies and untruths that abound on the public record. Just a few have stood up—too few!
If you were on the City Council, what would you do?
It is an obligation of the sitting City Council to first order a full accounting of expenditures and funds from Wessman on the project to date. Then, audit all accounts, and confer with the state of California on compromised public funds, such as municipal bonds or subsidies. Identify notification responsibilities to the bond-holders. The city has not acknowledged these obligations to date.
On a cold January day, Jane Garrison stood in front of Ralph’s in the Smoke Tree Village Shopping Center. Her goal: to get shoppers in the busy plaza to sign the petition to save Oswit Canyon, a popular hiking area nearby in south Palm Springs.
The rain started drizzling—but Garrison didn’t give up. Signature by signature, she rallied support to protect the alluvial fan canyon from the grip of developers.
Garrison is a member of the Save Oswit Canyon Coalition, a group of some 2,000 Palm Springs residents who are backing the initiative. She volunteered her time to stand out in the rain as part of an effort to collect 5,000 signatures. The citizens’ initiative to protect Oswit Canyon was filled with the city of Palm Springs on Nov. 14.
“My husband and I have enjoyed hiking in Oswit Canyon and the Lykken Trail for several years,” Garrison said. “I was horrified by the thought of a pristine alluvial-fan canyon being destroyed by an out-of-town developer for more houses. Our beautiful canyons are some of the many things that make Palm Springs special.”
According to Dr. Lani Miller, an environmental activist, the land in question is currently classified in the city’s general plan as a biological sensitivity/conservation area—but that would still allow for the building of up to 325 homes.
“Our initiative will amend the municipal code, Canyon South Specific Plan and City of Palm Springs General Plan in order to change the zoning to ‘environmentally sensitive area’ zoning, allowing the construction of six homes,” Miller said.
Miller said Oswit Canyon is an environmental oasis that is the home to some endangered species, including the peninsular bighorn sheep.
“I'm blessed by sights of bighorn almost every time I’ve been up there at dusk, when they forage—a breathtaking sight,” she said.
Both Garrison and Miller emphasized that they are not anti-development; rather, they are in favor of smart, ethical development in the city, and preserving sparse natural habitat for future generations.
That is the main reason the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy stepped in and tried to acquire the land in Oswit Canyon. According to Jim Karpiak, the conservancy’s executive director, discussions were short-lived.
“We never made it to the stage of making a formal offer,” Karpiak said. “After initial discussions with the owners, during which they indicated an interest in selling the land for conservation, we commissioned an appraisal of the property at the conservancy’s expense, and then shared it with the owners. They indicated that the fair market value as established by that appraisal was not acceptable to them and terminated discussions with us.”
Karpiak said his contact while negotiating with the owners of the parcels in Oswit Canyon was Mike Cole, an Orange County-based developer. Cole, a minority shareholder among the land owners, did not respond to a request from the Independent to answer questions. He initially asked that we hold our story deadline for 48 hours and promised to respond to our request via email. We extended the deadline by 48 hours, but the responses have never arrived, at least as of our press deadline.
Meanwhile, Garrison and the other Save Oswit Canyon Coalition volunteers are continuing to collect signatures of Palm Springs registered voters.
For more information on the Save Oswit Canyon Coalition, visit www.saveoswitcanyon.com.
Jana Ploss used to walk the short distance from her condo in Riviera Gardens to her sister’s house on Chia Road almost every given day. She did it for years—walking back and forth, always crossing Vista Chino at Via Miraleste.
On Monday, Nov. 14, she left her sister’s home shortly after 6 p.m. About 6:13 p.m., according to police reports, she was struck by a car at the intersection of Vista Chino and Via Miraleste. She was rushed to Desert Medical Regional Center. Some 20 minutes later, according to the coroner’s office, Ploss was pronounced dead.
Ploss was 64. She was the second pedestrian killed by a car at that intersection in six weeks; James Harper, also 64, was killed on Oct. 6, according to police reports.
Roxann Ploss said that her sister was just 30 yards away from Jana’s front door at Riviera Gardens when she was hit by a car headed eastbound on Vista Chino.
“My sister came to my house daily and went home most nights,” she said. “Sometimes, she stayed over here.”
The Ploss sisters were very close. They chose to live in such proximity so they could spend as much time as possible together. On what would be their last night together, Jana Ploss stayed a bit later than usual to watch the news with her sister.
“It was already dark, which I emphasized, and I asked her to stay over,” Roxann Ploss said. “When she told me she had to get back, I told her to be careful then, and I would see her tomorrow.”
Within minutes, her sister was dead—but Roxann Ploss didn’t know it for another five hours.
“I was watching the 11 o’clock news, and the anchor came on to say, ‘another (pedestrian) fatality in Palm Springs,’” Ploss said.
Then the news broadcast showed footage of the scene of the accident. “I saw the shoe in the middle of the road, and I just knew,” Roxann Ploss said. “About five minutes later, a sheriff was at my door.”
The fact that the intersection has claimed two lives in such a short period of time certainly raises the possibility that the area might be dangerous. But Sgt. William Hutchinson, a Palm Springs Police Department spokesman, does not believe that is the case.
“Vista Chino is not a dangerous place for pedestrians and bikers or for night traffic in general,” Sgt. Hutchinson said.
However, Marcus Fuller, a Palm Springs assistant city manager and city engineer, has already taken up the issue with the California Department of Transportation, also known as CalTrans.
“Vista Chino is a state highway regulated by Caltrans, and Caltrans determines whether the installation of traffic signals, crosswalks or other improvements on Vista Chino are warranted,” Fuller said. “I have personally met with the Caltrans district director and his staff to discuss these accidents and to urge them to take action as soon as possible in whatever way they can.”
John Bulinski, the Caltrans District 8 director, said the fact that two pedestrian fatalities occurred at the same intersection is being examined.
“We are in the process of conducting an investigation of the circumstances surrounding these fatalities and the characteristic of the intersection,” Bulinski said. “We are working with the city of Palm Springs and will make appropriate changes after conclusions are reached.”
As for Roxann Ploss, she hopes that, at the least, the installation of a pedestrian crossing with flashing lights at Vista Chino and Via Miraleste might prevent future losses in lives.
Meanwhile, Fuller and Hutchinson offered some useful safety tips for drivers and pedestrians:
• State law requires drivers to yield to pedestrians, but also requires pedestrians to use caution and not cross a street when it is unsafe to do so.
• Avoid looking at your phone.
• Always drive at a speed that is safe for the conditions.
• Slow down when proceeding through a crosswalk or intersection, and be aware of pedestrians on the sidewalk.
• Look both ways when crossing the street.
• When walking at night, wear bright or reflective clothing, and carry a flashlight.
There is a tropical garden up in the most unlikely of places—the high desert—that grows orchids, by the thousands.
I discovered it by pure chance while on another assignment in Landers, located north of Yucca Valley about 55 miles from Palm Springs. As I drove on Belfield Boulevard, I saw dozens of cars in a busy parking lot next to a huge tent-like structure. I thought it might have been a celebrity wedding—but instead, it was the largest orchid nursery I’d ever seen.
I grabbed my camera and started taking photos of the gorgeous orchids—and didn’t stop until I went through tens of thousands of square feet of absolute botanical beauty owned by Gubler Orchids company. It was a true photographers’ paradise.
Any horticultural expert will tell you that orchids are among most elegant, most expensive and most sought-out flowers. It’s a fact that Charles Darwin was doing research on orchids while also working on his Theory of Evolution.
The Gubler family has been gardening at their Landers orchid nursery since 1975. According to Heidi Gubler Brodeur, there have been three generations of botanists in her family, starting with her grandfather, Heinrich Gubler, who owned a nursery near Zurich, Switzerland, back in 1918.
“My dad, Hans Gubler, arrived in the U.S. in 1949,” she said. “He lived the American dream. In 1954, after having saved $300, he started his own business selling orchids out of a station wagon in Altadena, Calif.”
Later on, Hans Gubler named Cattleya orchid hybrids after each of his three children: Lc. Christopher Gubler, C. Karin Ann Gubler, and Pot. Heidi Gubler.
Over the years, Gubler Orchids grew into one of the largest orchid growers in the nation. The crucial moment for the company’s expansion came with the move to the high desert, where the family built advanced solar greenhouses.
“We came here for clean air, pure water, sunshine and four growing seasons,” Gubler Brodeur said. “We ship our orchids throughout the world and everywhere nationwide, even to Alaska.”
Today, the company is led by Chris Gubler, who managed to double it in size and increase sales 10 times over since taking the reins.
But not everything has been rosy for the Gubler family in the high desert: They suffered a big blow during the 7.3-magnitude earthquake that hit Landers on June 28, 1992.
“I was in shock. Everything our family had worked for had been ruined,” Chris Gubler said.
However, this horror story has a happy ending.
“It turns out that the earthquake was a rebirth for Gubler Orchids, as we made huge capital improvements to nursery,” he said.
Gubler Orchids also owns and operates another nursery nearby in Lucerne Valley, but it is closed to the public. Between the two nurseries, the Gublers own approximately 155,000 square feet of producing greenhouses.
The family also owns a couple of orchids that are beyond 60 years old!
The future of the company seems secure, with the fourth generation of Gublers stepping in: Chris’ daughter, Kelsey, just joined the company after graduating from Cal Poly.
Gubler Orchids is located at 2200 Belfield Blvd. in Landers. Its showroom, growing grounds and greenhouses are open from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 760-364-2282, or visit www.gublers.com.
The “breaking news” TV flash disrupted a peaceful Saturday afternoon at my home in Palm Springs. Three cops had been shot while responding to a domestic disturbance just a couple of miles away.
I started feeling uneasy and tense—like I used to feel in my hometown of Sarajevo.
I turned the TV off.
Within minutes, my editor called and left me a message, asking me if I was available to cover the shootings. I didn’t respond. I’ve done my share of violent breaking-news stories all around the globe. No more.
Later, my editor texted me, saying that two of the three officers—Jose “Gil” Vega, 63, and Lesley Zerebny, 27—had died.
I’ve seen many senseless killings, as a war reporter in Romania and what was once Yugoslavia. When I lived and worked in Rio de Janeiro, every morning would start with the gruesome front-page murder-scene photos of butchered bodies. Rio is a beautiful place, but there’s too much violence.
I chose to start a new life here in the desert after I was granted political asylum in the United States. I chose to live in Palm Springs because there were rarely shootouts, or gunfire, or police sirens, or dead bodies at night on the local evening news. For more than 20 years, I’ve been covering events in this peaceful oasis—until that serenity was shattered midday on Saturday, Oct. 8.
A homegrown idiot gang member allegedly decided to wipe out the cops who came to his door, just doing their jobs. (I’m not going to mention him by name.) The police officers—one a veteran officer within months of retirement; another a young woman who had just returned to work after having a child—had no chance the moment they walked up to the door. The Palm Springs Police Department should consider using this tragic event to change its 911 procedures when dealing with gang members. The red flags must go up before the dispatch. Always.
Remember the nonfiction book (and subsequent movie) The Onion Field? Its author, a former cop, Joe Wambaugh, actually lived here in the desert. After the infamous case—two police officers were kidnapped by criminals during a traffic stop, with one of the cops later killed—the LAPD changed its police tactics.
Little information has been released about the third police officer who was shot in Palm Springs. He is a material witness in this murder case, and is understandably being protected at this time. Sooner or later, he may testify and/or face the media inquiries. I spoke to a cop who survived a shootout with a gang member in Cabazon a few years back. He retired and became a plumber.
I’ve been shot at during the wars I covered, and you never forget it. I’ll always remember the hornet-like sound of the bullets that missed me by a mere chance. The sound of bullets hitting or piercing hard surfaces inches away stays with you—coming back to mind after hearing a sound with the slightest resemblance.
However, I’m not going to dwell on the fact that two cops were shot and killed in my neighborhood. Instead, I’m going to do just as those slain cops did on that fateful day: I’m going to do my job.
I’m going to write about and expose the gangs of Palm Springs. I hope that other media outlets will do the same. And I have a message for the members of the Varrio Las Palmas gang, to which the alleged cop killer reportedly belongs: This is Palm Springs, not a gangland.
Up on a plateau in the High Desert, about 50 miles north of Palm Springs in a small town called Landers, there’s a domed structure that’s been attracting buzz since the 1950s.
Its builder was George Van Tassel, a UFOlogist, aviator and businessman who claimed that an alien from outer space, speaking in perfect English, told him how to build the structure back in 1953.
Van Tassel named it the Integraton.
According to writings by Van Tassel, who authored four books—including I Rode a Flying Saucer—“the purpose of the Integratron is to recharge energy into living cell structure, to bring about longer life with youthful energy. It is a machine, a high-voltage electrostatic generator that would supply a broad range of frequencies to recharge cellular structure.”
Van Tassel died at the age of 67 in 1978, so the part about longer life didn’t exactly work for him. However, there’s an explanation for that among the folks who know a thing or two about Van Tassel.
“He never finished it,” said Gene Woodley, the Morongo Basin Historical Society vice president, to me on a recent visit to the Integraton.
Wooley, a Landers resident since 1984, told me that no nail was used to build the four-story-tall wooden dome that measures 55 feet in diameter.
Another longtime Landers-area resident, Rob Harris, met Van Tassel 50-plus years ago.
“I was 17 then,” he remembers. “At first, as George talked to me and my friends, I thought that he had spent too much time out there in the desert under the sun. That was before I knew anything about him.”
The way Van Tassel described his Integraton as “a high voltage electrostatic generator that would supply a broad range of frequencies” was apparently inspired by ideas of famed inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943).
Yes, Tesla cars are named after this gifted scientist of Yugoslavian origin. He was a genius—and an eccentric, too, who harnessed the use of alternating electrical current (AC). He also invented fluorescent lighting and bladeless turbines while developing theories on robotics, missiles and computers.
Way before the modern rivalry between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, there was a bitter “war of currents” between Tesla’s AC system and Thomas Edison’s direct current (DC) system. Tesla’s alternate current prevailed.
I first wrote about the Integraton for a European magazine in the late 1990s. When I entered the Integraton back then, I realized that it looked almost exactly like pictures from Tesla’s labs that hung on the walls of my high school science classroom in Sarajevo. In those old black-and-white photos, Tesla was usually sitting on a chair in a middle of a spherical wooden structure while illuminated by the discharge of several million volts of electricity, cascading all around him.
Van Tassel must have seen the same photos back in his days, and perhaps that’s how he came up with the idea to build the Integraton—even if he did claim an alien told him how to build it.
Interestingly, when I visited the Integraton some 18 or so years ago, there was a Tesla coil inside. The machine was placed in a prominent place and was clearly marked with a brass tag.
Nowadays, the new owners of the Integraton use it as a tourist attraction for visitors who want to experience “sound baths.” Indeed, Integraton is very acoustic. Anything that works to attract paying visitors to the Integraton is good for business.
Sadly, as I was taking pictures of the dome on a recent visit, an Integraton staffer told me that all of Van Tassel’s machines, including the one invented by Tesla, had been removed from the Integraton.
For more information, visit integratron.com.
The Palm Desert Sheriff’s Station, located on Gerald Ford Drive, is the home of the Coachella Valley’s most robust local policing force.
The station covers all unincorporated areas of the western valley, as well as the cities of Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells, each of which contracts with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department to provide police services.
Officials in one of those cities, Palm Desert, are expressing concerns about rising public safety costs. Palm Desert Mayor Bob Spiegel recently told the Independent that for the first time, public-safety costs now make up more than half of the city’s budget.
After hearing that, we decided it was time to talk to the commander of the Palm Desert Sheriff’s Station regarding the local state of crime, public-safety issues and law-enforcement needs.
Unfortunately, our media requests were either ignored or shoved off to the cities with whom the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department contracts. Deputy Armando Munoz, the local public information officer, repeatedly dodged questions. He wouldn’t even tell us how many deputies are employed at the Palm Desert Station.
Up until about two months ago, the things were different. The station’s commander was Capt. Susan “Sue” Trevino, the first woman to ever hold that post. Capt. Trevino, who recently retired, was a remarkable leader who understood the need for media access and public information.
On Aug. 10, Capt. David Teets took over as the station’s new commander. After two weeks of emailing media requests for a short, 10-20 minute interview with Teets, Munoz stated that “the captain is unavailable” to talk.
Therefore, I simply showed up at the Palm Desert Sheriff’s Station—and Lt. John Shields, a law-enforcement veteran of 27 years, gave me an interview on the spot. He started by answering that employment question: He said the station has roughly 200 people on staff.
Lt. Shields oversees Rancho Mirage as its assistant chief of police. He talked about the city’s low crime rate, and the fact that there has not been a homicide in Rancho Mirage in recent years.
“With Rancho Mirage, our concern is property crimes,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem, and it’s not that big in comparison to other areas,” he said.
Rancho Mirage, with a population a bit below 18,000, has a sheriff’s substation. Eleven deputies are on patrol daily—two motorcycle officers included—along with three community service officers.
Lt. Shields said Rancho Mirage has no plans to reduce its policing force.
“We meet with the city manager and the city staff weekly, and we have not recommended it,” he said.
Due to the recent San Bernardino and New York terrorism acts, the question of adequate public safety is on the minds of many.
“For the size of the city, we have quite a few officers out there, so we have a very good presence there,” Lt. Shields said. “We also have lots of city staff personnel who went through the active-shooter training program, and they know if they see something, to say something.”
President Gerald Ford used to live in Rancho Mirage, and rumor has it that President Barack Obama is considering purchasing a home there.
“When and if they come, he will no longer be a sitting president, so the footprint and the threat is much smaller,” Shields said. “As far as the resources go, the Secret Service will take care of that, but we’re ready.”
As for Indian Wells, my questions were promptly answered via email by Nancy Samuelson, the city’s spokesperson. According to her, Indian Wells has one officer dedicated 24/7, as well as one motor officer, one special enforcement officer, one special event officer, five community service officers and one lieutenant overseeing its staff.
There is a small sheriff’s substation across from Indian Wells City Hall, and the city’s crime rate is minimal.
“Main public safety (concerns involve) traffic enforcements, collisions and petty property crime,” Samuelson stated. “Any need for more deputies is analyzed by response time, number of calls and crime volume.”
Samuelson said that Indian Wells’ population is 4,974, and that the city’s contract with the Sheriff’s Department costs $3.5 million annually—which represents 24.78 percent of the city’s budget.
Unlike Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells, the city of Palm Desert is facing some challenges when it comes to the rising cost of public safety.
According to David Hermann, the city of Palm Desert’s spokesman, the city’s general-fund budget is $53,267,218 for the fiscal year; of that, $21,141,245 is slated for police services.
In order to save some money, the city froze two motorcycle-cops positions. Hermann said the savings from two positions is $611,034.88.
There is also a possibility to save more money: The city froze a special enforcement officer position, too, but these funds were set aside in case one of the frozen positions needs to be reinstated; the potential additional savings is $308,116.24.
“The city’s police department currently has 78 sworn deputies, taking into account two frozen officer positions and one officer assigned to the special enforcement team,” Hermann said. “The department also has 11 non-sworn positions, including nine community service officers, a crime analyst and a forensic technician.”
Palm Desert, with a population just shy of 50,000, could save more than $900,000 from these public-safety budget cuts. Could this substantially affect safety and crime in Palm Desert?
That’s a question I wanted to ask Capt. Teets. Alas, he was “unavailable.”
The city of Palm Desert is rising up against the state’s tax takeaways by asking its residents to raise a fee on visitors—and this is all unfolding in the shadow of a well-publicized scandal involving the former city manager.
According to city officials, the state of California has taken about $40 million away from the state every year in redevelopment funds. So on July 28, City Council members unanimously voted to place a measure on the November ballot that would increase the local transient occupancy tax (in other words, the hotel tax) from 9 percent to 11 percent, to replace a small fraction of the $40 million the state takes every year. That 11 percent would be on par with what other valley cities charge.
They nicknamed it Measure T. That may sound somewhat familiar to Palm Springs residents, who in 2011 passed something called Measure J. However, the similarities in the ballot initiatives end there: Palm Springs’ Measure J increased the sales tax by 1 percent, while Measure T will affect only people staying at the city’s hotels and motels.
Some of that Measure J money was used for downtown redevelopment in Palm Springs, and was at the center of the high-profile FBI raid at the City Hall which also apparently targeted then-Mayor Steve Pougnet.
Palm Desert Mayor Bob Spiegel was adamant that his city would not end up having any such problems if residents pass Measure T.
“I don’t think it is appropriate or relevant to talk about challenges facing other cities,” Spiegel said. “Palm Desert has earned a well-established reputation for fiscal responsibility and good stewardship of public resources.”
Spiegel said certain steps would be taken by the city to prevent any possible misuse of the funds generated by the proposed Measure T.
“Measure T is subject to strong accountability provisions, including independent audits, public oversight and local control of funds that cannot be taken by state,” Spiegel said.
While Spiegel claimed Palm Desert has a “well-established reputation for fiscal responsibility and good stewardship of public resources,” it is worth noting that the Palm Desert City Council earlier this year gave former City Manager John Wohlmuth a severance package valued at nearly $300,000 after he allegedly showed a nude photo of a co-worker to his colleagues at City Hall.
City officials claimed they approved the severance package to avoid being sued by Wohlmuth.
Anyway, back to Measure T: Spiegel said the Measure T funds would help the city deal with rising public-safety costs.
“For the first time in Palm Desert’s history, public-safety costs have exceeded 50 percent of our annual budget,” he said. “Measure T will provide a dedicated local source of funding.”
Palm Desert contracts with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for law-enforcement services.
“We work closely with the (sheriff’s department) to address the community’s needs,” said Justin McCarthy, Palm Desert’s interim city manager. “If, in consultation with them, additional deputies are required, we would recommend adding them.”
McCarthy, who is being paid $119 per hour as the interim city manager, said Measure T would generate approximately $2.2 million annually.
Palm Desert is home to 12 hotels with 2,171 rooms. There are also numerous timeshare properties that will be affected by Measure T, depending on their vacancy.
“The city has three vacation ownership (timeshare) properties that function like hotels: Marriott Shadow Ridge (1,093 rooms), Westin Desert Willow Villas (268 rooms) and Embarc Palm Desert—Intrawest Resort (88 rooms),” said Palm Desert spokesman David Hermann.
According to Hermann, the three timeshare properties function as hotels when the units are not booked by owners.
“The resorts advertise the rooms on online travel sites, etc.,” he said. “And when guests pay their bill, the resort collects the transient occupancy tax along with the charge for their lodging.”
Measure T would obviously bring in even more revenue with additional hotel development—and city officials say two new hotels are under construction.
“Hotel Paseo is a boutique hotel being built next to The Gardens on El Paseo,” Hermann said. “It will have 150 rooms. The brand is the Marriott Autograph Collection, and the hotel is expected to open in September of 2017.”
A Fairfield Inn, near Interstate 10 and Cook Street, has a projected October 2017 opening date.
Many drivers loathe DUI checkpoints—especially drivers who have had a drink or two.
And that’s exactly the point: Drivers shouldn’t be behind the wheel when intoxicated. Arrests for driving under the influence can cost people more than $10,000 in fees and fines, plus jail time.
But that’s a small price to pay compared to the cost in lives due to DUI accidents. In 2014, nearly 10,000 people were killed by impaired drivers in the United States—with more than 800 of those deaths here in California.
On Friday, Aug. 12, I was allowed to tag along while the Palm Springs Police Department conducted a DUI checkpoint in the 2900 block of North Indian Canyon Drive. Sgt. Mike Villegas, the lead officer of the Traffic Division, was my host.
The night started with a 7 p.m. briefing at the police station. Villegas introduced me to his team of 11 detectives, officers, dispatchers and community officers.
“Be professional; be courteous; and be safe!” Villegas told his team before they embarked on what was, for most of them, their second shift that day. Funding for the checkpoints comes from a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Two hours later, the DUI checkpoint was completely set up, with a primary screening area, traffic cones, reflectors, generators, a DUI enforcement trailer, and a secondary screening area with tables, chairs, another trailer and several police cruisers.
By 9 p.m., Officer Art Enderle, Officer Barron Lane and Det. Miguel Torres had spread out at the path created by the traffic cones. The cops would introduce themselves, ask for the proper documents, and check to see if drivers were drinking that night.
It took only about 15 to 20 seconds to screen a car and its driver, so the line moved fast. Some of the drivers already had their licenses in hand before they were stopped at the checkpoint.
Villegas came over and half-jokingly blamed Facebook for a quiet night so far. “Right now, friends tells friends on social media where our checkpoint is and how to avoid it,” he said.
At 9:26 p.m., Enderle, after checking the documents of a driver, yelled out: “Runner!” “Runner,” in the jargon, means a driver who’s going to the secondary screening area.
The protocol requires a community officer to drive the car there while the driver is escorted on foot. However, this does not necessarily mean the driver is suspected of driving under the influence; in this case, the driver didn’t have a valid driver’s license.
Enderle issued him a citation, while Torres called the man’s relatives to come and pick up him and his car. Torres spoke in Spanish to the driver, who quietly sat a chair, seemingly remorseful. Torres is bilingual; his parents came from Mexico.
“My papa was working as a gardener; my mom was cleaning houses, and I always wanted to be a cop,” Torres said. He’s on his second shift for the day, working the DUI checkpoint as overtime—eventually working 17 hours that day.
At 10:45 p.m., Enderle stopped another driver without a valid driver’s license. This time, the screening approach was more rigorous—because the driver had a prior DUI.
Enderle gave him a blood-alcohol breath test. “Blow, and blow again,” Enderle said as the driver sat in a chair. The driver took the test without complaint and passed.
Standing by is Jamie Webber, of American Forensic Nurses, Inc. She’s a phlebotomist who has worked for 26 years with law enforcement, doing everything from blood draws to Taser-dart removals to DNA collections.
“Some time ago, we were on Tahquitz (Canyon Way), and a drunk driver actually crashed into a car in front of him at the DUI checkpoint,” she said. “He was so drunk and didn’t even see the checkpoint. After we pulled him out of the car he asked, ‘What happened?!’”
Back on Indian Canyon, well past midnight on what had become Saturday, Aug. 13, a driver of a luxurious Porsche Panamera nearly drove through the checkpoint.
“Stop! Stop!” officer Lane yelled. When the car finally stopped, Lane determined that the car reeked of marijuana. Both the driver, a woman, and the passenger, her son, were escorted to the secondary screening area on foot and then separated.
PSPD veterans Lane and Enderle conducted a DUI screening on the woman. Lane moved his point finger left and right in front of her face, asking her to follow his finger with her eyes. Lane then asked the woman to walk along a straight line, while Enderle stood behind her. The woman was unstable—but it appeared that the instability was because of a physical disability rather than intoxication. The woman was not arrested.
Villegas said the male passenger, a juvenile, admitted having a small amount of marijuana in the car. The minimal amount of marijuana was located during a search, and the young man was issued a citation for marijuana possession.
I briefly talked to the driver of the car. “I was so embarrassed by it,” she said about her son’s citation.
Around 1 a.m., Villegas and his team began to close down the checkpoint before gathering everyone and reciting the night’s data: “All 527 vehicles that passed through the checkpoint were screened. Eight cars were sent to secondary screening for further investigation. There were four citations issued, but no DUIs.”
Villegas said it’s a good sign that there were no DUI arrests that night: It means drivers were obeying the law.
But obviously, not everybody obeys. Villegas later tells me that from January through June of this year, Palm Springs police had arrested 132 drivers for driving under the influence, and there had been 46 DUI-related traffic collisions.
In those collisions, two people lost their lives.
A Palm Springs City Hall power struggle involving freshman Mayor Rob Moon and longtime City Manager David Ready seems like a classic David vs. Goliath battle.
In this case, the mayor is playing the underdog role of David, while the role of mighty Goliath goes to Ready. Since 1994, according to the city charter, Palm Springs has basically been run by the city manager, while the role of the mayor is largely ceremonial: He’s just another City Council member who also gets to cut ribbons, greet dignitaries, attend events, give speeches and so on.
However, that does not mean a mayor has no power whatsoever: A mayoral term is four years long, which offers plenty of time for a motivated mayor, if he so chooses, to put the pressure on the City Council to use its power to fire the city manager.
That’s exactly what Moon proposed, more or less, back in April, when Moon called a special meeting to evaluate the performance of Ready and Doug Holland, a contractor who serves as the city attorney. Moon’s proposal came in the wake of a turbulent year during which the city was dragged into an FBI investigation.
However, Moon soon learned that he was the only council member who supported removing the city manager. After a closed session on April 13, the City Council voted unanimously to keep Ready.
Today, the power struggle continues—and Moon is now saying he wishes he’d stood his ground and voted to fire Ready.
“I wanted the City Council to go on the record,” Moon said. “I did then vote to endorse the city manager, but I regret that vote. I should have stood my ground and at least made a symbolic vote against it.”
Since becoming city manager in 2000, Ready has largely reigned unchallenged during the terms of four mayors: Will Kleindienst, Ron Oden, Steve Pougnet and now Moon.
Ready offered a diplomatic response to the “evaluation” of his job performance that Moon initiated.
“It is the prerogative of the mayor and any member of City Council to discuss my employment contract,” he said, “and as always, I serve at the will and pleasure of the City Council.”
Ready earned $421,221 in pay and benefits last year, making him the highest-compensated city government employee in the Coachella Valley—and one of the highest-paid city managers in the state. I asked Moon what he thought about capping the city manager’s salary.
“That’s probably a good idea,” Moon said. “… But if there is a cap, perhaps a person who has been around a long time would not like it and would go to work in a big city, like Chicago.”
While Ready’s salary has increased over the years, he said he’s made some personal sacrifices when it comes to his pay.
“With regard to salary increases, in several years, I have refused to take increases outlined in my contract as we went through the recession,” Ready said. “Hence, salary or salary caps are not an issue for me, personally.”
Both Moon and Ready said they’re awaiting the results of the ongoing probe into city affairs—apparently involving the conduct of former Mayor Steve Pougnet.
“The FBI, the IRS and the (district attorney) seized certain documents, servers, cell phones etcetera,” Moon said. “I’ve no idea what they were looking for. … I expect that sometime by end of this year, my guess, we’ll hear what the outcome of the investigation is.”
Ready said the city has been transparent throughout the investigation and added that documents removed during the raid have been returned and posted on the city’s website for public review.
“Those agencies were doing their jobs,” Ready said about the law enforcement agencies investigating the city. “The city is fully cooperating with the investigation, and we are committed to keeping our citizens and the public updated on any information that we receive.”
However, the city has indeed suffered from some lapses in transparency. Shortly after the Sept. 1, 2015, FBI raid, former Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco—despised by some members of the community thanks to his hard-line role in a 2009 Warm Sands area sex sting that was tinged by homophobic remarks—was hired to “assist” the City Council in the matter. However, that information was not released to the public until this spring—after Ready at one point told The Desert Sun that the city had not hired outside legal help.
Moon said he was shocked when he learned the city had hired Pacheco.
“Right after I was sworn in, we had a closed-session meeting, and Mr. Pacheco was introduced to the new council,” Moon said. “Once I found who he was, I felt that it was inappropriate for us to be employing him, even indirectly. I was one of those people who very strongly led a movement to cut any ties with him.”
Ready said it was not his idea to hire Pacheco in the first place, and instead pointed a finger at City Attorney Doug Holland.
“The city attorney decides to hire outside legal services,” Ready said. “In this case, in order to fully cooperate with the district attorney, the city attorney indicated his decision to hire Mr. Pacheco was based on his extensive knowledge and understanding of the operations and procedures within the District Attorney’s Office.”
Moon is now leading a charge to replace the existing contracted city attorney with an in-house city attorney. Moon is on a city subcommittee working with recruiting firms to find a new city attorney.
“It’s been approved by the City Council, and it’s in the budget,” Moon said. “I’ve strongly felt that we need a city attorney to be a member of our team—actually employed by the city. I would like to get it done in six months.”
Ready said he is indifferent regarding the issue, and added that the matter is out of his hands.
“As with the city manager’s position, the city attorney is a position that is hired by the City Council,” Ready said.