When voters in Rancho Mirage mail in their ballots on or before Tuesday, April 10, they won’t simply be voting for the City Council candidates they prefer; they’ll be voting on the direction in which the city goes.
If residents like the status quo, they can re-elect incumbents Dana Hobart, Charles Townsend Vinci and Iris Smotrich. If they want change, they can vote for Michael Harrington, Robert Mueller and Kate Spates.
The Independent recently spoke to five of the six candidates for the three seats up for a vote this year. Incumbent Dana Hobart declined to make himself available for an interview.
It’s worth noting that the two incumbents with whom we spoke said they wanted to be viewed as a united entry against their three challengers.
We asked each candidate what their top priorities would be if elected, and why they thought they were the best candidate for the job.
Iris Smotrich, who at 74 continues to manage her family’s varied real estate investments along with her husband, Tom, spoke about the challenges she sees ahead for her city.
“Safety is always a priority,” Smotrich said. “Our budget is always a priority to make sure that we are fiscally responsible. And then, energy is a priority. Our new energy program goes into effect on May 1. It is a way that our businesses and our residents are going to be able to save, in the beginning, 5 percent—and someday, we hope it will be a larger amount.”
Smotrich is referring to the new program through which the city will decide how and where to buy electricity—rather than simply purchasing energy from Southern California Edison.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 10.1 percent of the population of Rancho Mirage lives in poverty—yet homelessness does not appear to be a pressing issue within Rancho Mirage’s city limits. Still, Smotrich noted: “Homelessness is important to everyone. (The Coachella Valley Association of Governments) and many of our cities are working hard to find dignified ways to provide housing, some education, some therapy and, really, a better way of life for those who want it. Not all, but a significant amount, of homeless people do drugs and want to live unrestricted and do what they want, when they want. But with all these professional, caring and loving civic and health leaders working together, I can’t help but be optimistic that we’re all heading in the right direction for all concerned.”
We asked Smotrich if she thought Rancho Mirage had any problems.
“I don’t think so,” she replied. “And if we do, we solve them immediately. We have just added two full-time (police) officers, not because we needed them, but because this is Rancho Mirage, and we want to provide the best.
“I’d just like people to know that the (current) council members all get along. We’re all friends, and we love our staff. We’re not seeking any higher office. We are here to stay. I serve on 18 different committees, commissions and sub-committees, and so do the other City Council members. We don’t just show up at a council meeting and vote ‘Yes.’ We know what we’re doing, and we do it the best way we can. We are not ‘a silo in the desert,’ as one of the other candidates described us. Instead of calling it a silo, I think it’s really more like the Statue of Liberty that is standing for our community rights.”
Charles Townsend Vinci, the current mayor (a position rotated among City Council members), is 76 and a four-year City Council member who retired last year from his Rancho Mirage-based high-end furniture business. We asked him about the issues on which he would focus during a new term.
“Development is one. Business coming into Rancho Mirage is another. Those are things I’d be working on,” he said.
“The homeless situation is another. I sit on the CVAG (Homelessness Committee), which Rancho Mirage and I personally support. The other main thing is keeping a balanced budget for Rancho Mirage. We have a $63 million reserve, and that reserve is not just laying in an account getting 1 percent (in interest). That $63 million is divided into separate categories, including infrastructure, earthquake problems, problems with City Hall or any of our annex buildings, and it’s also for redevelopment funds, so it’s all earmarked.”
According to the Rancho Mirage two-year budget for fiscal 2017-18 and 2018-19, the city’s reserve funds currently total roughly $68 million.
While each Rancho Mirage City Council member receives roughly $33,000 per year, plus benefits (along with an additional annual expense reimbursement of up to $2,700), Townsend noted: “When you’re in a council with these cities down here, you’re not in it for raising a family. You’re not in it to make money. I’m not in it to advance to Sacramento or Washington and use it as a stepping stone to higher office. I’ve been living here for 24 years, and I have a vested interest in Rancho Mirage. I’m not just jumping in and thinking that I can throw everything up into the wind and change things. The next four years will be very important to our development and achievement.”
When asked what else he’d like constituents to know, Townsend replied: “I think they should look at the record that has been set over the last 10 years for their council. In the four years that I’ve been on it, and going back, there’s been a list of accomplishments and achievements that have been done for the best of the city. One of the main things is the pension fund. We paid ours off, and we saved millions of dollars in interest payments. … This council—and I’m not just talking about the three of us (standing for re-election in 2018), but the five of us—have a great spread of wisdom and knowledge and background, and all five of us are dedicated to the city of Rancho Mirage.”
Michael Harrington, 59, is back on the ballot after losing a 2016 bid for a Rancho Mirage City Council seat. A practicing lawyer who has lived in the city for 15 years, Harrington said he feels strongly that the current council is not providing competent or transparent leadership.
“My motivation is to improve the city,” Harrington said. “I think we’re falling behind other cities in the valley. Somehow, the council just has stopped dealing with modern ideas. That doesn’t mean we have to have radical change; it just means that you have to be able to adapt to change, and they seem to have stopped being able to adapt. That will lead to deterioration, which I believe we’re already seeing. There’s an increase in property crime. We’ve seen businesses opening up, then shutting down, because other cities offer them more.”
What would Harrington’s immediate priorities be if elected? “I’d put public safety first as a broad category, which includes road and pedestrian safety, public lighting needs and overall attention to the needs of pedestrians, joggers, pet owners and bicyclists.
“Second would be revitalizing our business community. We have one grocery market, and I think it’s going to stay, but we had to struggle to get just the one Gelson’s market to come here. They’re doing well now, but we could have sped up the permitting process. With shopping in general, people have been going more to El Paseo, and now they’re starting to go to Palm Springs. We can do more with our shopping experience. What about a free shuttle? People like that, and it brings a good feel to the shopping experience. We could look into private-public tax-sharing agreements that have helped revive local cities like Coachella, where more businesses are opening.
“Third, we need more civility and transparency. Right now, we don’t have the civility in dealing with our neighboring cities’ officials. That probably comes from the false fear that’s been propagated (by the current City Council): ‘We don’t want to have anything to do with any of those people, or any outsiders, or other cities. They’ll ruin our city.’ And as for transparency, they should have open discussion. Usually, when the City Council votes, they’re 5-0 on every issue. A City Council member said, ‘We do have vigorous discussions.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Well, where do you have them?’ I don’t see them on the dais at the public meetings I attend. I want it out in the open.”
A first time candidate is Robert “Bob” Mueller, who, at 70, offers considerable executive business experience, but no previous political involvement.
“I moved to Rancho Mirage four years ago,” Mueller said. “When my partner and I were building our home here, during the construction, the City Council took exception to some of the designs, and we wound up having to make some extremely expensive changes. We asked the City Council to let us speak with a City Council member, and when we presented our concerns and asked for some consideration from them, we were told these exact words: ‘If you don’t like the way we run this city, you are free to live anywhere else in the valley that you want.’ Of course, at that point, we had already purchased the land, so it was too late to make a change—but that served to burnish my opinion that the residents of Rancho Mirage can’t feel that the council is receptive to any thoughts that don’t originate with the council itself. So it’s time for a fresh voice.”
When asked what his top priorities would be if he’s elected, Mueller said: “Combatting property crime in Rancho Mirage is certainly one. According to the data I’ve seen, Rancho Mirage has a crime rate of 3,843 per 100,000 citizens annually, which (in our valley) is second only to Palm Springs, with a property-crime rate over 5,700. A number of less-affluent communities have property-crime rates less than half that of Rancho Mirage, and this is not just a blip. It’s been this way for several years.”
The City Council recently approved the hiring of two additional full-time police officers to bolster the force. “When the officers were hired, there was no discussion about funding police patrols in gated communities, which a number of residents have complained about,” Mueller said. “That seems to be another issue that the current City Council has turned a deaf ear to. So it was a great missed opportunity. They spent $664,000 to hire two additional police officers and set no goals for crime reduction at the time they were hired. I don’t understand it.”
Another issue Mueller highlighted was the need for a reserve fund of some $68 million for a city as small as Rancho Mirage.
“A ‘rainy day fund’ reserve typically would be maybe 50 percent of the annual budget of roughly $26 million,” Mueller said. “So, this is far more than just a ‘rainy day’ fund. This is a huge asset that belongs to the taxpayers. Without spending a ton of money, some of this reserve could be used to make Rancho Mirage an international tourist destination. Most of the city’s annual revenue comes from the transient occupancy tax (aka the hotel tax), but three of the four main Rancho Mirage hotels are all 20 years old or more. Meanwhile, new high-fashion hotels are being built in other valley cities, so our city is facing an uphill battle competing with these much-newer and more-fashionable properties. The city needs to hold up its end of the bargain by improving the luster of the city as a destination to help its hotels compete. Also, they could do things to help the businesses in the city that are not exactly thriving. In the summer, when business is tougher to come by, they could do a sales-tax holiday to give the businesses here in the city an advantage over those in other cities that don’t have the means to do something like that.”
Kate Spates, 50, runs her own business-consulting firm, and although she claims little political experience, she currently holds positions on the boards of numerous local civic and charitable organizations.
“I think we have to assess what the people in our community want, and what they need to help improve their lives,” Spates said. “We need to understand what the upcoming generations want in recreation and then look to provide those resources to satisfy the demands, or our community will suffer. And we need to look at our assets like our hospitals, our hotels and all of our large employers. We need to ensure that the workforce is skilled and healthy.
“It’s also extremely important for everyone to maintain property values, which bleeds into another issue: I feel like having areas of our city that are unsightly, and looking abandoned, is not healthy for the surrounding community of homeowners. So I feel that we need to work to attract new businesses and improve the existing businesses through some sort of business retention and improvement program, especially along the Highway 111 corridor north of Country Club.”
Spates has experience in publicity and marketing.
“I think Rancho Mirage has long been a secret,” Spates said. “So I want to shout from the roof tops and get better marketing (for what we have to offer). You know we have four beautiful luxury resorts (including the Ritz Carlton, the Omni Rancho Las Palmas resort, the Westin Mission Hills and the Agua Caliente Resort and Casino) that attract tourists from all over the world. I know that the city has explored, and is interested in attracting, smaller boutique hotels, which are great. Our bed tax (TOT) accounts for a large percentage of our revenues, so it’s very important that we treat those resorts as our partners.”
What message would she like to leave with voters?
“I feel like it might be a secret that 56 percent of Rancho Mirage residents are under the age of 65, because there’s no current representation of that demographic on our council,” Spates said. “So when I talk about representing an under-represented demographic in our city, I’m talking about those people under 65. It’s been on the record where some of our council members will say, ‘This is a retirement community.’ End of story. I strongly disagree.”