On Nov. 6, Desert Hot Springs voters will choose between five candidates for two City Council seats.
Incumbent Joe McKee chose not to run for re-election, while Jan Pye hopes to retain the seat to which she was appointed earlier this year when Yvonne Parks stepped down. She’s joined on the ballot by a former Desert Hot Springs mayor and several relative newcomers.
We spoke to four of the five candidates for this story. (Peter Tsachpinis didn’t respond to e-mails or phone messages.) Here’s what they had to say.
In 2015, then-DHS Mayor Adam Sanchez narrowly lost his re-election bid to Scott Matas.
Sanchez’s term started off with the city near bankruptcy. Sanchez helped turn the city around, but a feuding City Council, as well coverage by The Desert Sun about Sanchez’s ties to a Desert Hot Springs marijuana dispensary (Sanchez was later cleared of wrongdoing), put him in a negative light with many residents. Now Sanchez is hoping to earn a return to the Desert Hot Springs City Council.
During an interview at Zapopan Mexican Food, Sanchez reflected on his time as mayor.
“I started off with the City Council, and at that time, I knew we were heading for trouble, because we were overspending,” Sanchez said. “That’s the only reason I ran for mayor. After the election, it all came out that we were in a financial emergency and were living month to month. I knew it was going to happen, but when I talked to the Desert Sun back then, I told them, ‘Just because the city gives you the financials, it doesn’t mean that it’s straight up.’
“I spent two years as mayor fixing the budget. We had to downsize and find a way to live within our means, and at the same time, I was trying to work on the image of the city to go toward health and wellness. We started doing marijuana dispensaries and cultivation.”
Sanchez has been accused of grandstanding at Desert Hot Springs City Council meetings, and was associated with the controversial “No Matas” signs on Dillon Road. However, he said he deeply cares about the city.
“I saw the city going in a direction that I didn’t feel was in the best interests. So what are the options? You sit back and go to a council meeting? What’s that going to do? They’re just going to look at you, and you’re done. … You get back in.”
Sanchez expressed concerns about the construction of a new City Hall, which was approved for $6 million in 2017, and is now reportedly going to cost $8 million.
“The council is saying now, ‘We’re going to build this mini Taj Mahal,’ and that’s supposedly going to make everything better. I don’t see the reality of that,” he said. “What they are doing is making it better for city staff, but $8 million—projected? Are they serious? … (They’re doing this) instead of working on the homeless problem and getting the citizens more engaged. … Nowhere in this whole process two years ago did (residents) say, ‘Our priorities are a new City Hall.’ It was about providing safety for our residents and building sidewalks to the schools, and kids shouldn’t be walking on the street. When the young lady from the high school got killed (as a pedestrian, trying to cross Palm Drive, in March), that’s when I asked, ‘OK, what’s in the budget? What do we have?’ The city gave me a hard time and wouldn’t give me the information.”
Sanchez claimed the current budget numbers don’t add up, and criticized Matas, his former mayoral opponent.
“They’re saying they have $8.5 million in the bank, and now Scott Matas is saying due to enhancements they’re making in the city and the money they’re spending, it’s $4.5 million. Which is it?” Sanchez said, “You can’t say you’re spending $8 million on the new City Hall, and you’re building some new green park areas, so now it’s $4.5 million.”
He dismissed concerns expressed by some residents about all of the marijuana businesses, and said people needed to worry more about education.
“Eighty percent of students in Desert Hot Springs qualify for the school lunch program. That tells you that … we have the working poor, and they’re part of the city,” he said. “… We had all these parolees here through the 1960s up until recently; they just changed the law, saying if you commit a crime in Los Angeles, you stay there, and you don’t go to somewhere like Desert Hot Springs. What ended up happening is a culture developed of dysfunctional values, with kids growing up in single-parent households and growing up without role models as adults.
“You need to make sure every kid in third-grade is reading at grade level. … At the state level, corrections knows how many prisons they’re going to build based on the statistics of the kids that are not reading at grade level after third-grade. We should be developing programs with the school district to make sure these kids can have academic success by being able to read well. That’s done through the educational process. I don’t want to spend money telling kids not to smoke marijuana; I’d rather see that they get the proper educational resources. A well-educated child will make better choices.”
Since leaving office, Sanchez has remained accessible.
“I relaxed a little bit,” he said with a laugh. “After I left, I still got phone calls from people when we had heavy rains and their homes got flooded out. I spent a lot of time working with my contacts in businesses and industries to help some of these residents. I was out there helping people through their problems—immigration problems, high school students. … It’s almost a continuation of what I was doing before. Now I didn’t have to worry about the budget and could go out and talk to families and help them, through the police department, the planning department, or any other resources. It’s almost as if I became a social worker.”
When Gary Gardner moved to Desert Hot Springs from Seattle in 2016, he quickly became active in local politics.
He worked on the Measure B and C tax campaign last year and spoke out regarding the need to keep the Desert Hot Springs Police Department fully funded. He was asked by Mayor Scott Matas to form and chair the Human Rights Committee in Desert Hot Springs, and then asked to serve on the Planning Commission.
Gardner—a former radio and television personality, lobbyist and public-policy advocate—told me during an interview at The Shop Cafe about his love of motorcycles and the outdoors, his upbringing in Salt Lake City, his time at Brigham Young University, and the fact that he’s not a big fan of wearing a suit and tie.
Gardner said the city needs to properly handle the booming marijuana industry while also embracing the businesses that were in DHS before.
“We need to manage the growth here and encourage the growth, and not neglect what’s already here. It’s kind of a juggling act as I look at it,” Gardner said. “The medical-marijuana industry saved this town from bankruptcy. It put money back in the coffers; it brought new businesses looking to hire employees; and it made this town thrive. But that business is going through a lot of changes rapidly and will go up and down. We can’t hang our hat on it. If it hits a dip, this town is really going to suffer. So we need to focus not only on them, but on the places that built this town. We need to work cooperatively to make this place a very friendly, very welcoming, very clean and very safe place to be. That will benefit us in the long run.”
Gardner believes the city has the potential to become a tourist attraction.
“My vision for the city is a health-and-wellness center with our spas and our mineral water, with the marijuana industry, and with all of those kinds of things tied in with the hiking, the views, the desert—and we worked to get the Sand to Snow National Monument,” he said. “… When people Google ‘Sand to Snow,’ that will bring them to Desert Hot Springs. That will bring the revenue in for all the hotels and restaurants, and as they grow, we’ll have more growth in restaurants and retail.”
After living in Seattle, Gardner has a unique perspective on high living costs and gentrification.
“This is still the most affordable corner of the Coachella Valley. It’s one of the reasons I moved here,” he said. “It really should stay that way. Where you see an increase in property values, mainly that is in what we call the light industrial zone, which is where the marijuana farms are. It was open desert and worth pennies, and now we have legalized cultivation; the value in that area has shot up. My own home value has gone up, but not greatly. … Most of the people here rent. I’d love to see more home ownership and would love to see us encourage developers rather than scrape out whole new subdivisions. We have a lot of vacant land, and I want to figure out a way that we can offer incentives for developers not to build McMansions, but average middle-class homes.
“Coming from Seattle, they had a huge housing crisis there, but they don’t have a lot of open land. It’s surrounded by water, and there are no places to build. But we have unlimited land here.”
He’s also hoping for job growth within the city.
“So many of our citizens leave here during the day to go to work elsewhere,” he said. “I’d love to see them stay here if we can find ways to get the marijuana folks to hire people who already live here in town, or encourage (marijuana-business employees) to stay here if they’re coming from out of town.”
There are some residents concerned that the marijuana businesses may attract crime and public safety issues. Gardner does not agree.
“Being on the planning commission, we review every single business application. One of the checklist items is security. If you go and visit some of those cultivation farms, it’s like getting in and out of Fort Knox. I’ve talked with Desert Hot Springs Police Chief Dale Mondary many times, and he personally reviews the security when they get their building permits. His concern is not what’s going on here, but once it leaves here, for the potential of someone hijacking a truck.
“… The city itself has a nasty reputation for crime, but the truth is crime is down over 20 percent in the last five years, because we passed a tax measure a year ago to fully fund and staff the police department. What we need to do is get a new fire station, and we need another one on the east side, because the one fire station handles 30 calls per day, and if you’re having a heart attack or your house is on fire, they are 10 to 15 minutes out.”
He praised previous administrations for not contracting with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for police services when the city was strapped for cash in 2014.
“Our police are well-liked. We have a responsive police chief; our crime rate is down; and I think that the image of bad crime out here is by the media and the TV stations who love to say, ‘Oh, another one out in Desert Hot Springs,’” he said. “But you know what? Our crime rate is lower than Palm Springs, lower than Coachella, and lower than Indio. We have really gotten a handle on that.”
Gardner’s eyes lit up when he told me about his passion for the outdoors and motorcycles.
“I love hiking, and that’s one of the reasons I came here,” he said. “I walk out of my house and do a four-mile walk every day. I love going out to Mission Creek. My boyfriend and I have a little teardrop trailer that we take out camping to Joshua Tree or Mount San Jacinto. I learned how to ride a motorcycle when I was a kid before I could drive, and I’ve loved the traveling on motorcycles ever since. I’ve been in every state of the union on my motorcycle.”
Jan Pye kept mentioning one word during our interview: education.
The former councilwoman returned to the body earlier this year to serve out the rest of the term of Yvonne Parks, who moved out of Desert Hot Springs. During a recent interview at Starbucks in Desert Hot Springs, Pye explained why she wants to remain on the City Council.
“I like the way council was going when they were all getting along, and I wanted to get back in,” Pye said. “I wasn’t going to run, because I liked the way the council was. Then Yvonne Parks decided to move out of town, and a couple of other people I knew decided not to run. So that’s why I decided to get in.”
Pye talked about the turbulent times during her previous council tenure.
“When there was an item on the agenda to have the sheriff’s department come and be in our community (in place of an independent police department),” she said. “My concern is Riverside County was doing increases of 7 percent a year, which meant if we had the sheriff’s department, we were going to have to cut down (other budget items to pay that) 7 percent. At that time, we had police officers who were willing to stay and weren’t getting what the rest of the Coachella Valley (officers were) getting. They were good officers. We ended up keeping our police department. We also had a situation where they wanted all the retailers to have $15 an hour (minimum wage), and that was very contentious, but you have to have the power of persuasion to get the three votes.”
On the issue of gentrification, Pye said the banks could possibly help.
“Part of it goes back to what I said about education. The banks are providing some opportunities to get people into homes. You’re always going to have that with the marketplace,” she said. “… What you can do is you can create banking opportunities, and if (residents need) to pay whatever it is in rent, it might as well be to own a home—so the banking industry is going to have to do something.”
Pye said that while the marijuana industry has been essential to saving the city’s finances, she also sees the need for other economic development.
“We have to see it as another form of revenue, but not the revenue,” she said. “… Most people in business know that if you’re in it for three years, you might survive. If you’re in five years, you’re really about to survive. You have to look at it like that. Some of the marijuana businesses here are struggling, and others aren’t struggling. It’s a business that compliments us. We’re known for our spas and our waters, and medicinal marijuana falls into that plan. We have some sustainability from it here, and we have $6.8 million in reserves. At one point before that, all we had left after one year was $400.”
Pye told me that when she arrived in Desert Hot Springs, she was told by the man who rented her home to her that she probably wouldn’t like living in the city. He was wrong.
“I came here with my daughter as a single parent from Los Angeles and rented the home I live in now before I decided to buy it,” she said. “That’s when I went to city council meetings. … This town helped me raise my daughter. When I worked, and they’d see her, and she was somewhere like Rite Aid, they’d call me and ask me, ‘Is she supposed to be there?’ People were watching over her.”
Pye told me a story about something her father instilled in her while she was growing up.
“My father asked me when I was 15 if I wanted to flip burgers. I said, ‘No,’” she said. “He told me I was going to learn how to type. I wasn’t interested in that. He made me do it, and he made me practice. He made me type, no matter what my homework was, for one hour. If he left and came back, I always told the truth and would tell him if I didn’t do it for an hour. … After baby-sitting for a while at 16, my first job into the real world was as a file clerk, and I told them if I pass secretarial school, I would have the next position—and I got it. That’s how I kept going. I thanked my father then.
“I also did the same thing with my daughter.”
I met Jim Fitzgerald at Starbucks in Desert Hot Springs. The former retail manager spent 35 years in the industry and is new to Desert Hot Springs. He told me he had a four-point plan for the city—but didn’t have any information on paper when we spoke.
He told me he’s funding his campaign himself, and that he’s not putting signs up all over the city as the other candidates are doing.
“I came here a year and a half ago to remodel and fix up two houses,” Fitzgerald said. “… I looked back to 27 years ago when I was building these two houses with my father. They never sold, and we built three models. I see the emptiness after all these years, a lack of retail, and a lack of prosperity in Desert Hot Springs. I started to meet people, one of them being a councilman already, and I started asking him a bunch of questions.
“… I got (the houses) done and found myself doing nothing. I started to figure I was going to stay here after I met a lot of nice people; it’s a nice city. A lot of people are interested in this city, and the cannabis industry is a potential (way) forward, and I’ve been learning as much as I can about that. I think I can help bring retail in.”
Fitzgerald said the city has handled the marijuana industry well—although there are a lot of unanswered questions.
“I think in the old days, when there were people on the street selling marijuana, that was a criminal act,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone who has been harmed by (using marijuana). Plus, there is a medical advantage to it. I think the City Council here is doing it right. This city is very careful about it. I think it’s going really well, and it’s so brand new. … Now, all of a sudden, it’s legal. I think that’s a heck of a challenge for this state. There are all these new questions coming up. Can a spa have a phone service where someone can call up and ask for some edibles? Those things have never actually been figured out.”
Attracting new businesses is tough for Desert Hot Springs, but Fitzgerald said he knows why.
“Certainly the biggest one is crime and safety, especially up and down Palm Drive,” he said. “If you want to bring retail in … (retail managers) don’t want people concerned about going in and out of their store, especially at night. There’s been a great deal of improvement, though, recently, especially with the murders and stuff like that. One is too many, but it’s the smaller crimes that helps bring the big stuff down. … We do have a reputation, although it is getting better. Statistically, we made improvements after getting more police officers. We need to do more, but we’re going in the right direction.”
Fitzgerald talked about the increase in housing costs and rents.
“That’s a matter of supply and demand. We don’t have enough houses here,” he said. “If you have a decent house, you’re going to get $1,400 a month rent for it; $1,200 is about where it’s starting right now. It can go as high as $1,700 for a real nice house. We don’t have the $800, $900 or $1,000 apartments, because there aren’t a lot of apartment buildings. But do we want to turn into another Rancho Mirage, where there are all these beautiful estates and all that kind of stuff? There’s a new development that just got approved in Mission Creek, and it’s going to be 1,900 units, and 900 are going to be apartments. If people are doing all this work, they have to live somewhere, and it’s the people working out of the city, but they’re still going to buy Starbucks here and all that kind of stuff. But you’d much rather have them working and living here.”
Fitzgerald was quick to answer when I asked him what his priorities as a city councilman would be.
“I want to make sure we continue to get along with each other. When you see a council that’s bickering and fighting, they aren’t getting anything done,” he said. “Right now, what I understand is it could be a lot worse in Desert Hot Springs. That’s something that’s on my mind. One of the first things I’d want to do is get together with the council and come up with a growth and incentive package for retail. The other thing is find out who owns these empty buildings and find out what the issue is regarding that. If they need help fixing them up, maybe we could give them a loan, but we have to get those empty buildings filled. When retailers see empty buildings, they don’t want to see empty buildings: ‘If this is the place to go, why are they empty?’”