The new year brings new mayors in Coachella Valley cities where that title rotates—and in Palm Desert, the new mayor is Kathleen Kelly.
A graduate of Yale University and UC Berkeley’s School of Law, Kelly spent decades practicing and teaching law in California, and she has frequently assumed volunteer leadership roles here in the Coachella Valley. She takes the title of mayor as she starts her second term on the council, at a time when Palm Desert and the country as a whole are facing one of the biggest challenges in decades—vaccinating people to protect them from COVID-19.
“This has proved challenging, because the county has jurisdiction, power and responsibility to oversee this program,” Kelly said. “But (the City Council) tries to claim a role in anything that affects our residents’ lives, so when we saw the prospect of vaccines coming, we launched an effort to collaborate with the county and other possible partners to try to be a catalyst for more sites and more access—particularly for more sites here in the central valley which would be helpful to our residents.”
How has that gone? “Well, it’s too soon to make any promises,” Kelly said. “I’d rather surprise people with some good results than over-promise, but our efforts are intense and ongoing.”
Local businesses have been struggling to survive because of the pandemic-caused closures. A much-needed additional $800,000 was recently approved by the Palm Desert City Council to provide forgivable loans to qualifying restaurant owners. (Applications will be taken through the end of the month at pdbizsupport.com.)
“The loans are easily forgivable, so long as a restaurant is following current guidelines and orders, and they continue to operate for takeout, and remain viable as it becomes possible for restaurants to open,” Kelly said. “We really want to do everything we can to support our distinctive businesses, because they give the community character—and, of course, create jobs.”
However, not all Palm Desert businesses have been obeying the orders from the state, which require all restaurants to close for in-person dining—even outdoors.
“Some 95 percent of our businesses have been compliant with all of the guidelines and have done everything they possibly could to support public health,” Kelly said. “We want to support them. First and foremost, we want to help them get through this, because they’re making huge sacrifices toward the public good. The particular nature of this crisis is such that a heavy part of the burden falls on our hospitality industry, which is vital to the economy.
“Now, to the extent that we have outliers, we want to get them on to the same page. We want to show them that they can be compliant and get through this at the same time—and for the sake of the 95 percent-plus who are compliant, we want to make sure that there’s a level playing field. … It would be preferable to have some source of consistency throughout the Coachella Valley, but we don’t have that now, so we’re working the best we can within the current system.
“Another thing I’m extremely pleased about is that Palm Desert’s COVID relief (program) includes up to $500,000 for rent relief. This is so significant, because the federal and state moratoriums on evictions provide short-term relief from catastrophe, but to some extent, that (policy) is just kicking the can down the road. The fact that we’ve been able to find funds for rent relief for people qualifying due to circumstances related to COVID-19’s impact enables our residents to come through this much, much better. They won’t be facing a (financial) crisis when the moratoriums conclude.”
This lifeline will provide a benefit to landlords as well.
“That’s been kind of a lost story in all of this; not all landlords have deep pockets,” Kelly said. “Many landlords might have one or two properties, or it’s someone’s retirement income. Many landlords are themselves small businesses, so this helps both the tenant and the landlord.”
We followed up with the city regarding the rent-relief program. Management analyst Christopher Gerry said via email that the city is currently reviewing applications from rental-property owners. He said he anticipates the city will reopen applications for property owners in February, and he encouraged interested renters to ask their landlords to apply to the program.
The city of Palm Desert is stepping in to fill yet another void: Riverside County’s late-December decision to shut down the highly regarded Great Plates Delivered program. It was set up by the state, and funded by the federal government and the county—in an effort to help out struggling restaurants by paying them to prepare daily meals for homebound senior citizens.
“I think that slightly more than 100 Palm Desert residents and a handful of restaurants participated in the state-sponsored Great Plates program,” Kelly said. “This (new city offering) will be a somewhat more streamlined program with less paperwork, and it boils down to this: We wanted to find ways to support our restaurants while they’re limited to takeout—and, to the extent that we can actually fund something that will have a second benefit to someone else, so much the better. We’ll be exploring (providing meals to) not just seniors who might not currently be served by the Joslyn Center (Meals on Wheels) program, but other appropriate groups, such as our first responders, who are working so hard that they hardly have time to secure a meal.”
Next, the conversation shifted to the proposed 10,000-seat arena which was originally planned for downtown Palm Springs—but is now supposed to be built on a parcel located just over the northern city line of Palm Desert, near the intersection of Cook Street and Varner Road. What would be the extent of the city’s involvement?
“You would get different opinions from different council members, but there are the core facts about which everyone needs to be informed,” Kelly said. “As you point out, (the proposed site) is on unincorporated land. It’s actually within Cathedral City’s sphere of influence. … That said, traffic doesn’t pay attention to city boundaries. Noise doesn’t pay attention to city boundaries, so we have to pay attention to what’s happening there. I’ve consulted quite a few people with expertise in planning who give this project about a 10 percent chance of actually happening. The proponents haven’t begun the formal process with the county that would lead to the approval of the details. They haven’t developed the kind of pro forma that is usually a first step in terms of showing economic viability. So, my perspective is that Palm Desert needs to stay alert to the status of this … so we can be participants looking out for the interests of our residents.”
The November election was the first in which Palm Desert used a district-based system. One large district elects four council members, while the “Civic Center Core District” elects one representative. Kelly said residents may have a variety of opinions about the change—but that now is not the time for debate over the brand-new system.
“Right now, I think it’s so critical that we use our airtime with the public to communicate the importance of continuing to follow the (pandemic) safeguards, since there seems to be confusion about that,” Kelly said. “Also, we need to communicate about the importance of continuing testing, and about access to the vaccines. Those topics have to be the priority for at least the next six to nine months. So, possibly having this issue on the ballot in 2022 would be a good way to ensure that everybody gets informed and has a chance to discuss their preference. But frankly, I’d feel derelict if I distracted attention to that issue right now in 2021.”
Last summer, the city completed the Phase 1 makeover of the streets adjacent to the city’s downtown along San Pablo Avenue—but only after many months of upheaval for businesses and residents in the area. Second-phase construction is now under way, and Kelly said she’s happy with what’s been completed.
“I so appreciate (businesses’ and residents’) patience and their participation in all the planning for this,” Kelly said. “I’ve been utterly amazed that it’s been able to achieve some of its objectives already, despite the fact that the pandemic prevents the kind of events that were envisioned for San Pablo. But the fact that we were able to move the Certified Farmers’ Market there on Wednesdays—and we’ll soon add a farmers’ market once a month on Sundays—has brought people to the location, which has helped the merchants. Everybody I talk to comments on the sense of vibrancy and their enjoyment at being in that space.”
In conclusion, Kelly again emphasized the need for the city to focus on the pandemic during her year as mayor.
“At the same time, though, we cannot lose momentum on the key long-term initiatives that will better position Palm Desert for the future, with or without crises,” Kelly said. “Those include diversifying our economy, expanding program offerings at our (California State University) campus and improving (internet) connectivity. … We have to stay energized around those three topics, despite all of the time and resources that the pandemic takes up.”