Coachella voters in November will select either incumbent Steven Hernandez or challenger Denise Delgado to be their mayor for the next two years.

Founded in 1876 as the community of Woodspur, what is now Coachella was born when the town’s name was changed by a vote of the citizenry in 1901. With an original footprint of 2.5 square miles, the city of Coachella was officially incorporated on Nov. 26, 1946.

Today, Coachella has grown to envelop 29 square miles of land, with more than 42,000 residents, and on Nov. 8, voters will pick between two candidates for mayor: Current Mayor Steven Hernandez, running for a fifth two-year term, and current City Councilmember Denise Delgado.

Both candidates are lifelong residents of the city, and both identify with the more than 96% of the city’s population that is Hispanic/Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The City Council is facing challenging decisions on issues including the expansion of affordable housing, and the establishment of the city’s own police department.

The Independent recently reached out to both Delgado and Hernandez to ask them a slate of seven identical questions. Here are their responses, which have been edited only for clarity and editorial style.

Denise Delgado

Coachella City Councilmember Denise Delgado.

Why do you want to be mayor of the city of Coachella?

I think it’s not so much why I want to be mayor, but I think it’s better to say that I’m prepared to be mayor for the city of Coachella. I have the experience. I’ve served the city of Coachella now for about eight years. In 2014, I started as a planning commissioner, and (since then), I’ve served on every other commission for the city of Coachella. So, I’m prepared to be the mayor, and I wouldn’t be running for this seat if I didn’t think that I could lead immediately, and hit the ground running.

Another part of that is that residents want to see change in leadership of the city. I thank Mayor Hernandez for his many, many years of dedication to the city, but he’s going on (16) years on the council, and in my mind, that’s much too long of a time for any elected official to be in the same office.

Why do you think you’re best qualified?

I really pride myself on being accessible and having direct engagement with our residents. I’m a listener; I’m inclusive, and I’m responsive. One thing that really differentiates me is my focus on respect for professionalism, and restoring trust in our local government. I am a bit known and recognized in the community, simply because I attend so many events. Whether it’s the city’s (events), whether it’s nonprofits, or whether they’re community events, I make sure that I’m always present. I make my rounds and talk to everybody. I answer questions, and I take things back to the city staff. I never not respond; I always respond.

What do you see as the top three issues, or your primary three goals, that the city administration must address?

I think for the city of Coachella—you know, we’re only about 30 to 35% developed—a key focal point will always be, at least for a good amount of time, economic development. That’s key, not just for creating new sources of revenue streams, but also to increase our current revenue streams. There are a lot of needs that the city has, and we need to make sure that we can address them. Obviously, we need to make sure that our economy is strong. We need to focus on job creation. We need to focus on workforce development. We need to focus on education. So, those are some of the things I think strengthen a local economy.

Public safety really has become a topic of discussion, and rightfully so. This is something we need to assess, and we need to address it, and we need to be open with the residents about what the needs are, and what we have in comparison to other cities. We need to be sure that we’re building relationships with our first responders to ensure we (have) the same mindset to make sure that we’re constantly increasing the quality of services to Coachella residents. So, I think that’s definitely become a focal point.

Another topic is affordable housing. We see a housing crisis throughout the country, and locally, one of the many things that we’re seeing is that homes are increasing in prices. A lot of that has to do with inflation, but also certain entities are driving the market up (even) when the housing stock is available. So, that’s something we need to visit. We know that working families are wanting to purchase a home for the first time, and they’re either getting outbid, or another thing we see happening is more than one family going into a (single-family) home in order to afford that home. Another concern that we hear is to make sure that we have a variety of housing types (available in Coachella). Obviously, what you see in the city of Coachella are single-family homes. But you know, we have a lot of folks now who don’t have any children, or maybe aren’t interested in having children, and they want something smaller that meets their needs. Going into a two-story, three-to-four-bedroom home isn’t convenient for them.

We have been very successful at securing grants. We see that with the Pueblo Viejo (Villas) apartments, and we see it with the Tripoli Apartments which are going up directly across the street from Pueblo Viejo. We secured millions of dollars for that new complex as well, and I’m sure that once it goes up, we’re going to see the same challenges, where 4,000-5,000 people put in applications for it. So we’re going to continue to go after these grants aggressively, and try to secure as many as we can.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that health and wellness have really become a key (issue). It’s something that needs to be addressed in every community and every city. Obviously, expansion of parks, trails, active transportation and bicycle lanes all help to reduce parking and provide more transportation (options), like carpooling, or the transit hub going in on Fifth Street. But we need to continue to address and make sure that we’re promoting and accommodating physical and mental health. We have a (health) clinic that just went up, and that’s wonderful. Hopefully, we’ll see something bigger come through in the near future.

It’s not that I don’t think the city of Coachella should have its own police department, but we can’t afford it. Again, we have to be very honest with the community about what this is going to cost us—and cost them. coachella city councilmember denise delgado

According to a recent report by the Pew Trust, investors bought nearly a quarter of the single-family homes that sold in 2021, driving up rents in the process. What’s being done to create and protect affordable-home options for Coachella residents?

When we’re doing the RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation plan), which addresses housing needs and requirements, one thing that I noted is that we see a lot of this (real-estate investor activity) happening. In fact, there was a community where an investor wanted to purchase 50 homes. So, obviously, we need to start thinking outside of what we’re doing now. I did ask if any city had created a policy where (any) available housing stock is first (offered) to first-time homebuyers. It wouldn’t eliminate anybody from being able to purchase a home, but maybe a percentage of homes should be prioritized for first-time buyers, and then if they are not purchased, they can be opened up for other (buyers). Maybe we need to be even a little more aggressive in the policies we’re creating to make sure that we’re protecting working families.

Additionally, we have short-term rentals, but we don’t have any (regulations) in place that addresses them. It’s just a reality. We see many cities addressing this topic. Some are eliminating short-term rentals, and others are (regulating) it. We need to start having these conversations. We need to know what we have (in our current housing supply), and make sure that we’re prioritizing working families and first-time home buyers.

According to California’s Open Justice website, of the nine cities in the Coachella Valley, Coachella came in a distant third to Palm Springs and Indio in total violent crimes committed during 2021. But since May 30, there have been at least eight shootings in Coachella, with at least five dead. How should the city respond to this recent increase in gun violence?

There has not an increase recently in violent crime; there really isn’t. There have been shootings, but they’re just not all reported. But there have been shootings, and they have been addressed many times over. Law enforcement keeps us updated with reports on what’s happening in the city, and it’s been an issue. It really has. From what I understand, in the last 20 years, we haven’t accommodated population growth. So, over the last 20 years, there hasn’t been an increase in public-safety staffing to accommodate or plan for population growth. I got that fact directly from law enforcement, so I know that it’s correct. Today, we still have the same staffing that we did 20 years ago.

Immediately, when I came on board (the City Council), I wanted to look at the contract (with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department to provide policing). I wanted to see what we have in comparison to the city of La Quinta, and to the city of Palm Desert, who also contract with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. They have more personnel than we do, even though we have similarly sized populations, and we’re not too far off from one another. What we have is, during the daytime, four patrol deputies, and then three deputies at night. You know, we have a population of over 42,000. And even though we’re counted as having 42,000, we have much more than that, and we all know it. It’s kind of a given that we have much more than that. So, you have to take into consideration that, during the daytime, you have one deputy for over 10,000 residents. I understand that we have a small budget, and that’s something we always have to consider. But I have more of a problem with (the fact that) there was no planning or preparation for population growth. So, 20 years later, we’re in exactly the same position as we were 20 years ago. Obviously, that’s a concern.

But I just want to make sure that, contrary to what my opponent says about there being an increase (in violent crime), that’s completely untrue. There have been shootings. They’ve been reported, and it just hasn’t been addressed. It really needs to be addressed.

I’m very careful in how I talk about our law-enforcement issues. We need to assess what we have, and we need to have a type of community-input event, like a town hall meeting, to hear what people want to see. In the community, all I ever hear is, “We don’t have enough (of a law enforcement presence). The response times are too long.” So it’s something that we need to take very seriously. We need to have a dialogue, and we need to invite the community and stakeholders to really assess the situation, and then make changes where they’re needed.

Also, it’s extremely important for residents of the city of Coachella to know that we have no traffic deputies. We have none. Sometimes, our residents will see a patrol car at a red light, and then there’s a car speeding by. And our residents (think), “Wow, they don’t do anything. They don’t help out.” And I’ll tell them that we don’t have any traffic deputies. We only have four deputies (on duty) during the day, and three at night, so if they start responding to traffic, then we won’t have anyone to respond to calls. I’m always making sure I’m open and honest when I’m having discussions with our community.

Do you believe that Coachella should have its own city police department?

It’s not that I don’t think the city of Coachella should have its own police department, but we can’t afford it. Again, we have to be very honest with the community about what this is going to cost us—and cost them.

We have no facility (to become) our own police station. We’re going to need a facility. So we’re looking at $30 million or above for a facility. You know, we also need to purchase the patrol cars and other equipment. So, we’re looking at well over $30 million, and that’s up front. I’ll say that again: That’s up front. The new contract (with RCSD) is between $10.5 to $11 million. But also, there’s a lot of stuff that we don’t pay for (under the contract). We don’t pay for the chief of police. We don’t pay for the assistant chief of police. We don’t pay for the operators who respond to calls. But, if we have our own police department, that $11 million will go up easily to $16 to $17 million per year, just to provide things that the RCSD is providing to us now. So, there will definitely be an increase. Many people think there’s going to be a decrease. But, no, there’s going to be an increase.

Also, at this moment, we don’t cover liability and pension (costs for public safety). So, you can throw that into the pot. And if we were to transition from RCSD to our own police officers, then we’re going to have to contract both for at least a year before we make that full transition. So, we’re going to be hiring police officers, but then still contracting with RCSD, and for at least that first year, the costs are going to be higher.

When you take all these things into consideration, you see that we can’t afford it. Now, can we afford it in the future? Possibly. But that means we’d have to be putting aside $1 million or more every single year to be able to cover those upfront costs. So, it’s not so much that I don’t want our own police department; we can’t afford it, and I have the responsibility of making sure that I take our residents into consideration, and how much of these costs are going to be passed on to them. I can’t see us doing this without raising taxes. When you’re looking at liability (insurance) and pensions, it’s almost impossible not to raise taxes. I don’t want to do that to our residents if we don’t have to.

What’s your favorite “me” time activity?

One thing I try to do as much as I can is stand-up paddleboarding. I love and really enjoy it. It’s my hobby. I don’t get to do it as much as I’d like, but when I do, it brings me so much joy. Just to be on some lake—or, obviously, the ocean—it just brings me so much comfort, and I really get my “me” time.

Steven Hernandez

Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez.

Why do you want to remain the mayor of the city of Coachella?

The job is not done, and it’s important that we keep the momentum that we have. There is great alignment in the city of Coachella where we have cooperation that’s occurring with the community, the nonprofits and our local, regional and state officials. And for us, it’s very important that we maintain that, and that we keep it going, simply because there was a time in Coachella when there wasn’t great collaboration and alignment. So for us, it’s important that we play it through.

When we think about infrastructure, there’s a train that I want to bring into town. There’s a bridge on Avenue 50 that we need to get fully funded. There are housing issues that we need to continue to address, particularly for the working families in the middle. That’s very important to me. On the other hand, when we think about the economy—yes, the city has been growing. Yes, the city has been realizing new businesses, and new housing, and the marijuana industry is flourishing. But there’s also possible trouble on the horizon with a recession, and making the right decisions during the recession that is on its way is going to be important (in order) to position ourselves to continue to emphasize economic growth.

When it comes to public safety, for me, it’s very important that we continue to do what we’ve been doing to combat crime. I also believe that we’re at a point where we can bring our own police department back, and I want to bring that (effort) forward. So I think it’s the alignment, the momentum, and collaboration amongst the community that we have. It’s infrastructure, public safety and the economy that are really driving my reasons for staying.

The experience that we have is important. It shouldn’t be downplayed. And more than anything, I think the track record that we have of delivering for Coachella, and really changing the experience, is important. Right now, creating a drastic change in where we’re going is foolish, as Coachella has positioned itself, and is growing, in a way that a lot of people are proud of.

When I look at running for a fifth term, from one standpoint, it could be (viewed as) quite an achievement. But from a time perspective, I really do think that the two-year term structure (for the mayor) of the city of Coachella has to change. It’s exhausting, and it costs a lot of money, and time, and energy organizing. So every two years when we run, it’s quite the job. I’ve been (in office) for eight years, and I’m trying to do a decade. And before that, I was a council member for eight years. That’s 16 years in total, and I’m 39 years old now.

It was a privilege to have been bestowed the honor of becoming a council member at the age of 23, and the mayor eight years later. My attitude has always been that our residents deserve the best, and when you look at what I’ve ushered in—libraries, parks, housing, clinics, bridges, the revitalized downtown, a new elementary school—I’ve always done it in a way where I want to make sure that the physical built environment changes, but it changes in a way that we can be proud of where we live. And at the same time, developers know that they need to give us amenities that are dignified, and (amenities) that our community expects and deserves. That’s what has been behind my vision and the drive that has kept me doing this job. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done, and I’m proud that we’ve accomplished a lot together. I’m proud of the fact that we have more social capital, more business capital, more political capital, more nonprofit capital, and more parent involvement, but we’re not done. We have a little bit more to go, and I think it’s important for us to maintain that alignment. That alignment (across government sectors) probably will change because of term limits with some of the people that we’ve been working with. What we’ve done for the east side is unprecedented, but it is something that we emulated from the center and the west side of the valley. They did it in the 1980s and the 1960s. You had groups of people who worked together to bring the best to their community, and right now in Coachella, that’s what we’re doing. And it’s our job, and my job, to try to keep that momentum going for as long as we can, until one day it changes, because it always does.

We are positioned today to bring back our own police department, and I’m going to make a move to do that. The reason we haven’t done it in the past was because of the upfront costs. We needed to have a good (cash) reserve in order to fund that. coachella mayor steven hernandez

Why do you think you’re best qualified?

You know, one of the things about being a mayor is that you set the agenda. You put out a vision, but you bring other people, and other members of the council, along. There’s a big difference between coercion and persuasion. I’ve been very fortunate that, in my time as mayor, when we look at how we voted as a council, we voted in unison: Probably, like 95% of the time, we’ve had 5-0 votes. Part of your job being mayor is knowing that it’s not just about you, but it’s about integrating your councilmembers’ vision into the overall vision and direction, and I believe I have that experience.

The other thing is that when you serve a population with a median (annual) household income of $34,000 and a median individual (annual) income of less than $20,000, you have to be really good at collaborating and going after other people’s money. Now, relationships are one thing, but a relationship where you’re able to pick up the phone and call other elected leaders, and get those elected leaders to trust you, is another thing. Also, it’s not just contacts with other leaders. It’s the agency directors, and knowing your way around as to where it is that you need to go and knock on the door. I’m very proud that in just the last two years, we’ve brought over $60 million into Coachella. That’s other people’s monies, and it would not have happened if we did not have the good collaboration, and if we did not have the trust of elected officials, agency directors and even the private sector in general to come and invest in Coachella. For a long time, Coachella was a hard place to invest in. So for me, it’s the fact that we work well with others. We understand how to bring the vision along, integrate the vision, change the vision, and be flexible with the vision. But then, we also know how to work with our regional, state and county agencies, and tribal agencies, to meet our objectives. That’s why I believe that I’m suited for this job.

What do you see as the top three issues, or your primary three goals, that the city administration must address?

No. 1 is going to be public safety. I mentioned to you that we are positioned today to bring back our own police department, and I’m going to make a move to do that. The reason we haven’t done it in the past was because of the upfront costs. We needed to have a good (cash) reserve in order to fund that. Now, I believe we’re well-positioned with the reserve we have today (to cover) that upfront cost. Once we get that upfront cost, we’ll be able to maintain the services we have, or actually exceed them, because we’re at about $11 million per year for (Riverside County) Sheriff’s services.

No. 2, for me, infrastructure is very, very important. There’s the bridge on Avenue 50 that has been eluding us, even though we’ve been after it for the last 10 to 15 years. There’s the train that’s (planned to be) coming into the Coachella Valley, and Coachella has positioned itself to be the end of the train (line). The argument to the region has been very simple: “Nothing for us, without us.” In other words, you’re not going to use our numbers and say that people from the east side (of the Coachella Valley) are going to benefit because there’s a train (stopping) in some other city. No, because Coachella is the center of the east side, and it’s where everybody from the east side is going. And by the east side, I mean Coachella, Mecca, Oasis, Thermal and North Shore. Everybody (there) identifies Coachella as their stomping grounds.

The other thing that’s important for me is equity in the distribution of dollars being allocated in the region. It’s making sure that Coachella gets its fair share. One area that I’m going to be very passionate about, and make noise about, is the College of the Desert. In 2017, while I was mayor, Dr. (Joel) Kinnamon came into our town as superintendent/president of the college, talking about how the east side was going to get a campus, and how Coachella was going to get more programming. When you look at what’s been going on regarding equity and the distribution of the money, there’s been a big play and movement by folks in other parts of the Coachella Valley to try to take $700 million of an $800 million bond. For me, when you look at where the population base of students is, and when you look at where it’s important to train the next generation of employees for the valley, we have to stop, as a community, simply building things, or giving communities things, because they want it, or they’re allowed it. I think we have to have a conversation about, “Where’s the need? What does the data say? Where are the students?” So, fighting for equity in money and resources is something that’s important to me as mayor, and education is up there.

Housing is another (priority). How do we get someone like a student, or someone who’s neither in the high or low income end, how do we get someone in the middle, into some housing that they can afford? So those things are important, And, by the way, as mayor, you have to be able to walk, chew gum and talk at the same time, because it’s not just one thing after another. It’s about having the capacity to work things concurrently. Those are the things I really want to get done moving into the next session.

According to a recent report by the Pew Trust, investors bought nearly a quarter of the single-family homes that sold in 2021, driving up rents in the process. What’s being done to create and protect affordable-home options for Coachella residents?

As mayor, and as a city, it’s very important that we continue to prioritize our residents and homeowners. I’m very proud of the fact that, in Coachella, when you look at our homeownership, 70% of our households own their home. So, they’re not renters. That’s a very high percentage. When you look at the city of La Quinta, they have a lot of second-home owners. So, for me, it’s important that we do everything we can to ensure that residents get to own their homes.

Also, I think it’s important that these homeowners in Coachella have an opportunity to make money off their homes. You have families here who rent out their homes for Airbnb purposes, or during Coachella (fest), to make a little bit of money to pay for a vacation. But there’s a balance that needs to be maintained. Now, there are a lot of issues going on where folks are doing Airbnbs in single-family residence (neighborhoods), and there’s conflict there. So, I believe that, on the one hand, you’ve got to continue to push home ownership through first-time home-buyer programs, and making sure we’re talking about the types of homes (available). I don’t think that’s a conversation that’s happening in the Coachella Valley. By that, I mean that everybody’s looking for the 2,400-to-3,000-square-foot house, but we’ve got to start thinking about missing middle-housing options, and other types of options like condos, that can provide entry (into the housing market) for people. And then, how do we maintain a balance? I do believe that people should have the option to rent their home, but maybe we talk about the number of days, and then we go from there.

On the other side, the unique thing about Coachella is that we’re not built out. Only some 30% of the city is built out, so there’s a lot of area to grow. Maybe we have an opportunity to think about exclusive vacation rental communities, or think of communities where that interface is not occurring, simply because we have an opportunity to grow. Some of these other cities are stretched, and they’re not growing. I think we have to do it right, and we have an opportunity to learn from other cities, because of the fact that a lot of investors didn’t come to Coachella and invest. I kind of like that. But, at the same time, we know that things are on the horizon.

According to California’s Open Justice website, of the nine cities in the Coachella Valley, Coachella came in a distant third to Palm Springs and Indio in total violent crimes committed during 2021. But since May 30, there have been at least eight shootings in Coachella, with at least five dead. How should the city respond to this recent increase in gun violence?

I think it’s important that we understand that there’s a rule of law. We all have a social contract that must be followed and obeyed, because we all have the right to live in peace, and raise our children. Children have the right—which is worth fighting for and protecting—to grow up in a safe environment and become productive adults. As mayor of the city, it’s my job to ensure that our police or the Sheriff’s Department have all the resources at their disposal to apprehend (offenders) and try to combat crime. Also, I believe that when we think about how to fight crime, it’s important that we look at what we might call the social determinants of crime. That’s important. So, how can we do a better job in Coachella of making sure that people have opportunities for employment, for education and for housing? How can we do a better job in Coachella to make sure that we have robust nonprofits that are helping and working with youth who are moving in a bad direction? How can we do a better job of making sure that people who are coming out of the jail system have a better opportunity for second chances? So, for us, it’s a matter of being tough on crime, being smart on crime, looking at prevention, looking at intervention and looking at second chances.

Recently, this uptick in crime is happening statewide, and I really believe that there are some factors that (contribute) to why that’s happening. In my view, one of the biggest factors is that there need to be consequences. When you look at some of the violent crime that’s happening, you have folks who know that the jails are packed, or that the laws have changed, and they’ll commit a crime (knowing) that they won’t face any repercussions. So I do believe that there needs to be reform there, and some of what we, as voters, have brought on—it isn’t working. So we have to be able as a society, and a community, and as leaders, to respond to the real facts and the real things that are going down in the community. As leaders, we can’t stay fixated upon policies that were passed at one point if we’re not getting the outcomes that we desire, because there’s no coming back from death. When somebody’s house or car gets broken into, or when somebody gets assaulted, that’s one of the worst feelings in the world. And if we’re seeing more of that, then we leaders need to be able to pivot and say, “This is something we need to address. We need to be more vocal about it.” So, that’s where I stand.

Do you still believe that Coachella should have its own city police department?

Long term, I really do believe that as Coachella grows, and given the type of community that Coachella is, our own police department is needed. The (Riverside County) sheriff has done what he’s done, and he’s served us well, but the Sheriff’s Department is big, and a lot of the time, we don’t get continuity of service. Some officer will be in Coachella—and they get to know the families, they get to know the community, they get to understand where the trouble spots are, they do a lot of good work—and then they get promoted, and they’re in another area, or in another (job) within the Sheriff’s Department. So, because of the type of community that we are—this isn’t a bedroom community; this is a community with 70% home ownership; residents are in town year-round, worker-bee families, Latino—that we will be better suited to respond to the needs of our community with our own PD. This is not to say anything against the sheriff. I think the Sheriff’s Department has done a good job. It’s simply to say that when you look at the ethos of the community, and how it’s growing, and what it wants, it wants its own PD, and it wants continuity of people.

What’s your favorite “me” time activity?

I think it’s walking in the morning. I’ve been intentional about how I wake up, and taking time to pray and meditate, and be present. Then I go on a walk in the morning. People see me around the park, or around town while I’m walking, and it helps me to get my circadian rhythm going, and keep my health good. But it also helps me prioritize my day, and it helps me think about what I want to do and need to do. And sometimes, I use that time to connect. I’ll call people while I get some exercise and talk. So I think that walking is my favorite thing to do, and it’s something that anyone can do, at any age, in any area you’re in. Just walk the town and say hi to people. It’s really enjoyable for me.

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Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...

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