CVIndependent

Thu02222018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Brane Jevric

Palm Desert Mayor Sabby Jonathan recently invited the public to enjoy complimentary coffee and conversation—something he plans on doing every month.

During his January coffee meeting, at the Desert Willow Golf Resort, the new mayor (the position rotates among City Council members on a yearly basis) was battling the flu. However, Jonathan, who works as a certified public accountant, was kind enough to agree to answer questions on anything—ranging from the city budget to new hotels to past city-employee wrongdoing—via email.

Regarding your quest for transparency—why the coffee chats?

Coffee chats are a great way for the community to engage with its elected officials. They provide an informal forum where concerns of residents can be heard and questions can be answered. The chats take place monthly, throughout the year, with the exception of July and August.

Is Measure T—an increase of the city’s hotel tax from 9 to 11 percent, passed by voters in 2016—working? How much money is it bringing in yearly, and is the city safer now because of it?

The change generates approximately $2 million in additional general-fund revenue a year, supporting police and fire services as well as other municipal programs and services that help keep Palm Desert safe and ensure a high quality of life that is enjoyed by our residents and visitors.

What is the city’s budget structure? How many special funds are there, and what are total revenues and expenditures?

The city financial records have many “governmental funds,” including the above noted general fund. The city has over 50 special revenue, capital, enterprise, special assessments and internal service funds. Most other funds are restricted or assigned for specific purposes and include traffic safety, transportation improvements, fire facilities, housing, development impact fees, recycling, public art, recreational facilities, capital improvement projects, landscape and lighting districts, etc.

For the fiscal year 2017-18, the overall expenditures anticipated for all funds are $118,624,985. Revenues are same as expenditures! Our complete budget is available online.

As a CPA, would you recommend changing anything in the current structure of the city budget?

Overall, our current budget process works very well. It is based on the city’s goals for the upcoming year, and it is “bottoms up,” meaning the process starts with the individual departments, which then take ownership of their respective budgets. We are looking at adding a five-year forecast to the budget process. … It would enable us to look ahead for the next five years, ensure there are no surprises, and give us an opportunity to take action if needed.

The city previously froze some motorcycle-cop positions. Do you plan to put them back on the streets soon?

We continue to work closely with our public-safety professionals to measure whether there have been any impacts from the frozen positions. To date, we have not seen any diminishment in the city’s ability to provide exceptional public-safety services. If this changes, we will act quickly.

The city of Palm Desert does not have its own independent police force, but instead contracts with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. What is the total annual dollar amount for the sheriff’s contract, and what is the current crime rate?

For fiscal year 2017-18, the city budgeted approximately $21.9 million for police services. The FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program data for 2016 illustrates the city has a higher incidence of property crime than violent crime. This fact is likely attributable to the higher concentration of retail establishments within the city, as larceny-theft constitutes the highest number of property crimes. Examples of larceny-theft include shoplifting, bicycle thefts and pocket-picking.

Comparing the UCR data with the past crime rate reports, was there an increase in violent crimes and property crimes?

(There were) … significant decreases in every crime category, with the exception of motor vehicle theft. Overall, violent crimes were down from 117 in 2015 to 77 in 2016, and property crimes were down from 2,302 in 2015 to 2,146 in 2016.

Is the city improving, considering the new (hotel tax) income? Are the anticipated new hotels being finished on time?

Our transient occupancy tax revenue is supporting public safety and other municipal services and programs that enhance Palm Desert’s wonderful quality of life. The city is working closely with the developers of Hotel Paseo to facilitate its opening as soon as possible. … The Fairfield Inn on Cook Street finished on time and opened last summer. The SpringHill Suites (formerly the Fairfield Inn on Highway 111, which was destroyed by fire several years ago) is being reconstructed and should open later this year.

What is the city manager’s salary and benefits? The previous one (John Wohlmuth) got $300,000 (in severance and accrued vacation/sick pay) to leave amid a scandal involving nude pics.

The current city manager is paid $220,000 with a three-month severance package, but without health care or a car allowance, and with a maximum accrual of 320 hours combined sick leave and vacation. For comparison sake, the previous city manager’s salary was $248,911 annually (when he left), with six months’ severance, plus $500 per month for an automobile allowance, and the same health care and leave benefits as other executive employees (which excludes the 320 hour cap that the current city manager has). He had a combined total of 1,028 hours of sick leave and vacation time at his departure.

How do you keep the city fiscally sound? How is the city handling salaries and pensions?

The city of Palm Desert, throughout its history, has been a prudent steward of the public’s money. This is reflected in the fact that for decades, Palm Desert has adopted a balanced budget in each year, and maintains a healthy reserve balance. Looking back, we have been forward-thinking in addressing challenges related to staffing, whether it be during a development boom or a recession. During the recession, Palm Desert reduced its staff by over 30 percent, and we were proactive in making changes to pension and other benefits for new employees well before the statewide efforts to enact pension reform. … We continue to evaluate the labor market and look for the most effective ways to ensure that we have the best employees available to provide services to our residents.

Do you support the city’s system to rotate mayoral positions annually?

I am a strong proponent of rotating the mayor’s position, especially in small cities like ours. It avoids a lot of the “drama” that we see in cities with elected mayors, and it gives each councilmember an opportunity to engage at a deeper level, which I believe makes for more knowledgeable councilmembers, and a more effective council.

For information on upcoming coffee conversations, call 760-346-0611, or visit www.cityofpalmdesert.org.

For the second time in six years, Palm Springs voters have agreed to open their pocketbooks a little wider.

Measure D, voted in last November, and Measure J, approved in 2011, will bring in a total of about $20 million in tax dollars annually to the city.

One problem: Millions from Measure J were given to John Wessman, the original developer of the downtown redevelopment project, and now the subject of numerous bribery indictments along with former Mayor Steve Pougnet.

One question: Will the city seek reimbursements from Wessman if he is found guilty?

Anticipating legal issues in the wake of the bribery scandal, which culminated in an FBI raid of City Hall, Palm Springs officials hired a new city attorney, Edward Kotkin, in April. While previous city attorneys were contractors, Kotkin was brought on as a city employee, at a salary of $206,088 a year plus benefits.

Kotkin is a former Riverside County deputy district attorney who is expected to develop strategies to protect the city from potential legal troubles regarding the outcome of the Wessman-Pougnet criminal case. He came to the city with a fantastic reputation as a skilled attorney.

Here’s an edited version of Kotkin’s answers to my questions, done via e-mail.

If or when Wessman is convicted of the criminal charges, will you seek retribution from Wessman’s companies—in other words, seek to get our taxpayer money back?

If there are convictions in the district attorney’s prosecution of Messrs. Pougnet, Wessman and (Richard) Meaney, those convictions will have civil legal ramifications that the City Council will consider and act upon in its discretion. The council will always act in the best interest of the city, its residents and businesses. The city has already initiated litigation aimed at protecting the city’s rights and remedies as to assets involved in transactions related to the criminal case, and will certainly continue to do so if and when the council determines that new litigation will advance the city’s interests.

It seems the city’s finances are always supported by yet another tax measure, but how long (will this go on)—until the next measure, or until the city’s bankrupt?

There is no potential whatsoever for future increases to the local sales tax. Only a certain amount of tax can be charged at the local level, and Measure D brings the percentage of tax passed through to local government to the maximum. The city has no current plans to consider or present the voters with any additional taxes in the foreseeable future. The city manages its finances effectively, and does not foresee any potential for municipal bankruptcy.

What are the city’s total annual expenditures, all funds included, and what are the annual revenues?

The city’s adopted budget with respect to all funds reflects revenues of nearly $222 million, and expenditures of nearly $230 million. It is misleading and inappropriate to view or portray this data as reflecting “deficit” spending by the city. For example, revenues from past years are being applied this year, based upon the timing of projects. That creates an artificially high figure regarding expenditures. Airport customer facility charge revenue accumulated through many years of rental car fees is being spent this year on Phase 1 of a significant new airport car-rental facility. Revenues of approximately $2 million are dwarfed by project-related expenditures of $6.5 million. Further, the general fund anticipates a small surplus this year, and leaves a reserve of approximately 20 percent.

I presume that you will not frame this revenue and expenditure data in a misleading or inappropriate manner. If you do so, it will compromise your relationship with my office irreparably.

Would it (have been) possible to keep the city of Palm Springs financially afloat, (and residents safe), without Measure D? For how long?

The city of Palm Springs handles its finances in a responsible manner at all times, and will always advance the interests of its residents, businesses and visitors to the greatest extent possible, within its means. Public safety will always be a top priority for the city. Your question presumes that there is an objectively quantifiable amount of funding that will make the city “safe,” and presumes that some level of public services translates to the city remaining “afloat.” The city rejects your question as based upon false presumptions. The city will always be safe, and always remain afloat. More resources at City Hall equate to better public safety and more city services.

What are the city’s legal tools and remedies to recoup the taxpayers’ money if there is or was a developer’s default, such as a prolonged timeline in finishing the additional structures (in the downtown redevelopment plans)?

The city declines to discuss legal strategies that may be employed to address any matter of city business. Doing so disadvantages the city in the event that those legal strategies must be employed. The city has made, and will continue to make, all decisions with respect to the evaluation and pursuit of the city’s legal rights and remedies, as they relate to the downtown project, in the best interest of the city’s residents and visitors. The city is proud of the West Elm building and store, and extremely excited about the … Kimpton Rowan hotel and related commercial locations. Your question contains a determination that the developer of the downtown project is in default. The city is the only party authorized to make that determination, and has not done so to date.

The city’s budget is a complex financial package. How do you help ordinary but curious Palm Springs residents, who are not accountants, grasp where and how taxpayers’ money is spent and used?

The city has implemented the OpenGov Portal (palmspringsca.opengov.com) to assist residents and other interested parties secure access to very user-friendly data regarding the city’s finances. … The city adheres to Governmental Accounting Standards Board requirements and segregates funds accordingly. The city’s comprehensive annual financial report is independently audited for compliance with all GASB (requirements), and all other applicable federal and state requirements.

The city claims transparency and that all of the information is out there on the site. Why, then, did the FBI raid City Hall in 2015 and seize certain records that resulted in indictments, if everything was in order?

The 2015 FBI search and seizure and the prosecution by the District Attorney’s Office did not reflect systemic problems at City Hall. The allegations in this matter pertain to a single elected official, his relationship with developers, and certain specific transactions where the elected official is alleged to have violated conflict-of-interest laws. The city has provided full cooperation with law enforcement’s efforts to investigate and prosecute this matter, and also initiated civil litigation to protect city rights and remedies related to the prosecution. The city has been, and remains, transparent with respect to its dealings with the developer of the downtown project. When money is spent under the PFA, an independent fund control agent and a city-retained consultant for “on-call” facility construction owner representative services help ensure the proper expenditure of all public funds through separate escrows for private and public improvements.

It’s official: Palm Springs now has the highest sales tax in Riverside County. Thanks to newly approved Measure D, the rate will be 9.25 percent. The half-cent sales-tax hike will bring in an extra $6.7 million annually, according to estimates.

Voters in November also approved Measure E, a new tax on recreational marijuana.

These new revenues will be coming into city coffers along with, among other revenue sources, funds from Measure J, the one-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2011.

Measure J has indirectly led to a lot of bad publicity for the city—because some of those funds were and are being used for the now-coming-to-fruition downtown redevelopment project that was embroiled in the shady dealings that led to the arrest of developer John Wessman and former Mayor Steve Pougnet on bribery charges.

With an entirely new City Council taking office over the last two years, it’s worth taking a look at those Measure J funds, as well as the whole city budget—a budget that is, according to many observers, not so transparent and very hard to understand.

Palm Springs, with 47,000 residents (and a lot of visiting tourists), has a general-fund budget of $110,130,162 for the fiscal year 2017-18. However, the city’s various special funds actually total more than the general fund—bringing the total fiscal-year budget to $229,966,656, an amount confirmed by City Attorney Edward Kotkin, although he added that the amount has yet to be audited.

Figuring out what’s going on with all of these special funds is nigh impossible. I spent several weeks trying to get information from the city’s director of finance and treasurer, Geoffrey Kiehl. After not getting a response, I reached out to Councilman J.R. Roberts.

Roberts said there are 64 separate special revenue funds. “I had to look that up,” he said.

Why are there so many funds—totaling an amount more than the general fund?

“Unlike most cities in the valley, Palm Springs has an airport, a sewer treatment plant, a convention center, etc.,” Roberts said.

Of course, having so many separate funds raises questions about transparency and fiscal responsibility. Roberts responded that city’s website OpenGov website is easy to navigate. He also pointed out that Measure J funds are under the strict supervision of its oversight committee.

“Once the Measure J oversight committee has made its recommendations, the money is moved to the various projects that were decided upon,” he said.

However … if everything concerning the city’s use of Measure J funds is clearly posted on the city website, how did the fund end up getting FBI attention, including a raid at City Hall? Robert Stone, a self-proclaimed FBI informant and constant city-government critic who unsuccessfully ran for the City Council this year, said one of the problems is that the public is only able to find out how the funds were spent after the fact.

“The Measure J funds are controlled by the city manager and the council, with recommendations from the Measure J Committee,” Stone said. “The reasons behind who gets what are not always clear, and disbursements are pretty much at the discretion of the city manager for smaller disbursements, and council for the larger disbursements.

“We only find out how the funds have been administered at the end of the fiscal year,” Stone said. “We never know in advance where the Measure J money is going. We only find out as the transfers are made.”

As for the new Measure D funds: In their pitch to voters, city officials claimed the funds would help the city maintain essential city services, such as public safety. However, it’s unclear what the city will do to handle its huge long-term pension obligations.

“Measure D does nothing to address the ongoing $220 million unfunded pension and health care liability of the city,” Stone said, claiming that the burden from pension and health-care liabilities will bring the city to its knees if it does not fundamentally change the way it does business.

One common complaint about the city budget: generous salaries. In recent years, Palm Springs City Manager David Ready has been the Coachella Valley’s highest-paid public official, with salary and benefits totaling more than $420,000. However, the problem extends well beyond Ready: According to TransparentCalifornia.com, 68 city of Palm Springs employees earned more than $200,000 in pay and benefits in 2016—and when these employees retire, they’ll be in line for huge pensions. Councilman Roberts confirmed that former Palm Springs Police Chief Al Franz, who retired in December 2015, is receiving a pension of $189,083 per year.

In other words … when it comes to transparency and getting the city budget under control, the all-new Palm Springs City Council has a lot of work to do.

Have you ever tried starting your day with ice cream instead of coffee? I have … many times. The cold treat wakes me up, and its sugar gets me going. Hallelujah!

But how about starting your day with ice cream made without sugar—ice cream which tastes good while being good for you? Yeah, sure. We’ve heard that empty promise before.

However, local culinary guru Les Starks insists the promise is not empty.

Starks—who calls Snow Creek (located off Highway 111, 13 miles west of downtown Palm Springs) home—recently published a new book, Sweet Without Sugar: Ice Cream That’s Good for You. The secret, according to the Starks’ book, is to make ice cream with stevia instead of sugar.

“Stevia is a plant native to Paraguay,” Starks said. “The Guarani Indians of Paraguay have consumed stevia for over 1,500 years. Stevia has zero calories and is super-sweet.”

However, the use of stevia itself is not enough to make tasty, healthy ice cream. It took Starks years of experimenting until he found desirable recipes, he said.

“I started in 1992, and finished the book in 2017,” he said. “It was all about trial and error—what works and what doesn’t—and it took a long time to really get it right, without using one bit of sugar, honey, agave or molasses, and none of the insidious stuff like erythritol or artificial sweeteners.”

I first tasted Starks’ delicious food at an event held at Cary Grant’s Palm Springs estate hosted by Dr. Jane Smith, a noted author of medical books. At that time, Starks was still working and cooking for Eric Burdon, singer/songwriter for the Animals.

“I worked for Eric from 1991 to 2003,” Starks said. “When I stopped working for Eric, I got back to the book. He did have a favorite ice cream. It’s called chocolate banana cream in the book.”

Starks tells me that he also briefly worked for Ringo Starr in the 1970s when they both lived at Los Angeles’ historic Savoy Plaza. At the time, Starks was brushing shoulders with celebrities in the L.A. social scene; a close friend was Nancy Andrews, who was then engaged to Starr. He also met someone who influenced his culinary career.

“I met New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne when I was working on Laurie Burroughs Grad’s cooking show,” Starks said. “He told me I should pursue my interest in food professionally. I admired him and had made many of the recipes in his books.”

After moving to the desert in 1985, Starks would find inspiration to begin experimenting and eventually write his own book in the serene setting of Snow Creek.

“I started working on the book after I got my first Vitamix blender,” he said. “I have had some variation of the recipes in the book for breakfast every day since. That is how I wrote the book: I made the ice cream, and I ate my mistakes and triumphs every single day until I got it right.”

Starks’ Eureka moment happened when he started experimenting with stevia.

“In the early 1990s, I experimented with vanilla and chocolate almond milk, sweetened with stevia,” he said. “I tried many stevia brands before coming up with my final recommendation, which I didn’t really discover until 2010, while putting together varying combinations of fruit, almonds and flavoring, just to see what I could come up with that worked with stevia.”

Starks claims the reason his ice cream tastes so good is that it is made of the sweet and tart flavors stevia best complements, as well as high-quality ingredients and fresh or frozen organic fruit. No sugar, though.

“Stevia gives it a light, clear sweetness that accentuates the tartness of the fruit, making it more fresh-tasting than conventional ice cream,” he said.

There were excruciating trials regarding the proper measures of ice, but Starks persevered.

“I really love ice cream, but my family’s sad history of early death, diabetes and blindness from the disease weighed heavily on my mind,” he said. “I knew if I wanted to have ice cream on a regular basis that I was going to have to somehow get around that.”

Starks’ culinary odyssey eventually led to the book’s publication this year.

“My intention in writing the book was to give everyone the rare ability to have absolutely guilt-free ice cream by combining stevia and some soaked, frozen almonds with various common fruit flavorings and virgin, unrefined coconut oil and ice, to make ice cream that’s good for you.”

Thanks to the work of the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy and The Living Desert, there will be no new homes nor condos built on nearly 640 unspoiled acres located off of Highway 74, in the mountains above Palm Desert. None.

Shumway Ranch spreads over a considerable portion of Asbestos Mountain, and also includes large wash areas, as well as a relatively flat section, with views of Deep Canyon and the Coachella Valley floor.

The area is natural habitat for the endangered peninsular desert bighorn sheep.

“This is a major accomplishment for the conservancy,” said Jim Karpiak, the conservancy’s executive director. “The ranch is protected from development in perpetuity through deed restrictions in favor of the state and federal agencies that provided the funds—namely, the conservancy, the (California) Wildlife Conservation Board and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Not only is the land beautiful and vital habitat; the ranch has significant historic value as well. In 1938, the land was granted as a homestead to Percy Shumway and Nina Paul Shumway, part of a well-known agricultural family in the Eastern Coachella Valley. Local records indicate that this was the last stock-raising homestead granted in California.

In the early 1960s, the ranch was sold to silent-movie star Irene Rich. Her daughter, noted sculptress Frances Rich, inherited it, and lived and worked there until the 1980s, when she donated the land to The Living Desert.

“The Living Desert, a local nonprofit, contacted us almost three years ago to say it was interested in selling the land for conservation,” Karpiak said. “Under state law, we cannot pay any more than appraised fair market value, and The Living Desert readily agreed to the sales price of $1.565 million.”

According to Allen Monroe, The Living Desert’s president and chief executive officer, the transfer increases the area of federally protected land here in the Coachella Valley. He explained why The Living Desert’s board of directors decided to sell the land to the CV Mountains Conservancy.

“This partnership allows us to further our mission of desert conservation, because the conservancy will create a permanent conservation easement protecting the precious desert habitat,” Monroe said.

The conservancy has a long legacy of acquiring land in key areas of the Coachella Valley; in turn, these acquisitions protect threatened and endangered species.

“As land acquired in compliance with the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, its management follows plan requirements and will be coordinated with adjacent conservation lands through the Coachella Valley Conservation Commission,” Karpiak said.

There are three historic buildings located on about 10 acres of land that make up the Shumway homestead. These structures will be protected, too.

“The conservancy will work to preserve (the homestead) as a historical and public educational site,” Karpiak said. “The Living Desert has pledged a significant contribution to assist in renovation efforts.”

Monroe confirmed The Living Desert has dedicated $40,000 to a trust, managed by the conservancy, for the preservation of the historic buildings.

“It saves an important part of our local history, which likely would have been torn down had the land been purchased by a private owner,” Karpiak said. “We also plan to allow use of the ranch as a base for biological or climate-change researchers in exploring the surrounding conservation land.”

East Vista Chino has claimed another pedestrian’s life—the third since last October.

This time, according to the police report, the deceased was 62-year-old Palm Springs resident John Palladino, who was hit by a car on the night of Sunday, June 18. He was hospitalized and fought for his life until June 23, when he succumbed to the injuries he sustained in what police call a vehicle-versus-pedestrian collision.

“The preliminary investigation revealed a white 2011 Mercedes E-350, driven by a 76-year-old male from Palm Springs, was traveling westbound on East Vista Chino toward the intersection of North Sunrise Way,” said Lt. Mike Kovaleff.

According to Kovaleff, Palladino was walking northbound across Vista Chino, at Sunrise Way, on the east side of the intersection, outside of the crosswalk, against a red light. “The Mercedes entered the intersection with a green light and struck the pedestrian as he walked in the intersection,” Kovaleff said.

Kovaleff said there was no indication that alcohol or drugs were a factor.

Regardless of fault, East Vista Chino has proven yet again to be a deadly street. Less than a mile away, at Via Miraleste, two pedestrians recently lost their lives.

Jana Ploss, 64, a longtime Palm Springs resident, was struck by a car while crossing Vista Chino at Via Miraleste on Nov. 14 of last year. Only six weeks prior, on Oct. 6, James Harper, also 64, was hit by a car and killed at that same intersection. (See “A Perilous Crossing,” posted Dec. 19, 2016.)

Ploss, who lived at the Riviera Gardens condo complex, had crossed Vista Chino at Via Miraleste daily for years to visit her sister, who owns a house nearby on Chia Road. Yet around 6:13 p.m. on Nov. 14, according to the police report, Ploss was hit and killed by a car headed eastbound on Vista Chino.

The speed limit at that critical portion of Vista Chino is 45 mph, but traffic often goes faster, and nighttime visibility is pretty low.

Vista Chino is actually a state highway—it’s State Route 111—and therefore is controlled by Caltrans. After the deaths of Ploss and Harper, Caltrans looked into the matter.

“Caltrans did conduct an investigation at the intersection of State Route 111 and Via Miraleste earlier this year after the two pedestrian fatalities,” said John Bulinski, Caltrans’ District 8 director. “As a result of that traffic investigation, the city of Palm Springs and Caltrans will install a signal at that intersection.”

Bulinski also said that Caltrans is working with the city of Palm Springs, the California Highway Patrol, Lamar Advertising, the Coachella Valley Association of Governments and other organizations on a pedestrian-safety campaign—leading to the installation of several billboard advertisements around the valley.

Jana Ploss’ sibling, Roxann Ploss, has taken the issue a step further.

“I am currently working on wording for a bill to be presented to the state Assembly, and no ‘state highways’ would be built or allowed through highly congested residential areas when another route is possible,” Ploss said.

Ploss said it may take up to 18 months for the traffic signal at the intersection where her sister lost her life to be installed.

Meanwhile, Lt. Kovaleff offers some pedestrian safety tips: Any street that has a high volume of traffic and is dark poses a risk to pedestrians, and drivers, bicyclists and walkers need to be conscious and follow the rules of the road. Pedestrians and bicyclists should utilize lighting and bright clothing, and cross streets only where it is safe.

Judy Deertrack and Robert Stone—both of whom have declared their intent to run for the Palm Springs City Council—recently disclosed that they were informants to the FBI regarding the Palm Springs City Hall corruption case.

The case has resulted in bribery charges in connection with downtown development against former Mayor Steve Pougnet and developers John Wessman and Richard Meaney.

In total, Deertrack, who is an urban lawyer, and Stone, a real estate broker and author, say they invested about 7,000 hours into collecting more than 10,000 pages of documentation.

According to Stone, he called the U.S. Attorney on the morning of April 10, 2015.

“That afternoon, I received a return phone call from Joseph Widman, U.S. attorney for Riverside County,” Stone said. “He informed me that a supervisory FBI agent, Colin Schmitt, was also on the line.”

Widman and Schmitt were intrigued by what they heard, Deertrack and Stone said, and an in-person interview was set up to be held about 20 days later.

“Judy and I spent 90 minutes discussing the case with Widman, Schmitt, Jorge Chavez from the DA’s office and three field agents,” Stone said. “The last words Schmitt said to us were: ‘You have the full attention of the federal government at the highest level.’”

Deertrack explained what they found that led them to contact the authorities.

“Robert researched the mayor’s income and found a defunct corporation making payments to Pougnet,” she said. “Over three years, I testified to the City Council on 22 projects that appeared suspect. Eighteen of those projects are now in the indictments.”

According to sources, Pougnet and Wessman hated each other, so Meaney was brought in to handle the alleged payments, because he was the mayor’s friend. One of the investigators at one point called the trio “the dumbest criminals ever” because of the way the alleged incriminating payments were made—and there is a possibility that one of the three suspects might cooperate with the DA in return for immunity or a lighter sentence.

Beyond taking credit as whistleblowers, Deertrack and Stone said they couldn’t comment on many specifics, as the case is still under investigation. However, they were obviously able to comment on what they’d do if elected to the Palm Springs City Council come November, when two seats will be up for grabs.

“We need to have a two-term limit,” Stone said. “Eight years for the mayor, and that’s it, because an absolute power corrupts.”

It is worth noting that Pougnet was on the City Council from 2003 to 2007, when he was elected mayor. He served two terms and was apparently going to run for a third before deciding against it when the scandal erupted in 2015.

As for Deertrack, she said her first initiative would be to protect the city from what she called further legal and financial troubles by asking for more state and federal help.

“My very first response would be a motion for the City Council to immediately contact the FBI, U.S. attorney general and state attorney general to confer and identify any ongoing threats to funding, projects or infrastructure as a result of the 18 or so projects that appear in the indictments, and partner with these agencies on remediation,” she said. She referred to the scandal that rocked the city of Bell, and said that city’s remediation actions saved Bell up to $100 million.

Both said they may lose votes as a result of their reputations as whistle-blowers and frequent city-government critics. They also said that they don’t fear for their safety in the wake of their criticisms.

“The intense public scrutiny is its own protection,” Deertrack said. “That does not mean our role was without risk. We were cautioned at times by law enforcement to be careful.”

On a lighter note, Stone, who has authored four books so far, hinted that he may write about the city corruption case one day.

“It’s such a book,” he said.

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.

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