CVIndependent

Thu09242020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Kevin Fitzgerald

Gov. Gavin Newsom in July ordered all of the state’s school campuses to remain closed in counties where COVID-19 case rates remained too high, according to the state’s criteria.

That list included Riverside County—and as of our press deadline, almost all local schools remained closed for in-person instruction.

“We fully anticipated re-opening in the first week of July at all of our facilities,” said Desert Recreation District General Manager Kevin Kalman during a recent phone interview. “Then Riverside County had its infection rates start rising again. So what we had geared up for, and had been prepping our team for, all changed overnight. This ED-REC/Connect (ERC) program became the best activity we could think of to be truly relevant and helpful in this time. This pandemic is everybody’s problem—and our goal is to be part of the solution.”

Since mid-August, the ERC has sponsored well-equipped, supervised distance-learning hubs at various locations, primarily in the eastern Coachella Valley, including sites in North Shore, Mecca, Thermal, Indio, Palm Desert, La Quinta and Bermuda Dunes. As of Sept. 15, 66 students were enrolled in the program, with a maximum capacity of 140. Then on Sept. 16, an additional location was opened at the Mecca Library, in order to help meet the serious needs of east valley working families and their student children—and the 10 students accepted at the Mecca location will have their tuition fees waived, due to the support of the Community Action Partnership of Riverside County, the Riverside County Library System, and the Desert Recreation Foundation/Desert Recreation District. At other locations, weekly resident tuition prices are $75.

“When we first rolled out the program, we didn’t have some of our funding partners on board yet,” Kalman said. “So, while the (registration fee) was very reasonable for a full day of childcare, we knew it was priced at a point where we weren’t going to be able to get some families into the program. But the Regional Access Project, which previously had given us a grant for certain communities to provide programming, authorized us to re-allocate that funding specifically to this program, because all our other programs are really not running (due to the pandemic). That was a huge help. Basically, it brought the fee down by half. Then, likewise, the county authorized us to re-allocate some Community Development Block Grant funding that was for youth programming in the unincorporated areas of the eastern Coachella Valley to this program. Then, our board further subsidized (tuition) for the rest of the valley to make it more reasonable.

“Now, the most anyone would pay is $75 per week, and along with that, our foundation offers a scholarship program which could bring it as low as $37.50 per week.”

Students in kindergarten through the sixth-grade can participate, and they can be registered by the week, or for extended periods. At all locations, the program begins at 7:30 a.m. each weekday and runs until 5:30 p.m. No class will contain more than 10 students, with two adult educator supervisors.

“The first half of the day is spent online in the classroom with their respective teachers,” Kalman said. “Each student brings their school-district-issued laptop, or iPad, or whatever it is that their particular school district is using. Our staff is there to assist the children in logging in, making sure that they’re connected when they’re supposed to be connected, and helping them with any technical issues they may have. Also, they assist the students with any questions or issues they have with their lessons that aren’t answered by the teacher online.

“Next, they have lunch,” Kalman continued, adding that students must bring their own lunch. “And then the afternoon program is like our typical afterschool program, where they participate in sports and enrichment, crafts and other activities.”

Safety is a top priority at each of the program’s distance-learning hubs.

“Only 10 students are in each class, because we have such great restrictions to make it a safe environment,” Kalman said. “It will be the same 10 kids every day in each of these different classrooms, and only those same 10 kids, along with the same two staff members. That way, there’s a reduced chance of any infection being brought in from outside.”

Each participant is given a temperature check before entering each day, and mask-wearing and social-distancing guidelines must be observed.

“Parents aren’t even allowed into the facility,” Kalman said. “Basically, it’s curbside drop-off and pickup.”

Still, even with all the planning and effort expended to run the program, Kalman said he looks forward to the day when it comes to an end.

“We hope this will be a short-lived program, and that the kids will be back in their classrooms sooner rather than later,” Kalman said.

When does Kalman think local students may return to their classrooms?

“I don’t see it happening before the holidays,” he said. “It could change, but what I’ve heard is that it’s not likely to happen before next spring. So everybody is kind of scrambling to adapt. Hopefully, as we move forward—and people realize that this isn’t just a short-term thing, but we’re going to have to cope with it for a while—it will get taken much more seriously by all families. I think there is so much beyond just the instruction that (students) get out of school, and that’s what they’re missing.”

Families who are interested should call 760-347-3484, or visit www.myrecreationdistrict.com.

Palm Springs residents in two of the city’s five newly created districts will select representatives in this November’s election—meaning the city will finally turn the page on its transition away from at-large elections, as mandated by the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.

In District 5, nobody filed to run against incumbent Lisa Middleton, meaning she will return to the City Council, barring any upstart write-in candidacy.

In the District 4 race, incumbent Christy Holstege is facing two challengers: Dian Torres, a local health care worker; and certified public accountant—and former Palm Springs City Councilmember—Mike McCulloch.

The Independent recently spoke to the three candidates running for the District 4 seat. We asked each of them the same set of questions, ranging from what future city budget cuts could await residents, to the health of the city’s relationships with small businesses. What follows below are their complete responses, edited only for style and clarity.

Christy Holstege

Attorney, Palm Springs City Council incumbent

What is the most important single issue facing the city of Palm Springs in 2021?

The most important issue facing the city in 2021 is facing the global pandemic and keeping our residents safe, as well as ensuring our recovery from both the health crisis and the economic crisis that we’re facing as a city and as a community. We’ve been working for almost the last seven months on both these fronts, and I’m proud that we were the first city in Southern California to issue a shelter-in-place order. We did that before the state of California did, and that’s because our residents in Palm Springs are particularly at risk for COVID-19. I’ve worked on leading the task force for reopening and ensuring that we do that safely. I’ve worked directly with local businesses to ensure that they can keep their workers safe, keep their customers safe, and stay open, if possible. So we’ve worked to expand their footprint into parklets, parking lots and areas outside. We’ve closed a portion of Palm Canyon (Drive) to have a pedestrian experience so there can be more social distancing, and so that businesses can move outside.

Moving into 2021, we need to make sure that our residents stay safe and stay healthy. When a vaccine is released, we need to work in partnership with the county to make sure that our residents can get tested, get access to good medical care, and get access to the vaccine. We need to work to rebuild our economy after the hit that the economic crisis has caused.

Given the economic uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, it’s possible the city may need to make further budget cuts in the future. If that became necessary, what cuts would you propose?

We’ve all been personally affected by the economic crisis, and the city is no different. Initially, we had projected over a $75 million deficit over the last fiscal year and this upcoming fiscal year. However, it’s very difficult to make projections during this time, and actually our (city income) numbers are much, much higher than we initially expected as our worst case scenario. We’ve worked really hard to build our reserves and have almost doubled them over the last few years to where we had over $40 million sitting in reserves for a rainy day like this. So I’m proud of the work that we’ve done in responding to this immediate economic crisis, while still retaining key services for our residents. We’ve retained city staff who provide services directly to residents, like parks and recreation services, public safety and all of the services that are important to our residents.

Looking forward, we’ve moved to a “rolling budget” model, since it really is impossible to predict a year out at this time, because no one knows what the economic situation will be a year from now. So I asked, and we successfully moved to a “rolling budget” model where the council will get an update each month at council meetings for the public. That way, we can assess where we are in terms of revenue and spending, and make quick changes if we need to. So my hope is that, in that way, we can plan accurately. If we do need to make further cuts, we’ll know that ahead of time, and we won’t need to do it in one sitting, in a way that might not be accurate six months from now.

So, regarding what we’d need to consider cutting, we’ve already made a lot of creative solutions instead of cutting staff. We issued an early retirement program to have city staff retire if they were able to. We froze positions instead of laying off people, and we actually moved to different models of providing services that have saved the city money. In the future, if we do have to make additional cuts, we will have to look at staffing levels for the city, but ensuring that we protect and preserve the most important services for our residents.

Some small businesses in town have complaints about uneven, unfair and harsh code enforcement. Are those complaints valid? Do you think the city is friendly to small business?

Serving on City Council for the last three years, I’ve worked really hard to make sure that the city is business-friendly, and that everyone knows that in Palm Springs, we are open for business. I have served o, and led our city’s subcommittee on economic development and business retention. We brought forward new business incentives like a façade-improvement program so that businesses can invest in the façades of their buildings to attract more customers. Also, we brought forward and successfully passed an incentive program for small hotels, so that small local boutique hotels could benefit from business incentives and invest in rehabilitating their properties. And we worked successfully to get consumer data directly to local businesses and startups to help them attract customers. So I’m really proud of my record of supporting local businesses. My husband’s family has owned two small local businesses here in Palm Springs for multiple generations. Some are on their third generation. That’s a key issue for my campaign, and also for my service as a City Council member.

So we work hard to support all of our local businesses, and as a council member for District 4—which has a different business district than just our city’s downtown—I have heard both residents and business owners say that we focus too much on just the downtown and that we need to invest (in) and encourage businesses and economic development throughout the city. In District 4, we have the Smoke Tree (area) and the whole corridor down Highway 111, and those are important businesses to support. We have vacant buildings throughout the district as well as through the city that need economic development.

In terms of code enforcement, we’ve really stepped up our code enforcement at the request of residents, because people were going downtown or into local businesses (while) not wearing masks. We’ve enforced social distancing. We passed a lot of legislation to make that required in the city of Palm Springs, and to support businesses so that they didn’t have to do the enforcement. Right now, code enforcement is going out to local businesses about 100 times a week or so. They’re not finding that many violations. Overall, people are really being compliant. So I think we’ve done a good job on code enforcement, but we can always do better, and we can always make sure that it addresses all businesses equally.

Palm Springs is considered a favorite getaway spot for more than 1.5 million tourists each normal year. However, should the city be backing a visitor-outreach effort right now, given the ongoing threat of COVID-19?

Palm Springs is a unique city, because we are so heavily reliant on tourism. I’ve participated in regional, statewide and national efforts around COVID-19 and the impacts to the city budget, and I have yet to find a city more impacted than ours, because we are so reliant on tourism. Since we issued the shelter-in-place order back in March, we’ve worked really hard to ensure that Palm Springs residents stayed safe, and that we didn’t have an influx of tourists who might be bringing the virus with them. Initially, the numbers that were reported showed that Palm Springs had higher numbers (of infections) than other Coachella Valley cities. At one point, in the first few days (of the pandemic), we had a third of the deaths in the state of California. So we worked really hard to issue a shelter-in-place order, and make sure we were on the forefront of keeping our residents safe and our businesses safe. And (we did that) because our economy can only thrive if we defeat this pandemic and if we keep our residents, businesses and workers safe. So we’ve been doing that really hard work of balancing our community’s health with all of the other impacts like loss of income, evictions, mental-health impacts and all the effects that we’re seeing. Also I led the reopening task force with the mayor (Geoff Kors), and we’ve also participated in a regional effort on tourism. We’re not initiating that right now, but we’re planning for when it will be safe to reopen tourism, and how we can do that safely and in a coordinated way.

We have to work regionally, because if Palm Springs does one thing, and Cathedral City or the county is doing something different, it is not effective from a public-health standpoint. So we’ve been working with other cities and the county directly to balance the needs for the economy with the public health. As of right now, our efforts have not been to attract a lot of tourists during this time, and we still have a lot of businesses closed. Riverside County is on the (state’s) watch list and in the worst possible category for the virus right now. So I think our plan is to reopen when we can safely, but also recognize that tourism is the lifeblood of our economy, as well as of our local businesses that support tourism.

One issue in my platform is diversifying our economy and making sure that we aren’t so reliant on tourism, so that in downfalls like this or others, we do have diverse revenue streams and businesses that are operating and aren’t completely shuttered by a stall in tourism.

Is there a topic or issue we should have asked you about?

One issue that I hear residents talk about again and again is homelessness and housing. When I first ran for City Council in 2017, that was the No. 1 issue for our voters. I’ve worked hard over the past three years to prioritize that issue and achieve real results. So in the last few years, we have spearheaded a new innovative program on homelessness for the city of Palm Springs. We found outside funding from the Desert Healthcare District to fund employment services for people who are homeless. We’ve funded crisis-response teams within our police department, so that behavioral-health workers are going out with our police to provide services to (homeless) people they encounter. Also, we’ve obtained $10 million from the state of California to address homelessness, specifically in Palm Springs. I’m really proud of our work on that with Assemblymember Chad Mayes. We went to Sacramento and talked to our representatives about how important homelessness is to our residents, and how much it impacts a small city like ours. Typically, only the 13 largest cities in our state get a direct allocation for homelessness, but because of our work, we were able to be the only small city in the state of California to get that direct allocation. Now we’re working in partnership with the county to turn that $10 million into tens of millions of dollars’ worth of investment to build housing. The solution to homelessness is building enough housing for all of our residents, and making sure that housing is affordable and attainable for everyone. So I care most about the homelessness issue, and questions about what the city had been doing. Right now, we’re working on a motel conversion by purchasing a property in order to convert a blighted hotel into permanent housing with services.

Currently, I chair the Coachella Valley Association of Governments’ regional committee on homelessness, since homelessness is a regional issue, not just a city issue, and I’m proud to work in partnership with all of our cities to make sure that we do have services in the west valley, and that we work as a region to truly solve homelessness once and for all.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity during the COVID-19 pandemic?

My favorite shelter-in-place activity has been growing a baby. I’m eight months pregnant right now, and we’ll be having our first baby this fall. So we’re very excited. My husband is a third-generation Palm Springs resident, and actually he’s the third generation of his family to live in our house in Sonora Sunrise. So our son will be a fourth-generation resident, born at Desert Regional (Medical center), just like his dad, and he’ll be the fourth generation of our family to live in this home here, which is great Palm Springs history. It’s cool to have those roots here in Palm Springs. That’s primarily what I’ve been doing outside of serving on City Council, and running my re-election campaign.


Mike McCulloch

Certified public accountant

What is the most important single issue facing the city of Palm Springs in 2021?

The city is facing a $75 million budget deficit. In last year’s budget, the council transferred into the general fund from other funds, about $14 million. That money will not be available again this year, so it’s going to be even more difficult going forward to try to get a balanced budget. That’s the No. 1 issue, and what I bring to the table that I think is lacking with the current council members is that I’m a CPA with an economics degree from UCLA, a master’s in business administration from UCLA, and I’m a certified public accountant who’s been practicing in Palm Springs since 1987. That’s over 30 years that I’ve been a small-business owner in Palm Springs. With that background and experience, I’m an expert in financial matters, and I can bring that to the City Council, where it’s desperately needed.

Given the economic uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, it's possible the city may need to make further budget cuts in the future. If that became necessary, what cuts would you propose?

Well, I think one of the things that we have to do is prioritize our spending. I’m a big supporter of public safety—the police and fire departments. Those (areas) need to be prioritized. Recently, one of the things the council did that I disagree with is that they spent $3 million to finish off the park downtown. While we all want to have the park built out according to its original design, now is not the time to make that expenditure. We currently have over a dozen unfilled police and fire department spots, where we had police and fire fighters before, and do not have them now. I would have spent that $3 million to keep the police and fire departments fully staffed, so that we will have someone to respond in an emergency.

We’re in the COVID-19 crisis, and in any crisis, there’s opportunity. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Winchester House, but that’s a house where the Winchester heir kept on adding rooms, because she thought it would keep the spirits away. So she ended up with this house having doorways that lead to nowhere, and stairwells where you step right off into space. I think that because the city government has been cobbled together over decades, it’s not as efficient as it could be. So I think we can start from the ground up to rebuild a modern City Hall, with a vision for 2020 and forward, where we can have much more efficiency, and remove redundancies in there which will save us money. We can re-think the entire structure of the city and create an efficient model that can operate with fewer personnel. I’m not talking about the physical plant—which I guess is a nightmare due to a lack of money for maintenance, which is kind of a problem for the people working there—but I’m talking about the whole city organization, and I think there are a lot of things that can be done to operate more efficiently within a budget. It’s not necessarily about cutting things, but I’m looking for a more efficient city government. We don’t have to fire people, because they’re already furloughed, or they’re going to leave by attribution. So we can re-organize (our operations) in a more efficient manner that will save us money.

Some small businesses in town have complaints about uneven, unfair and harsh code enforcement. Are those complaints valid? Do you think the city is friendly to small business?

I think the city is friendly to small business. I am not aware that there is uneven treatment, but no one on that council has any experience in running a business, as far as I can tell from looking at their resumes. I think that the $5,000 fine levied against the La Bonita’s restaurant recently was draconian. In fact, it’s a death penalty. Essentially, a struggling business downtown is still going to have to pay their rent, and still have to pay the incumbent charges and costs including their city license fees, so I would have looked for a way to scale back that $5,000 fine. For a struggling restaurateur downtown or uptown, that $5,000 fine is a death penalty. I don’t know how you survive that.

Palm Springs is considered a favorite getaway spot for more than 1.5 million tourists each normal year. However, should the city be backing a visitor-outreach effort right now, given the ongoing threat of COVID-19? 

I think we want to continue to attract tourism here, and part of that is an outreach. The expenditures are an investment in generating transit occupancy tax, or TOT, which the city is dependent upon. I think we can trust the businesses, the restaurants and the hoteliers to make sure that they have the proper COVID-19 procedures and policies in place, so that we can safely reopen our city to tourists. And, once again, it’s an opportunity, because people have been homebound for months now. They need to get out, and they need to get a little bit of a break. I think Palm Springs is a close destination to millions and millions of people in Southern California, and we should do everything we can to safely reopen. And I think it can be done.

Is there a topic or issue we should have asked you about?

We’ve got a real problem in Palm Springs with homelessness. It appears to me that Palm Springs and Indio seem to bear the burden of resolving the homeless issue. For instance, Riverside County had five locations chosen to spend money from the state to convert hotels into permanent housing for the homeless. One was in downtown Riverside, and three of the hotels were in Palm Springs. Now, we’re talking about (a program for) all of Riverside County. There needs to be a valley-wide solution to the homelessness issue. And with the hotel being proposed to be converted into permanent housing, there’s no guarantee that it will house people who currently are homeless in Palm Springs. The county can bus in homeless people from anywhere in Riverside County to live in this converted hotel. So we need to look at a valley-wide, regional solution to the homelessness issue.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I dusted off my guitar, which I’ve been playing off and on—mostly off—since I was 12 years old. And I’m taking guitar lessons on Zoom. Hopefully I’ll be able to get back to (performing at) the open-mics, that I enjoyed singing and playing at before COVID shut everything down, with an improved level of guitar-playing skills.


Dian Torres

Health care worker

What is the most important single issue facing the city of Palm Springs in 2021?

I have to say it is more than just one. I have two: housing and the budget. Given where we are right now, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic that’s happening, it is very important that we take care of our community, as a lot of people are being displaced. In my opinion, this is really very important, because it’s the community here that really holds us up. I mean, we get tourism and all of that, but we can’t forget about the people who live here and make up this community.

Given the economic uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, it's possible the city may need to make further budget cuts in the future. If that became necessary, what cuts would you propose?

This is going to be a pretty hard one, and not very well received or liked, but I’m going to say it anyway, because I’m a straight shooter: First off, I would ask the city leaders who are making an incredible amount of money—their salary is over $200,000—to take a pay cut. I think it would be a due diligence to the community to know that these people are in, and that they care about community. In the interim, it can be for a (specific) timeframe, but I think that until we can get settled, it makes absolutely no sense that these people are getting paid what they’re getting paid while other people are suffering. The inequities are just not right.

That should be first and foremost, because I think that by doing that, it would really mend a lot of what has happened in the community since 2014. That’s the elephant in the room. I believe that people are still very wounded by the deceit that went on, and I think that it has been really glossed over. And there’s leadership that’s still in (their positions) and being paid who were here when this whole thing came out. It’s beyond me how that could have been happening, and no one saw it. It took an outsider coming in to really recognize it. I mean, come on. Let’s have a little integrity. This is something that happened to our community. For leadership to not take responsibility and then continue to ask the people to sacrifice, it’s no wonder that we are in the dire straits that we’re in. Where and how do people feel really safe, and trust again? What is leadership really doing to indicate that they are, in fact, for the people and the community?

I’m not a politician. I’m just a citizen. I’ve never run for political office. I’ve only ever volunteered, and I’ve been on the periphery. I always did kind of the work that no one else wanted to do. I live here now full-time. Prior to this point in time, I’ve never really been able to (run for office) due to work, and then moving, but now that I’m here, I’m invested in our community. I hope to be the change that this city needs in leadership.

Some small businesses in town have complaints about uneven, unfair and harsh code enforcement. Are those complaints valid? Do you think the city is friendly to small business?

I saw an article this morning (about La Bonita’s restaurant being fined $5,000 for allowing customers to dine inside), but to be honest, I haven’t been able to read it yet. My understanding is that they got fined because they went inside. So, what would make somebody feel that they would have to break the rules, other than not feeling supported on some level? So there’s obviously some contention.

I went online and took a look at the codes, compliance complaints and so forth. Most of the compliance penalties were on vacation rentals. They showed inspections on restaurants, but there very few actual penalties or fines. So, honestly, I am not aware of what the inequities (in local code enforcement) are, other than whether every business is being treated the same. To me, it seems there’s partiality and a lack of consistency across the board that’s creating division among business owners, some of whom feel (they’re) treated unfairly.

We need a task force of code-compliance people. I think we could get volunteers and do a training. And I think if (code-enforcement personnel) had more visibility, then these businesses would really feel that they’re being protected, and it could make a big difference in enforcing COVID-19 regulations. People coming in from out of town leave their mess here, and we have to pick it up. That’s wrong. It’s just not the way it should be. From that perspective, I agree that (our businesses) need to have better support.

Palm Springs is considered a favorite getaway spot for more than 1.5 million tourists each normal year. However, should the city be backing a visitor-outreach effort right now, given the ongoing threat of COVID-19?

My immediate reaction is that we need to create a stronger infrastructure before we reopen. And again, it’s about having a task force in place for fines for people who may not be complying (with restrictions). Now that we have the color code (ratings for county COVID-19 statistics) that the state has issued, it’s very clear what we need to do. It’s a question of how, in fact, we are implementing. Fines are great, but who is enforcing these guidelines? Who is out there in community making sure that people are following the rules? To create this task force, let’s say that one person in each business for every shift has the opportunity to enforce (guidelines) as a representative of this code-compliance group. There’s a way to create this task force collectively, so that when (visitors) come in, they will visually see it. But I’m of the mindset that, until we are able to get our numbers down, we have absolutely no business bringing people in to infect the people here in our community if they’re being irresponsible. So it’s kind of like a domino effect. If we don’t have the infrastructure in place, and we’re not reinforcing it, then we’re just perpetuating the madness.

Is there a topic or issue we should have asked you about?

Not really. I think that due to the COVID-19 pandemic that’s happening, for our health and safety, we need to get an infrastructure in place. We need to bring our numbers down. This is the biggest and most important issue right now. Our numbers are not going down. I’ve been watching them in the newspaper, and it’s frightening. And it’s like, ‘Why?’ I mean, the writing is on the wall. We’re not doing enough. We’re not doing the right things. And if, in fact, there’s a larger entity of people from the CDC, the health industry, people who have worked in other cities, and given the technology, we should be able to create a plan. Why don’t we have an active plan? Again, we have fines, but there’s nothing posted on a weekly basis when these (infection-rate) numbers come out, other than in the newspapers. But they’re not (displayed) on billboards downtown. They’re not visible, so people don’t get that we are serious. They should be visible in our main downtown areas where people are traveling, so that they can be seen. And there should be notices. I mean, the notices about putting the masks on are fine, but if we’re not enforcing it, then thank you for sharing. And again, what numbers and statistics do we have to back up that even when these numbers come down, that we’ll be able to bring more people in safely? We want visitors to be able to buy into this (pandemic-prevention effort), and not be the place where, “We can go there because they’re not going to harass us.”

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Well there are a couple. It’s been happening for so long that I’ve been reading a fair amount, and I got my sewing machine back out, and I’ve been making masks. And I am learning to play the keyboard. It’s just a little outlet. During all of this, I ordered an electric keyboard online, and I got it. I’ve never played, but I love singing and music, and I thought this will be a great therapeutic means for me.

For the first time, Palm Desert residents in November will vote for their City Council representatives by district … sort of.

After two residents sued the city last year, alleging that the city’s at-large voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, the council approved a new system: One large district, including the vast majority of the city, will be represented by four council members; it’s now called District 2. A second, smaller district, called District 1, will have one representative. You can view an interactive district map here.

In November, District 2 residents will choose between four candidates for two seats: Incumbents Kathleen Kelly and Gina Nestande, and challengers Evan Trubee and Steven Moyer. The Independent recently spoke to the candidates, asking them each the same set of questions, on topics ranging from the new district voting system to law enforcement in the city.

Here are their complete answers, edited only for style and clarity.

Kathleen Kelly

Incumbent, mayor pro tem

Should you be re-elected, what are your top three priorities for the City Council in 2021?

Some of that has been dictated for us. We positively, absolutely have to manage the COVID-19 pandemic well. That means, to my way of thinking, recognizing first and foremost that the community’s health interests and the business community’s financial interests are totally in sync. Commerce cannot thrive unless people feel safe using commerce. That really requires a broad-based community embrace of the recommended safeguards, such as facial coverings and social distancing. So, if I am re-elected, my top priority will be to try to offer unifying leadership around that issue, and to continue to be engaged with our excellent finance team at the city to shepherd our reserves well, to get us through this. Thankfully, prior councils have left our city on a solid financial footing, so that we are able to weather this without diminishing services—but the same kind of exacting care that they took has to be continued.

Moving past that, even though we are in a crisis, it’s critical to identify some issues where strategic investment has to be made for the future. I would put two (items) at the top of that list. The first is working to improve broadband width, not just for Palm Desert, but for the whole Coachella Valley. This pandemic has exposed our dependence on the internet, so that’s a topic for which we need regional effort. We also need regional effort around diversifying our economy, so that we’re not just hospitality-dependent. Again, this crisis has exposed the problems of being so dependent on the hospitality industry. That’s why I and others on the current council worked very hard to bring about the iHub, the innovation hub across from the CSU (Cal State University-San Bernardino satellite) campus to spark cyber-security startups. That could also be a source of other career options for CSU students. So we don’t just want to survive the pandemic; we want to come out of it stronger, and I would name those two fronts as the most important fronts.

Keeping El Paseo pleasurable has to be on the list, because it’s such a key part of driving the financial resources for the city and for our quality of life. Whether people choose to spend money on El Paseo or not, many people just enjoy walking there. So facilitating outdoor dining is a key priority.

I’m a consistent advocate for more housing choices. One of the great attributes of Palm Desert is that we are a diverse community, and many demographic categories including economic wherewithal are at play, so I do want to see more housing available at all price points.

Did the city of Palm Desert fulfill its obligation to encourage more diversity in political engagement with its two-district solution, or do you believe more districts should be formed?

Experience will answer that, as I expressed when we last spoke. I firmly believe that we should get experience with this new system and learn from that. There are upsides and downsides to a five-district system. I hope that a continuing conversation will inform more residents about both the upsides and the downsides.

In terms of deaths, Palm Desert has been one of the hardest-hit cities in the Coachella Valley by COVID-19. What can, or should, the city do to better deal with the pandemic?

On the topic of the deaths, it should be noted that two particular skilled-nursing facilities accounted for at least 12 of those (COVID-19 related deaths). So, in the early stage of reporting, it kind of skewed Palm Desert higher than our neighbor cities. Unfortunately, the numbers for our neighbor cities seem to be catching up and, in some cases, surpassing us.

I don’t feel there is, or ever will be, such a thing as (doing) enough on that front. This virus is exceedingly challenging, not just because of how highly contagious it is, but because of the range of long-lasting detrimental health effects that people of all ages suffer. So it’s a misconception to suppose that only those over 60 are hardest hit. When you dig into the stories, many younger people who no longer test positive are still dealing with really debilitating consequences. So I feel we have to pull together as a community, without cessation, until it is truly over and done with. That requires constant messaging so that people don’t let their guard down. In early summer, when businesses first started to re-open, some of the public took that as a signal to relax and start having backyard barbecues, and what we hear from county health is that those backyard barbecues became a real source of infection, which hampered the capacity of our businesses to stay open. So if we care about the economy, and if we care about public health, we just have to stay vigilant.

Should the city continue to contract with the Riverside County Sheriff for law enforcement services, given Sheriff Chad Bianco has stated publicly an unwillingness for citizen/community oversight, his refusal to meet with community stakeholders, and the high cost of his department’s services?

That’s a very packed question. It’s appropriate, all of the time, to continue to review that contractual arrangement. I don’t favor being reactive based on any single issue or decision, but it is appropriate to really be in a process of continual review. I would rather see us exert continuing influence on the sheriff than to turn our back and strive to create something from the ground up. Given Palm Desert’s size, there have been tremendous advantages to having public safety delivered from a source that has specialists and task forces that can be tapped for our needs. So I wouldn’t be quick to change the contractual arrangement, but it absolutely is appropriate for us to be, as I said, in a constant state of review.

The City Council originally proposed building an Interstate 10 interchange at the north end of Portola Avenue in 2008. Should the city reconsider moving forward with this plan in light of potential impacts on the adjacent residential neighborhoods, which have expanded notably since the plan was first considered? For instance, should a survey be initiated to gather input from residents most likely to be impacted?

We haven’t. The interchange was designed, in large part, to serve those neighborhoods, and it was put on the schedule in anticipation of that growth in the north part of Palm Desert. Because of the revenue impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing is going to happen there anytime soon. Your question helps me to appreciate that it has been on the drawing boards for so long that once we return to it as a viable possibility, it will be important to have community engagement to both inform and to listen.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity since the pandemic’s arrival?

This won’t necessarily get me any votes, but it’s been a blessing to spend more time with my mom, who is 95. We live together, but before the pandemic, we both had exceedingly busy lives that kept us outside the house all day. So it’s a pleasure just to have three meals together every day.


Steven Moyer

Lawyer

Should you be elected, what are your top three priorities for the City Council in 2021?

I think everyone is, or should be, concerned about two issues, which I really see as one, and that is public health and the economy. I think everyone wants to see the small businesses in Palm Desert re-open, but they’re not going to be able to do that if our residents and the people who work in those businesses aren’t healthy. As far as the public-health aspect of it, I’d like to see the city doing more. I respect everybody’s individual right not to wear a mask or to distance, but I’m suggesting to everyone that when they go out, they wear a mask and they distance, because that’s going to allow our small businesses to re-open. I would like to see the city do more about encouraging people to do that. I don’t think we’ve seen enough of that.

Secondly, we have the issue of the economy. In that regard, in order for the city council to help, there are a number of things it can do. One is to make the permitting of new businesses easier. I think we can continue the San Pablo makeover, although it may be necessary to revisit some of the segments of that project during this time of a recession. I think we should be giving El Paseo a facelift to help the small businesses there. By closing off a couple of blocks and making it into a walking mall, we could have outdoor dining and sales, which would require changing some of our ordinances on a temporary basis, at least. We could install some nice public restrooms for our Southern California visitors, not just our local visitors. Coming from Los Angeles or Orange County or San Diego, people are driving for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, and they usually like to visit a restroom after that kind of a drive. With the restaurants and other businesses that have restrooms being closed, there’s no place for them to go. Also, we need to make sure that we have adequate parking. But if closing off a number of blocks is not a direction that the City Council wants to go in, another approach might be something that I saw recently in Culver City. They closed lanes of traffic, and on the interior street side of the lanes closest to the sidewalks, they installed white plastic barriers and moved outside dining into that area. They put up some nice potted plants and umbrellas, and there were a lot of people sitting outside eating, and they were distanced. That’s something that could be done next week. For those restaurants or shops who have space behind their buildings in parking lots, (the City Council) could make accommodations for them as well.

For No. 2, I think we should extend the ban on short-term rentals into residential areas that currently aren’t covered. I’ve been contacted by a number of people living in Palm Desert who are dissatisfied by the fact that they were left out.

Third would be focusing on making the Cal State University-San Bernardino satellite (campus) into a four-year university so that we can have an educated workforce and provide more jobs. Any city of our size that can have a four-year university is going to provide themselves with a good economic boost.

Did the city of Palm Desert fulfill its obligation to encourage more diversity in political engagement with its two-district solution, or do you believe more districts should be formed?

I believe that we should have five-district voting. At this point in time, I believe that I’m the only candidate running in District 2 who advocates for that. I do not believe that the current settlement of what was essentially a civil rights lawsuit pursuant to the California Voter Rights Act satisfies that act, although I just saw recently something sent out from the city that says it does. Needless to say, as an attorney who represented cities and municipalities in those kinds of lawsuits, I disagree with that representation (on the part of the city). I don’t think it complies with the Voter Rights Act. The current situation provides for voting in District 1 (to elect) one representative who will represent about 20 percent of the city. The other 80 percent is voting at-large, and as a consequence, the way it’s worked out for the last 20 years, and the way it will apparently continue to work out in this 2020 election, is that you have five incumbents, three of which are currently running, and all of whom live in one of the wealthiest sections of the city and within walking distance of each other. The neighborhoods, in the rest of the city, don’t have representatives who share their interests, values and concerns. So I don’t think that’s equal and fair representation. It’s not representative government. It’s government by a few.

Recently, I had a conversation with an old friend who will remain nameless, who lives nearby. He said, ‘Don’t you think that people who live in one area of town might be more talented than the others?’ That’s elitism. We can do better than that in Palm Desert. I don’t think that anyone on the north side wants to be governed by a bunch of people who only live in a small area of south Palm Desert, and that’s the situation that we’ve got now.

If we get sued again, it’s going to cost the city a lot of money, and I think we’ll lose. This time, nobody’s going to settle for this flim-flam settlement. They’re not going to buy that. I’ve spoken to the plaintiffs (in the original Voter Rights Act lawsuit), and they feel that they weren’t given adequate disclosure. Now they’re thinking that if they had known before what they know now, they wouldn’t have entered into this settlement. Nobody else will do that (moving forward). They’ll either go to trial, or they’ll get a settlement for something like five districts. There are other ways to skin a cat, so it doesn’t have to be five districts. I think it should be. You could have four districts and a mayor who’s elected at-large, which would essentially be five districts. By the way, as best as I can tell, this is the only city in the state of California that has two districts.

In terms of deaths, Palm Desert has been one of the hardest-hit cities in the Coachella Valley by COVID-19. What can, or should, the city do to better deal with the pandemic?

The City Council, the city and other departments within City Hall need to do a much-better and more-aggressive job of communicating with our full-time, part-time and visiting residents about the necessity of wearing masks and distancing. As an example, if you go into Palm Springs and just take a drive down Palm Canyon, you see digital signs on wheels saying that you are required to wear a mask and distance. They have banners (hanging) above the street saying the same thing. We were just there recently, and there were a ton of people on both sides of the street walking. Lots of people were enjoying outdoor dining, and everybody was wearing a mask. Nobody was scared off. I think that a lot of folks are anxious to enjoy that kind of experience in Palm Desert, but there are a lot of people who are afraid right now to go into our shops or restaurants where people aren’t wearing masks. I think that the City Council and the departments within City Hall who are responsible for this issue need to take that into consideration, and also remember that there are many more residents in this city than in most in the desert who are over the age of 60. We need to protect them.

Should the city continue to contract with the Riverside County Sheriff for law enforcement services, given Sheriff Chad Bianco has stated publicly an unwillingness for citizen/community oversight, his refusal to meet with community stakeholders, and the high cost of his department’s services?

That’s a good question, and this is an issue that I’ve given a lot of thought to. I have no information that leads me to believe that, at this time, we’re paying too much for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. I have not seen the contract, so I don’t know what it provides for. I have been informed that we are paying $300 an hour for the services of a deputy sheriff. So since I have no other information, that (point) sitting in isolation doesn’t really help me very much. Some people might think that sounds like a lot of money for a police officer. We’re not hiring a high-priced lawyer. But we don’t know what goes into that figure, and we don’t know what other law-enforcement agencies in the valley are being paid. However, I have been informed that Coachella is moving away from the Sheriff’s Department and is going to form its own police department. I would like to get more information on that, and I’ve contacted one of the members of their City Council to find out why they’re going in that direction. It may or may not be applicable to Palm Desert. Coachella is a much larger city, and its demographic (makeup) is completely different than Palm Desert. It may be that many of our residents are satisfied with the Sheriff’s Department in Palm Desert. There may be others who aren’t. I think that, in these sensitive times, we should consider having some public hearings in order to get more information about the issues I just raised, as well as find out how the rest of the city feels about this. So I’m not saying that we shouldn’t continue the contract with the county sheriff; I’m just saying that we should get more information and see how that contract is working in comparison to other contracts of a similar nature throughout the desert, and perhaps elsewhere, to see if we’re paying too much, and to compare it to the cost of running your own police department, and to see how the rest of the city feels about it.

The City Council originally proposed building an Interstate 10 interchange at the north end of Portola Avenue in 2008. Should the city reconsider moving forward with this plan in light of potential impacts on the adjacent residential neighborhoods, which have expanded notably since the plan was first considered? For instance, should a survey be initiated to gather input from residents most likely to be impacted?

It should be looked at again. The City Council seems not to be fully aware of the fact that we are living in the worst pandemic in a century, and a very bad recession that could be worse than the one in 2008. During these unforeseen and unprecedented times you have to adjust, and they don’t seem like they’re adjusting. They’re just like, ‘Let’s talk about the golf-cart parade.’ OK, we can talk about the golf-cart parade while putting in an onramp and an offramp for Portola, but I think we should re-visit the issue and think about if this is the right time for something like that when we could be spending our dollars on things like helping small businesses throughout the city, and maybe hiring some more people at City Hall, so that the staffing is at 100 percent. According to what I’ve been informed since announcing my candidacy, they are understaffed, and, for example, as a result of being understaffed, they can’t do certain types of code enforcement in the manner in which they should be. So maybe we should be spending our dollars on things like that instead of an onramp and offramp that might be nice during flush times.

Also, that (logic) applies to what I believe is Phase 2 of San Pablo, which has a plan for two roundabouts, I think, which maybe we could be doing in flush times. But I’d have to look at how much it costs and how much we’ve got for it (to decide) whether or not that’s something we can afford to do now. Maybe we ought to put it off, and make our priority hiring more staff at City Hall, and paying them adequately and things like that.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity since the pandemic’s arrival?

This with the approval of my health-care providers. We had one standard poodle, and we decided to get her a companion. We got her a puppy, another standard poodle who is now 7 months old. So we’ve been training her and playing with the dogs out in the backyard, and just walking the dogs in our small development early in the morning, partly to get exercise for us as well. We’re appropriately masked and distanced from everybody who lives here right now in the summer.

And I’m taking ukulele lessons online from a very fine musician who, I think, is in Torrance. But he’s one of the premier ukulele players in the country, and I just recently picked up two of my instruments that were being worked on. There’s a luthier named Dey Martin in Palm Springs. Who knew? We have a luthier in Palm Springs. A luthier makes string instruments. He makes guitars, ukuleles and maybe violins, but I’m not sure. But he also does work on them and repairs them. So I asked him to do some work on a couple of my instruments so that it was easier for me to play them. And now they play great.


Gina Nestande

Mayor of Palm Desert; real estate agent

Should you be re-elected, what are your top three priorities for the City Council in 2021?

My No. 1 top priority is to continue to make sure that we’re doing everything possible as a city to keep our citizens safe in terms of COVID, and to help and support businesses by making sure that they have the supplies that they need. It would be wonderful if we get a vaccine or better medications to fight the COVID, but since right now we really don’t, that would be a top priority.

Following that, for the economic health of our Palm Desert businesses—especially the restaurants that have had to go through a second shutdown, and the hair and nail salons—I want to continue to spur economic development and make resources available for when they can re-open, which we hope is sooner rather than later.

We have some economic programs in place right now. We have an emergency loan program where we’re disbursing $1 million to our Palm Desert businesses. Also, we haven’t voted on it yet, but it’s a priority of mine to give $900,000 to our hotels like the J.W. Marriott (Desert Springs Resort and Spa). When people come to the desert, they typically stay for a couple of nights, say Friday and Saturday, and then they go back on Sunday. What we’re going to do is subsidize (a promotional offer) where if somebody comes for two nights, then they can get a third night free, paid for by the city, although they still will have to pay the (transient occupancy tax) on that free night. I serve on the marketing committee (for the city), and research shows that if people stay a third night, they are more likely to perhaps stay for the whole week. So what we want to do is be able to drive customers to our restaurants, to our nail salons and to all of our businesses. So we’re trying to do what we can to support businesses in Palm Desert.

My third priority is the California State University-San Bernardino satellite campus. I want to help nurture and support expanding the degree programs offered there. Just recently, they had a graduation of 400 students. That’s amazing, and we’re very proud of that. We’re adding a cyber-security program, for example, and we’re expanding hospitality (programs). We want to grow technology programs out of this university, and our city has donated money to help with this expansion. So that’s my third priority, and it’s one that is looking to build the future of Palm Desert. One day, we hope it will become a stand-alone campus and it will just be Cal State-Palm Desert. But we’ve got to grow the student body, and we’ve to grow the degree programs in order to make that happen.

Did the city of Palm Desert fulfill its obligation to encourage more diversity in political engagement with its two-district solution, or do you believe more districts should be formed?

I’m going to answer that this way: We have a population of about 50,000 in Palm Desert. I don’t feel we’re comparable to like a Los Angeles, where you’ve got millions of people. I’m not saying we’re homogeneous, but for me, I don’t like the idea of balkanizing, per se, Palm Desert. I believe that El Paseo, which would probably not be in my district, is near and dear to my heart, and I care about that area. Cal State’s in another area of Palm Desert, and I care about that area. So I want to be representing Palm Desert, and I believe that (a multiple-district approach) is actually dividing us. Reluctantly, I went along with the two districts. But the jury is out on it. I tend to agree that I don’t want (the current) District 2 to feel like it’s, how do I say, not as important, because there’s four districts versus one, is how I see it. So I don’t really like that either. But I just went along with what the majority of the council wanted to do on this issue.

I was born in ’63, and when I grew up as a child, Martin Luther King was a hero to me. He changed the United States with his quote about being judged by his character, not the color of his skin. But I feel that this Voter Rights Act is throwing that out the window.

In terms of deaths, Palm Desert has been one of the hardest-hit cities in the Coachella Valley by COVID-19. What can, or should, the city do to better deal with the pandemic?

I’ve been partnering with the Riverside County Department of Public Health to get a deeper dive into the (COVID-19) numbers. It takes them a long time to (research a request), because it’s such a huge county, and they can’t respond every week to every little mayor’s request. But the last time I got data, we found that about half of the deaths were occurring in nursing homes here in Palm Desert. We have several nursing homes here, and many of their patients already have underlying conditions. So I think we just need to continue to support our nursing homes and our nurses working there. I think when we go out and about, people should wear their masks. When we go into the grocery store people, should be social distancing. I think our citizens are doing a great job. We just need to make sure we continue to have enough hand sanitizer and face masks if a business is running short. We were given $700,000 in funds from FEMA to use for our (COVID-19 related) supplies. So we’re being very conscientious with those funds, and we’re using them appropriately where needed.

Should the city continue to contract with the Riverside County Sheriff for law enforcement services, given Sheriff Chad Bianco has stated publicly an unwillingness for citizen/community oversight, his refusal to meet with community stakeholders, and the high cost of his department’s services?

I will say that almost half of our budget goes to police and fire. I do support our police, though. I believe safety is a top priority, and that, first and foremost, we need a safe city. That needs to be the foundation. We need law and order. We can’t condone violence and anarchy. Also, when COVID hit, we had to start looking at our budget again to make up for the shortfalls, and I will say the Sheriff’s Department looked long and hard, and they found a way to cut back about $3.5 million for this year. So that was a big plus. And I do not support de-funding the police.

The City Council originally proposed building an Interstate 10 interchange at the north end of Portola Avenue in 2008. Should the city reconsider moving forward with this plan in light of potential impacts on the adjacent residential neighborhoods, which have expanded notably since the plan was first considered? For instance, should a survey be initiated to gather input from residents most likely to be impacted?

It was 12 years ago (when this plan was first initiated), and over time, the cost to do that interchange has gone up astronomically. Now there’s not enough money to do the project. It’s millions of dollars short, and that (projection) was made pre-pandemic. We greatly want that interchange, and we were partnering with (the Coachella Valley Association of Governments) on it. CVAG came back to us and said, ‘Sorry, city of Palm Desert. We’re several million dollars short. You can try to help us raise the money to find the funds.’ So, that’s where we are with it—and then the pandemic hit. So it’s on hold. But I do think it needs to be looked at again, and we’ll know more in the coming months.

Gosh, if we get a vaccine for COVID, I think it will be such an uplifting thing for the state of California and the whole United States that maybe the flood gate of funds will re-open. Another issue that sort of ties into this one is that we just got our sales-tax (report) from the county for the month of May. Typically, we get about $600,000 approximately, but this May, we got approximately $1 million. Our finance director, who couldn’t believe it, wanted to make sure there wasn’t a mistake, because we don’t want to spend money that we don’t have. But it’s been confirmed. We’re not sure if it’s coming from more online sales, but the economy seems to be firing up. So we’ll see if that trend continues.

We have $100 million in reserves. This is a very well-run and financially sound city. But we don’t have the money to fund this whole project. We have to get state credits, grants and find other monies. But, having said that, if the economy comes roaring back, it will make it easier.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity since the pandemic’s arrival?

Actually, my children and I have been playing board games, and that’s something that we didn’t do anymore. The game called Catan is a great game. It’s about trading, building and settling communities, and it can go on for hours.


Evan Trubee

Owner of Big Wheel Tours

Should you be elected, what are your top three priorities for the City Council in 2021?

Not necessarily in order, I would say the top three issues are making sure we preserve the short term rental rule, and maybe even look at—and this is a can of worms, and I don’t really want to go there—but maybe look at some of the loopholes that were created in the current ordinance, because it did not cover the planned residential communities. In other words, it restricted short-term rentals in R1 and R2, but planned residentials were left out of it, almost like HOAs, even though many of these planned residentials don’t have CCRs that prohibit short-term rentals. I’ve talked to several residents, and it’s becoming a bit of an issue. The current regulations need to be protected, and maybe enhanced. We’ll see. But the feedback that I’m getting is that there are some pretty unhappy residents in those PRs.

Second, I want to make sure we maintain our economic strength and foundation. We’re going to lose quite a bit of (transient occupancy tax) revenue, and we need to be judicious about keeping a balanced budget. This year turned out pretty well, but we’re going to have to be pretty disciplined on the budget so we don’t run into trouble. And we need to think about diversifying the economy away from tourism so much, and try to cultivate more local businesses that don’t necessarily have to do with tourism.

Third, I would say, is to make sure we keep the pressure on advocating for the four-year university, meaning that Priority One foundation that’s been set up and that the city’s giving $150,000 to. My point is that even if the state of California, which is looking at a budget deficit, put the building of another four-year university on the back burner, I think we should keep the pressure on our lobbying efforts in Sacramento to make sure we stay on their radar.

I just want to make sure to get this in: We can’t forget supporting the College of the Desert. Let’s keep the four-year university as an emphasis, but not at the expense of supporting College of the Desert.

Did the city of Palm Desert fulfill its obligation to encourage more diversity in political engagement with its two-district solution, or do you believe more districts should be formed?

I followed that process pretty closely. I did go to the redistricting meetings that were held just this past winter, and even before that, I was paying attention. I think they came up with a solution that is in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act. In other words, they created a district that was as close as you can get to a majority-minority composition. So in that regard, they achieved the objective of the CVRA. It was adjudicated, and both parties agreed to it. So you’ve got to trust the judicial system. It went through the process. I’m curious to see how it plays out in this 2020 election cycle. Now, going to five districts, if that’s what you want to consider, you couldn’t carve four districts out of what is now District 2 and come up with anything even close to a majority-minority district to help try to get Latinx representation on City Council. So then you’re talking about a different issue. You’re talking about Palm Desert being a city of a size where you can justify having five separate districts of roughly 10,000-15,000 people if we get to that point. So it becomes a different issue other than just complying with the CVRA in terms of ethnic composition.

I guess the short answer is that I’m willing to let this current cycle play out, (and) see how the residents respond. I believe they did achieve the goals of complying with the CVRA in this instance. But I’m flexible. I mean, if down the road, Palm Desert residents say, ‘Hey! We feel under-represented because we live in the northern sphere, and there’s nobody who lives in our district on council,’ well, then, shoot. I’m all ears. Let’s talk about that, and talk about maybe down the road dividing it up into five.

In terms of deaths, Palm Desert has been one of the hardest-hit cities in the Coachella Valley by COVID-19. What can, or should, the city do to better deal with the pandemic?

From what I understand, and I have not been able to verify this officially, there were one or two places, and I think they were assisted-living (facilities), where a big cluster of the deaths happened which spiked our numbers relative to other valley cities. That’s what I understand, and I’ll give my answer based on that understanding. So, that was unfortunate. That’s terrible. I don’t know how it happened, and I don’t know if the city could have prevented it. However, I do advocate wearing masks.

At first blush, when this thing happened in March and April, I said, ‘Oh I’m a believer in personal liberty and in an educated populace deciding whether or not they want to do it.’ And the question was, ‘Were (the masks) really effective?’ I’ve come to the conclusion, after doing research and studying, that masks are effective. So I’m all for mandating masks here in Palm Desert at businesses, and when people are in stores in close proximity to one another. Beyond that, I think the city has done a pretty good job with education programs. They were part of the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau campaign to promote mask-wearing, so I guess that’s my answer. I think the city has done a decent job so far. Like I said, I believe our numbers (of COVID-19 deaths) are higher just due to that one unfortunate outbreak that may, or may not, have been preventable by the city of Palm Desert.

Should the city continue to contract with the Riverside County Sheriff for law enforcement services, given Sheriff Chad Bianco has stated publicly an unwillingness for citizen/community oversight, his refusal to meet with community stakeholders, and the high cost of his department’s services?

You know, I’ve talked to city officials about this, because since I’m running for this office, I have to consider all of these issues. Palm Springs has their own police force. Desert Hot Springs has their own police force. There are pros and cons to each (type of) service. When you contract out with the Riverside sheriff, then you’re spreading out the liabilities. You know, I was told by an employee of the city of Palm Desert, ‘Look, each one of those police officers is a walking liability.’ So it creates a great risk for the city if, God forbid, there is some kind of lawsuit or issue. You spread that out when you contract with the sheriffs. I like that aspect of it. From what I understand, and the research that I’ve done, the three main things that are front and center nationally are addressed. The sheriffs use body cameras; they’re not allowed to do “no-knock” warrants; and they don’t use choke holds.

So I like what the Sheriff’s Department is doing in that regard. I’m not familiar with Bianco’s unwillingness (to cooperate with civilian review). Actually, I haven’t read anything about it, so I can’t really speak to any of Bianco’s actions. I’m just talking from my perspective, and from what I know about Riverside sheriffs, I would advocate for continuing the contract with the Sheriff’s Department moving forward, for sure. In my mind, it’s one less thing the city has to worry about or staff. I think they’re doing a good job so far here in Palm Desert. I’m happy with the job they’re doing as a citizen.

The City Council originally proposed building an Interstate 10 interchange at the north end of Portola Avenue in 2008. Should the city reconsider moving forward with this plan in light of potential impacts on the adjacent residential neighborhoods, which have expanded notably since the plan was first considered? For instance, should a survey be initiated to gather input from residents most likely to be impacted?

I’ve noticed it on the agenda for the past year or so as well. From one meeting to another, when the issue of the interchange is brought up, the projected costs seem to go up considerably. I know a lot of it is being borne by CVAG (Coachella Valley Association of Governments) and the county, but the costs to the city went up considerably. As with any construction project, over time, costs typically don’t go down; the estimates go up. That’s a concern. When you talk about moving forward with the Portola interchange, I do think we need to take into consideration the (opinions of) the residents in the northern part of the city. Also, you have to take into consideration the BlackRock housing development, which is projected to bring almost 1,000 homes into that part of the city. I feel that you want to get the infrastructure in place before you have the impact on that infrastructure. In other words, build the infrastructure first, and then the housing development. So, I think that’s something to consider as well. I would like to see it happen, as long as it doesn’t adversely impact our budget to the point where we’re digging into reserves.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity since the pandemic’s arrival?

Being able to spend time with the kids. My son, who’s 19, came home from college early, in March. And my two daughters are teenagers. So when you get to this point of parenthood, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel where they’re going to be out of the house. I’m going to be an “empty-nester” in five years. I’ve just really enjoyed spending time with them. We’ve been playing games, reading books and just being together. I know it’s going to end; we’ll go back to our busy lives and busy schedules where we’re going in 20 million directions. So being with them has been a treat, and we’re enjoying it. Luckily, I have a loving family and it’s just fun to spend time together.

For the first time, Palm Desert residents in November will vote for their City Council representatives by district … sort of.

After two residents sued the city last year, alleging that the city’s at-large voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, the council approved a new system: One large district, including the vast majority of the city, will be represented by four council members; it’s now called District 2. A second, smaller district, called District 1, will have one representative. You can view an interactive district map here.

In November, District 1 residents will choose between two candidates: Karina Quintanilla, one of the aforementioned plaintiffs in the Voting Rights Act lawsuit, and incumbent Susan Marie Weber. The Independent recently spoke to the candidates, asking them each the same set of questions, on topics ranging from the new district voting system to law enforcement in the city.

Here are their complete answers, edited only for style and clarity.

Karina Quintanilla

Site coordinator for Think Together

Should you be elected, what are your top three priorities for the City Council in 2021?

My priorities are districting, growing higher education and public health. Regarding districting, the importance of representation, and the equitable distribution of our votes across Palm Desert—that’s a conversation that’s been had many times now, I believe. A lot of the residents I met with while I was gathering petitions (to run for the City Council) had questions about the settlement and how we got to the two districts. Now, they understand that Lorraine (Salas, the second litigant in the case) and I settled because we knew there were going to be challenges with implementing the process, so we wanted (to create) a first opportunity for everybody to come, get the microscope out and look at the process and scrutinize to see how we could do it better the next time. We wanted everybody to have more of an even say.

Today, as we move forward on this pandemic, we need to be sure that we have equal representation. We keep saying that we’re all in this together. Yes, we’re in this together—but we are not in the same boat. My boat looks very different from somebody else’s, and we need all these communities with all of our little concerns to have an equal voice in what happens with the resources moving forward, and how we identify the priorities as a city.

Now, talking about growing higher education opportunities in Palm Desert: I worked at Cal State San Bernardino, and I remember hearing that the nursing program got off the ground years ahead of schedule because the community said they work looking ahead and could see that a nursing shortage was going to get critical. So they made sure that funds were available through philanthropists and commitments from the cities who felt they had to make that happen. So, the health sciences building wasn’t even complete—and there was already a cohort of nursing students. I had the privilege of working with those students who are now in the field themselves, saving lives. Some of them are doctors of nursing, as is my sister. She has worked in a couple of medical facilities here in the desert.

With higher education comes the ability to diversify our economy. Right now, we have so much tied up in hospitality and tourism, and everyone is taking losses. So, growing our higher education capabilities will mean that we have different fields available. Right now, some of the highest-paying jobs available in the region are in cannabis—but we don’t have the biologists, the chemists and others that are needed (by this new valley industry) growing in our own backyard. Instead, they often come from out of the area. They get their master’s degrees and acquire good jobs with good salaries, when we could grow this talent at home. We are letting our brightest students leave to pursue their higher education, while we have to pay high wages to attract people who have lived in other urban areas who relocate for jobs that we can’t fill here.

We know that Cal State right now has said that they are not ready to approve any (new four-year) programs—but when they say they’re ready, we have to put ourselves in the position of having addressed housing inequality. Right now, students can’t afford to live in Palm Desert, and we can’t give them the kind of housing that makes it easy for them to work a part-time job and focus on being a student. We can’t stick our heads in the sand. If we’re going to grow our university, we’re going to need faculty for it, and they will come with families, in many cases, and we’ll need places for them to live close by. So we need to be forward-thinking in how we allocate our physical resources and where we allot land, because we need housing to be accessible to Cal State. Also, I think that supporting the city’s infrastructure, to be sure we have more accessible public transportation, is very important.

Public health is another of those major priorities. Having experienced (COVID-19 infections) within my own family, I wonder how my neighbors are coping. People get fooled (into complacency) by the wealth of their zip code, but I believe that there are a lot of people struggling to get by everywhere. We have to be aware that our neighbors may be struggling, and not everybody knows how to get help. This may be the first time that somebody is experiencing this kind of financial distress. Maybe they made it OK through the last recession. You know, maybe they had two incomes before, and the spouse passed away, so this is their first time trying to make it on a single income. We have to be genuinely more compassionate, and I think that Palm Desert just needs to do more for her residents.

I’m very happy to see that some businesses are open around town, and have signage saying that masks are required and (they) have the right to refuse service. But there needs to be signage citywide. It is of great concern to me that we have access from Highway 74, from Interstate 10 and from Highway 111, and we don’t see anything that welcomes our visitors and says, ‘Please be careful, and wear a mask.’ It doesn’t have to be a political issue. It doesn’t have to be a freedom issue, as people are making it (out to be). It’s a public-health issue. It’s a compassion issue. It’s a ‘love thy neighbor’ issue. People who come from out of town may not know what our policies are. They may be here for business for the first time, so they don’t know what Riverside County’s policies are, let alone from one city to the other.

I grew up in Thousand Palms, and they have signs. That was wonderful for me to see. When you get off on Monterey (Avenue), and you head north, Thousand Palms has a sign that encourages people to wear a mask and to be distant. That helps protect a beautiful little community with a lot of essential workers, where I still have family. Palm Desert can clearly afford to put up these signs. But we don’t have that clear signage, and we’re one of the cities that’s been hit the hardest by COVID-19.

When I think of what will happen with the viral load that we have in the community if we open too soon, it concerns me very deeply. Eventually, we have to reopen completely, and that’s not a matter of if, but just when. What’s within all of our control is how we move forward as a unified community so that we can do this with fewer mortalities. We have to think of all of the kids, all of the teachers and all of the first responders. You know, if we really are going to glorify their profession, then let’s respect that they are on the front line and they are at the most risk. We’re not giving them the respect they deserve in any way, shape or form by replacing (the word) “essential” with “disposable” workers.

In terms of deaths, Palm Desert has been one of the hardest-hit cities in the Coachella Valley by COVID-19. What can, or should, the city do to better deal with the pandemic?

I think that Palm Desert residents, and the people who work here as well, deserve better. Not everybody is contained to their zip codes, and we’ve got people who live all across the valley and are in different industries who need to feel safe going to work.

Right at the start of the pandemic, I started a job working at a senior-living facility where I met some amazing residents. But just the idea of going to work every day, and loving the people that you work with, and then being afraid that any one of them could go, or that you could be taking virus home to your family, creates levels of stress that are toxic. When they closed down the dining room, there was this one woman who liked to take her time eating, so she was eating in a different area. She said to me, ‘I’m just a slow eater. When I grew up during the Depression, you never knew when you were going to get a next meal. So, we made time to eat slowly.’ That came full circle for me—thinking about how many kids now are dealing with this generational impact of the crisis mode that they see their parents in, and these hyper-stress levels. In education curriculums, you’ll see them talk about adverse childhood experiences. We are all being exposed to trauma, but I’m worried about the long-term effects of this stress on the little ones. And yes, they need to be out there. Yes, they need to play. Yes, they need to engage, but they need to feel safe. They need to know that when they go out, it’s going to be safe for them to do so, and that the adults have done their due diligence in making sure that they’re taken care of.

Should the city continue to contract with the Riverside County Sheriff for law enforcement services, given Sheriff Chad Bianco has stated publicly an unwillingness for citizen/community oversight, his refusal to meet with community stakeholders, and the high cost of his department’s services?

I felt disappointed upon having learned that there was no outreach (on the part of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department) to the organizers of the (George Floyd/Black Lives Matter) demonstration in Palm Desert. Having seen so many different people protest in the Coachella Valley, it seemed that the mindset was already one of response only, instead of it being an opportunity to engage, observe and keep the peace. So, it was very disappointing to me.

I would choose to believe that all stakeholders’ best interests (would be served) by coming together and making sure that the needs of the community are met. It makes it difficult to have the community fully support the needs of law-enforcement officers if we aren’t able to hear directly from (Sheriff Chad Bianco) his justifications as to why these expenses keep growing. And we need to have everybody come to the table to have these open conversations.

The City Council originally proposed building an Interstate 10 interchange at the north end of Portola Avenue in 2008. Should the city reconsider moving forward with this plan in light of potential impacts on the adjacent residential neighborhoods, which have expanded notably since the plan was first considered? For instance, should a survey be initiated to gather input from residents most likely to be impacted?

I think that this is the kind of (issue) that just needs to be put on hold. It needs to be tabled until we get (more) districts in the city. The people who live in that area are the ones who are going to be impacted the most, and we need to be sure that they have their voices heard loud and clear. The environmental impact of having that right in their neighborhood may not be something they anticipated (12 years ago). Maybe residents have a vision of something entirely different that they want to see go on there. I don’t see why this needs to be a top priority right now. That funding needs to be directed to public health right now.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity since the pandemic’s arrival?

Some of the things that I’ve done are things that I learned to enjoy when, for instance, I was out of work on disability. A lot of people think that it’s a time to rest and hangout, but sometimes, it’s just a time to recover. But, my personal favorite me-time (activity) continues to be going to the blood bank. It’s my time to unplug from everything, because you can’t quite be texting. You maybe watch a movie, but it gives you time to reflect that no matter what else is going on, I’m standing, and, I’m healthy enough to be able to give something that my body is just going to make more of. I truly believe in giving everything we have if we can make somebody else’s day and life better. Not only is that good for them, but it feels great inside. So I wish more people would take the opportunity to go down to LifeStream, where they take excellent care of you. I’ve built some long-term friendships with people who have been donating there since it was the Community Blood Bank back in the ’90s. That’s one of my favorite things to do.

I know it’s kind of weird, but everybody’s got their own (favorite activity). I can’t hike right now. It’s too hot. But if you go to donate, you do it in the AC. You get to lay down while you do it. They give you juice and cookies. You get T-shirts and gas cards, and you get to save lives—and, that’s a pretty good feeling, too. When we feel kind of helpless, like there’s nothing we can do because it feels like our hands are tied as we watch our national leadership scramble and try to figure things out, there are things we can do. …  And they are doing the antibody screening, so you may be able to come back and give plasma and save even more lives.

There are absolutely things that we can all do. We can all take the Census to make sure that, once this (pandemic) is all over, each community has a true representation and how much funding they deserve to receive to meet the individual needs of their community. And everyone can vote. Everyone can pay forward.


Susan Marie Weber

Palm Desert City Council incumbent; sole proprietor of an accounting business

Should you be re-elected, what are your top three priorities for the City Council in 2021?

Yes, I do think that I should be re-elected. I kind of look at things objectively. I’m an accountant, so I look at things (to see) are they in balance—debits and credits, and so forth. That’s always allowed me to look at things objectively to try to determine what’s best. I think that’s one of the things I bring to the council, while maybe other people on other councils might not have that capability. And I don’t take things personally.

So my top three priorities, and mostly what we’re working on right now, is pretty consistent with what’s going on in the city—and that is how we can work on housing. Housing seems to be an issue right now. So what can the city do to help facilitate more housing? Now, the state has stepped in and given us some directives. We call them “unfunded mandates,” because they tell us, “Here is what you will do as a city, but good luck on trying to figure out where the money comes from.” So, one of our issues is how to create what we all call “affordable housing,” so that people who are just working in our city can actually choose to live here and not have to drive back and forth. That’s probably one of my main objectives right now.

The other one (deals with the fact that) our city has an extraordinary amount of what we call committees and commissions. These are opportunities to participate in the city, and my goal is to get more people involved in that. So when I meet somebody, and they say they really like our city, I immediately (suggest) that they go to our website, click on the committees and commissions, and find out what makes you happy and participate in that. For example, you may have noticed the project going on around San Pablo Avenue. We have an Art in Public Places Commission that is very much involved in selecting the art that’s going to go there. Also, they select the art that goes all along El Paseo, for which our city has become rather famous. So, everybody has a passion, and serving on one of our committees or commissions is a way that they can have their passion and get involved in the city. I like people to be involved. Rather than sitting on the sidelines and saying that you don’t like what’s being done, come on over, and let’s get you to work and find out what you can do to contribute to make it better.

So, those are two things that I think are most important right now. We had 100 residents show up for Envision Palm Desert (a strategic-planning effort). Our city is comprised of community involvement, and that’s what I think makes our city as great as it is. Everybody asks me, and I do think that our city is the best in the valley. I’m not kidding. It’s the best financially run. It’s the best (in terms of) commitment from our community. It’s just the best all around.

Did the city of Palm Desert fulfill its obligation to encourage more diversity in political engagement with its two-district solution, or do you believe more districts should be formed?

It’s kind of hard thing to say, because so many people think that we didn’t fulfill it. I can only speak for myself, but I was not in favor of districting. I think it’s inappropriate for a city like ours. You have an opportunity in our city every two years to do away with three (city councilmembers) and replace them, and then in two years do away with (the other) two and replace them. Now, people are going to be confined to one representative—at least in my District 1: They’ll be confined to me for four solid years. Whereas before, (the voters) had more flexibility. … If you live in our city, you had five people you can go to with your comments, and everybody would be working to make everything better. Now, with districting, I’m not quite sure. I presume that most of us who are there will continue that practice, no matter which district we are assigned to, if I can use that phrase. But I don’t think it was the best thing for our city.

We are a unique city. We’ve worked all these years as a whole city—and now, to divide us, I don’t think was in our best interest. I’ve read a lot of comments by people who want to take it further and make it into five (districts). Frankly, I’m baffled by that, and can’t figure out how that would benefit (Palm Desert). When they talk about diversity, our diversity is all over our entire city. They had quite a challenge working on the demography (of new district creation) because we are a city where (different demographic groups) just live all over the place. Plus, I’m not quite sure what they mean when they say that they want more representation. It’s hard to answer a question when the question doesn’t make sense. How do you want more representation? What’s going wrong right now? Can you not show up at City Hall? I have regular office hours, and anybody could walk in on a Friday, and there I would be. They wouldn’t even need an appointment. With any of the council members, all you have to do is call and say that you want to talk to a council member right now, and somebody would be there. So I’m not quite sure what the people who disagree with (the results of) the districting want, exactly.

I don’t quite know how to answer that question. I thought we were doing really well. I felt represented, and I always participated, too. If I didn’t like what was going on, I showed up to say so.

In terms of deaths, Palm Desert has been one of the hardest-hit cities in the Coachella Valley by COVID-19. What can, or should, the city do to better deal with the pandemic?

Our city is on the record, and we (on the City Council) all voted to accept whatever instructions the county is putting out. For example, if the county says. ‘OK, you can all open up, and here are your guidelines,’ our goal is to comply with those.

Regarding the significant amount of deaths that appear to be in Palm Desert, I think that sometimes they leave out the rest of the story—and that is that we have a tremendous amount of nursing-care facilities. A lot of times, when they’re hit hard, a lot of deaths will come out of that area—not necessarily because of a lack of care or cleanliness or anything else; it’s just that those particular patients might have been susceptible. So it’s always important to look at the rest of the story before decisions are made.

Regarding our city, the minute that we had the information, we shut down our city (administration). Everybody started working from home. We got new computers and all sorts of systems set up so that people could assist the public immediately. So we did not drop the ball on that. When you call, you get help so that (obtaining) licenses and so forth can continue to take place. We figured out a way with our social distancing at City Hall to have the public make appointments to come in for one-on-one assistance. We’ve complied in every manner, and deep cleaning has been done. I was over there yesterday to do the online City Council meeting, so that I don’t have to worry about my computer shutting down. And while I was there, everyone was walking around with our masks on and following all those rules.

Should the city continue to contract with the Riverside County Sheriff for law enforcement services, given Sheriff Chad Bianco has stated publicly an unwillingness for citizen/community oversight, his refusal to meet with community stakeholders, and the high cost of his department’s services?

Well, we just changed our contract with them. But my concern about any of these organizations is that the people who are working in them aren’t necessarily running them. The unions are telling everybody what they have to do, and I’m not a fan of unions dictating what should be paid to different people, because I think the unions kind of all work for themselves after a while. That’s something that we’ve been facing, and you can’t just keep escalating costs, because pretty soon, 100 percent of the income that the city might get is going to be used for public safety. So we changed our (contract) so that we have more people who are working on paper work, you might say. So for example, you might call the sheriff’s department, because you’ve just been beaten up, and you would have a sheriff’s deputy go out there and take care of it. Then, I might call to say I just had a robbery, and they might take the report and then have somebody else out to follow up with all of the paperwork. So the deputies are now freed up to go out and do more of what we might call law-enforcement type work.

A lot of the (policing) issues we’re having, unfortunately, come from the homeless issue. Now, why would we want a deputy going out to take care of a homeless issue? So we’re hiring different people who can go out and handle that, as long as there’s no risk. As you understand, there’s a real fine line in public safety, where you don’t want anybody to get hurt. We’ve been looking at this now for the last two years, so I imagine that this is going on all over the place. Everybody’s trying to decide: What’s the better way?

Clearly, I’m not a fan of defunding. That’s not a good solution at all. It sounds like a great idea, but it’s not practical or common sense. If you’re going to get rid of something, you’ve got to be prepared to put something in its place. Also, we are working with Indian Wells and La Quinta to study the issue of changing the way we sub-contract out (our law-enforcement services). I’m a major fan of subcontracting, rather than having our own police force, (because) that’s a real expensive way to do it. For example, if we’re subcontracting out, and we all of a sudden need a whole lot more deputies, they can easily bring in the extra service to take care of our needs. That gives us a great amount of flexibility that we would not have if we just had our own police force. Of course, there’s good and bad on both sides. It’s kind of nice to know your own officers, so we try to make sure that we have the same ones for a period of time, like Lt. (Matthew) Martello right now, who we call our police chief, even though he’s with the sheriff’s department. He mostly works in Palm Desert, so we all have that comfort level of knowing him directly. So, all costs have to be analyzed, and the decision that’s made has to be focused on public safety and what’s best for our community.

There’s a matrix study that we’ve done (to analyze) how we could make police work more efficient, because if you keep doing things the same old way, you’re going to keep getting the same old results. If they’re not affordable results, then something has to change a little bit.

The City Council originally proposed building an Interstate 10 interchange at the north end of Portola Avenue in 2008. Should the city reconsider moving forward with this plan in light of potential impacts on the adjacent residential neighborhoods, which have expanded notably since the plan was first considered? For instance, should a survey be initiated to gather input from residents most likely to be impacted?

We’ve been working on this for ages. If it had been left up to the city of Palm Desert, we would have had an overpass in the blink of an eye. But we have to coordinate with everybody under the sun, beginning with CalTrans, the water district and anybody who touches that (project)—we have to negotiate with them to make sure that safety measures are in place for whatever they have (to do) in their underground or wherever. I’m not quite sure what you’re asking, because we’re trying to go ahead with it. That’s been our goal all along, to go ahead with it. We’re still being delayed because of the other organizations, not because of ours.

What I’m asking is: Since the project has now taken so long, do you think the plan should be re-visited with more community input from current neighboring residents, rather than going on what seemed like a great idea in 2008?

Well, the residents who I hear from and the community I hear from are very much in favor of having another access to Interstate-10. Our traffic clearly has increased quite a bit. So, if there are residents who don’t think it’s a good idea, of course, I would love to hear from them. But government takes a long time to do something. … The money is allocated. It’s sitting on the books allocated for this particular project. The design has been done, and the design has been approved by CalTrans and whatever agencies are involved in this. They’ve all taken the time to approve all those plans. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to start all over again.

When that overpass is finally completed, a lot of people are going to be quite happy. It’s going to relieve traffic on Monterey and Cook (Street) a little bit, since some of the traffic will be coming in via Portola. So my only concern is that if people are saying we should start all over, then they’re not understanding the reason it’s taking a long time. Our city is a fiduciary of the public money. So, when the public has decided, ‘Yes, we want to do that particular project,’ that money is set aside and designated for that particular project—and to change that would be quite an endeavor. Remember, these funds have been set aside for quite some time. I can’t even imagine how would we return them to whatever organization. So I don’t think it’s feasible, but I would invite anybody who thinks it’s a foolish idea to meet and talk. Right now, I thought we were pretty much on board with it.

What has been your favorite “shelter-in-place” activity since the pandemic’s arrival?

I’m like a lot of people in that I like to watch these old PBS shows, and I watch a lot of movies and TV shows. They’re kind of nice, because they don’t use a lot of bad language in them, and PBS doesn’t use a whole lot of bad language. So they’re not so stressful, and you don’t have to cringe all the time. Of course, like everybody else, I talk to friends and send emails out to everybody to stay in touch and make sure everybody’s healthy.

Members of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) picketed at each of the three Tenet-operated hospitals in the area last week—claiming that employees at the hospitals need to take life-threatening risks every day to care for local patients battling COVID-19.

The members formed picket lines at the Hi-Desert Medical Center in Joshua Tree on Wednesday, Aug. 26, before moving to the Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs on Thursday, followed by Indio’s JFK Memorial Hospital on Friday.

“The overlying reason is that we are in a contract negotiation right now, and at the same time, we are fighting to make sure that all of our workers are safe and have enough PPE, or personal protective equipment,” said union member Gisella Thomas via telephone before Friday’s picketing action in Indio. “Tenet is my employer. I’ve been a respiratory therapist for 48 years, and I’ve worked at Desert Regional for 10 years. I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I feel unsafe, not just for myself, but for my co-workers, too. If you have co-workers in other facilities who died because they didn’t have a face mask or other PPE, you want to make sure that doesn’t happen in our facilities here.

“We (at Desert Regional) have not had a death yet. We don’t want that to happen, and we want to make sure that we’re safe and protected.”

Tenet spokesman Todd Burke, in a statement issued on Thursday, Aug. 27, said: “While we value all of our employees who are represented by the SEIU-UHW, we are disappointed that the union is taking this approach. We have only been bargaining with the union on a successor contract since May and will continue to negotiate in good faith in hopes of reaching a successful resolution. We are proud of the professionalism and dedication demonstrated by our caregivers and staff during this unprecedented pandemic.”

Later in the statement, Burke noted: “Any employee, physician or vendor entering the hospital is required to wear a face mask. To prevent potential exposure, all physicians, nurses and staff who care for suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients are required to wear the appropriate PPE, including N95 face masks and face shields or goggles. Employees are provided a new N95 or face mask with each shift.”

That policy, as described by Burke, is part of the problem, as far as Thomas and her picketing co-workers are concerned.

“We’re asking that there be a pandemic/epidemic clause added to our contract that assures every worker that there are provisions so that we are safe, and there’s enough PPE for us at all times,” Thomas said. “For 48 years, when I saw a patient where I needed protection—like gowns, gloves and a mask, a hat and shoe covers—I would put that stuff on before I went into the patient’s room. Then, when I finished doing what I had to with that patient, I’d come out of the room and take everything off. Then, for the next patient, I’d put on all fresh, clean, new PPE—gowns, gloves, the whole bit.

“Today, I’ll use the same N95 mask, with a surgical mask over it, for the 12 hours that I work. Over my 48 years, if I would have done that, (hospital administration) would have fired me. Any hospital would have said, ‘You’re endangering the patients. This is not right. You cannot do this.’ Now, everybody goes from patient to patient and has the same PPE and the same N95 mask in front of their face for the entirety of their shift. Granted, all the federal agencies are saying that this is OK now—but why was it not OK for 48 years, and now it is OK? This is the question I ask as a health-care worker.”

Thomas said she’s concerned not just for herself, her co-workers and her patients; she’s also concerned for her friends and family away from work.

“When I come home (from work), I strip all of my clothes off in the garage,” she said. “I try not to touch anything and take a shower immediately. I’m trying to make sure that I don’t take anything home to my family, but also out into the community—and I’m not the only one. Everyone does this. So we want to make sure that the provisions in our pandemic/epidemic clause state that there has to be enough PPE to do what we were supposed to do for the last 48 years.

“There has to be enough PPE (on hand) for 45 days. If they’re stocking enough, then why is there not enough? Now we’re six months into a pandemic, and we’re still doing the same bullshit, excuse my language. It’s like, ‘Come on! Give us a break. Why can’t you guys pick it up here? How can you expect us to come to work and do our job? Why can’t you provide us with the safety we need to protect our lives?’”

According to Burke’s statement: “We can safely care for our patients with the supplies we currently have. Our team is actively sourcing around the world for additional supplies. We are committed to protecting the health and safety of our patients and staff.”

Thomas said that while she understands hospital administrators are dealing with an unprecedented pandemic, her frustration has grown over the last months—especially regarding a lack of transparency.

“I’m sure that (Tenet administrators) have their own frustrations and issues in terms of providing us with the PPE that we need,” she said. “But unfortunately, Tenet is not dealing with their health-care workers in a forthright manner. They don’t even let us know who among our co-workers have caught COVID-19. So, some of us have been exposed and had no idea until we get sick.”

One may assume that she and her co-workers get tested for COVID-19 on a regular basis, given they’re in close contact with infected patients, but Thomas said that’s not necessarily the practice at the local Tenet facilities.

“There is an option available for us to get tested, but they don’t really encourage us to get tested,” Thomas said. “Unfortunately, once you are tested, if you test negative, and then later on you have some symptoms, they don’t like to re-test. Or, if there’s somebody who tests positive and has been out, when they need to come back, there’s no more re-testing. After 10 days (of self-quarantining) it’s like, ‘OK, you should be good. Just come back to work.’”

Thomas voiced cautious optimism that the local recent picketing actions staged by both the SEIU-UHW hospital workers and members of the California Nurses Association would eventually result in improved working conditions.

“At the Desert Regional (picket on Thursday, Aug. 27), we were hoping to get a least 100 to 150 people out on the line,” Thomas said, “and we had over 200 union members come out, along with some doctors and nursing staff. We (in the SEIU-UHW) are all the other essential workers, like respiratory therapists, EMTs, lab techs, certified nursing assistants and the transporters.

“We will fight for our rights. At this particular time, I don’t know how that will work out, but we will continue to speak out and speak up, because that’s what we need to do. We can’t just sit back. Hopefully, we’ll come to a mutual agreement in the near future—and if we don’t, then we’ll have to go from there.”

For more than five years, Palm Springs residents and business owners have waited for the arrival of a showplace downtown park. In 2018, the Palm Springs City Council approved plans to deliver the attraction by the fall of this year—plans which were derailed by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve taken a long time to get to this point,” councilmember Lisa Middleton told the Independent, “and I want to see a completed project there.”

Pretty much everyone agrees with that statement. However, there’s significant disagreement about how the project will be completed—which became apparent after a contentious 3-2 vote at the Aug. 6 Palm Springs City Council meeting.

The short version of the controversy is this: Councilmembers Grace Garner, Christy Holstege and Dennis Woods voted to proceed with the original, fully funded plans for the park—overturning a decision made two months prior to scale back those plans and save the city about $3 million. Middleton and Mayor Geoff Kors disagreed.

The longer version is much more nuanced and complicated.

“As a council, we recognize that we are in a fiscal emergency,” Kors told the Independent. “With the decision to reduce staffing dramatically by cutting 80 staff positions in fire, emergency medical, police, facilities, planning and permitting, there’s no department that didn’t have substantial cuts. I’ve been out there advocating for more funding (help) through communications with the White House, with our member of Congress and with our state elected officials. But at a time when we see businesses closing and people unemployed, we should not be spending money to the extent called for by the original downtown park design, when every other capital-improvement project has been stopped, including road re-paving and money for our community centers and our neighborhood parks. So I supported doing a modified park, as the majority of council did previously, rather than funding the entire park right now.”

Holstege—in the middle of a re-election campaign against two opponents—explained her vote to proceed with the fully funded park plan.

“In the budget discussions (in June), the majority of council had tried to defund $3 million from the existing park project, and save those funds for reserves, while building a temporary park in the meantime.

“I, along with a (different) majority of the City Council, decided that it would be more prudent to go forward with the initial park design, because the city has already spent $3 million in building the initial design. So if we were to pause or cancel or change the park, much of that $3 million would be wasted. There are $600,000 in parts that we’ve already purchased for the water feature that would have been wasted. Already, there’s been a lot of underground work for the water feature and other parts of the park. We have an active contract with the contractor, so we were looking at roughly $400,000 in delay and cancellation fees. That’s already $1 million in waste of taxpayer dollars.

“Then we were looking at probably $1 million in city funds just to put in grass and decomposed granite, which is basically dirt, and there would be very little shade. I think that’s an unusable park. And then one day, it would probably cost another $1 million to rip that grass out to put in the future park. Then we got an estimate that it might cost us double to build the rest of the originally designed park at a later date, as opposed to right now while it’s in construction.”

What caused the sudden shift in support for the park within the City Council? Most notably, city staff members shared news at the Aug. 6 meeting that a previously unexpected $3 million in Measure J sales taxes was projected to arrive during the 2020-2021 fiscal year—money that could offset the $3 million in costs planned to be returned to the city’s ledger.

Another contributing factor may have been the admirable salesmanship displayed by the park’s renowned architect, Mark Rios. As one can see in the video of the meeting on the city of Palm Springs website, Rios touted the benefits in store for tourists and residents thanks to the park’s ambiance and appearance, backing his belief that the City Council should stick with the original full park construction plan regardless of the widespread financial pain.

Middleton said her decision to vote on Aug. 6 against the fully funded original park plan was strictly budgetary.

“At this point, we do not know how long the COVID-19 crisis will continue,” Middleton said. “So I felt that the prudent thing for us to do was to wait and get some more months of revenue in to see where we’re going to be in terms of finances.”

Kors said he voted against the fully funded original park plan on Aug. 6 because of the process.

“Several months ago, we stated that we wanted the park to be reviewed and have alternatives for a reduced park brought back (for council consideration),” Kors said. “When the (2020-21 fiscal-year budget vote) came, the majority voted to reduce the park funding by $3 million and requested that different options to do that come back to council. So, on the (Aug. 6) agenda, there were six different options—and none of them was to overturn the prior vote and approve the original design. So, neither council nor the public had any indication that this was going to be brought up. Given the transparency and new rules that we’ve passed over the last few years, I thought if that discussion were to be had, it should have been properly noticed so that people were aware of it.

“The public had no idea that there was any extra money. It wasn’t on the agenda, and if we’re going to put more money back in the budget, then that needed to be noticed in the agenda, so that the public and the council were aware—and then we should have discussed what the top priority was for that funding. For me, I would have put it into public bathrooms at community centers and neighborhood parks. That was the unanimous recommendation of the Measure J Commission as to what we do with that money. So I thought that the vote was dismissive of the commissions. It was dismissive of community-member comments who were involved in the original park design. It was dismissive of what the downtown businesses said was best for downtown. And I think it was improper to delegate money that hasn’t been confirmed for certain, without the public even knowing that this was a possibility.”

On Aug. 13, the controversy received fuel in the form of an open letter from the directors of three Palm Springs business organizations—the Main Street Palm Springs Downtown and Uptown Business Association, the Palm Springs Hospitality Association, and P.S. Resorts—opposing the fully funded original park plan.

“What happened at last week’s City Council meeting was focused discussion on returning to the original $9.5 million park design,” said the letter, in part. “This was not the discussion noticed in the published agenda. The agenda detailed six less expensive park options. As such, it was questionable and non-transparent; it provided no opportunity for residents and stakeholders to express their opinions. … As community leaders, we call for an open and inclusive discussion on shared community priorities, with updated and accurate budget information. We call on the mayor and councilmembers to hold a special public meeting to discuss how the $3 million of newly available funds should be spent, and to pause any action on the downtown park.”

Holstege said everyone is not “sharing the same set of facts” about the park.

“I was a bit concerned to see some facts in that op-ed that were not true, and were different from the facts that were presented to council,” she said. “We’re in very difficult times as a city and a country, and we’re all facing difficult personal times. I think it’s important to come together as a community and work from the same set of facts, disagree with respect, and understand where each other is coming from. I think some of that is missing in our civil discourse right now because of where we are as a country. … I reached out already to the business community when I saw their op-ed. They want a private space for private events, and the Marilyn (Monroe) statue downtown in a location that’s visible. So I think we can keep working together to achieve everyone’s goals, and we don’t have to be opposed.”

Both Kors and Middleton said they hoped the matter would return to the City Council for another vote.

“Whether this could come back as a budget discussion, and if one of the people who voted for it think it’s appropriate to bring it back so the public can have more input, are questions the city attorney will have to answer,” Kors said.

As the Aug. 31 finish line for the California State Legislature approaches, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia and his colleagues are working hard to pass a package of bills designed to bring relief to the state’s farmworker communities and workplaces—which are struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are making bold efforts to put forward policy that protects the health and safety of the farmworkers,” Garcia said during a recent interview with the Independent. “But, also, we’re looking at the economic security of workers, and we want to prevent disruptions in the nation’s food supply, which is as critical to all of us today as it was even before this pandemic.

“We’ve got this series of five bills that we want to highlight. We had a press conference back in April about these issues, and after that discussion, the governor took a number of executive orders, like hazard pay (for essential workers), housing as it relates to farmworkers in certain parts of the state, increasing PPE (personal protective equipment) and testing in specific agriculturally based communities.”

As a result of those executive actions, the concerns addressed were changed in those five bills: Assembly Bill 2043, the Agricultural Workplace Health and Safety Act; AB 2164, the Telehealth for Rural and Community Health Centers Act; AB 2165, the E-Filing and Rural Access to Justice Act; AB 1248, the Buy California Agricultural Products Act; and a request to have the funding for the California Farmworker Housing Assistance Tax Credit bumped from a $500,000 limit to $25 million. The bills focus on some important but relatively narrow concerns resulting from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our state’s massively underserved essential farm workforce—largely because many of the more wide-reaching issues have been addressed to some degree through Newsom’s executive orders, which the Legislature has been working to codify into law.

“We’re talking about PPE investments, greater testing and permanent housing for our farmworkers. Then, of course, we’re talking about transparency and accountability to make sure that we’re accounting for farmworkers who test positive (for COVID-19) to make sure that we isolate them and keep others safe from becoming infected.

“We’re not asking for things outside the norm. We’re asking for greater investment in, and attention to, a very important part of our essential workforce that ties directly into our strong economy as it relates to the $50 billion agriculture industry.”

As of mid-August, the Riverside County of Riverside Department of Public Health said that 35.2 percent of the people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county are Hispanic/Latino.

“Working circumstances for farmworkers start with the thousands of people who are crossing the border from Mexico to go to work in the fields each day,” Garcia said. “They’re lined up at three or four in the morning, right next to each other. Then they cross the border, and they are loaded up on a school-bus type of transportation system where there are two or three people per seat heading out to the actual fields to prepare for a work day. They are working in situations where the physical distance is less than six feet, because of the type of crop that they’re picking, or the type of machine that they’re using. Those circumstances continue to contribute to an increase in positive cases. Then there is family to worry about when the workers go home, or others who may reside in the same location with them.”

Rosa Lucas is a registered nurse, a family nurse practitioner and one of the founding members of the Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine (CVVIM). She has been on the frontlines of COVID-19 testing in the eastern Coachella Valley, which has helped to reveal the unusually high positivity rates among the local farmworker populations of communities like Mecca, Oasis and Thermal.

“It’s been up around 17 to 18 percent, and I’m not going to be surprised if it goes up to 20 to 22 percent in the next batch,” Lucas said of an Aug. 13 testing event at the Mountain View Estates mobile home park in Thermal. “That was only a group of 25 people, all of whom are migrant farmworkers, so it wasn’t a random sample.”

What concerns Lucas as much as the high infection rates is the fact that the county Department of Public Health didn’t start testing these residents at their workplaces or homes until the pandemic had been raging for months.

“The testing the county does is drive-up testing, basically,” Lucas said, noting that most farmworkers don’t have cars. “They were not doing it in the communities where the residents would be most affected by COVID, or any other illness, especially a contagious illness.”

To fill in the gap, Lucas said, CVVIM raised tens of thousands of dollars to begin testing.

“When we started testing, the positive results were higher than the communities in the western side of the valley,” Lucas said. “We continued doing the testing every few weeks, and the statistics kept rising. Then, I guess the county got embarrassed, so they came in and started doing it. But what was amazing to me is that the county went out and was doing their testing between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. The farmworkers are in the fields from early in the morning until 4 to 4:30 in the afternoon. We did our testing between 5 and 8 p.m.

“You know, there’s more than speaking the language to cultural competence. You need to know a community to become competent in their needs and their lives. The county personnel were missing this whole population. In any case, it just became clear it was impossible for the county to take over this testing, so we started testing again.”

These aggressive testing efforts, both in the Coachella Valley and in California’s other agricultural regions, that have fueled the urgency of Garcia’s legislative efforts.

“There’s a lot more that we need to do,” Garcia said. “Given that the virus continues to impact the workers in the fields at alarming rates, we need to pay additional attention and certainly provide the resources that are needed to address these concerns for our farmworkers. We have collaborations under way in different parts of the state with local farmers and other industry representatives to be able to address these issues.”

Does Garcia believe that these five bills will get passed by the end of the session?

“Yes, I do,” Garcia said. “I believe that the bills (all of which are now pending Senate approval) will successfully move in the Senate, and that they will end up on the governor’s desk.”

If you’ve been in downtown Palm Springs recently, you may have seen—or even sat on—one of the 10 newly painted public benches now adorning the downtown sidewalks on Palm Canyon Drive between Amado and Alejo roads.

This collection of formerly drab benches has just been re-imagined via the beautiful artwork of nine local artists who applied to the Palm Springs Public Arts Commission for the chance to participate in the Palm Springs Main Street Bench Project’s Phase 2, which concluded on Aug. 5. That talented group included Ernesto Ramirez (who painted two benches), Marconi Calindas, Shanah Chomsinsub, Zach Fleming, Michael Foss, Kylie Knight, Rich Rodriguez, Patrick Sheehan and QWestOwen.

The very next day, the commission issued another call for artists to transform 16 more benches, this time located on Palm Canyon Drive between Alejo Road and Tachevah Drive. Each artist will receive a grant of $1,000 per bench; all the required art materials, including the paint, will be provided by the commission. The deadline to submit a design for bench artwork is Saturday, Aug. 15, via pspublicarts.com.

The Main Street Bench Project is supervised by local artist Tysen Knight. In 2019, Knight was tapped by the Public Arts Commission to paint 10 benches along Palm Canyon between Arenas Road and Museum Way—and he created a series of eye-catching tributes to a variety of celebrity icons.

“I did do those first 10 benches by myself, so I think they’re sick and tired of seeing my work,” Knight said with a laugh. “When I first started this process, there were things I had to learn by trial and error. I had to figure out the proper way to paint the bench, and what the proper sealer was, because we needed to have longevity. After I finished that first round of benches, (the Public Arts Commission) asked if I would become the supervisor on the project, so I stayed to work on the second phase of benches. We had such a great turnout, and everything went so smoothly, that the PSPAC asked if I would manage another round. … Then we’ll probably move over to the airport and do some benches over there as well.”

Knight explained the process, from concept to completed bench.

“First, (the PSPAC commissioners and I) will sit down and go through all of the submissions and pick the ones that we think are super-cool,” Knight said. “Then we’ll kickstart the process again. We supply all the materials for the artists. That’s where I come into play, because I know all of the ins and outs. I’ll meet with (each artist), and we’ll get the paints from Dunn-Edwards, and go from there. I’ve got a really good relationship with Dunn-Edwards, and they sponsor a lot of my wall-mural projects, so I was able to (arrange) for the PSPAC to get the paint through Dunn-Edwards. That’s the paint I used on the first set of benches, and it’s holding up really well.

“Now, after the artist paints the bench, I’ll come back with a high-grade sealer like they would use on handrails and stuff that gets used a lot. I wanted a nice clear coat which protects the bench, for the most part. You know people will be standing on them, sitting on them and spilling ice cream on them. I mean, they’re outside public benches, so we just want people to use them and enjoy some beautiful art at the same time.”

Marconi Calindas was one of the Phase 2 artists. What challenges did he confront along the way?

“I wasn’t that challenged in creating the design,” Calindas said. “I was inspired by Palm Springs. My design is called ‘The Roadrunner.’ In that design, I incorporated the roadrunner, the windmills and the basic landscape of Palm Springs.

“As for the physical challenges—yes, it is the summer, and I wondered, ‘Why would they even have a project like this in the summer out here?’ I was there from 7 a.m. to 12 noon, and I thought that I could finish the bench in one day—but I almost passed out. I was with my husband, and he was helping me. He was holding an umbrella, and I’m so lucky that he was there, but I couldn’t take the heat. So, I continued the following day—which was my birthday. Even so, I just wanted to finish that bench so badly. People were asking me, ‘Marconi, what are you doing on your birthday?’ ‘Eating the sun,’ I told them.

“But those were really all the challenges that I had, because we had an amazing overseer for the project, Tysen Knight. He knew how to handle all of the problems, so it was really almost smooth. Without him, it would have been more challenging, definitely.”

Degree of difficulty aside, Calindas expressed appreciation for the project.

“We are so glad that the Palm Springs Public Arts Commission is doing this project, especially artists like me,” Calindas said. “Even before the pandemic, artists have always struggled to get our art out there, to get our pieces to be recognized. When the pandemic happened, it was even more challenging. So, the grants the PSPAC has been giving out for benches in this project (enabled me), first, to stay busy during this crisis, and secondly, to get my art out. Personally, I have my studio in the Backstreet Art District, and normally we would have our First Wednesday Art Walks, and I could invite friends and others to come see my art, my new creations. So I’m very thankful for Palm Springs Public Arts Commission right now—and I’m doing another project through them. It’s not a bench, but a wall or fence at the Village Pub, and I’m excited for that, too.”

Knight also expressed gratitude to the Palm Springs Public Arts Commission.

“Right now, you know, being an artist is pretty tough, because of how the economy is and the pandemic,” Knight said. “So we got a really good turnout of artists who want to be involved in this event. Now that (the Public Arts Commission) extended the project, we can give more artists the opportunity to secure some type of work. … We’re open to whatever submissions (anyone) wants to send in.”

Knight discussed what else he is doing to stay busy.

“Since the pandemic hit us in March, I had some solo wall mural projects that got put on hold,” Knight said. “But now that school is getting back into the swing of things via socially distanced learning, I’ll be mentoring through a program called BAM (Boys Arts Mentoring). That program goes throughout the Palm Springs Unified School District, and I work with six different middle schools. We’re coming up with a program where I’ll be able to teach the boys through Zoom. I’ll get 9-by-12-inch canvasses and sketch out whatever theme they come up with on the canvas. They’ll be delivered to each kid at his home. Then I’ll be doing structural painting with them online, so that we can keep our mentorship program going.

“I’m signed with the Redwood Art Group, which is one of the biggest art dealers in North America. Usually, I’d do all the different major art fairs around the country, but due to the pandemic, everything is online right now. So, I mean, life’s good, and I’m blessed. I’m able to help other people find themselves as artists, and I’m blessed enough to still be working in the midst of this current climate. So, that’s pretty good. Everyone needs to look at things positively, if you can—and I think we’ll get through this somehow. Things will get back to some type of normalcy.”

For more information, visit pspublicarts.com.

On June 18, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the Trump administration’s efforts to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—seemingly giving a lifeline to the program that allows some undocumented residents who were brought to the United States as children to gain legal status.

Celebrations, sparked by the relief felt in undocumented-immigrant communities, spread across America. But they would be short-lived.

“Today’s court opinion has no basis in law and merely delays the president’s lawful ability to end the illegal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals amnesty program,” said a statement by Chad Wolf, the acting Homeland Security secretary.

A few days later, the Independent spoke to Megan Beaman Jacinto, a Coachella Valley immigration and civil rights attorney, about the impact of the ruling.

“What the decision did was essentially say that the Trump administration didn’t (try to) end DACA in the right way, and for that reason, DACA should be reopened for first-time applicants,” Beaman Jacinto said. “So it not only preserves DACA for those who are already in it, and (allows them) to keep renewing, which was already available, but it reopens it for people who qualified and weren’t able to apply after the program stopped. Hopefully, now there will be new people coming into the program. … But the ruling was very narrow and sort of temporary.”

On July 28, it became clear just how temporary hopes were for a reinstatement of the DACA program, when Wolf issued a statement saying he was directing “DHS personnel to take all appropriate actions to reject all pending and future initial requests for DACA, to reject all pending and future applications for advance parole absent exceptional circumstances, and to shorten DACA renewals (to one-year periods) consistent with the parameters established in this memorandum.”

The lives of roughly 640,000 current DACA recipients—and countless aspiring participants—were thrown into turmoil once again.

Vanessa Moreno, a resident of Coachella, is the program coordinator at COFEM Coachella Valley. The mission of COFEM—the Council of Mexican Federations in North America—is “to empower immigrant communities to be full participants in the social, political, economic and cultural life of the United States and their home country,” according to COFEM’s website. As someone who came to the United States as an undocumented child, Moreno said Wolf’s July 28 announcement was extremely upsetting.

“I felt so super-angry and frustrated. My ears started getting hot, and my hands started getting sweaty, and my stomach turned,” Moreno said. “I just didn’t know what else to say. I just couldn’t believe this was happening. We celebrated just a month ago that people were going to be able to apply for the first time, and we were preparing infographics to explain to people what the requirements are, and what documents they need. It’s like when you get to a point that you’ve had enough—you’re just so fed up, and I think everyone was feeling the same. I talked to my friends, and all of them were on the same page. They pretty much said that they can’t (fight) anymore. They said, ‘I have to review my future, and where am I going to be at? Will DACA be gone soon? Will I have to go back to my country? Should I go back?’”

Moreno said she’s fortunate, because she has two years of DACA protection left.

“I know I’m privileged to have DACA right now,” Moreno said. “Still, working with COFEM and knowing about all the other applicants, I didn’t know how to tell them that they can’t apply. That same day, I had to communicate with one parent who was interested in applying for DACA for his son. He had everything ready—the application and the money order. He just wanted the greenlight to send it. It broke my heart to tell him that under this memo, you can’t (apply), but we’re going to continue fighting. He was upset. But I started thinking about what else I could do to support (the parent). I asked, ‘Hey! Is your kid thinking about going to school, or is he in college right now?’ He told me that his son had just graduated from high school, but because he doesn’t have DACA, he can’t get a work permit. So, I told him right then that his son doesn’t need DACA to go to a two-year college. I know that DACA helps because you are able to have a job—to have that income to support your studies or get a car. But, at the end of the day, you can still go to college even without DACA.

“I told him about the Dreamer (Resource) Center at the College of the Desert, and the student club that I could help connect his son with. So he lit up and told me all this was great news. He said he would talk to his son about going to college, or at least taking a class or two, so he could connect to the resources. It made me think that there are probably a lot of cases like that, and that this is what the potential DACA applicants are dealing with right now. They want to seek a higher education, but they feel that they can’t. If they don’t know the resources (available to them), then I can only imagine what the state of their mental health is right now.”

In the early 2000s, when she was 8 years old, Moreno and her family left Michoacán, Mexico, before settling in the Coachella Valley. They managed to maintain a foothold in this country despite numerous challenges.

In June 2012, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano issued a memorandum establishing the policy known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

“When I graduated from high school in 2012,” Moreno said, “it was just a couple of months before (President Barack) Obama’s executive order establishing the DACA program. I had already decided to go to community college, and because DACA was new at that time, and it had never been done before, there was still a lot of fear in our communities, and I was hesitant to apply right then. When my sister and I—she’s now in DACA, too—saw that it was safe to apply, and that people were getting their work permits delivered to them, we figured it would be best to apply. So we did, and I think that helped me gain more confidence.

“In high school, I was very involved, but then I became really discouraged since I couldn’t attend a four-year college because of my status. Not that it was impossible for me, but the economic hardships were there, and I couldn’t afford it. Thankfully, though, with the support of my mom, we (managed) to pay for my first semester at the College of the Desert. Also, the California Dream Act had been passed, so we were able to apply for state financial aid.”

According to the California state website, “the California Dream Act allows students interested in attending eligible California colleges, universities and career education programs to apply for state financial aid. It is unrelated to the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.” It became law in 2011.

Moreno said she at first struggled with her status during her college years. “I went to a conference at UCLA for undocumented students, and I think that’s what brought me back to my old self and got me really involved in the community,” she said. “That’s when I officially came out of the shadows. Before that, I was afraid to share my status with friends and other folks. But going to this conference made me realize that I wasn’t alone, and it helped to bring my motivation back.”

Moreno completed her college education after transferring to Cal State Fullerton. Her a future as an immigrant-rights advocate solidified as she participated in school clubs such as Alas Con Futuro (Wings for the Future) at COD, and the Titan Dreamers Resource Center at Fullerton, where she co-founded the Dream Co-op, also known as the Diversity-Resilience-Education-Access-Movement-Cooperation student lab. She was also accepted for an internship with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA). According to the organization’s website, CHIRLA’s mission “is to achieve a just society fully inclusive of immigrants.”

“When I graduated, I thought about staying in Fullerton, but it was difficult to find a job,” Moreno said. “Then I saw a position here in Palm Desert with an attorney who was looking for someone who had an immigration background. I came and took the job, but I was only there for a month. I realized that being involved over in Fullerton, and again in L.A. with CHIRLA, if I came back to the valley, I needed to get involved with other organizations.

“That’s how I came across COFEM. I got an email from the club adviser at the College of the Desert that they were looking for volunteers for a citizenship clinic. So, I thought, ‘Hey! This organization’s mission is to empower immigrant communities, and that’s perfect.’ So, I went to volunteer. I think they were expecting a big event, so pretty much the whole (COFEM) team came down (from L.A.), and I got to meet them. They told me they were hiring, so they interviewed me on the spot.”

Moreno said she wasn’t prepared yet to work for COFEM—"but it was definitely meant to be.”

“On Sep. 5, 2017, Trump first terminated DACA. I called COFEM (again) to ask if they were doing any advocacy on DACA, because Trump had terminated the program. They asked to come to L.A. to talk again. So I did, and they hired me. In the beginning, my main focus was to support undocumented students, but then I started taking on more responsibilities with the organization. I’ve been working there almost two years now. Still, it’s crazy (this job) happened due to the termination of DACA.”

Both Moreno and Beaman Jacinto pointed out that DACA is just a small part of the work that needs to be done on behalf of the nation’s immigrants.

“We want people to understand the importance of a permanent solution (to the U.S. immigration quandary) and not having something temporary,” Moreno said. “Also, they should know that we’re going to continue fighting.”

Said Beaman Jacinto: “There’s been a lot of focus on DACA for the last eight years, since it became law under President Obama. It’s been an important step in the right direction, but it’s a very limited program that only serves a very limited number of people, and not even all youths are covered by it. So it was a small step in the right direction—but there is so much work still to be done.”

A little more than a year ago, in June 2019, then-incoming La Quinta High School senior Lizbeth Luevano beat out hundreds of other students to travel to Washington, D.C., to participate in the 2019 R2L NextGen week-long program, organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) and sponsored by State Farm. The Independent covered the story of her experience.

This summer, Luevano has earned another honor: She’s one of four Inland Empire students participating in a prestigious, paid internship with Bank of America’s Student Leaders Program. According to a press release, the students will engage in an “experience of leadership, civic engagement and workforce skills-building with local nonprofit OneFuture Coachella Valley. In light of the health concerns that remain in local communities, the program has been adapted to a virtual format. … As part of their Student Leader program, each student will receive a $5,000 stipend.”

The Independent recently spoke by phone with Luevano, and she said the Student Leaders Program has given her a chance to talk to a lot of people she wouldn’t be able to access otherwise.

“Part of the project has been talking to specific community leaders who are local to my area and come from similar underserved backgrounds like mine, and also, talking to other national student leaders who might be from different states,” Luevano said. “This week, we just finished up the young democracy session. I came out of it feeling a lot more knowledgeable about the disparities we see across the nation. I’ve developed more skills to try to provide solutions for those problems. I’ve always been very interested in becoming an immigration-rights lawyer, and I want to practice here in the Coachella Valley. So, for me, it’s important to understand how to recognize those problems and how to be a part of that solution. The community leaders we’ve seen are not necessarily from one sector. We’ve talked to people from the private sector, the nonprofit sector and the for-profit sector—who come from different backgrounds, but are all focused on that one goal of helping society. It’s been amazing how much I’ve learned from every webinar.

“Bank of America has been so good about wanting us to learn more about issues like food insecurity here, but they’re tackling so many different aspects that will help me on my journey. There’s also been the mentorship project that’s teaching us how valuable mentorship opportunities are. … We were talking about how important it is to reach out to people to make connections. That’s how I ended up finding a job that I’ll be going to in August: I’ll be working as a legal assistant to an immigration attorney (Hurwitz Holt) in San Diego. I don’t think I would have been empowered enough to reach out to that immigration attorney if I hadn’t been coached to pursue those kinds of opportunities.”

The students have been working with OneFuture Coachella Valley, a nonprofit that “works to help all students graduate prepared for college, career and life—expanding and enhancing the local workforce so that our youth and economy thrive,” according to the organization’s website.

“Locally, with OneFuture CV, we’re working on a story-making project,” Luevano said. “Essentially, they’re connecting us—myself and three other IE-market student leaders—with community leaders and doing interviews. We’re drawing up articles from those interviews, and we’re sharing them across the social media of OneFuture. So, it’s a campaign to promote OneFuture and to raise awareness about the kind of impact they’re having on the community.”

Luevano and thousands of other Coachella Valley students had the in-person aspects of their senior year of high school cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The virtual (classes) didn’t really work,” Luevano said. “No one was really attending the Zoom meetings with my teachers, so I really felt that I had graduated in March. I didn’t expect I could have a physical graduation, but La Quinta High School did do a drive-through ceremony, which was really nice. We were really rushed through, but it was at least nice to get the photos onstage. It really has been interesting to adjust—and it’s been weird not to have felt that closure. It’s weird to think that I’m already a high school graduate when I haven’t had the chance yet to say goodbye to my teachers or my peers at high school. It’s definitely been difficult—but I definitely have felt a lot of support from the community. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Coachella Valley Adopt a Graduating (2020 High School) Senior program. It was a way for other people in the community to reach out via Facebook to a member of the class of 2020, and celebrate them with gifts and snacks, and things of that nature. That was really nice. But I do wish I’d had a physical graduation.”

After taking a gap year, Luevano will embark on the next chapter of her education when she begins her studies at Stanford University. When we spoke last year, she’d mentioned that in order to “get out of her comfort zone,” she wanted to attend college at either Swarthmore or Bowdoin, which are both East Coast schools. Luevano explained her change of heart.

“It was definitely (a decision) I was struggling with,” she said. “Because of the coronavirus pandemic, I wasn’t able to get on the campus of some of the schools I was admitted to. I was admitted to Bowdoin and Swarthmore, and I was heavily considering them—but I thought that I had to go with my gut, and I think that Stanford is decently far away for me to get uncomfortable enough. It was something I struggled with until the last day.

“My priorities have been shifting (as far as) what I wanted as a college experience, and I felt like maybe a larger student population would be more suited for what I wanted to do.”

Luevano wanted to emphasize how important her involvement with OneFuture CV has been to her growth.

“I’d been part of the Migrant Education Program and already had access to OneFuture CV, even before this Student Leaders program,” she said. “I think the kind of emphasis they place on education as economic development is especially important. One of the general sentiments that I always felt in high school is that a lot of people want to get out of the Coachella Valley. I see it even with some of my friends—a lot of people just want to leave, and they don’t want to come back. As I mentioned, I even wanted to go to the East Coast (for college), because I felt too familiar here. But long term, I do want to come back, and I do want to practice here as a lawyer.

“It’s been very valuable for me that One Future CV promotes this kind of narrative of people who have gone to college—UCLA and all these different schools—and have eventually come back to pursue their careers here. … Students and leaders should not only see those problems, but also be part of the solution of alleviating those problems here. People like Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz, who went to Harvard Medical School—he still came back here to the Coachella Valley. County Supervisor (V. Manuel) Perez went to Harvard as well—and he came back. With what I’m learning as a student leader, I’ll be able to continue those initiatives here with a local nonprofit that has that kind of mission statement. For me, it’s been invaluable and very nurturing.”

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