Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

As the turbulent year of 2017 churns toward its conclusion, you may be looking for a place to grab a dose of the Christmas spirit.

I found a place—the Mizell Senior Center in Palm Springs, which administers the Meals on Wheels program for the Coachella Valley.

“We just put our Christmas ‘giving tree’ up,” said Ginny Foat, the executive director of the center. “Our Meals on Wheels drivers—who are professionally trained full-time employees and not volunteers—come back from their routes and give us the names of clients who are just really poor. We sent each of those poorest clients a flier asking them what they wanted for the holidays. When they send us their wish list, we attach them to ornaments which we hang on the ‘giving tree.’ Then, people voluntarily come and pick an ornament and go out and buy specifically for that one person. The kind of lists we get are for books, stationery, electric razors, socks, slippers or new blankets. We never get lists asking for perfume, jewelry and computers. It’s really heartwarming to see all these people voluntarily come take the ornaments off the tree, and then come back with all these wrapped presents that we deliver to client homes on Christmas Eve.

“Another thing we do is deliver holiday bags to every single one of our clients that are filled with items donated by the community,” Foat said. “In the beginning of December, we collect toiletries, socks and other essentials, and then we deliver a huge bag of stuff to each client right before Christmas.”

To the staff of 23 people who enable the Mizell Senior Center’s Meals on Wheels program and provide year-round nutritional support to the neediest seniors living throughout much of Riverside County, generosity of spirit and acts of caring are a way of life every day.

“Our nutritional program has two initiatives: the congregate sites where people come in and have lunch together at different sites that we handle, and then we have the home delivery (via Meals on Wheels),” said Laura Castillo, the director of nutrition and operational services. “… Through Meals on Wheels, we deliver some 465 meals per day. Both the congregate sites and our home-delivery clients range from Whitewater to the west, and all the way east to North Shore, Mecca, Thermal, Coachella and Indio, as well as Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, (other area cities) and two senior communities in Palm Springs, along with our Mizell Center here. Also, we’ll probably start serving Palm Desert’s Joslyn Center at the beginning of our next fiscal year (July 1, 2018).”

Along with these primary responsibilities, the Meals on Wheels team does other things that aren’t necessarily in the job description.

“Sometimes, our delivery drivers are the only person who our clients will see in the whole day,” Castillo said. “That’s part of what makes this program so great. Yes, it gets hectic and frustrating when there’s not enough of this or that, but the support this program gets from the Mizell Senior Center itself is huge. It’s become such a great community.”

The requirements set by Riverside County for participants to qualify for Meals on Wheels service are strict.

“You have to have no one in the house who can cook or go to the grocery store,” Foat said. “You need to have no means of transportation.”

Whether or not a client can qualify for Meals on Wheels, the center’s staff is always looking for ways to improve every senior’s life.

“If a client can find a way to come into the center to get their meals, we encourage it, because they’ll make friends and have a motive to come out of their homes,” Castillo said. “I had a client two years ago who didn’t want to leave his house. I told his kids, ‘He’s mobile, and you need to get him to come to the center.’ So finally, his kids got him to come. Then, six months later, I hadn’t seen him for awhile, so I called the family, and they told me that he was in Oregon. When he came back at the end of the summer, I found out that he had married one of our other clients who he met here at the center. That was so cute. So, it’s a social program. It really is.”

All these good works require a lot of funds—funds that aren’t always readily available.

“Right now, we’re under-budgeted (for the volume of service we provide),” Castillo said.

Foat said Mizell’s Meals on Wheels program never lets any eligible senior go hungry.

“One of the things I think is so unique about our program is that we serve one-third of the (Meals on Wheels) in Riverside County, but we are the only purveyor for the county that does not have a waiting list,” Foat said. “Others start a waiting list each year when the county funds run out, but we fund-raise. This is a hard thing to do, but our board has decided that food is the most important thing for anyone, since without food, you can’t exist. You can’t do anything. So we’ve committed to never having a waiting list, and we have to fund-raise constantly to support this ideal.”

The Riverside County contract supplies the center with not quite 80 percent of the funding required. That means Mizell’s staff and board need to raise the money to subsidize 20-plus percent of the total—or the cost of roughly 34,000 meals, plus the cost of 20,000 extra meals that are not subsidized by the county.

“This year, because the county funds were much reduced, we’ll probably be looking at 50,000 meals that we’ll have to raise the money to pay for,” Foat said. “But it’s so important, since a lot of the clients that we deliver to are so dependent on that meal. Without it, they would not be eating.

“Also, another good part of our program is that we deliver pet food to seniors who have pets. We partner with the Palm Springs Animal Shelter pet-food bank, and twice a month, we deliver either cat or dog food, because we found that sometimes, our seniors’ only companion is their pet.”

To donate money to the Mizell Senior Center and its Meals on Wheels program, visit, or drop off a check at the center, at 480 S. Sunrise Way, in Palm Springs. To donate essential goods for holiday gift bags or participate in the “giving tree” effort, simply stop by the center.

Below: The Mizell Senior Center kitchen staff: Kelly Wills (executive chef), Laura Castillo (director of nutrition and operational services), Mike Williams (kitchen assistant 1), Pedro Hernandez (kitchen assistant 2), Steve Bautista (sous chef), AJ Pelen (kitchen assistant 2), Irma Hernandez (kitchen assistant 2), Keith Strother (volunteer) and Mindy Burnett (cook).

Published in Features

Of the six candidates running for the Palm Springs City Council this year, Robert Julian Stone is certainly the most blunt.

The author, film critic and community advocate certainly was not shy about sharing his views during a recent interview—including a conspiracy theory regarding the current City Council and two of his opponents.

But before we get to that … on the subject of homelessness, Stone was rather thoughtful and analytical. He told me the recent film The Florida Project was helpful in exposing the national problem of homelessness.

“The solution everyone talks about is the ‘housing first’ solution,’ Stone said. “It’s the best solution for a certain number of people who find themselves without homes. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that there are three things human beings need to be productive in society: They need food; they need shelter; and they need clothing. If you take any one of those things away from them, they cannot be a productive member of society. That’s the challenge that we’re facing: We must provide shelter, but how you go about doing that is a very expensive proposition, because (homelessness) numbers continue to grow. The ‘housing first’ solution works best for people who are living one paycheck to another. When you fall out of your housing, and you’ve lost your job, or you have a ruined credit rating because you’ve been evicted, or you’re unemployed—what it takes to get back in is the first month’s rent, a security deposit and employment. If that’s not immediately available to you, you’re out on the streets. The ‘housing first’ model works really well. because (these people) aren’t used to living on the streets, don’t want to live on the streets, and want to get back into a stable situation.

“If you’re talking about the people who don’t want four walls and a roof over their heads, or have addiction and mental health issues—those people are more difficult to handle.”

Stone said the vacation-rental situation in Palm Springs has been poorly handled.

“Airbnb is not going to go away, and it’s here to stay. The thing that we need to do is figure out the best way to manage it,” he said. “I don’t think creating a $1.7 million-a-year bureaucracy to handle the problem was necessarily the right way to go. When Palm Springs did their big vacation rental ordinance, they did not run it through the Planning Commission; they didn’t hold public hearings over a period of time. It was mostly Geoff Kors and J.R. Roberts in a back room coming up with this proposal, which went through a tumultuous unfolding when they got slapped with petitions to recall them and recall this ordinance if they didn’t change it. It was badly handled, and the biggest thing they missed was they didn’t do any density controls, and there’s nothing that prevents 98 percent of the homes next to your home from becoming short-term vacation rentals—and that’s a problem.”

Stone didn’t mince words on transparency—especially involving the funding for Measure J, a 1 percent sales and use tax approved by voters in 2011 that was slated to go toward city services, maintenance and redevelopment.

“They’re certainly transparent on the general-fund portion, but there are dozens of other side funds that don’t appear anywhere in the public forum for the city’s residents to understand or (figure out) exactly what’s going on with that money,” he said. “The city budget is $110 million; the other dozens of other funds make up an aggregate of another $110 to $120 million—things like the airport fund, the Measure J fund, the utility tax fund, the gas tax fund—and they’re run like a sideshow. They’re controlled by the city manager, who dips into those funds to transfer into the general fund as he sees fit, or to transfer from the general fund into those funds when they have shortfalls. Some have income; some of them, like the golf course fund, have income and expenses. We never really get a true picture of what our budget is, because half of it is run behind a curtain, and that’s a problem.”

Regarding the city’s relationship with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Stone said the city needs to work with the tribe in a more cooperative fashion.

“That’s a very difficult question, because the city has taken a position that changes from day to day depending on the subject on the table,” Stone said. “Sometimes, they say, ‘They’re a sovereign nation; we have nothing to do with them.’ I’ve heard Ginny Foat articulate that many times, saying they don’t get involved in their business. At the same time, we have a master plan … a bilateral agreement that both sides signed and should be adhering to. But when it comes down to enforcing it, the city never tries to. We need to invite them to the table. … If you look at the history of Palm Springs and the tribe, it’s very checkered. We need to have a better agreement with the tribe; we need to have one that is neutrally supportive. With the way the downtown (redevelopment) project was handled, and the 31 counts of corruption which relate directly to the downtown plan, we can’t really take the moral high ground when it comes to the tribe’s property, given the way the city handled their own downtown development.” 

Stone is not happy with the downtown redevelopment project.

“I think the hotel is a scar on the landscape. It will always be that,” he said. “If you look at the very first building near Tahquitz (Canyon Way) and Palm Canyon (Drive), that building which will house the Starbucks, that’s exactly the scale we were promised: It’s single story; it’s a tall building, and it’s a nice addition to the neighborhood. Then you look at these other buildings, and they’re horrible. It’s better than what we had, because what we had was terrible, but it’s so much less than what we deserved.”

What does the city need to do to be more transparent? Well, here’s where that conspiracy theory part comes in.

“The first thing that we can do is elect me,” Stone said with a laugh. “I also want to talk about where we’re headed if the Lisa (Middleton) and Christy (Holstege) train pulls into the station: We are going to be doing old-school Chicago politics with Councilmember Geoff Kors in the role of Mayor Richard Daley. We’re going have two people seated solely because of the support and the campaign management and campaign contributions that came from a sitting councilmember. Lisa’s campaign is being run by Geoff Kors’ husband. … They are the chosen two—so Geoff Kors will have the two votes he needs if they are seated, and then all bets are off, because it’ll be government by Geoff Kors, for Geoff Kors and about Geoff Kors. If you think that those two women are going to do anything to oppose what he wants, you’re too naive to be talking to—because that’s what we’re going to get, and that’s very troubling, because that’s not good for democracy.”

When I asked Stone whether he thinks the city is opposed to fun—a criticism some have made against the current City Council—his answer, much to my surprise, involved the ethnic makeup of the city.

“They are so not fun,” Stone said with a laugh. “Hell to the no on that! I’m sorry, but we have too many white people living in this town. I lived in San Francisco, and I’m used to living in a very diverse city where Caucasians were the minority. I was born and raised in Detroit, which was largely an African-American city. That’s the kind of demographic I’m used to. I’ve lived here full time for the past 12 years, so if you don’t mind me mixing metaphors: I know where the bodies are buried, and I can hit the decks running when I sit in that chair. I understand the demographic that lives here, because I’m a part of it, but I always wish there was more diversity in the community and diversity on our City Council. I’m sorry—I’m a white male, and I can’t help it.”

After our interview, he emailed me additional thoughts that were a bit more measured.

“Las Vegas has glitz, but Palm Springs has chill,” Stone said. “And chill is cool, sophisticated, and somewhat fragile. We can’t let (the city) be dragged into the vortex of beer bongs and guzzler helmets. So if the City Council may seem a bit stodgy on some points, I think it’s because they have an intuitive understanding of what makes our city special, and a commitment to maintaining it.”

Published in Politics

The closing of Roy’s Resource Center in North Palm Springs—what was the western Coachella Valley’s only shelter for the homeless—has thrown many people onto the streets, and Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG) is trying to act.

However, on June 20, the Desert Hot Springs City Council voted against a proposed program that would offer 12 rental properties across the west valley for up to 90 days to those who are homeless or at risk for homelessness. The council decided to revisit the issue in September.

The proposed program is a collaboration between CVAG and Path of Life Ministries. Desert Hot Springs City Councilmember Russell Betts said that he doesn’t feel the program is a good idea.

“They keep deflecting to, ‘Oh, this is just trading a home for anyone who you’d love to have as a neighbor,” Betts said. “That’s the rapid rehousing portion of it. The part that is really objectionable is the emergency housing component: That’s where homeless (people) straight off the street get put into a house in a residential neighborhood. It’s basically putting a homeless shelter in the middle of a residential neighborhood—only it’s a homeless house instead of a homeless shelter.”

Cheryll Dahlin, the CVAG management analyst, said CVAG would continue to work with the city of Desert Hot Springs while implementing the program in Palm Springs and Cathedral City.

“The representative on the Homeless Committee for Desert Hot Springs is Councilmember Joe McKee, and he’s been very supportive of this. But he did inform us at our last meeting that he would vote ‘no’ based on the decision of his council,” Dahlin said. “The city has traditionally not contributed toward Roy’s Resource Center, and we are going to continue our outreach with the city to address any questions they might have about the program. … Our staff recommendation and the recommendation from the Homeless Committee is that we focus on getting services up and running in Palm Springs and Cathedral City.

“Councilmember Ginny Foat, of Palm Springs, and Councilmember Mark Carnevale, of Cathedral City, have been very supportive. The city of Palm Springs has put in their budget about $103,000 for this program, which was the requested amount … we made to each city in the Coachella Valley for Roy’s Resource Center. Cathedral City has put up half of that amount, and the other half will be discussed at a future meeting.”

Desert Hot Springs resident Judy Shea has tried to help by opening a rental property to house homeless veterans in Desert Hot Springs. Shea, who said she would speak to the Independent after the City Council meeting, had not returned post-meeting phone messages as of our press deadline.

Betts is not a fan of Shea’s efforts.

“Eight years ago, she volunteered that same facility as an overnight cold shelter,” Betts said about Shea. “She went down to CVAG back then and offered it, and they took her up on it. It got red-tagged because … it was an unsafe building. They had 40 people staying there, with buses sitting out front of it, idling overnight. At 5 a.m., people would go there to pick them up and take them back down to Cathedral City or wherever else in the west valley, and bring them back again later. … It got shut down, and that was right around the time that Roy’s Resource Center was getting ready to open. They moved everyone down there.”

According to DHS city officials, Shea once owned a home in Glendale and did work on it without permits; the property was eventually seized by Los Angeles County. Betts said that Shea has been doing the same thing to the property she has in Desert Hot Springs.

“She wants to put 40 people in there again. She said at the meeting that it wouldn’t be all veterans, but maybe other homeless,” Betts said. “She’s once again trying to operate a homeless shelter in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The worst thing is she has not pulled any permits. It’s common sense that when you do work on your house, you have to go to City Hall and file for a permit to go start doing this work, and an inspector goes out and has a look at it. She just started working with volunteers.”

At the June 20 DHS City Council meeting, several residents expressed concern about Shea’s efforts. Marjorie Snell was worried because Shea’s proposed location was close to an assisted-living facility.

“Caring for veterans requires trained professionals who deal with PTSD, alcoholism, addiction and anger management,” she said.

Betts also said DHS’ location on the outskirts of the Coachella Valley make it a poor location for a homeless shelter. One of the downfalls of Roy’s was its middle-of-nowhere location.

“Let’s say that you get someone; they get stabilized, and now it’s time that they go look for work,” Betts said. “They’re not going to have a car, and they’re going to have to ride the SunBus. Anyone in Desert Hot Springs knows that it can be a 2 1/2 hour ride to get to your job. It used to be 2 1/2 hours just to get to College of the Desert. If Roy’s was too remote, downtown Desert Hot Springs is even more remote. We’re six miles further away. It’s real nice that everyone wants to push this off on Desert Hot Springs, but we have so many challenges here.”

Dahlin conceded that the location of Roy’s played a role in the decision to repurpose the building into a long-term care facility for adults with mental illness.

“The location of Roy’s Resource Center was a much debated topic. I think if you talk to Ginny Foat, she’d tell you about the challenges we had over locations back then,” Dahlin said. “As we embark on what we’d be doing in this next phase, we’ve discussed some possible locations for shelters, and you do run into questions and concerns from the city and the neighborhood when you talk about a physical building. The biggest upside to Roy’s re-purposing is that it’s a long-term board-and-care facility, so the need for daily transportation has been eliminated. You don’t have clients coming in and out every day.”

Published in Local Issues

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is at a crossroads.

The tribe, which has some 32,000 acres of land across Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and outlying areas, is making big plans for its prime downtown Palm Springs real estate. Meanwhile, the tribe is involved in a controversial lawsuit against the valley’s two largest water agencies over control of the area’s water rights.

In addition, tribal leadership, with Chairman Jeff Grubbe at the helm, is preparing for an uncertain future that includes online gambling—which may or may not hurt the tribe’s casino revenues.

The late Richard Milanovich (1942-2012) reigned as the tribal chairman for 28 years, during which he placed winning bets on the gambling industry. He led his people from obscurity to become the first Native American tribe in California to own and operate two major casinos—Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs, and Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa in Rancho Mirage.

The Tribe’s 480 members significantly benefit from the casinos. “There’s a direct per-capita payment to all tribal members, both minors and adults,” Milanovich told me in a 2003 interview.

Milanovich was a brilliant speaker and a clever leader who was always open to the media. However, Grubbe is a different kind of leader. He’s not media-savvy like his predecessor was, and prefers to lead from the background.

The current Tribal Council consists of familiar names. Grubbe’s close childhood friend, Vincent Gonzales III (whose aunt Barbara Gonzales was a tribal chairman) is the secretary and treasurer. Tribal councilmember Anthony Andreas III needs no introduction; after all, Andreas Canyon is named after his family. The vice chair, Larry Olinger, 78, is the oldest councilmember; the youngest is Richard’s son, Reid Milanovich, at 32.

Grubbe, who was elected to the council in 2006 and became chairman after Richard Milanovich’s passing in 2012, recently granted the Independent a rare interview. He recalled an occasion at what was then the Wyndham Hotel in Palm Springs when Richard Milanovich “threw him in the fire” to test his mettle.

“It was one of the first times I spoke publicly for the tribe,” Grubbe said. “Richard called me and said he wanted me to speak instead of him, and to welcome everybody to the tribal reservation at this conference. He said it’d be about 20 people.”

When Grubbe got there, he realized there were actually 500 people present.

“I started my opening remarks with how Richard had just pulled an Indian trick on me,” Grubbe said. “Later, Richard told me that I did great, and that at some point, I’d have to talk, anyway.”

During his first stint as governor, Jerry Brown appointed Grubbe’s grandfather, Lawrence Pierce, to the state Water Quality Control Board. Today, Grubbe said, the tribe enjoys a positive and a solid relationship with the governor.

“Gov. Brown has been good to us, and he respected us,” Grubbe said. “I’d been close to the governor. We had dinners a few times, and we talked several times.”

The tribe is presently pursuing two hefty lawsuits, regarding water rights and taxes.

Grubbe said he could not talk about the lawsuits. “But the water issue is that the aquifer is overused, and the quality of the water dumped in is low,” he said. “And for some reason, both the (Coachella Valley) Water District and the (Desert) Water Agency refused to hear our concerns. So we had to address the issue.”

The water litigation is ongoing.

As for the tax lawsuit: Riverside County assesses and collects a possessory interest tax from leaseholders on tribal lands in the valley. In a sense, the tax is a replacement for a property tax. Tribe spokeswoman Kate Anderson claims those taxes are not returned to the valley in the form of services, but are primarily used elsewhere in Riverside County. The tax lawsuit is also ongoing.

From time to time, tribal leadership gets criticized for a lack of transparency.

“I think that is not necessarily true. The tribe has been open, and it continues to be open,” he said. “I just spoke at a Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce meeting before 300 people—local and state officials, business owners and community leaders—and talked about what the is tribe working on. Sometimes, when the tribe does something that certain groups don’t like, they throw in that the tribe is not open enough.”

The tribe has plans for a new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum building on Tahquitz Canyon Way in Palm Springs. However, the tribe wants the community to chip in to help with the $65 million capital campaign.

“It’s a tough job to raise the money for it,” Grubbe said. “My mom’s been on the (Cultural) Museum Board for years. I’ve been talking to the mayor and a couple of City Council members in hopes that the city could possibly get involved, too.”

Grubbe addressed the relationship with the city of Palm Springs, considering the two governments need to exist side by side.

“I try to meet with the mayor nearly every month or so,” Grubbe said. “And there are two new City Council members, Geoff Kors and J.R. Roberts, who seem interested in talking and working with us. But Ginny Foat said some negative comments about us in the newspaper.”

I also asked Foat about her comments, made to The Desert Sun last year, during which she was quoted as saying she “would never do anything on Indian land.”

“I didn’t say what was in the paper,” Foat said. “They took my quote totally out of context. I didn’t say anything negative about the tribe and tribal land.”

Grubbe also talked about former Mayor Steve Pougnet and the current federal investigation of him and the city of Palm Springs.

“We’ve been very careful not to get involved with anything that will put the tribe in danger,” Grubbe said. “I always thought that the mayor (Pougnet) did some good things for the city, and I had no idea about all these other things. I still don’t know what’s going on, and the tribe does not deal with those kinds of things. We’re far removed from it.”

Of course, everyone in the area is curious about the goings-on around the Spa Resort Casino in downtown Palm Springs. Grubbe and the other tribal members have thus far been tight-lipped regarding their plans, although he did offer some hints about what is to come.

“We’re excited about the plans and design for the new downtown hotel, about the style of the rooms, etc.,” Grubbe said.

According to Grubbe, the old Spa Resort hotel had to be torn down because of errors made when the building was constructed in the 1960s. He cited a poorly designed and located entrance as an example.

“We’re looking for possibilities to have a new hotel with an entrance from Indian Canyon (Drive),” Grubbe said. “We’re talking to our membership about all these ideas. We want to build something special to redefine the downtown.”

Tom Davis, the chief planning and development officer who’s been with the tribe since 1992, offered yet more hints. He said it was possible the tribe could construct two hotels downtown.

“I expect that sometime this year, the tribe will come up with a certain architectural plan for a spa development, and perhaps some type of a boutique hotel,” Davis said.

Davis also said the tribe expects the city to return the street portions of Calle Encilia and Andreas Road to the tribe.

“This is consistent with the Section 14 master plan and the existing agreements with the city,” Davis said.

Grubbe—a former football jock who stands tall at 6 foot 2 inches—also addressed the current lack of women on the tribal council.

“We’re a very democratic tribe,” he said. “We have a strong presence of women at our tribal meetings, and they tell us exactly how they feel. In the past, we had an all-female tribal council. We don’t have any women running now for the council, but I’m sure it’ll change.”

Published in Local Issues

The year 2015 was not easy for Palm Springs government, especially after City Hall was rocked by an FBI raid targeting documents related to then-Mayor Steve Pougnet’s relationship with various developers and businessmen.

Then came a contentious and at times ugly election season, which ended with businessman and former military man Rob Moon defeating City Councilmember Ginny Foat by 11 percentage points in the eight-way mayoral race—a result that shocked many political insiders.

The Independent recently caught up with Rob Moon at Townie Bagels to talk about his first three months in office. I asked him if anything had surprised him about being mayor.

“The only thing that’s been difficult has been keeping up with the e-mails,” Moon said. “I probably get 150 a day, maybe 200. Just reading and responding to the ones I need to respond to, forwarding the e-mails I need to—it’s vastly time-consuming. Even my executive assistant finds herself 200 to 300 e-mails behind. It’s crazy!”

However, he said nothing really surprised him regarding city government.

“I’ve been following the city for a long time and haven’t missed more than three or four City Council meetings over the past few years,” he said. “I attended Planning Commission meetings, and I was chairman of the Measure J Commission. I had my finger on what was going on.”

Right from the get-go, Moon and the revamped City Council—newcomers Moon, Geoff Kors and J.R. Roberts joined hold-over incumbents Foat and Chris Mills on the five-person council—have been hard at work. Of course, downtown redevelopment has been a major focus.

“The very first night when I took over, we had to vote on the historic designation for Tahquitz Plaza, which we did. That had been hanging for years, and we resolved that our first night,” he said about the Hugh Kaptur-designed midcentury modern buildings at 600-700 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, which once were targets for demolition. “Then we worked on the downtown development project.

“At the last City Council meeting, the staff wanted us to do a public hearing and take public testimony and continue it to a time indefinite. As a council, we said no. It wasn’t fair to the developer, to the residents or the downtown businesses to drag this out. We wanted to make decisions—which is what we were put in office for. We had a meeting that went until 1 in the morning and voted on every single outstanding issue, with the height of the buildings and all that stuff. We did vote after vote after vote. It wasn’t all unanimous, but we did our job that night.”

One of the things the council took action on was the ever-controversial downtown development being built by John Wessman. The council frustrated the developer by limiting the height on one of the proposed buildings.

“We settled the height of the hotel at the City Council meeting, and that’s going to be 49 feet. It’s not going to overwhelmingly large, and it’s a compromise,” he said.

The spirit of compromise shown by Moon and the other new council members has eased the concerns of some community activists, who were afraid Wessman was getting whatever he desired from the previous council.

“It hasn’t really been a struggle,” Moon said. “We made decisions, and we took a good compromise and the developer didn’t get everything he wanted. (Advocates for Better Community Development, led by Frank Tysen) and other activists who didn’t want to see the development done didn’t get everything they wanted, either, but we reduced the density by 40 percent, and we widened some of the streets. So needless to say, everybody got something.”

The Hacienda Cantina and Beach Club—which had been operated by developer Richard Meaney, one of the primary targets of the FBI investigation—is now shuttered, with no revival seemingly in sight. It’s likely to be one of the new council’s major headaches.

“The Hacienda is something I can’t really comment on, because we’re in litigation now, but the previous City Council agreed to give them $250,000 as an incentive, and apparently they did not use that money for what one would expect—to pay their contractors—and no one knows what they did with it,” he said.

Moon said the city budget is a constant concern for him and his fellow council members.

“Any city, state or federal government has concerns about budget, because you can’t do everything you want to do,” Moon said. “We’re really understaffed at City Hall; we have a serious problem with the homeless; we have infrastructure (work) that needs to be done and roads that need to be paved. The library needs to be redone, and City Hall has a leaky roof. There’s a massive amount that needs to be done. We did pass the Measure J tax that adds the 1 percent sales tax that brings in $13.1 million a year; $3.5 million of that goes toward the bond for the downtown development project, which leaves close to about $9 million a year right now to do additional capital projects.”

Moon said one of the biggest challenges for the city is the homelessness issue.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “Councilwoman Foat has a task force she’s working on to get services to homeless people who want services, but what about the people who don’t want services—the ones who don’t want a place to stay, don’t want help, and just want to live in empty lots, panhandle and be a burden on society? That’s a challenge, and I don’t know how to address it. One of our problems is we have a lot of open land in Palm Springs, which the other cities don’t have, which makes it more difficult for us.”

Moon said the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which is currently making plans to redevelop the Spa Resort Casino, continues to have a good working relationship with the city of Palm Springs.

“I had lunch with Chairman Jeff Grubbe a few times, because we have a good relationship, and I’m working very hard to make sure we have a relationship of trust and respect between him and me, and that helps when reaching out to the tribe,” Moon said. “… Chairman Grubbe told me, ‘What’s good for Palm Springs is good for all of us.’ I think that’s important. The tribe only has 400 members and owns half the land in Palm Springs. A lot of the members don’t live here and live elsewhere. They have a very complex governmental organization. What I want to do going forward is make sure we have better communication with them to where we talk to them about what we’re doing, and they talk to us about what they’re doing, and we work together.”

Moon said he’s committed to keeping the workings of the city government transparent.

“Transparency, like democracy, is messy and takes a lot of time,” he said. “We have City Council meetings going until midnight and beyond, because we’ve been debating things in public … and not passing through things quietly. We’ve been bringing it out in the open and discussing these things. Councilman Geoff Kors and I are also heading up a new commission to write some new rules in regard to transparency. We’re both on the finance committee as well and are scheduling public meetings about the budget, and residents can come down and talk about the budget and how they’d like to see their tax dollars spent. We’re also going to have a separate meeting for the City Council where they debate the budget instead of doing it as an agenda item on the regular meeting.”

Published in Politics

It was a simple, four-step exercise:

1. We came up with a list of 10 questions—five serious, issue-based questions, and five questions that are a little more light-hearted—to ask all of the candidates for city office.

2. We set up interviews with all of the candidates.

3. We asked the candidates the 10 questions.

That’s exactly what Palm Springs resident Jimmy Boegle did over the last couple of weeks. He interviewed every one of the 14 Palm Springs candidates—eight mayoral candidates, and six City Council candidates.

Now, comes the last step.

4. Report the answers to those 10 questions.

Here’s what all of the candidates have to say. We only made minor edits on the candidates’ answers for grammar and style; in some cases, we also edited out redundancies. Finally, in some instances, we did not include portions of candidates’ answers if they went completely off-topic.

Welcome to Candidate Q&A.

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Guy T. Burrows

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Robert “Rob” Moon

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Ricky B. Wright

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Bob Weinstein

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Ginny Foat

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Bill Gunasti

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Mike Schaefer

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Ron Oden

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs City Council Candidate Anna Nevenic

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs City Council Candidate Paul Lewin

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs City Council Candidate David Brown

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs City Council Candidate J.R. Roberts

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs City Council Candidate Jim King

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs City Council Candidate Geoff Kors

Published in Politics

Name: Ginny Foat

Age: 74

Occupation: Palm Springs City Council member/executive director of Mizell Senior Center

Interview: Phone

1. When you stand at the intersection of Tahquitz Canyon Road and Palm Canyon Drive, and look northwest, what comes to mind?

What comes to my mind is that there were almost 15 years, or maybe even more, of a dead center of our town. No matter what we did in the city, and we did a lot of really creative things for our citizens, and encouraged business development and everything, but no matter how you looked at it, there was one dead center of town. I look at it now and see life. Do I love it? Probably not. Do I think there are some things I would have like to have changed? Yes. But through an agreement with the developer who owns the land—we didn’t own the land—and the city, we now will bring life back to the center of our town, which not only will help this particular development, but will also help everything surrounding it. The businesses surrounding it are all going to thrive because there’s this new center of excitement in our downtown.

2. Does Palm Springs have a crime problem? If so, what should be done about it?

We have a crime problem the same way as everybody else has a crime problem. Our violent crime is very low. Our property crimes are higher, and this has a lot to do with early releases, our close proximity to places where parolees exist, and our reputation as an affluent city. Everybody in the city is not affluent, but we kind of have that reputation. So part of my platform … is the fact that we need to increase our police officers on the street. We have a number of vacancies now. We’ve started looking at increased recruitment tools (for) laterals, meaning police officers coming from other jurisdictions want to come to Palm Springs. So yes, we have a number of vacancies in our police department, so that’s one of the things that I have been working on, and one of the things I will continue to work on.

I’ve worked very closely with the police department. … Every time I’ve run, I’ve been endorsed by the Palm Springs Police Officers’ Association, because of the way that I have encouraged expansion, the way I have encouraged things that they’ve wanted to do, and the way I have listened to my police force and my police chief. I am pretty confident that I again, in this race, will be endorsed by the police department. … Most of the arrests that have been made, or most of the crime that has been perpetrated in the city of Palm Springs, is not (by) Palm Springs residents. We do have some pockets in the city that do have higher crime than others, but the majority of the crime that is committed in the city is not committed by residents. People don’t understand: Our city budget is about 50 percent public safety—that’s police and fire. The reason is we’re different than other cities. People say, “Well, we have enough police officers; we only have 44,000 people who live in the city.” But on any given day, we have 120,000 people who are in the city, in season or on any of the major events. So this is an ongoing problem that we have to deal with, and we’re putting resources toward it.

One of the candidates wanted our jail to be reopened. There is no city in the Coachella Valley, or most cities that have their own jail. Our jail was a 24-hour holding (facility), so it’s not something that’s helped our police department. It’s a run-down piece of property. It would take over $1 million to restore it, to only house accused people overnight. This is a silly idea, and it will not help. The police don’t want it; the police chief doesn’t want it—but I guess it’s a good campaign item. … This is one of the reasons why my candidacy is so important. You throw all these things up in the air—we want to open the jail, or we want to do this or do that—but unless you have the experience to know if that’s the right thing, you’re just throwing things up in the air. … Our police officers do not transport anymore. If (other candidates) were astute enough to check on that, they would know that we have now hired plain-clothes, retired police, all sorts of different people who do transport—trained people, of course. It doesn’t take any police off the street. … If we reopen the jail, and put them in the jail, then 24 hours later, they have to be transported to the other jail. What have we accomplished by opening the jail? To make the jail more than a 24-hour, overnight facility would take millions of dollars, because you go into a whole different set of rules, standards and regulations. You have to have medical personnel on hand, and you have to do all of these other things our jail never was.

3. What, if anything, should be done about alleged corruption in Palm Springs city government? Be specific.

I’m glad you used the word “alleged.” We have a situation right now in which we are not clear on why the FBI or the district attorney came into City Hall. We are aware of the fact that there are allegations that the mayor had some dealings with one of our developers, but we have no idea what else they would be looking for at City Hall.

As far as I am concerned, I have never experienced anything at City Hall that I would consider to be illegal. I’ve never seen staff or any of our citizens or any of the people we do business with at City Hall—I have never been approached to do anything that was untoward or illegal. So it’s very difficult for us right now. It’s very painful for the citizens of this city. It’s very painful for the council. I’ve been on this council for 11 years. I have worked very, very hard to take us from what was a financial crisis in 2008. I believe we had a $3 million reserve, and a $12 million deficit in our budget. To go from there to having a balanced budget, with a $13 million reserve, was a lot of hard work. And during that hard work, there was nothing that I saw that was being done by staff or anybody that was illegal.

I was not aware of Mayor Pougnet’s involvement with whatever that place was—Abbey something or other. I knew that the mayor had a conflict because of Mr. Meaney, but I believe that conflict was because he was involved in a housing development, the Dakota, which the mayor, I thought, had some money involved, but was nevertheless on the list for purchasing one of those properties when they started the list. That was my understanding at that point, and I guess, you know, I maybe should have asked more questions. But you know, we’ve all worked together, and you tell when you have a conflict—you say something, and you recuse yourself. I just had that experience at the last council meeting; I own a building on North Palm Canyon, and diagonally across the street is 750 Lofts, and so I had to leave the council chambers when that discussion was happening. Of course, I announced why I was leaving—that I own property within 500 feet—and that’s your responsibility to do, and I think all the council members have done that. Chris Mills, when he has his firm, or he is the architect on a project, or he owns property close to a project, he recuses himself. Paul Lewin recuses himself for property reasons and also because his significant other is in the vacation-rental business. There’s no way you’re never going to have a conflict of interest.

So now we’re sitting here trying to figure out why there was an investigation at City Hall, and we don’t know. The warrant was sealed, and we knew what they took was—we can’t even piece it together from what they took, and almost everything that they took was a matter of public record and had already been requested by numerous media outlets, so it was not anything that’s brand new. But everything that we’ve done seems to come under this suspicion because of that. I’ll give you another perfect example: I had breakfast with Rich Meaney, with Nexus, and with the mayor on March 5. I didn’t remember, but they took the mayor’s calendar. So they called me and asked me and I said, “Yes, of course I had breakfast.” I had breakfast at Sherman’s, and I had made an offhand comment before that to Rich, because he’s from Nexus, about the work-live units. So he brought a picture to the breakfast of the work-live units, which I told him would never work on Tahquitz. So we had breakfast at Sherman’s—we had to wait in line! But, you know, that became a “private breakfast” in the press, when there were hundreds—if you’ve ever been to Sherman’s for breakfast, you know you don’t have a “private breakfast” at Sherman’s. … So that breakfast meeting was actually more of a social thing than anything, but it was in March, and all of this revelation about the mayor and working for Union Abbey didn’t come out until April. So I was just having breakfast at Sherman’s, you know. But, you know, it became something awful and sinister, so I guess that’s the way it is.

4. What specific steps will you take to help solve the city’s homelessness issue?

I, again, feel like I’m the only one who’s running for the mayor’s position who has any history on this. You know, everyone who’s running for mayor has no involvement in the city. They have done nothing for the city, except for Mr. Moon, who serves on the Measure J Committee … and I’m endorsed by most of the people who are on the Measure J Committee, but that’s a whole other story.

My involvement in homelessness has been for the last seven years. One of my opponents said, “Well, she’s worked here for all these years, and she hasn’t solved it.” Well, no one will solve homelessness. If I came up with a house for everyone who is homeless today, tomorrow, there would be another 100 homeless people. That’s just the way situations are, either through health problems or through mental-health issues or through the fact that some people don’t want to live in a house—they want to be homeless. Nine years ago, I think it was, I helped create the (Coachella Valley Association of Governments) committee on homelessness, because I could see it was becoming an issue in the city of Palm Springs, and in the Coachella Valley. From that, I began working with Roy Wilson and the committee, and … through a partnership of the county and the cities of the Coachella Valley, we built and opened Roy’s Desert Resource Center. And Roy’s Desert Resource Center is not what it was set out to be, because it was set out to have a lot more funding than it ended up with. But it is an emergency shelter. Through Roy’s, in the last four years, we have housed 2,000 people in permanent housing. That’s nothing to be laughed at, you know. And 858 people, Roy’s have helped find permanent jobs. So a lot of things have been done. I’m kind of happy with what has happened with Roy’s, under the circumstances of being grossly underfunded. I’m not happy with what’s happened with the homeless situation in Palm Springs, which has just grown.

So (several) months ago, I had a town hall meeting and got all this feedback from the community—we had about 150 people—and at that point recognized that it was a really important issue that our citizens could help solve, because we have so much talent here. I put out a call for people who were interested in working on this issue, and who had expertise. There were hundreds of people who were interested, but I only wanted people who had expertise, who could help us come up and solve the problem. I ended up with this incredible committee which we created. We now are getting ready for our third meeting. Our first meeting, we formed committees. … The housing committee is specifically talking about and brainstorming about what we can do in the housing area. That’s headed up by Arlene Rosenthal, who everybody knows is (the president of) Well in the Desert, and all the successes that she’s had in working the community. Mental health, which is an important aspect of this, is headed up by the psychiatrist and medical director for Michael’s House, who is also an expert in addiction. … We have the youth committee, which is made up of people who are working both with gay and lesbian youth, and straight youth who are homeless on the street. And then we have the jobs committee. So those committees have been meeting and putting together plans, and then I spearheaded having money set aside in the budget for additional community service officers, because … we only had one police officer who dealt with homelessness. … So now he has two community officers who are helping him. Hopefully, this committee, which will be meeting at the beginning of the month, will be coming up with solutions, and we are identifying money to implement those solutions.

5. Do you support electing City Council members by district, or do prefer the current at-large system? Why?

I don’t want to elect them by district. When you’re elected citywide, you’re responsible to the entire city, so you have to answer to every citizen in this city. When you’re district-wide, you tend to seek to solve the problems of your own district as opposed to solving the problems of the city. We’re too small of a city. Los Angeles—that’s the way they do it, and they have to do it that way, because the district that covers the San Fernando Valley is so different … as opposed to what’s happening in East Los Angeles or Beverly Hills or the coastal community. That’s a whole different story. Here, you need to elect the best people for the job, but then cover the entire city, and be responsible for the problems of the entire city, not districts.

6. If you were not running for this office, which of your opponents would get your vote? Why?

The only reason I’m running for the office is because none of them would get my vote.

7. A dear friend is in town for just one night, and asks you where to go for dinner. Where are you sending this dear friend?

That’s one I can’t answer. We have an incredible array of restaurants. I can’t answer that for myself some nights. OK, do I want to go Spencer’s and sit on that fabulous patio and have great steak and great food and a great atmosphere, or do I want to go to the new Eight4Nine and be really hip? Or how about Trio? Trio has one of my most favorite dishes. Or Lulu? They have a great selection at Lulu. We are so fortunate. … I went last week to a restaurant in Palm Desert. It’s the first time in probably a year that I’ve gone to a restaurant outside of the city of Palm Springs when I’ve been (in the valley).

8. Name one business or service that you wish Palm Springs had (but currently does not have).

It’s something that I guess is being solved by downtown, and that’s better shopping. I have a friend who works for Saks Fifth Avenue who has to get my makeup for me, because there’s no place in town for me to buy the makeup that I use. .. I guess this is going to be solved by our new downtown. It’s better with more shopping options.

9. Which annual Coachella Valley event or festival is your favorite? Why?

The (Palm Springs International) Film Festival, and then I’d would say right after that is Modernism Week. They’re two totally different things. The Film Festival is because I love films; I love the glitz and glamour; I love having all these people. When you walk downtown, you hear all these accents and all these foreign languages. That’s a lot of fun. You’re sitting in the theater next to the people who made the movie. I really think it’s a wonderful event. The second one is Modernism Week, because I am a preservationist, and I love the tours. I’m on the board of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter, and we did a Meiselman tour last year which was very successful. I had never seen any of the Meiselman homes. Also, (Modernism Week) benefits so many of our nonprofits in town, and our neighborhood organizations.

10. If the FBI was about to raid your home or office, which personal item would you grab to make sure it didn't get broken?

My very expensive red wine collection.

Published in Politics

Everybody knew the U.S. Supreme Court would be ruling on the gay-marriage question sometime in late June.

However, nobody was sure what the decision would be—and nobody was sure when it would be announced.

Of course, now we all know: On Friday, June 26, in a narrow 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for states to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying. The ruling means that, effectively, same-sex marriage is now legal in 50 states.

How fitting it was that the ruling was announced on June 26—the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2013, struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, and legalized (for the second time) same-sex marriage in California by effectively throwing out Proposition 8. It's also the same day that in 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that sodomy laws were unconstitutional. 

On Friday night, hundreds of people showed up at Francis Stevens Park in downtown Palm Springs for a rally that had been planned for weeks—albeit with the date TBA—by the LGBT Center of the Desert. Below is a gallery of photos from the momentous celebration.

Photos by Tommy Hamilton/Tommy Locust photography.

Published in Snapshot

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 is landmark legislation that prevents discrimination on the basis of disability and requires public accommodations for the disabled.

However, the act includes loopholes and flaws, as is the case with many good laws.

In most states, the Americans With Disabilities Act allows people to file a lawsuit against a business that does not meet disability regulations; however, the only result is that the business must remedy the violation(s).

That’s not the case in California. Due to the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, enacted in 1959, those with disabilities can file lawsuits and receive monetary damages. According to the California Bar Association, ADA lawsuits in the state represent nearly half of the ADA litigation nationwide.

In Palm Springs, it appears that a couple of individuals and their attorneys are taking advantage of these facts.

A woman by the name of Diane Cross, represented by San Diego attorney David Wakefield, has recently filed various ADA lawsuits in the Coachella Valley—mostly against small hoteliers in Palm Springs, although she is also suing Airport Quick Car Wash in Palm Springs, and Villa Bakery in Cathedral City.

Another man, Chris Langer, represented by another San Diego attorney, Mark Potter, is also filing local ADA lawsuits.

John-Michael Cooper, president of the Small Hotels of Palm Springs (SHoPS) and the general manager of the Palm Springs Rendezvous hotel, said some small hoteliers in the organization all of a sudden started getting served with lawsuits in the spring.

“In the span of seven days, three different member hotels e-mailed in the same loop, asking, ‘Has anyone else been served for their parking lots?’” Cooper said. “It was then that … we started realizing it was the same lawyer and the same plaintiff.”

Cooper said the hoteliers banded together to figure out how to address the lawsuits—and head off future litigation.

“Once we realized this wasn’t just a fluke or … just one person out of compliance, we realized anyone could be threatened by this,” he said.

Representatives from various hotels attended a meeting that included Palm Springs City Attorney Douglas Holland, Cooper said. Also in attendance at that SHoPS meeting was Palm Springs City Councilwoman Ginny Foat, who has been sued because of an alleged ADA violation at interior-design store Trend House, which is on her property. Cooper said they soon realized the plaintiffs and their attorneys were apparently using certain tactics on multiple businesses, such as calling and inquiring about handicapped parking spaces—and then driving by if there was any hesitation regarding the answer.

As of this writing, lawsuits have been opened against businesses including the Garden Vista Hotel, the Desert Lodge, Hotel California and Casa Cody. The Hyatt Palm Springs, the Hard Rock Hotel and the Ace Hotel are also being sued.

Is there any merit to the claims of discrimination mentioned in the lawsuits of Diane Cross and Chris Langer? The answer to that question depends on who is asked.

Frank Tysen (right), the owner of Casa Cody, said he had just been served regarding a suit filed by Chris Langer when the Independent reached out to him.

Many of the lawsuits cite a lack of adequate handicapped parking spaces. Tysen took me outside of the Casa Cody with a tape measure and showed me that his parking spaces are just more than 14 feet in length. It would be almost impossible for him to make the spaces any longer: Cahuilla Road runs right up to the curb of the parking lot at his historic hotel.

“In order to have full legal parking for a handicapped space, you have to have about 18 feet,” Tysen said. “Because of the street width here, we don’t even have that much space in the parking lot.”

Tysen expressed concern about the harm these lawsuits could have on small hotels in Palm Springs.

“It’s a total racket,” Tysen said. “If the only way you can get compliance is to sue someone, that’s crazy.

“These guys have been doing this for a long time. They hit San Diego and other places, and now they’re hitting Palm Springs. It’s the same people and the same attorneys. They don’t even pay the filing fee, claiming they don’t even have the money to pay the filing fee. The point with that is if you don’t have the money to pay the filing fee, you probably don’t have $200 to stay in a hotel, so the whole thing is bullshit.”

A trip to Riverside County Superior Court in Indio revealed that, sure enough, the filing fee—which is generally around $400—was waived in many, if not all, of these cases.

Diane Cross’ attorney, David Wakefield, did not respond to several inquiries via phone and e-mail from the Independent. Mark Potter also did not respond to the Independent.

Tysen explained that many of the older hotels in Palm Springs fall under the question of what’s considered “readily achievable” when it comes to ADA accessibility.

“Palm Springs is a perfect place for these people to go crazy because a lot of the places are older and grandfathered in by the city. For instance, they don’t require fences around the pool, because they weren’t there—but if you remodel your pool, you have to put a fence around it,” he said. “The second thing is a lot of our places are historic; the way these places are laid out … the city doesn’t bring them up to code, because you can’t, or you’ll end up destroying the whole place.”

John Pinkney, of the law firm Slovak Baron Empey Murphy and Pinkney, is representing many of the small hoteliers, at a reduced fee, in these ADA suits. He confirmed that “readily achievable” is often a good ADA defense—but that does not mean older or historic hotels are exempt from ADA requirements.

“There’s really not, per se, a grandfathering clause for these properties,” Pinkney said. “But some of these historic places … there is a defense available for them where they can demonstrate compliance would not be readily achievable. For instance, if you had a hotel that was built in the ’30s, in order to make it compliant, you’d have to completely rebuild it. We do have cases where we’ve raised those defenses.

“I think some people think, ‘I bought an older hotel; therefore, I’m immune from being sued.’ That’s really not the case.”

Pinkney also defended the Americans With Disabilities Act, even if some plaintiffs and their attorneys may be taking advantage of it in California.

“The ADA is well intentioned,” Pinkney said. “It’s obviously important to provide equal access for those with disabilities within the parameters of the ADA. Unfortunately, there are people out there who are gaming the system. I think that’s where small-business owners, who are struggling to make ends meet, especially during the lean summer months, are dealing with ‘drive-by lawsuits.’”

Lena Wade, an attorney who is working with Pinkney, mentioned that she has seen up to 30 lawsuits filed in one day by one plaintiff. 

“So were they going to stay in all 30 hotels that day?” Pinkney quipped.

Pinkney said plaintiffs need to prove that they at least planned on going to a business that’s allegedly not ADA-compliant.

“You have individuals who are filing multiple lawsuits against hotels claiming that they were going to go and stay at that hotel, but they were denied equal access. Some of these are clearly ‘drive-by lawsuits,’ where somebody just drove by the facility, and noticed that there was not a specific placard that should have been there. Then they file the lawsuit and allege—under penalty of perjury—that they had the intent to stay at that hotel.”

Pinkney said that even if a small hotel can not “readily achieve” all ADA rules, that doesn’t mean the hotel is discriminating against a handicapped person or denying them service.

“If somebody comes to their hotel, and they’re disabled, they’ll make reasonable accommodations for them,” Pinkney said. “They will go out of their way to provide them with equal access. … The people filing the lawsuits (often) never even came through the door.”

John-Michael Cooper (left) said he does not expect the hotel he manages, Rendezvous, to be sued. He said ADA compliance goes beyond having proper handicapped parking. The Hard Rock Hotel in Palm Springs isn’t being sued over a handicapped space, for example, but because the entrance allegedly does not comply.

“I have a handicapped spot in my parking lot, so I probably won’t be sued. I know my rooms are accessible, and I know the level of accessibility that I have,” Cooper said. “There are a lot of different levels of accessibility. Being accessible not only means that you need a parking lot with the correct ramps, and the correct accessibility to the entrance to the hotel; you have to have equal, if separate, access. The people have to be able to park … in the front of your hotel; they have to be able to get out; they have to be able to get through the front door, and they have to be able to get to your front desk.”

So what is a small hotel owner such as Frank Tysen supposed to do? While some businesses have settled these suits, Tysen said he’s going to fight.

“Palm Springs is damn lucky that there are enough fools around that like the lifestyle of a small hotel,” Tysen said. “I get paid about $2,000 a month, and that’s it, because there is no money left, because you have to keep upgrading the rooms or the hotel in general. Small hotels are really a labor of love. During the summer, the rates are sliced down to next to nothing, and this is why a lot of hotels have a hard time getting loans from banks here, because they don’t want to invest in a seasonal business. Big hotels here are supported by their chain, but for the small hotels, it comes out of the people who own it.”

Ron De Klerk, the general manager of the Skylark in Palm Springs, said he's opting to settle a suit filed against the hotel by Diane Cross.

"Obviously, we want to settle to get it out of our books and out of our head," De Klerk said.

He mentioned getting advice from another local hotelier who opted to fight a lawsuit—and wound up spending $40,000 in legal fees for a lawsuit that could have been settled for around $20,000.

“In his advice to me, he said, ‘Settle for as little as you can, because it’s cheaper than hiring a lawyer.’ It’s absolutely true. A good ADA lawyer is anywhere from $400 to $600 an hour, sometimes higher. On any typical case, you’re looking at about 20 hours (just to start). Suddenly, you’re already at $10,000.”

Pinkney didn’t offer specifics on the chances small hoteliers have to win their cases, but he echoed Tysen’s comments.

“People come here to the Coachella Valley to invest in this community and start a business. In some cases, they’re investing their life savings to start a small hotel, and they spend a lot of money to make sure their business is ADA-compliant, only to be sued because the plaintiff alleges that something was off a couple of inches, or a sign wasn’t exactly right,” he said. “It’s very disheartening for these folks, but we’re aggressively fighting these cases where we feel they’re unwarranted.”

There appears to be no end in sight regarding these lawsuits. In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1186, a reform bill that was supposed to curb ADA-related lawsuits. However, the bill was limited. It reduced the statutory damages per violation in some cases from $4,000 to $1,000 or $2,000. (Of course, plaintiffs and their attorneys can also sue for attorneys’ fees.) It also banned “demand letters” that were sent to businesses that sought money in exchange for not filing a lawsuit.

Critics of Senate Bill 1186 say the law didn’t work: California still leads the nation in ADA lawsuits.

Some have proposed giving small businesses an opportunity to correct alleged disability violations before a lawsuit can be filed. Pinkney said he thinks that’s a good idea.

“There are legitimate people out there with legitimate claims,” Pinkney said. “That’s what the ADA is designed for: People who legitimately experience impaired access. … Situations where the plaintiffs aren’t motivated by compliance and are instead motivated by financial reward for themselves and their attorney—that’s what people find offensive.”

Published in Local Issues