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Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Brane Jevric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s such a book,” he said.

John Wessman was a mighty developer, known for his lucrative deals across the Coachella Valley—and his significant influence at Palm Springs City Hall.

The high point of his career was supposed to be the Palm Springs downtown revitalization project, currently estimated by experts at $350 million in value.

Today, however, Wessman is better known for being indicted on numerous counts of alleged bribery involving former Mayor Steve Pougnet—and involving that downtown development project.

Wessman effectively retired upon the indictment and is not talking to the media. So, in an attempt to find out the latest news regarding the downtown development project—which has benefitted from millions of dollars from Palm Springs taxpayers via Measure J—we reached out to city officials, all of whom still publically support the downtown project. We started by trying to talk to Mayor Robert Moon.

We received this response from Amy Blaisdell, the city’s communications director: “Mayor Moon asked me to reach out to you regarding your request for an interview. He and the other councilmembers along with the city manager will not be granting interviews at this time regarding the investigation and recent indictments.”

This was a lie: Three weeks later, Robert Moon, City Manager David Ready and City Councilman J.R. Roberts sat down for a chat with KMIR.

In any case, we reached out to Judy Deertrack, a local urban lawyer and activist. She is a land and government-affairs consultant, and a legal specialist in land-use law. She is a Palm Springs resident and has lived and worked in the Coachella Valley since 2004. Here’s an edited version of our chat.

Let’s dig in from scratch: When did the trouble start brewing with the Palm Springs downtown project?

The problem with the downtown plan is that it was processed as … a relatively modest redevelopment project for the Desert Fashion Plaza that involved demolition and renovation.

How was Measure J entangled with the downtown project?

In early 2012, the state of California (ended cities’) redevelopment powers and financing, but the city went on to enlarge this project anyway, and financed it with a municipal bond issuance for $47 million that is paid back through Measure J funds at $3.3 million per year for about 25 years.

What was Wessman’s cut in the whole deal?

Since the original release of $47 million in 2012, change orders, (the) purchase of the event center lot, and its proposed approvals have added about another $20 million. Wessman has also gotten an additional $150 million in hotel subsidies coming to him through a bed-tax rebate. This project originally did not anticipate hotels. That is inching toward a quarter-billion in subsidies.

Has the $47 million been spent by Wessman, and has it been spent solely on capital improvements?

No one knows, but $32 million went into a private escrow account owned by Wessman for this project, and the city claims it has no access to know the status of that account currently.

How did the city of Palm Springs end up in such a mess?

I can’t in a few words give an exact story of what happened. Suffice to say, the permits started going through as project finance agreements rather than engineered diagrams. The city and Wessman kept the conceptual plans fairly private and vague enough that the dimensions could be changed at will, and there was no clear planning process in sight. A lot of this bypassed public hearings, except for the hotels.

So Wessman was also given a lot of freedom?

There appeared to be no upper limits … because the city used and abused the planned development permit (PDD). The specific plan set limits on height… and setbacks, and bulk, and floor-area ratio. Then the PDD took those limits away.

Is it possible the city violated any significant regulations and laws?

California’s environmental-review laws say that when cities set limits in their general plan and specific plan, it creates an environmental threshold for impacts, and when they build in excess of those limits, violating the threshold is a “significant environmental effect” that creates the need for further data, evaluation, public hearings and mitigation of project impacts.

How exactly did the city get away with such inconsistencies?

Palm Springs exceeded the limits of its plan on downtown, and then concluded there was no significant environmental effect of doing so—and made what I consider to be false findings that the project “was consistent and in conformity” with the general plan and specific plan, when, in fact, using the PDD and the project finance agreements to set the project development standards and requirements was a violation of those mechanisms.

The resulting “inconsistency” between the project and the specific plan is why in January 2016, the new City Council went back in and re-did about 50 percent of the wording of the specific plan to eliminate all of the outstanding inconsistencies. It was a major cleanup—but is not allowed in the state of California. A plan cannot be later amended to conform to illegal approvals that violate the plan.

It appears that the whole downtown affair is far from over.

Well, the original specific plan is lost to time and many, many changes. All of this occurred during an alleged racketeering scheme between the mayor (Pougnet) and the developer where the mayor, in the words of District Attorney (Michael) Hestrin, was paid to influence the vote of a majority of the sitting City Council. And no matter what was happening, and how illegal the permit processing became, there was always a majority vote—and tremendous pressure put on the architectural and planning commission boards to pass this project up and along, not on evidence, but on influence.

There were some attempts by the city to clean up the mess, correct?

That awful specific plan cleanup … in January 2016 was the tail wagging the dog! … The city over time absolutely bastardized the development restrictions on this project, and now City Hall is bragging they have cut the size by 49 percent. How unique! This sounds like a retail fire sale where the prices are increased 100 percent, and then cut back 50 percent, and we are told we just got a bargain.

What can be done to remedy this downtown quagmire?

This city and its citizens should be demanding change—a lot of change—and a lot of explanation for what has happened. Instead, we are allowing ourselves to be bullied and hoodwinked. The citizens of Palm Springs have been far too compliant with this outrage. Part of the problem is that no one is demanding information. Virtually no one is challenging the inconsistencies and untruths that abound on the public record. Just a few have stood up—too few!

If you were on the City Council, what would you do?

It is an obligation of the sitting City Council to first order a full accounting of expenditures and funds from Wessman on the project to date. Then, audit all accounts, and confer with the state of California on compromised public funds, such as municipal bonds or subsidies. Identify notification responsibilities to the bond-holders. The city has not acknowledged these obligations to date.

On a cold January day, Jane Garrison stood in front of Ralph’s in the Smoke Tree Village Shopping Center. Her goal: to get shoppers in the busy plaza to sign the petition to save Oswit Canyon, a popular hiking area nearby in south Palm Springs.

The rain started drizzling—but Garrison didn’t give up. Signature by signature, she rallied support to protect the alluvial fan canyon from the grip of developers.

Garrison is a member of the Save Oswit Canyon Coalition, a group of some 2,000 Palm Springs residents who are backing the initiative. She volunteered her time to stand out in the rain as part of an effort to collect 5,000 signatures. The citizens’ initiative to protect Oswit Canyon was filled with the city of Palm Springs on Nov. 14.

“My husband and I have enjoyed hiking in Oswit Canyon and the Lykken Trail for several years,” Garrison said. “I was horrified by the thought of a pristine alluvial-fan canyon being destroyed by an out-of-town developer for more houses. Our beautiful canyons are some of the many things that make Palm Springs special.”

According to Dr. Lani Miller, an environmental activist, the land in question is currently classified in the city’s general plan as a biological sensitivity/conservation area—but that would still allow for the building of up to 325 homes.

“Our initiative will amend the municipal code, Canyon South Specific Plan and City of Palm Springs General Plan in order to change the zoning to ‘environmentally sensitive area’ zoning, allowing the construction of six homes,” Miller said.

Miller said Oswit Canyon is an environmental oasis that is the home to some endangered species, including the peninsular bighorn sheep.

“I'm blessed by sights of bighorn almost every time I’ve been up there at dusk, when they forage—a breathtaking sight,” she said.

Both Garrison and Miller emphasized that they are not anti-development; rather, they are in favor of smart, ethical development in the city, and preserving sparse natural habitat for future generations.

That is the main reason the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy stepped in and tried to acquire the land in Oswit Canyon. According to Jim Karpiak, the conservancy’s executive director, discussions were short-lived.

“We never made it to the stage of making a formal offer,” Karpiak said. “After initial discussions with the owners, during which they indicated an interest in selling the land for conservation, we commissioned an appraisal of the property at the conservancy’s expense, and then shared it with the owners. They indicated that the fair market value as established by that appraisal was not acceptable to them and terminated discussions with us.”

Karpiak said his contact while negotiating with the owners of the parcels in Oswit Canyon was Mike Cole, an Orange County-based developer. Cole, a minority shareholder among the land owners, did not respond to a request from the Independent to answer questions. He initially asked that we hold our story deadline for 48 hours and promised to respond to our request via email. We extended the deadline by 48 hours, but the responses have never arrived, at least as of our press deadline.

Meanwhile, Garrison and the other Save Oswit Canyon Coalition volunteers are continuing to collect signatures of Palm Springs registered voters.

For more information on the Save Oswit Canyon Coalition, visit www.saveoswitcanyon.com.

Jana Ploss used to walk the short distance from her condo in Riviera Gardens to her sister’s house on Chia Road almost every given day. She did it for years—walking back and forth, always crossing Vista Chino at Via Miraleste.

On Monday, Nov. 14, she left her sister’s home shortly after 6 p.m. About 6:13 p.m., according to police reports, she was struck by a car at the intersection of Vista Chino and Via Miraleste. She was rushed to Desert Medical Regional Center. Some 20 minutes later, according to the coroner’s office, Ploss was pronounced dead.

Ploss was 64. She was the second pedestrian killed by a car at that intersection in six weeks; James Harper, also 64, was killed on Oct. 6, according to police reports.

Roxann Ploss said that her sister was just 30 yards away from Jana’s front door at Riviera Gardens when she was hit by a car headed eastbound on Vista Chino.

“My sister came to my house daily and went home most nights,” she said. “Sometimes, she stayed over here.”

The Ploss sisters were very close. They chose to live in such proximity so they could spend as much time as possible together. On what would be their last night together, Jana Ploss stayed a bit later than usual to watch the news with her sister.

“It was already dark, which I emphasized, and I asked her to stay over,” Roxann Ploss said. “When she told me she had to get back, I told her to be careful then, and I would see her tomorrow.”

Within minutes, her sister was dead—but Roxann Ploss didn’t know it for another five hours.

“I was watching the 11 o’clock news, and the anchor came on to say, ‘another (pedestrian) fatality in Palm Springs,’” Ploss said.

Then the news broadcast showed footage of the scene of the accident. “I saw the shoe in the middle of the road, and I just knew,” Roxann Ploss said. “About five minutes later, a sheriff was at my door.”

The fact that the intersection has claimed two lives in such a short period of time certainly raises the possibility that the area might be dangerous. But Sgt. William Hutchinson, a Palm Springs Police Department spokesman, does not believe that is the case.

“Vista Chino is not a dangerous place for pedestrians and bikers or for night traffic in general,” Sgt. Hutchinson said.

However, Marcus Fuller, a Palm Springs assistant city manager and city engineer, has already taken up the issue with the California Department of Transportation, also known as CalTrans.

“Vista Chino is a state highway regulated by Caltrans, and Caltrans determines whether the installation of traffic signals, crosswalks or other improvements on Vista Chino are warranted,” Fuller said. “I have personally met with the Caltrans district director and his staff to discuss these accidents and to urge them to take action as soon as possible in whatever way they can.”

John Bulinski, the Caltrans District 8 director, said the fact that two pedestrian fatalities occurred at the same intersection is being examined.

“We are in the process of conducting an investigation of the circumstances surrounding these fatalities and the characteristic of the intersection,” Bulinski said. “We are working with the city of Palm Springs and will make appropriate changes after conclusions are reached.”

As for Roxann Ploss, she hopes that, at the least, the installation of a pedestrian crossing with flashing lights at Vista Chino and Via Miraleste might prevent future losses in lives.

Meanwhile, Fuller and Hutchinson offered some useful safety tips for drivers and pedestrians:

• State law requires drivers to yield to pedestrians, but also requires pedestrians to use caution and not cross a street when it is unsafe to do so.

• Avoid looking at your phone.

• Always drive at a speed that is safe for the conditions.

• Slow down when proceeding through a crosswalk or intersection, and be aware of pedestrians on the sidewalk.

• Look both ways when crossing the street.

• When walking at night, wear bright or reflective clothing, and carry a flashlight.

There is a tropical garden up in the most unlikely of places—the high desert—that grows orchids, by the thousands.

I discovered it by pure chance while on another assignment in Landers, located north of Yucca Valley about 55 miles from Palm Springs. As I drove on Belfield Boulevard, I saw dozens of cars in a busy parking lot next to a huge tent-like structure. I thought it might have been a celebrity wedding—but instead, it was the largest orchid nursery I’d ever seen.

I grabbed my camera and started taking photos of the gorgeous orchids—and didn’t stop until I went through tens of thousands of square feet of absolute botanical beauty owned by Gubler Orchids company. It was a true photographers’ paradise.

Any horticultural expert will tell you that orchids are among most elegant, most expensive and most sought-out flowers. It’s a fact that Charles Darwin was doing research on orchids while also working on his Theory of Evolution.

The Gubler family has been gardening at their Landers orchid nursery since 1975. According to Heidi Gubler Brodeur, there have been three generations of botanists in her family, starting with her grandfather, Heinrich Gubler, who owned a nursery near Zurich, Switzerland, back in 1918.

“My dad, Hans Gubler, arrived in the U.S. in 1949,” she said. “He lived the American dream. In 1954, after having saved $300, he started his own business selling orchids out of a station wagon in Altadena, Calif.”

Later on, Hans Gubler named Cattleya orchid hybrids after each of his three children: Lc. Christopher Gubler, C. Karin Ann Gubler, and Pot. Heidi Gubler.

Over the years, Gubler Orchids grew into one of the largest orchid growers in the nation. The crucial moment for the company’s expansion came with the move to the high desert, where the family built advanced solar greenhouses.

“We came here for clean air, pure water, sunshine and four growing seasons,” Gubler Brodeur said. “We ship our orchids throughout the world and everywhere nationwide, even to Alaska.”

Today, the company is led by Chris Gubler, who managed to double it in size and increase sales 10 times over since taking the reins.

But not everything has been rosy for the Gubler family in the high desert: They suffered a big blow during the 7.3-magnitude earthquake that hit Landers on June 28, 1992.

“I was in shock. Everything our family had worked for had been ruined,” Chris Gubler said.

However, this horror story has a happy ending.

“It turns out that the earthquake was a rebirth for Gubler Orchids, as we made huge capital improvements to nursery,” he said.

Gubler Orchids also owns and operates another nursery nearby in Lucerne Valley, but it is closed to the public. Between the two nurseries, the Gublers own approximately 155,000 square feet of producing greenhouses.

The family also owns a couple of orchids that are beyond 60 years old!

The future of the company seems secure, with the fourth generation of Gublers stepping in: Chris’ daughter, Kelsey, just joined the company after graduating from Cal Poly.

Gubler Orchids is located at 2200 Belfield Blvd. in Landers. Its showroom, growing grounds and greenhouses are open from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 760-364-2282, or visit www.gublers.com.

The “breaking news” TV flash disrupted a peaceful Saturday afternoon at my home in Palm Springs. Three cops had been shot while responding to a domestic disturbance just a couple of miles away.

I started feeling uneasy and tense—like I used to feel in my hometown of Sarajevo.

I turned the TV off.

Within minutes, my editor called and left me a message, asking me if I was available to cover the shootings. I didn’t respond. I’ve done my share of violent breaking-news stories all around the globe. No more.

Later, my editor texted me, saying that two of the three officers—Jose “Gil” Vega, 63, and Lesley Zerebny, 27—had died.

I’ve seen many senseless killings, as a war reporter in Romania and what was once Yugoslavia. When I lived and worked in Rio de Janeiro, every morning would start with the gruesome front-page murder-scene photos of butchered bodies. Rio is a beautiful place, but there’s too much violence.

I chose to start a new life here in the desert after I was granted political asylum in the United States. I chose to live in Palm Springs because there were rarely shootouts, or gunfire, or police sirens, or dead bodies at night on the local evening news. For more than 20 years, I’ve been covering events in this peaceful oasis—until that serenity was shattered midday on Saturday, Oct. 8.

A homegrown idiot gang member allegedly decided to wipe out the cops who came to his door, just doing their jobs. (I’m not going to mention him by name.) The police officers—one a veteran officer within months of retirement; another a young woman who had just returned to work after having a child—had no chance the moment they walked up to the door. The Palm Springs Police Department should consider using this tragic event to change its 911 procedures when dealing with gang members. The red flags must go up before the dispatch. Always.

Remember the nonfiction book (and subsequent movie) The Onion Field? Its author, a former cop, Joe Wambaugh, actually lived here in the desert. After the infamous case—two police officers were kidnapped by criminals during a traffic stop, with one of the cops later killed—the LAPD changed its police tactics.

Little information has been released about the third police officer who was shot in Palm Springs. He is a material witness in this murder case, and is understandably being protected at this time. Sooner or later, he may testify and/or face the media inquiries. I spoke to a cop who survived a shootout with a gang member in Cabazon a few years back. He retired and became a plumber.

I’ve been shot at during the wars I covered, and you never forget it. I’ll always remember the hornet-like sound of the bullets that missed me by a mere chance. The sound of bullets hitting or piercing hard surfaces inches away stays with you—coming back to mind after hearing a sound with the slightest resemblance.

However, I’m not going to dwell on the fact that two cops were shot and killed in my neighborhood. Instead, I’m going to do just as those slain cops did on that fateful day: I’m going to do my job.

I’m going to write about and expose the gangs of Palm Springs. I hope that other media outlets will do the same. And I have a message for the members of the Varrio Las Palmas gang, to which the alleged cop killer reportedly belongs: This is Palm Springs, not a gangland.

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