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18 Jul 2018

Expansion and Revision: The Desert Healthcare District Attempts to Grow as It Moves to District-Based Voting

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Dr. Les Zendle, DHCD board president: "There’s a great disparity between services provided to residents of the east valley as opposed to the west—whether it’s the number of providers or the number of resources and things like that." Dr. Les Zendle, DHCD board president: "There’s a great disparity between services provided to residents of the east valley as opposed to the west—whether it’s the number of providers or the number of resources and things like that." Kevin Fitzgerald

When most residents of the Coachella Valley go to the polls on Nov. 6, for the first time, they will be able to either cast a vote directly impacting future access to important health care services, or elect a representative to champion their specific community needs.

Some voters living in the current, long-established Desert Healthcare District (DHCD)—which begins in Palm Springs and extends east to Palm Desert’s Cook Street—will be casting votes to elect representatives in two newly formed districts: District 2, primarily covering Desert Hot Springs; and District 4, mostly made up of Cathedral City.

At the DHCD board’s public session on June 26, a final zoning map was adopted that defines the boundaries of the five new districts created within the current DHCD. Previously, the five-member board was elected at large by the entire district; two of five seats are up for election this year.

The move to district-based elections should mean better representation for minority populations; one of the most outspoken advocates for this is Alexis Ortega, the director of community outreach for the LGBT Community Center of the Desert.

“Cathedral City has pockets where … some 70 percent of the folks living in that one area are Latino,” Ortega said in a phone interview. “So, when you have districts (created) where the minority group becomes the majority in that neighborhood, like what we’ve been advocating for in the DHCD districting process, there’s the potential to strengthen that (minority) voting block and get their preferred candidate elected.”

As for Coachella Valley residents living east of Cook Street: They will be casting their votes on whether the DHCD and its important healthcare support services will be expanded into their communities, beginning in 2019.

“As we know, there’s a great disparity between services provided to residents of the east valley as opposed to the west—whether it’s the number of providers or the number of resources and things like that,” said Dr. Les Zendle, president of the Desert Healthcare District and Foundation board of directors, during a phone interview. “But with our ‘One Coachella Valley’ approach, we really believe that—just like with transportation or other issues that can’t be handled by one city at a time, or half the valley at a time—(we’ll be able) to take a collective look at health care.”

Assuming that the majority of the valley’s east side voters approve the DHCD expansion in November, the DHCD will need to start the process of again redistricting and then electing representatives to those new districts—a process that will take place through 2022.

“This November, there will be the first two elections in the new districts, so it will be interesting to see who pops up to the forefront (to run),” Ortega said. “Moving forward, the biggest thing will be informing folks of the importance of the role that the DHCD plays in setting their health-care priorities and in funding for our region. Also, in November, folks in the (proposed) annexed areas will be voting to approve the expansion of the DHCD into their communities, so our role at the LGBT Community Center of the Desert will be to make folks aware of everything that’s happening and how it affects our community, and how our center works with LGBT folks of color to make sure that their needs are met.”

Zendle said he and his fellow board members have a lot of work to do.

“We will certainly continue to do what we have always done, which is trying to educate the public about what the Desert Healthcare District and its foundation does,” he said. “To be frank with you, it’s something not a lot of people in the community are familiar with. I think that the political people and the stakeholders who receive our funding are aware of it, but the general community isn’t necessarily aware of what we are.”

The DHCD provides support to a variety of organizations (such as Find Food Bank, Volunteers in Medicine, Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, etc.) that provide health and wellness services to residents.

How can a valley resident within one of the new districts become a candidate for a board seat? “Basically, a person has to be a registered voter in the district or the zone in which they want to run,” Zendle said. “They have to get the forms and a handbook and instructions on how to get on the ballot and conduct their campaign. They can pick up these materials either here at our DHCD offices in Palm Springs or through the County Registrar’s Office.” Candidates must also pay $1,150; the nomination period runs through Aug. 10.

As complex, problematic and underappreciated as the DHCD seems to be, its potential to provide valuable services to all communities is evident.

“I currently live in Palm Springs,” Ortega said, “so I’m a Palm Springs resident who wants to see Palm Springs represented (on the DHCD board), but I also understand that maybe Palm Springs has been a bit over-represented on the DHCD board. So, how can we bring in other voices that may stem from communities that are more heavily majority-minority, and how can we make sure that those voices are included? I think this (district-creation effort) has been a good first step, but the process is imperfect. No one is ever going to be completely happy, but I think it’s a good first step.”

For more information on the DHCD’s new districts and proposed expansion, visit www.dhcd.org.

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