CVIndependent

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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The flood the Coachella Valley experienced on Valentine’s Day will not soon be forgotten—and the scars it left will be visible for a long time.

The severity of the event was framed for us by the facts presented by Marcus Fuller, the assistant city manager and city engineer for Palm Springs, in an email sent after we requested an interview. On that day:

• The Palm Springs Airport received 3.69 inches of rain—“almost all the rainfall we receive normally in an entire year, (which) was reported as the third-highest volume of single-day rainfall in our (recorded) history.”

• “Riverside County Flood Control reports that rainfall totals in the Mount San Jacinto area (Idyllwild) reached over 9 inches, and (it) was considered a ‘100-year event.’”

• “The storm was also warm, and there was no snowfall on Mount San Jacinto. The rainfall melted the prior snow accumulations, generating more runoff into the rivers and the desert floor.”

The result was traffic mayhem. For about 24 hours, the only way to get between Palm Springs and the freeway was via Ramon Road, which led to massive traffic jams and delays.

As the waters cascaded in an easterly direction, Cathedral City was next to sustain infrastructure damage. Cathedral Canyon Drive was closed for more than a month—although things could have been much worse.

“As a point of fact, we actually did pretty well during the storm overall,” said John Corella, Cathedral City’s director of engineering/public works. “When the storm happened, our engineers went out and identified four or five locations where we were having significant stormwater challenges.”

Further east in Palm Desert, Cook Street was closed for a couple of days at the wash. The city of Indian Wells had to shut down a stretch of Fred Waring Drive, and in Indio, Avenue 44 remained closed at the wash as of this writing.

Despite the grumblings by residents and tourists alike about impassable roads and lengthy traffic disruptions, Katie Evans, the director of communications and conservation for the Coachella Valley Water District, said things went … great?

“I would point out that, from the CVWD perspective, the rain event on Feb. 14 provided a great example of our system working exactly as we want it to,” she proclaimed.

I asked her to elaborate.

“That storm was a pretty significant weather event,” Evans said, “and the truth is that our system is designed to funnel all the water falling or running off the surrounding mountains into our Whitewater Wash storm channel, and then convey it down to the Salton Sea, and that is exactly what happened.

“Because we live in this area that has very steep mountains all around us, flash flooding is a major concern. The Whitewater Wash storm channel is the safest place for the water to be for the protection of all our valley residents—because, when it’s in that channel, it’s not flooding homes and businesses.

“CVWD is the regional stormwater provider. The cities are the local municipal stormwater providers, and they have to build their own systems that feed into the channel, so there’s a need for cooperation here. The cities build their own retention basins and smaller channels all that send their water into the Whitewater regional channel system, which CVWD maintains. The wash was a naturally occurring route (for stormwater) that the CVWD improved and built upon in the 1970s, but the fact is that we do have some trouble caused by (projects) that were built in the channel territory, such as golf courses and roads. There are agreements that allow one to do that—to build a road in the channel if you want to—but it’s a channel, and its primary purpose is to convey storm water.”

And therein lies the problem: Many of the important roadways in the valley, by necessity, cross the wash. So what can be done to mitigate the road closures and damage that take place when these types of floods occur—and where will the money come from to fund any such projects?

According to local government officials, some projects are already in the pipeline.

“We’ve sent four locations in to Caltrans in our request for emergency relief funds,” said Corella, from Cathedral City. “One is the Cathedral Canyon low-water crossing. We lost our two northbound lanes to the flood flow that came through the wash channel. We are currently restoring that to two lanes (one northbound, one southbound), and we are petitioning the state for funds to restore it to four lanes again, which would cost about $1.2 million—but we’re trying to work with them to explain that we already have a bridge project that’s been designed. All the required property has been acquired. … We have a shovel-ready project that will cost $20 million, and we’re on the Caltrans potential-projects-to-fund list in their next funding cycle. So we’ve explained that we’d rather not restore the four lanes in the low-water crossing. … We’d like them to please fund the bridge project.”

In Palm Springs, Fuller wrote that the city has been getting federal help for infrastructure improvements.

“The city has aggressively pursued federal funding through what was formerly called the Highway Bridge Program to replace, widen (and) retrofit/rehabilitate its existing bridges, and we currently have six different federally funded bridge projects underway,” he said.

Some $150 million in federal funding is committed to six projects, which include replacing the two-lane bridge over the railroad tracks on Indian Canyon Drive with a new six-lane bridge; a new raised roadway and bridge/culvert across South Palm Canyon Drive at Bogert Trail; widening the Ramon Road bridge over the Whitewater Wash from four lanes to six; and a new half-mile, four-lane bridge on Vista Chino over the wash.

Unfortunately, not all needed projects have been approved. Fuller said that the state—using federal funds—did OK a 2015 request for a new, two-mile bridge on Indian Canyon Drive over the entire 100-year flood plain of the Whitewater Wash. But …

“The state accepted our application but did not approve programming any funding, as the total amount of the project nearly represents the total funding that the state receives from the federal government for the total (Highway Bridge Program) fund in any single year.

“Then, on Oct. 1, 2016, the state stopped accepting applications. … Thus we are prevented from submitting a request for funding a Gene Autry Trail bridge, which would also have an estimated cost of $250 million.”

What does that mean for these two vital arteries in and out of Palm Springs? “Given the costs of these two long bridges, we are unable to proceed unless we find alternative funding sources,” Fuller wrote.

However, there is some good news: The CVWD just announced it is receiving a $51 million loan from the Environmental Protection Agency to fund area improvements.

“The CVWD has a big, long-term capital-improvement plan for our regional stormwater system,” Evans said. “… System improvements are needed, for example, in north Indio, where there are areas that need flood protection and don’t have it now. Also, the Avenue 54 stormwater channel running to the Thermal Drop Structure has been identified to receive improvement funds.”

Published in Local Issues

Cathedral City Police Chief Travis Walker stood tall—he’s 6 foot 4, after all—in December when he dedicated the Fallen Police Officer Memorial next to the police department building.

Among the speakers honoring the ultimate sacrifice by Officers David Vasquez and Jermaine Gibson—who lost their lives in 1988 and 2011, respectively—was Rep. Raul Ruiz. He was joined by representatives of other nearby law-enforcement agencies.

Walker unveiled the memorial along with the officers’ families. “We pray we’ll never have to add any new names to this memorial,” he said.

The memorial’s unveiling was the latest event in a busy first year as police chief for Walker, an accomplished law-enforcement veteran with 23 years in service—including a stint as the tactical commander during the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino.

During a recent interview with Chief Walker, we discussed topics ranging from the city’s recent removal of red-light cameras to his favorite basketball player, Magic Johnson.

“Magic was the best team player ever,” Walker said. “The game was not about him, but the team.”

Walker—the first black police chief in Cathedral City—said recent data shows the city has not been the site of any hate crimes since 2012.

“This is a very tolerant community for as diverse it is,” he said “… People may feel that there was a hate crime, but there are specific criteria that define truly what a hate crime is.”

Walker joined the Cathedral City Police Department as deputy police chief in 2016.

“I led a very blessed career that prepared me for making some decisions that you have to make from this office,” he said. “As law enforcement pros, we spend our careers preparing for different positions.”

One of the most buzzed-about ideas Walker implemented in his first year is the “police cab”—a decommissioned police cruiser painted as a half-police car, half-taxi cab that can be found on the streets of Cathedral City, sometimes parked in front of prominent local bars.

“We’re trying to give that final message. No matter how drunk you are, you still recognize the police car, and on the side of it is a statement: Chose your ride! Think before you drink!” Walker said. “You can get an Uber drive home for $10 to $15, or you can pick up a DUI that can cost $10,000 to $15,000!

“Sadly, the DUI drivers often don’t kill themselves; they kill innocent people.”

Walker said he’s proud of the fact that the city’s done so well at discouraging accidents that it did not receive extra grant money for DUI checkpoints this year.

“We did an effective job and work very hard, and we have reduced our traffic fatalities, so the funding is converted to another community,” he said.

That does not mean, however, that people are no longer driving drunk.

“No matter how much education you put out there about DUI … it’s still a struggle here in the community, and you still have drivers crashing under the influence,” Walker said.

Walker said he recommended the removal of the notorious and controversial red-light cameras that had been at three of Cathedral City’s busiest intersections

“I had motor officers who were sitting down and reviewing hundreds of images. For me, that’s not a good use of an officer’s time,” he said. “There is more going on throughout the city than at those intersections, and it was my recommendation to the City Council to remove the cameras—and we removed them.”

While Cathedral City has a reputation for gang violence, Walker said the city of 54,000—with a police force of 52 sworn officers—is heading in the right direction.

“Public safety has been a priority for the City Council and the city manager in recent years,” he said. “Year to date, we are already at (crime being) 10 percent down from last year.”

When I mentioned the 2015 San Bernardino terror attack, Walker said good training helped the police do their jobs. Sixteen people (including the two perpetrators) were killed, and 24 were injured in the mass shooting and attempted bombing.

“Dec. 2, 2015, was a tragic day that I wish had never happened … and I don’t think that day defines who I am today,” Walker said. “What made a difference that day was that I had good people who worked for me, and the training we received in dealing with an active shooter.”

Walker is a big believer in community engagement, including the use of social media.

“I’m big on marketing the work that the men and women of this organization do,” he said. “If you have a Twitter account or a Facebook account or an Instagram account, you can see that we’re very active, and we’re very engaged with the community. Social media … allows us to tell the story of the Cathedral City Police Department.”

Walker said it’s important the police department touts the positive—because it’s the negative that receives the vast majority of attention.

“There are many positive, comical, heartwarming stories that are not reported publicly—hence the department’s social media campaign,” he said. “… My Twitter feed (@CCPDWALKER) is my own feed; my Facebook (CCPDChiefWalker) and my Instagram (ccpdchiefwalker) are my own, but I have a staffer that does the social media for the department. It’s a sergeant, who as a part of his duty puts the department’s pics and stories out there on social media. He’s extremely engaging, extremely funny and extremely clever.”

Published in Local Issues

What says “Christmas” more than candy canes, hot chocolate, Santa’s Village and a slide made of “snow”? While I don’t know the answer to that question, I do know that all of this can be found at the North Pole Village during the second annual Snow-Fest in Cathedral City on Saturday, Dec. 8.

And to clarify: Yes, I did say “slide made of ‘snow.’” More on that later.

“This is the first year that we have duplicated a Santa’s Village theme, and we have had a great city response,” said Jo Anne Kennon, the event organizer. “The CV Rep prop department has built 10 storefronts, and local artists from CV Rep are painting them. They are so cool—and each one has a local sponsor. Special thanks goes out to Ace Hardware of Cathedral City; they ordered everything and are helping build it all. They are our title sponsor.”

The involvement of CV Rep, aka Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, is a perfect fit, since the renowned company will be moving into the former IMAX theater in Cathedral City’s downtown area in the new year.

“Between Ace Hardware and the CV Rep designers and artists, they took our small idea and made it a million times better,” Kennon said. “This is going to be such a whimsical, fun event, because they made all the difference in the world! The village storefronts will be up for the whole month of December. Christmas music will be playing all the time so that people going to the theater or City Hall can enjoy the music and use (the storefronts) as a picture opportunity.”

There will be a whole lot of festive happenings during Snow-Fest.

“We’re going to have a tree-lighting, a candy-cane drop of 20,000 candy canes, strolling carolers, strolling instrumentalists, and a holiday market that includes food, arts and crafts, and much more,” Kennon said. “We’re trying to make this something big and different. We want to create something that covers all the generations. … We want to make this as family-oriented and interactive as possible. We are offering hot chocolate, Mexican hot chocolate and apple cider. Santa will be handing out cookies to some of the VIP guests also.”

Bad news: Santa will not be arriving via sleigh. The good news: He’ll be arriving in a more … shall we say, SoCal way.

“He will make a grand entrance in a convertible Volkswagen,” Kennon said. “The Grinch is coming, too.”

(Cover your kids’ eyes for this next revelation.)

“Both Santa and the Grinch are City Council members,” Kennon revealed, her enthusiasm growing as she spoke. “Santa Claus will be in his parlor, where he will have his own Christmas tree and a toy box. Mrs. Claus will be there, as well as a couple of elves. There is also going to be an elf workshop behind the tree in the middle of the village. That is where children will get to make Christmas ornaments out of recycled paper, CDs, ribbon and all kinds of stuff. That way, kids can make ornaments for their own trees at home.”

In the middle of the festival, a stage will feature music—and carolers and others will be stationed throughout the event “so that there will be music everywhere around the village,” Kennon said.

I had to ask: How is this snow slide going to work, seeing as we’re in the middle of the desert? The answer: The snow isn’t really snow.

“It’s in the form of bubbles. We don’t want anyone to get hurt from snowballs, so there’s going to be a small slide for young kids with the bubble machine, with bales of hay,” Kennon said. “Everything will be covered in bubbles! They will be able slide down the slide like they are in snow.”

While the snow won’t be real, the Christmas vibe will be.

“I’ve seen a lot of Christmas shows where you see carolers standing outside, in front of houses in the snow. But that’s not something we can actually see here. This is the vision that I wanted to bring for everybody to enjoy.”

Cathedral City’s Snow-Fest takes place from 5 to 9 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 8, in Cathedral City’s Town Square Park, just east of the intersection of Palm Canyon and Cathedral Canyon drives. Admission and parking are free. For more information, visit www.snowfest.us.

Published in Local Fun

When I spoke to the candidates for Cathedral City’s City Council two years ago, the main concern was economic development—how to generate revenue, grow new businesses, and continue to come back from the devastation of the Great Recession of 2008.

Today, the city is undeniably in a better financial position. Revenues from the new and growing marijuana industry have been a boon—but each candidate I spoke to this year acknowledged that Cathedral City still has a long way to go.

This year’s election is being done differently: Under threat of a civil-rights lawsuit, Cathedral City—like many other California municipalities—has switched from at-large elections to district-based elections, and three of those five new district seats are up for election this year. The city is also eliminating the elected mayor’s seat; from now on, the position will rotate among the five council members. As a result of all this, two incumbents—Mayor Stan Henry and Shelley Kaplan—are not running for re-election.

One incumbent is running—Mark Carnevale is facing Juan Carlos Vizaga in the new District 3. In the new District 4, four candidates are facing off: Sergio Espericueta, Ernesto Gutierrez, Rick Saldivar and John Rivera. In District 5, voters will choose between Raymond Gregory and Laura Ahmed.

Four of the eight candidates—Juan Carlos Vizaga, Sergio Espericueta, Ernesto Gutierrez and Laura Ahmed—did not respond to e-mail requests and phone messages from the Independent. Here’s what the responding candidates had to say.


District 3

Mark Carnevale said he’s hoping to continue the work he started after being elected to his first term in 2014.

“I was a new candidate, and Cathedral City had planted the seed,” said Carnevale, who owns Nicolino’s Italian Restaurant with his wife. “There were a lot of development possibilities and a lot of empty buildings. There was a lot of work to be done, and I’ve always accepted challenges in my life. I thought I’d like to be involved in it and throw my personal background as a businessman in there, because a city is run different than a business. When the dice was rolled, we came up with a really good council.

He said the state’s elimination of redevelopment agencies earlier this decade took a toll.

“We’ve really done some good things with the efforts of the prior councils, but the redevelopment money was taken away,” he said. “We put some ideas together with a lot of goal-settings. The economy turned around; cannabis fell into our lap; the economy fell in our lap; and we started renting the buildings, so Cathedral City is moving forward. Timing is everything. We work together as a team to move forward.”

Carnevale said he’s fine with the move to district-based elections.

“It means being a little bit closer to the constituents there, and they can reach out to you,” Carnevale said. “But I’ll still represent all five districts. I don’t care if someone comes to me from District 5, saying, ‘Mark, I have a problem.’ I’ll be there. I’m going to the city manager, saying, ‘Hey, this person in District 5 has a situation.’ That doesn’t make a difference to me.”

Carnevale said he still sees economic development as Cathedral City’s key issue.

“We have to get the downtown filled up. We have to get the entryway from the Interstate 10 freeway onto Date Palm more conducive and get some building going along there,” he said. “We definitely would like to see the annex of Thousand Palms. That’s going to take some work. For me, being a businessman, if I want to build something, I’ll build it. If I want to knock down a wall, I’ll knock down a wall. But the city (red tape) is unbelievable. First, you have to get property entitlements and go through a process. If there’s redevelopment money involved, you have to get approval from their board. It could take years just to get a decision made to build. That’s frustrating. I’d like to see fast-line development here and want to see stuff grow fast.

“Cathedral City has property, and we have the lowest rents in businesses. That’s why we’ve seen 30 restaurants open over the past year and a half.”


District 4

Rick Saldivar is a newcomer to politics and was inspired by his church to run for City Council.

“I’m a pastor at a church in Cathedral City. Our main lead pastor asked a couple of the other pastors to go to City Council meetings,” Saldivar said. “I’ve lived in Cathedral City all of my life. … I love what they do for the city, and when they started doing district (elections), I decided to run for my neighborhood, because I feel I have a real pulse of the residents I live with in my neighborhood.”

Saldivar said people in his district have concerns about a lot of day-to-day issues that don’t reflect well on a city that is trying grow economically. 

“(People are concerned about) homelessness, drug abuse, youth-at-risk, and youth in general,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of senior citizens who are raising their grandchildren. That’s something that has become new to me. I think the homelessness issue needs attention, but I know that’s a valley-wide problem.”

Saldivar thinks small businesses could help solve the city’s economic problems.

“Cathedral City needs to have some sort of program or education on how to start your own business,” he said. “After all the door-knocking I’ve done, I’ve learned there are a lot of entrepreneur-minded people in our backyard—(potential) business owners who have had ideas, but have nothing to educate them on that. How can we make them self-sufficient and add a storefront to our city? I ran into a lady who does garage sales in different areas of the city with different families. She was so business-savvy, and I asked her why she didn’t have a storefront somewhere. It was because she didn’t know how.”

John Rivera is an architect who says his dedication to public service led to his City Council run. He currently serves on the city’s Architectural Review Committee, and formerly served on the Planning Commission.

“I have 25 years of service, including two years with the city of Palm Springs and 15 with Cathedral City,” Rivera said. “I was also a scoutmaster in Palm Springs for seven years with Boy Scouts of America. I tell people I am doing this because this is what my dad would have done. My dad was the type of person who did a lot for people and for family and friends. He was always the guy who stepped up to help. He would never ask for anything in return. That was just his nature.”

Rivera expressed concern about the lack of new construction in Cathedral City.

“We have a lot of growth with the cannabis industry, and that’s been a blessing,” he said. “The thing I see, being an architect by profession, is a lot of business and construction in Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert—but none in Cathedral City. I think it’s a sign that there’s something not happening, and that needs to be corrected. Being an architect and being on the Planning Commission, I’ve been at both ends of projects and have gotten them through. I know the system, and I know ways to streamline and make changes for a faster process to make things more business-friendly.”

Rivera also said the city needs to look at economic development in a more-modern way.

“In the past four years, there have been 30 new restaurants that have popped up. We’ve had a couple of big-box stores shut down, Burlington Coat Factory being one of them. The big-box stores are disappearing with e-commerce,” he said. “One of the things I’ve been focused on trying to get is what I refer to as a millennial city. We have a downtown that is made largely of vacant lots. When the city was master-planned back in the 1990s, it was done by architects in San Francisco that designed our city based on models in the 1970s and the 1960s. I think that was a waste of taxpayer money, and we need to look forward on how millennials will live in our city. They aren’t golfers; they don’t live the lifestyle that baby boomers live, and trying to tailor a new look for our city that is millennial-friendly is going to take a lot of forward-thinking and a lot of changes, but will create something that is very unique and will draw a lot of potential home-buyers.”


District 5

Raymond Gregory, running in District 5, retired in 2017 after 25 years with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

“One of the reasons I retired was because I was tired of being removed from my own community,” Gregory said. “My intention when I retired was to work on my house and work on things I felt were neglected—but also to volunteer in my community and with the city. When I retired (in September 2017), I started looking for opportunities and talking to people. People said that with (my) experience in law enforcement and (my) experience with government—and I had gone back to school, getting a master’s in business management—they said I’d be a good City Council member.”

Gregory, like other candidates, talked about how the recession hit Cathedral City particularly hard.

“Cathedral City had some challenges before, but when the recession came, a lot of the stores and businesses that the city had attracted started to close, and bigger stores moved away,” he said. “We’re left with a lot of empty storefronts. We have residential and commercial portions that were started to be developed and were never finished. … Quality of life is related to economic development, because if you’re not generating the revenue, you’re not able to build up your public safety or maintain your roads, and you don’t have the recreational opportunities such as parks. So there are a number of quality-of-life issues that need to be addressed, but economic development is the No. 1 challenge we have.”

Gregory expressed hope that tourism dollars and new businesses could come to Cathedral City.

“We need to build up a good tax base, and if I had my wish, we’d build up hotels, because it’s a good tax for the city to make revenue off of,” he said. “We’re a west valley location with a lot of the same amenities that our neighbors in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage have. I’d like to see hotels, tourism and recreational businesses. We have to continue to build on our arts and culture district and attract small businesses related to that. I’d like to see some green technology come in, and something to offer great jobs for people who live here so they don’t have to drive elsewhere to work.”

Jimmy Boegle contributed to this story.

Published in Politics

A couple of years ago, Damon Rubio found himself at a career crossroads.

The executive vice president at UltraStar Cinemas had been with the company for more than 15 years, and in the movie-theater business since 1991. However, the owners of the company were getting older and had started selling off locations—so Rubio knew his time with UltraStar would be coming to a close.

“I had to decide: Did I want to work for someone else, or take the plunge and do something for myself?” he said.

He didn’t want to move his family out of Southern California, and he’d maxed out his career opportunities in the area, more or less—so he decided to take that plunge.

UltraStar had been managing the Mary Pickford Theatre and the nearby Desert Cinemas, the former IMAX theater, in Cathedral City. However, the lease came to an end last year, so Rubio went straight to the landlord and cut a deal.

D’Place Entertainment was born.

Having been in a similar situation myself, I have an affinity for people who take that plunge and venture out on their own. While I have been petrified with fear at times as a small-business owner, Rubio said he’s had a calmer experience.

“I learned it’s maybe not as scary as I expected it to be,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s easy. But a lot of people dream of owning their own business, and the first step, diving in, is the hardest part.”

Of course, every small business faces challenges. Rubio is looking to expand D’Place beyond Cathedral City, and he said his company’s relative newness has led to some difficulties.

“We’re a young company, and I’m having to make a name for myself,” Rubio said. “My experience is obviously a huge part of what I go in and sell, but when I talk about all my experience with the previous company, (potential partners) sometimes will say, ‘That’s great! By the way, can you give us the phone number for that company?’”

The movie-theater business itself is facing some trying times, given the increasing number of ways that people can enjoy movies. However, Rubio said he’s confident movie theaters will be around for many years to come.

“People have been pronouncing theaters dead for years,” he said. “But none of those predictions came true. People have kitchens at home, yet restaurants continue to survive.”

Rubio said the key to theaters’ survival is making going to the movies a true experience, with better seating, higher-quality refreshments and enhancements to the movie-watching experience itself. He points to recent improvements at the Mary Pickford as examples: Recliners can be found throughout the cineplex, and D-Box motion-effects seating is offered with some films. One theater also offers the Barco Escape format, with the movie shown on a panoramic three screens.

However, all of these enhancements also have an up-charge—leading to another worry.

“My biggest concern is that theaters offering all of these high-end experiences will result in high-end prices,” Rubio said. “We don’t want that. We want to keep family-friendly prices.”

What’s the next big thing for the movies?

“It’ll be interesting to see how virtual reality plays a role, be it in the way movies are promoted, or in the actual exhibition of movies,” Rubio said. “The great thing about theaters is we’re able to provide a mass experience, and that gives us an opportunity to be a place where new technology can come.”

After a little more than a year of ownership, Rubio said things are going well for D’Place Entertainment. Owning his own company is just a continuation of Rubio’s love affair of movies, which began when he stood in line to see the original Star Wars as a kid at the Polar Theatre in Anchorage, Alaska. He said he still gets tingles when he thinks of the first moments of Star Wars, with the crawl and the star destroyer flying into the screen.

“There’s always been something in me that wanted to recapture that moment,” Rubio said. “I realize that I am not just selling movies; I am selling that experience I had as a child.”

For more information, visit dplaceentertainment.com.

Published in Features

No, Jefferson. Let it go …

Our evil elf of a U.S attorney general is whining about pot again, this time in a letter asking Congress not to renew the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment.

The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which became law in December of 2014, prohibits the Department of Justice from spending any federal funds to interfere with state medical cannabis laws. It must be renewed each year—and Sessions is requesting it not be renewed this time around.

“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime. The department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives,” Sessions wrote in the letter, first made public by Tom Angell of MassRoots.com.

This comes at a time when an overwhelming majority of Americans (including 65 percent of police officers!) are in favor of some form of legalization, and more and more states are starting to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

One of the law’s namesakes expressed annoyance with Sessions’ letter.

“Mr. Sessions stands athwart an overwhelming majority of Americans and even, sadly, against veterans and other suffering Americans who we now know conclusively are helped dramatically by medical marijuana.” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican who represents parts of Orange County, in a statement to the Washington Post.

Opioids are at the center of the worst drug epidemic facing Americans today—while marijuana is decidedly not. However, to Sessions, there is virtually no difference between opioids and marijuana, considering he recently described pot as just “slightly less awful” than heroin. Of course, the American Journal of Public Health published a study in September 2016 citing evidence that opioid use is lower in states with legal medical marijuana, but what do they know with their “statistics?” Pesky facts …

The DOJ actually challenged the amendment under President Obama, but it was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. This ruling leaves it up to Congress to decide whether to remove Rohrabacher-Farr from the yearly appropriations bill—but the amendment has received strong bipartisan support ever since it became law. Conventional wisdom dictates that Congress would be reluctant to go against the clear will of the people, but how often does conventional wisdom come into play in Washington, D.C., these days?

California is having none of this nonsense, and is making moves to become the first sanctuary state for cannabis. In anticipation of a legal showdown with Sessions’ DOJ, the State Assembly passed AB 1578 on June 1; the bill would prohibit state and local law enforcement from helping the feds enforce federal prohibitions against those adhering to California state law. The bill by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat, passed in a close 41-33 vote.

The measure faces stiff opposition by law enforcement and Republicans, for reasons ranging from interference in federal and local interagency cooperation regarding other crimes, to claims that it violates federal law.

“The hubris of California Democrats believing they can flout federal law on immigration and drug policy is beyond words,” said Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) during the floor debate.

Jones-Sawyer’s retort: “AB 1578 ensures that our limited local and state resources are not spent on federal marijuana enforcement against individuals and entities that are in compliance with our laws.”

Rep. Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), a co-author of the bill, said: “People who are compliant with California law and operate within the legal cannabis market should not have to fear that a state or local agency will participate in efforts to punish or incarcerate them for activity that the state and its voters have deemed legal,” according to a Los Angeles Times report.

The Tenth Amendment Center, a constitutional-law and states’ rights advocacy group, claims there is solid legal standing for the measure. “Provisions withdrawing state and local enforcement of federal law in AB 1578 rest on a well-established legal principle known as the anti-commandeering doctrine. Simply put, the federal government cannot force states to help implement or enforce any federal act or program,” founder Michael Boldin said in a post on the group’s website.

Jones-Sawyer said the bill could be edited to make it clear that cooperation in moving against illegal operations according to state law could continue. A Newsweek report estimated that 1,400 dispensaries are operating illegally in Los Angeles alone, and Jones-Sawyer would like those businesses shuttered, while protecting those adhering to local and state law.

The bill faces an uncertain future as it moves to the State Senate.


MEANWHILE, HERE IN THE VALLEY…

The City Council of Cathedral City recently passed a moratorium on new dispensaries south of Interstate 10.

The city of 53,000 has 10 licensed dispensaries operating, with another opening soon—that’s around 4,800 residents per dispensary. By comparison, Palm Springs has six dispensaries servicing 44,552 residents (or 7,452 residents per dispensary). The move is designed to help ensure the continued success of existing dispensaries in what is a comparatively saturated market.

Cathedral City dispensaries may also see fewer customers in the future, as Palm Desert and Coachella are slowly moving toward allowing retail cannabis businesses.

The measure passed 3-2, with Greg Pettis and Shelley Kaplan opposing.

Published in Cannabis in the CV

Cathedral City has faced some tough times in recent years.

Developers have broken promises. Redevelopment in the downtown area, along Highway 111, has seen ups and downs.

These are just a couple of the issues Cathedral City’s City Council is dealing with as the November election approaches. Mayor Stan Henry is running unopposed for his seat, while two City Council slots are up for grabs. Incumbents Gregory Pettis and John Aguilar are both running for re-election, and are being opposed by Sergio Espericueta, a member of the city’s Planning Commission.

The Independent recently reached out to all four candidates. Espericueta (right), however, did not respond to a request for an interview.

“We have a couple of challenges, one of which is to maintain our balanced budgets,” Mayor Henry told the Independent. “We’re doing a very good job. We actually have two-thirds of our budget in reserves, which is one of the goals the current council wanted to have. The other issue is development in our downtown and northern area, and we’re currently working on both of those things. We’re in the process of working on development agreements with developers to work on our downtown area. We have a developer that’s building a hotel and retail north of Interstate 10, at Bob Hope Drive and Varner Road, so both of those are good things that will help with our ability to keep the budgets in a balanced position.”

Henry cited economic development as a challenge the city faces.

“We definitely need to do more, and that’s one of the reasons we need to make it a high priority, and I’ve made it a high priority,” Henry said. “We’ve hired an economic director to make sure that we get the right type of development in Cathedral City. We don’t want a developer to come in, make all kinds of promises, land-bank it and not do anything. We’ve had that in the past. We’re making sure in our development agreements that we know it’s going to take time to do the development, but we want to see time frames and milestones … or we get the land back, or keep possession of the land.”

Henry said he believes the downtown area is on its way toward success.

“I think the downtown area needs some multi-housing,” he said. “It’s going to be a great area for entertainment and restaurants. Are we going to get big boxes there? No, we’re not. But we’ll get great assets for our downtown area and make it very vibrant.”

Henry said his biggest accomplishment during his four years on the City Council—two of those as mayor—has been making sure the city has balanced budgets.

“We almost depleted all of our reserves, and after talking to our finance director, there were projections that we’d be in the red,” he said. “We’ve turned that around and balanced our budgets. We’ve added staffing appropriately where we’ve needed to. Plus, we’ve had developers looking at us now who never have in the past.”

Gregory Pettis (right)—one of the valley’s longest-serving public officials—has been serving on Cathedral City’s City Council since 1994.

“I think our downtown area continues to be a challenge, coming out of the relinquishment of a development agency and trying to find ways to partner with developers to make it financially viable for them,” Pettis said. “We’re beginning to see things coming together.”

He said the city is seeing an improvement in the number of vacant storefronts.

“We have very little vacancy in the city,” he said. “We have a couple of large big boxes that are vacant … but our smaller centers are still full, and it’s becoming harder and harder to find (space), so we’re actually going to have to start to build some more smaller commercial centers. It’s the larger centers we’re having some issues with. It’s educating (large retailers) about the city, and that they don’t have to be in Palm Desert or Palm Springs.”

Pettis feels his greatest accomplishments during 22 years on the City Council have been bringing in new businesses, and annexing new land into the city.

“I can point to Big League Dreams and bringing them in,” he said, listing some accomplishments. “The annexation of (areas) north of I-10, and now we’re getting ready to annex Thousand Palms, which will take us all the way to Washington Street north of I-10, which will open us up for numerous development opportunities for the city. The building of the two movie theaters at the civic center. Those are all great things that have happened for our city.”

Pettis said that while Cathedral City enjoys low crime rates, there’s more work to be done.

“We continue to see the lowest crime rate in the Coachella Valley,” he said. “It’s a good thing, but … we need to continue to do better, and we need to work hard on prevention so that our young people have opportunities and don’t slip into something their older brothers and sisters fell into. … We’re fully staffed in our police department, but we want to add some additional officers and increase the amount and quality of their training. We’re also going with body cameras to increase accountability.”

John Aguilar (right) is running for his first full term; he was appointed to the City Council two years ago when Stan Henry became mayor. He expressed more serious concerns about Cathedral City’s economic challenges, and mentioned mistakes made by previous councils.

“There was a blend of factors that have created vacant land that has gone undeveloped, and I think prior administrations didn’t take advantage of development offers to the city; I think they decided to wait for something better,” Aguilar said. “I think that’s a missed opportunity. I also think the recession hit when redevelopment began, and caused it to dissolve. That was a huge hit. But I think the city is recovering, and we have some good proposals that we can’t talk about until the development deals have been vetted.

“We’re seeing reinvestment. The (Coachella Valley Repertory) folks have purchased the old Cinemark facility, which is going to be great and bring live theater downtown. We’ve had a new investor come into the Mary Pickford Theatre, which is great, because that brings people downtown.”

Aguilar said one of his top priorities is to increase diversity.

“One of the reasons I wanted to become more actively involved is because I believe in transparency in local government, and want to increase diversity within the ranks of the city and also within the commissions in the city. Historically, there’s been a lack of representation, especially from the Latino community, on the council and its commissions. I think strengthening our life-safety divisions in police and fire has been a vital factor. We’ve hired a new fire and police chief, and they’re both fantastic.”

Aguilar added that the city has taken proper steps to keep the crime rate down.

“Our crime rate compared to other communities in the Coachella Valley—it’s quite low,” he said. “It still requires that we be very vigilant in monitoring crimes, especially crimes against persons. We promote community-watch organizations; we’ve hired a homeless liaison to try to make sure the homeless problem is handled compassionately, and our local businesses and communities won’t be harmed in the process. I think we’ve done a good job.”

Published in Politics

What: The Sesame Chicken

Where: New Fortune Asian Cuisine, 67555 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Cathedral City

How much: $14.95

Contact: 760-770-2988

Why: It tastes like the Chinese food you’d get in SF or LA.

We usually keep things pretty positive here on the Indy Endorsement page—but before we return you to your regularly scheduled nice-things-to-say, we feel the need to snivel just a bit.

Man, does the Chinese food in this valley suck. I know there’s a void here, because every time I head for San Francisco or Los Angeles, one of my first stops for lunch or dinner is Chinatown.

Don’t get me wrong; there are a few Chinese food places here in the CV that are worthy, but there are more than a few whose continued existence makes me wonder: Who in the hell is paying money to eat this crap?

Well, thank goodness for New Fortune Asian Cuisine, located in Cathedral City: For my money, it’s the best freestanding Chinese-food joint in the valley that I have found thus far.

My go-to dish at New Fortune: sesame chicken. (Note to food purists: I know sesame chicken is not really a true Chinese-food dish, and is instead an Americanized Chinese-ish dish. However, that fact does not make it any less yummy when done right.) This sesame chicken is tender but not mushy, savory but not salty, and sweet without being cloying. In a word, it’s fantastic—on par with some of the better versions of the dish I’ve gotten in SF or LA.

The sesame chicken is not the only good thing about New Fortune. The service is friendly, and all of the food I’ve tried there has been between decent and (the aforementioned) fantastic. An endorsement within an endorsement: New Fortune’s war wonton soup is so good that you’ll want to order it even when it’s 113 degrees out.

When it comes to quality Chinese food, New Fortune is truly an oasis in this large and sandy desert.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

It’s been a turbulent couple of months for the Cathedral City Public Arts Commission.

The way interviews were done for potential commission members raised eyebrows. The fact that almost all of the newly seated commissioners live in the same area caused concerns. Then the commission made a major change in direction, with new commissioners pushing an aggressive slate of programs and projects that they say will bring increased artistic opportunity and expression into the daily lives of Cathedral City residents.

“You know, frankly I was rather surprised at how it all went,” returning commissioner and new co-chair Alan Carvalho said regarding the interview process. “When I was interviewed before being selected last year, it was in a closed City Council session. This time, it was done in the open, and I don’t think that they were ready for so many people to be applying.

“One of the focuses of the City Council, from what I understood, was that they were looking to give new people an opportunity to contribute to the city. Also, I know that the mayor (Stan Henry) was concerned that we keep at least one person on each of the commissions who was a veteran.”

Another factor that could have influenced this year’s selections stemmed from the ability of the City Council to appoint commissioners who lived outside of Cathedral City. That policy did not make sense to newly appointed commissioner and co-chair Simeon Den.

“I felt, ‘You guys couldn’t find enough people in Cathedral City who would volunteer their time and want to be there on the commission?’” he said. “We got the council to make a commitment that first, we should try to get Cathedral City residents on to the Public Arts Commission.”

Some people have groused about concerns that a vast majority of current commissioners live in the Cathedral Cove area of the city, a fact confirmed by Chris Parman, communications/events manager of Cathedral City, “Of the five commissioners newly appointed, four of the five candidates live in the Cathedral City Cove neighborhood. Please note that Public Arts Commission candidates are not chosen based on where they live in the city.”

To some, it is curious to note that Jim Cox, then the commission chairperson, was recommended for re-appointment to the commission after the interviews on June 6; however, when the June 10 City Council meeting took place, Cox, who is a Cove resident, was not re-appointed, while commissioner Pam Price, who lives further north in the city, was reappointed.

As far as the new co-chairpersons were concerned, the appointments came down not to geography, but the strategic direction the Public Arts Commission would take.

“The group of commissioners prior to us had a different mindset about how they thought the Public Arts Commission should be,” stated Den. “You know how there’s a group of people who consider themselves to be the experts, and kind of top-down want to dictate what should be considered good art and what should be bad art. When you’re working in the government and for the community, the approach and the philosophy needs to be different. You shouldn’t go from the top down; you go from the bottom up.”

Carvalho expanded on that theme.

“With the previous commission I was a member of, there were very few opportunities for people to feel they could come as the public and just be part of our meeting,” he said. “So I really wanted to make sure that those citizens who applied for commissioner positions and didn’t get seats felt that their contribution was wanted and needed.”

Now that the new Cathedral City Public Arts Commission has been seated, Den and Carvalho are painting a picture of a community-service-driven, geographically agnostic agenda. They passionately described plans they say will deliver real value to local citizens looking for support in their artistic endeavors, recognition of their cultural heritage, and the opportunity to experience good art in their neighborhoods.

“This commission would like to continue what was started last year and bring a sculpture that honors the Agua Caliente tribe to the corner of Landau and Ramon, where the city has built a platform for the use of Public Arts,” Carvalho stated. “The Ramon Road project was partially funded by the tribe.”

Den emphasized several efforts. “Alan Carvalho and I are doing a murals project throughout the city, and particularly in the north end, over by Vista Chino and Ramon. We’re considering local artists, and particularly Latino artists, who could create murals that would add to the cultural identity and enable young people to become part of the process. There are kids who I’ve met who grew up here and went to Cathedral City High School. I’ve contacted two of them, and one who’s been doing a murals project in Oakland and grew up here on E Street is going to paint a mural for us.”

Also high on Den’s list is the “Art Block” project, an ambitious proposal to reclaim the Boneyard property at 36600 Cathedral Canyon Drive from the city for use as a workshop and learning center.

As for high-profile events, the commission is sponsoring an exhibition at City Hall of work by well-known painter and part-time Cathedral City resident Ilona Von Ronay. Also, the Taste of Jalisco Festival is slated for downtown Cathedral City on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 13 and 14; it will feature a screening of the documentary Lalo Guerrero: The Original Chicano, musical and dance performances, a parade, food stands and a kids’ zone.

“Cathedral City has been known as the ugly stepsister of the desert cities, and we always think of it as the Cinderella, because we love it here,” Den said. “We do have such a rich history that we want to bring forward again.”

Published in Local Issues

Coachella Valley residents who use medical marijuana must currently travel to one of a small handful of dispensaries in Palm Springs—the only valley city which has allowed dispensaries to operate.

However, two other local cities will soon let dispensaries open their doors. Last year, both the Desert Hot Springs City Council and the city’s voters OK’d dispensaries, while Cathedral City’s City Council narrowly voted in favor of allowing them.

Desert Hot Springs will initially allow up to three permits to be issued for dispensaries, with the possibility of adding more after an evaluation. Currently, 19 applications have been submitted, but there is a list of three applications that have received the highest score.

Cathedral City will allow two permits to be issued; so far, the city has rejected four applications and approved one. City Manager Charlie McClendon explained the criteria the applicants must meet.

“The ordinance laid out some fairly strict guidelines that they had to meet to qualify in terms of what zoning district they could be in, how close they could be to a school, how close they could be to a residential neighborhood, how close they could be to each other, how close they could be to a park, and things like that,” McClendon said. “So, it’s a two-pronged process. (Applications) go before our planning commission to judge that, and the first step is a test: Is the application complete? Does it meet those spacing guidelines? Did they submit all the material? If the planning commission determines that, yes, the application is complete, then they can have an open public hearing for a conditional use permit on that application. If they determine that the application is not complete, then it’s rejected.”

McClendon explained that one applicant has been approved so far, a company called Green Cross Pharma. He said most of the other applicants have been rejected due to location issues.

“There’s a provision in the ordinance that a dispensary cannot be 200 feet from Highway 111/East Palm Canyon Road, and one was rejected because it was less than that distance from the road,” he said.

Some people worry that dispensaries will attract crime to the areas where they’re located, but according to studies by RAND Corporation and California NORML, dispensaries do not raise or lower crime rates. McClendon said these studies have been taken into consideration.

“It remains to be seen as to whether or not it makes a difference here,” he said. “You can read competing evidence on that from other jurisdictions, but we have no direct experience with that ourselves.”

As for revenue, McClendon said the tax on medical marijuana that voters in Cathedral City approved will generate some money for city coffers.

“That’s a question that went to the voters, and they authorized a tax on the proceeds of the marijuana sales of up to 15 percent. It remains to be seen how much that actually generates, because we have no history yet. Based on the experience of Palm Springs, we believe there will be some revenue.”

Nicholas Longo, a licensed grower who used to live in Desert Hot Springs and who provides marijuana to dispensaries, was elated when the cities took steps to allow new dispensaries to open.

“I started growing about five years ago,” said Longo, who began using marijuana to help him with epilepsy. “At first, it was for the purpose of having the stuff on me at all times, but then it changed more into helping people than anything. I sell to the dispensaries—but what I do is make clones. I pretty much concentrate my focus on creating clones, so genetics is my thing. … You need to make sure you have good genetics.”

Longo grows about 25 plants per week that he can turn into sellable product for the dispensaries. “Every week, you put in about 25, and the ninth or 10th week, you’re harvesting.”

On Jan. 20, in Desert Hot Springs, Jason Elsasser opened up a center on Pierson Boulevard as part of his Medical Marijuana Resource Group, which based in Yucca Valley. It offers consultations and recommendations for medical marijuana cards. He said that patients don’t necessarily have safe access to medical marijuana.

“In 2013, the California Supreme Court ruled that county municipalities can zone out dispensaries,” Elsasser said. “In essence, a town can say, ‘We don’t want it!’ They can impose codes and zoning restrictions that won’t allow it. … It’s kind of like the stuff they do to strip clubs, massage parlors or tattoo parlors.”

After the market collapsed and destroyed his real estate business, Elsasser went into the medical-marijuana industry.

“I’m the one who created the situation in Yucca Valley,” he said. “In Yucca Valley, they voted in 2013 to shut down the only dispensary that was operating in town. It was left to operate kind of through a loophole. They had approved a legal dispensary back in 2008, and then some people opened a ballet studio next to it, and all of a sudden, there was a bunch of negative press about it. They pushed it to the far outskirts of town and implemented a moratorium on medical marijuana. The City Council (then) voted … to shut down the only dispensary. I said, ‘Enough is enough,’ and since I had a real estate background, I started the Yucca Valley Medical Marijuana Resource Group. I wanted to use it as a springboard to educate the town. I hired an attorney to write an ordinance and to start a voter referendum.”

Elsasser said that referendum should appear before Yucca Valley voters sometime in 2015. “We will win. I’m very confident because we have the support of the community, and we will win based on that.”

Elsasser said he believes medical-marijuana dispensaries will have a positive effect on Desert Hot Springs.

“We want to help the community,” he said. “These shops that are opening can do a lot of good for the community, and my business is just one of the businesses that are a product of these dispensaries opening. I just got my business license for my evaluation center, and we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the three (coming) dispensaries. It’s good for the economy; it’s improving the area; and we’re excited about being down here in Desert Hot Springs.”

Below: Jason Elsasser opened a medical-marijuana evaluation center in Desert Hot Springs in January. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the three (coming) dispensaries,” he said. PHOTO BY BRIAN BLUESKYE

Published in Local Issues

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