CVIndependent

Thu11142019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The last few years have been quite transformative for the Desert Healthcare District (DHCD).

First, there was the need to change the board of directors election process from an at-large standard to a district-based approach, in order to comply with the California Voting Rights Act. As that process moved ahead, voters in the eastern Coachella Valley last November approved the district’s expansion beyond its antiquated Cook Street boundary, creating the potential for improved health-care access and services in the eastern valley—while necessitating that the district figure out how to fully fund services in the expanded district. That voter edict resulted in the launch of yet another rezoning process, which is currently under way.

Through these administrative and organizational challenges, the DHCD has continued to provide support to local health-care providers and community-service programs, addressing needs such as homelessness, public health and behavioral health.

It was against this backdrop on July 31 that the DHCD welcomed its new CEO, Dr. Conrado Barzaga. He brings some 20 years of experience ranging from health-care management and fund development to public-health and public-policy work. After completing his education as a physician and working in his native Cuba, Dr. Barzaga’s career path took him to Argentina, Bolivia and the United States.

Since coming to the U.S., he has held positions as a senior program officer for First 5 LA (2008-2012) and vice president for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles (2006-2008), among other work in health education and public health. Most recently, he spent more than seven years as president and CEO of the Center for Oral Health, where he was instrumental in expanding programs to under-served communities.

During a recent phone interview, Dr. Barzaga talked about the challenges and responsibilities facing the district.

“I believe that addressing health-care needs requires information, intervention and ideas from different sectors,” he stated. “Of course, we need the ideas of those who are the recipients of health-care services, but we also need to understand and listen to the providers of health-care services. So we will inform our work by working with all the sectors of our society that are engaged in health care in one way or another, from the recipients, to the providers, and to the systems.”

Barzaga spoke about the value of data aggregation and analysis in identifying and understanding the health-care needs and desires of the valley’s residents.

“I want to engage our community (in order) to listen and to learn,” he said. “Our board is elected by the people, and therefore, it must respond to the people. They will tell us what they perceive to be their priorities. From a data-gathering perspective, it is important that we gather as many indicators as we can. There are different sources (from which) we can get that data, including California’s Department of Health Care Services and the federal government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services—you name it. But it is the community’s participation which is going to provide the best intelligence and the best approach to addressing the needs of the district.”

Barzaga addressed the expansion of the district into the eastern Coachella Valley—including some of the area’s most under-served communities.

“We need to understand how the health inequities manifest in the health disparities in the district,” he said. “We need to quantify and qualify those disparities. That will help the district understand where it can have a more profound impact, what the best approach will be, and how the limited resources that we manage can have the best outcome and the best return on the public-dollar investments in the district.” Barzaga wants to utilize surveys, town-hall meetings, focus groups and individual interviews to, in his words, “distill and construct a cohesive long-term approach to how we’re going to foster a healthy one Coachella Valley 2030/2040/2050 (strategic plan).”

Lightheartedly, he added, “I’m in it for the long run.”

The Independent asked Dr. Barzaga how he views the collaborative effort involving the DHCD, the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG) and the office of Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez to address the homelessness situation in a number of our desert’s cities.

“Homelessness has important public-health implications,” he said. “At the same time, it’s a very complex issue that requires a collaborative approach to have a collective impact. Thus far, the district-commissioned report (on homelessness in our region) has been the framework for how the community can approach the issues of homelessness in the Coachella Valley.”

The district has committed $3 million to go toward addressing homelessness in the Coachella Valley.

“There was a request for proposals released very recently to invite different providers in the community to come up with ideas and plans on how to help solve the challenge of homelessness in the Coachella Valley,” Barzaga said. “I think the district has been active and has been a significant force in catalyzing and providing resources to our community partners to address homelessness.”

Does Dr. Barzaga feel the DHCD’s expansion of service into the east valley is producing desired results yet?

“From my perspective, the board is deeply committed to the expansion,” he said. “We held six community forums in the first half of this year in Mecca, North Shore, Coachella, La Quinta, Palm Desert and Indio. We’re sharing information with the community about the work of the district, and raising awareness about who we are, what we do, and how we can work together to make the district better. We had very good feedback from the community, and it was made clear through that process that, because of the expansion, some of these priorities are going to shift.

“The realities and the needs of the eastern Coachella Valley are different from the needs of the western Coachella Valley. One of the public-health functions of a health-care district is to address health-care disparities. We believe that there are many, and to address them, we need to understand and apply the lens of the social determinants of health, (in order) to make investments that are long-term, transformational and help to create a healthy Coachella Valley.

“Part of our community outreach effort is the platform we created called the Coachella Valley Health Information Place (CVHIP). It’s an online resource that any social-service workers, health-care providers, community health workers and community members can have access to. It connects different resources with the people who need access to those resources, like housing, food, health care, health insurance, day care, etc.

“To give you some examples, fire departments and police departments are using that (online) resource when they encounter people who need access to services—whether it’s behavioral health, housing, food, you name it. They are using this tool daily to provide solutions to the people they encounter in their daily work. Still, we’re promoting it everyday.”

We asked Barzaga if he had a message that he wanted to communicate through this interview—his first since assuming the new position.

“Rezoning is another topic which is now a priority for the district,” Dr. Barzaga said. “So far, we have had two public hearings this year, and we have two more coming up, and like the municipalities that have gone through the rezoning process, our aim is to have a board that reflects the various communities in the Coachella Valley. So we are really encouraging the public to come out and help us.”

Those hearings will be held during the district’s board meetings on Tuesday, Sept. 24, and Tuesday, Oct. 22. To view the initial set of proposed maps, visit www.dhcd.org/zoning.

Published in Local Issues

Lisa Middleton got more than 7,000 votes to lead the way in last year’s at-large Palm Springs City Council election, becoming the first openly transgender person to be elected to a non-judicial office in the state of California.

That may have been the last at-large City Council election that Palm Springs will ever hold.

The city of Palm Springs—like other jurisdictions across the state that currently don’t elect representatives in district-based elections—has received a letter from Shenkman and Hughes, a Malibu-based law firm representing the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, claiming the city is violating California Voting Rights Act of 2001. The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project aspires to increase the presence of Latino candidates in municipal elections.

Indio and Cathedral City, facing similar threats, moved to district-based elections this year.

The letter claimed Palm Springs’ current election system has “resulted in racially polarizing voting” and is diluting the influence of Latino voters.

The letter may have a point. The last Latino who served on the Palm Springs City Council was Joseph Garcia, who was in office from 1972 to 1976—even though Census numbers show that about a quarter of Palm Springs’ population is currently Latino.

The City Council recently decided to start moving toward district elections and is hiring a demographer to analyze how to draft boundaries—a process that Middleton said has cost other cities $30,000 to $60,000.

We recently interviewed Middleton regarding the issue.

Does Palm Springs have an inclusive nature, politically speaking?

My campaign and my election wouldn’t be possible in many, if not most, cities in the U.S., but it was certainly possible here in Palm Springs. The LGBTQ community has been coming to Palm Springs almost since the founding of the city, and in the last 20-25 years, Palm Springs has (become) a community substantially inclusive, not only of LGBTQ people, but progressive individuals as well. Our community has clearly evolved in terms of its politics.

How did you personally feel when you read the letter from Shenkman and Hughes?

I truly enjoyed running city-wide. I was extremely proud that my campaign resonated in every part of our city and that I knew the people and issues on the ground in each of our 45 neighborhoods. I found myself, in the first few days after receipt of the letter, in meetings far from my own neighborhood. I’m so happy to represent those neighborhoods. I did not want to lose that one-on-one connection with each of our neighborhoods. But after a few days, it was clear this was not about me; this is about what’s best for our city. My job is to do what is best for all of our city—today and tomorrow.

How do we get to the point of electing a Latino representative with a district election?

The Latino population in Palm Springs, in comparison to other ethnic groups, is disproportionally young. We’ve seen it in public schools in Palm Springs that are overwhelmingly Latino: 75 to 80 percent are students obviously not yet eligible to vote, but will be at some point. … What we’re doing is moving in the right direction. It might not be in that first (district) election, and perhaps not even in the second election. … Down the road, we can bear the fruit of something that will lead to electing those individuals to the City Council and other offices.

Do you see the City Council as being more diverse in the future?

We are working to set in motion a series of reforms that should result in greater participation of our residents throughout the city in their government. I am convinced that we can increase the participation of all of our residents. The more our city represents all of the people of our city, the better. It is easy to lose faith. It is not easy to put yourself out front as a potential representative for your community and your city. I’m working on a City Council that is committed to have a hand out to help those ready to step up.

What about the allegations that the city violated the California Voting Rights Act by racially polarizing and diluting the influence of Latino voters with at-large elections?

I have not seen any specific allegations and would not respond without seeing any specifics. The issue has risen, and we’re responding. We’re trying to respond in a positive way.

What would be the ideal way to structure the municipal government with future district elections?

Municipal governments are organized in a number of ways. Our largest cities trend toward a strong mayor, who is the chief executive and does not sit on the City Council, but has a veto on City Council actions. Those cities trend toward City Council members elected from geographic districts. Some cities (like Palm Springs) have a weak mayor with additional ceremonial responsibilities, but no additional authority. Such mayors sit as a member of City Council. Other cities rotate the mayors’ responsibility among the various members of City Council. This, along with a city manager as the chief administrative officer, is the most common municipal form of government. … We will evaluate every option, seek extensive public input and make our decisions by year-end. Our goal is the best form of government to address the needs of our city.

What is the role of the demographer hired by the city? Is there a deadline on his report?

We will employ an outside demographer who has worked with numerous California cities to develop reports that will allow the city to draw and select the district boundaries that are best for our city. In drawing boundaries, (the) goals (are): Maximize the goals of the California Voting Rights Act; prioritize creation of majority-minority districts; to the extent practical, keep organized neighborhoods intact; and maintain the principle that the best interest of the city as a whole remains the first responsibility of all elected officials. (The) process: Evaluate our demographics and structure of government; compare with and learn from other comparable cities, and recommend the structure of government that best achieves the goals of the California Voting Rights Act and the long-term needs of our city; and encourage and work through communication platforms to obtain participation from as many residents and stakeholders as possible in the process.

If we had district elections in place when you ran for the City Council, do you think you’d have won your district?

I hope that I would’ve won, but we will probably find it out when the time comes to run for re-election.

Published in Politics