October 10, 2020

Desert Hot Springs Candidate Forum


The video is available on YouTube.

Scott Matas, current mayor,
Adam Sanchez, past mayor
Robert Griffith, city council member
Russell Betts, city council member
Jessica Gilbert, running for city council
Steve Giboney, running for city council
Jason Moore, running for city council
Jonathan Laura, running for city council but absent from this forum

Diana Soto, moderator, Vice President & Director of Public Policy for the Greater Coachella Valley Chamber of Commerce

Skilled lip readers might enjoy watching Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Giboney whose muted jaws were flapping much of the time when others were speaking.

I've tried to summarize what each speaker said, but when they're spewing nonsense that was impossible and I had to resort to simply typing out their words verbatim. Text in [square brackets] represents my opinions.

INTRODUCTORY REMARKS

BETTS: We want the city to look good and inviting. The city is on a stable course to more economic growth. City finances have recovered from 2012 and there is money in reserves. DHS is not facing financial difficulties as bad as other cities. We must fight to keep cannabis businesses and jobs that other cities are competing for. The cannabis taxes are too high. There has been continued progress in public safety. There is tremendous momentum on city beautification. Parks have been renovated. Two new parks on the way. Two sidewalk projects are on the way.

GIBONEY: [Momentarily off-screen] "It's time for some people who are now [not?] part of a tight-knit group in our city to try to break into our city clique and nucleus." Mayor Matas has tried to build leadership out of a small circle of people. Infrastructure for the future is being built. Something hidden from people is an offense to him. It is done on a regular basis. The council needs someone in touch with blue collar workers. There need to be more people who know what it's like to raise kids. He will bring a whole different perspective. The clique that we have is not diverse. Some of the attention that is shown to economic growth needs to be shared with the community. "I don't care about money. I don't want to ever deal with it. Money is no object." He wants to help people. He doesn't ask anybody for money. He says he does this at a grassroots level. It is time that a difference of opinion is "allowed" into the city council. His only campaign promise: "I will tell you everything that I can legally tell you that is going on within our city council."

GILBERT: New to politics. A resident here for 28 years. A full-time Realtor for 25 years. Raised three children here. Sat on the boards of DHS Boys & Girls Club, DHS Chamber of Commerce, Greater Coachella Valley Chamber of Commerce for DHS, and Advancing DHS. Member of the Elks Lodge and DHS Rotary Club. Helped start Early Act in elementary schools a couple of years ago.

GRIFFITH: Mayor Pro Tem currently. Managing Director of El Morocco Inn. President of the Hoteliers. A member of the Hot Springs Business and Trade Association. Has worked in insurance and financial services. Had a Series 6 license to work on investment products. Has worked in retail, health care and had his own business. (And he has a cat.) Was on the Planning Commission. It's important to keep the city on a stable financial footing. It would be an error to cut revenue streams.

MATAS: Has worked for consensus. The past two councils have improved the city's infrastructure, image and administration. The city has more financial reserves than ever before. Pubic safety and community programs are strong. The unemployment rate (pre-COVID) was 5.6%. New businesses over the last 5 years have created 2,300 new jobs in DHS. Median income is rising. When he became mayor we did not have a good credit rating. Today our credit rating is A+. Seven years ago the city treasury was down to only a few hundred dollars. Now there is an $11.7 million fund balance. The new City Hall has been built without using general fund money. Crime is down again this year by 20%. Two more fire stations will be funded. Animal Control has been brought back to the city. The code compliance team has grown.

MOORE: He has no personal issues with the current city council. He likes and respects those members of the council he has met. He has heard that it is hard to do any kind of business in DHS. Contractors say it is difficult to pull permits here. Cannabis businesses have complained about their tax rates. Parents want more things to do as a family. He is a board member of DHS Eagles football league where families have complained about the fees to play. Kids want to be on swim or basketball teams. Kids have to skate and ride bikes in the street where there are no sidewalks. He said a $10 million city facility was built. He said no ongoing youth activities are supported by the city's parks and recreation department. [The city has no parks & rec dept.] The IT infrastructure at city hall cost $1 million. The sidewalk around the new city hall cost $160,000. He wants to be a catalyst for change.

NUÑEZ: 46 years old. Worked for 20 years for the county. Was on the Coachella Planning Commission in the aughts. He described that as "small-time politics." When he was on the Planning Commission he made sure developers brought in bigger homes on bigger lots. He was on the Youth Advisory Committee in Coachella. He moved to DHS three years ago. He says he has seen big city politics in a small town. The youth are lost here in DHS. The Boys & Girls Club is gone. The community center doesn't service the community, but only a certain clientele. His son in high school plays football. He was rejected from the community center. He was told he had to be 18. The city hasn't given a pathway to the youth, especially at-risk youth. He sat on a human rights commission somewhere in the Coachella Valley. He was President of the Coachella Valley Mexican-American Chamber of Commerce. He brought it back from failure. He has coached soccer. [He continued speaking and bringing up new subjects for 33 seconds after the "Times up" signal from the timekeeper. BTW, the sign should have said "Time's up."]

SANCHEZ: [His volume was extremely low, you may have to really crank it up to hear him.] He is disappointed we can't have local debates in DHS. He moved here in 1997. He worked as a special projects director for the city. He was involved with the team that created our police department then. He said that when he was mayor he really pushed to keep the police department. He claims to have been involved in an $18-million effort to build the Health & Wellness Center. It needs to be restructured to serve the community. "It's the best in the whole Coachella! It's all about health and wellness. We need to embrace that along with our tourism to create a community that's inclusive with diversity and more importantly our youth need to have more programs along with our children." We need to create future programs to keep kids off the street.


Q & A

The questions were provided by the Chamber's Business Legislative Advocacy Committee. All the candidates had them in advance.

Q: COVID HAS OBVIOUSLY CAUSED A DISRUPTION IN TAX REVENUE FOR ALL LOCAL GOVERNMENTS, CITY AND COUNTY. IF THE CURRENT EMERGENCY MEASURES THAT HAVE LOCAL BUSINESSES SHUTTERED CONTINUES INTO NEXT YEAR WE CAN START TO SEE VERY SERIOUS BUDGET DISRUPTION AT ALL LEVELS OF GOVERNMENT. TELL US ABOUT SOME OF THE STEPS THAT YOU WOULD BE PREPARED TO TAKE TO PROTECT DESERT HOT SPRINGS' ESSENTIAL GOVERNMENT SERVICES. WHAT KIND OF GOVERNANCE SHOULD RESIDENTS EXPECT FROM YOU IF FACED WITH BUDGET SHORTFALLS?

SANCHEZ: The City of La Quinta is the most progressive city in dealing with COVID. They provided funding for small businesses. It's important to work with the business community. In DHS we didn't develop a plan to do the same thing as La Quinta. He described La Quinta as a "small mountain community in the cove." [La Quinta's 2010 population was 30% greater than that of DHS, and its median income was $72,099. DHS' median income was $32,883.] DHS' budget is fine. "There's always a way to help businesses and take some money out in order to keep that economic development going." Every city should develop a strategic plan on how to engage the business community, residents, families. [He provided no specific suggestions for what should be in the plan.]

BETTS: He recalled how seniors and youths came to the city council during the city's economic downturn around 2012 and asked the council not to cut their programs. The most important thing is to make sure your financial books are in order. You don't cut the services people rely on first. In 2012 expenses at city hall were cut. We should conserve dollars now.

GIBONEY: He read back the question verbatim. Various departments would sit down and collaborate and evaluate what was available. He was criticized in his previous campaign for having no plan. This is because he doesn't make assumptions or promises based on things he doesn't know. He doesn't know where "they" stand at this point. He can't project where we'd be at another point. In a crisis or a problem, where he fits best is figuring out strategic plans to get out of the crisis. It all depends on what's available and what's needed. He can't answer unless he's given the facts. Budget shortfalls won't happen if he is elected. He would be the "vocal voice" of where the city stands financially. If something was getting close to overspending, the people could show up at a city council meeting and object to it. [To summarize: he doesn't know where the city stands financially, he doesn't know what the city needs, he thinks that one person on the council can control taxation and spending, and he would do nothing but talk about it.]

GILBERT: Believes DHS is in good financial shape. She would work with city staff and the council to "meet fiscal restraint and responsibility." If finances were threatened she would work to reprioritize city services to protect the core services of public safety and infrastructure. She would render commonsense governance. She would look for creative ways to fund non-core services.

GRIFFITH: The city council has learned from past mistakes. We had a $300,000 shortfall this past year. We have a diverse business base. We're not 100% tourism. The hospitality industry is not expected to get back to full levels until 2023. We need the federal government to step in where city's cannot do the job.

MATAS: He provided many messages on the help available for businesses. The $300,000 deficit in 2019/2020 was covered with our reserves. This fiscal year the deficit will be about $750,000. We will be able to use reserves again to cover that. We collected $4.7 million in cannabis taxes last year. There will be no cuts to city programs and projects.

MOORE: "Essenital service" may be a misnomer. All of the businesses are essential for providing a tax base. To protect the city you must protect the businesses and their income. The cannabis industry supplies 27% of the city's tax income. He said the Governor's office said we will be in this crisis for five to seven years. We should make sure businesses don't move to other cities.

NUÑEZ: He's very disappointed with how the city handled COVID. He is constantly driving through every city in the valley. "When the pandemic hit, for the first couple months you see social media, you seen little highlights here and there, but after that it just went dormant. And it would just seem to please the Board of Supervisors, at one point, and after that they just dropped the ball." Other cities put up electric signs saying "Hey, Wear A Mask." He didn't see that in DHS. He didn't see a billboard telling people to protect themselves, protect their families, protect others. He sees a lot of billboards now. A pandemic has never happened before. [Yes, it has.] We need to see what people need when we are out of it. Unemployment will be high. Mental health services will be affected. We should maximize our services. He would look to county, state and federal funding. He would collaborate with other cities. [He ran on for 37 seconds after his time was up.]


Q: IS DESERT HOT SPRINGS HEADED IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION WHEN IT COMES TO DEVELOPMENT AND COMMERCIAL GROWTH? ARE THERE AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT OR ACCELERATION?

NUÑEZ: "Yes and no." "I see Desert Hot Springs a blank canvas for housing, for commercial, for residential, mixed-use residential, a downtown, mixed-use residential." We need to capitalize on the blank canvas and not rush in developers or "cookie-cutter projects." Be smart and responsible. He was disappointed in the KMart building. If you told him we were going to start a cannabis college, he would be on board. "But we lost a big commercial - two big commercial property pieces right there. [KMart is only one commercial property and the new use is commercial as well.] "We lost it to cannabis." We could have used it for two big projects. He says residents are unhappy that developers are able to come in, build twenty homes and leave the rest empty. [AFAIK, that happened only after the crash twelve years ago, not now.] "Affordable housing hasn't been addressed in many years." This is because "they" changed the standards for the housing coalition and Habitat for Humanity.

SANCHEZ: "We shot ourselves in the foot. When I left the mayor's office in 2015, I told our council and mayor 'There's only two things you really need to pay attention to so make sure we don't shoot ourselves in the foot for development and community development.' And that is this: we knew when I left office that we had annexed land from the I-10 all the way down to Dillon, even Little Morongo. And that was county land back then and we knew, when I took office, we had a six million dollar budget deficit that I inherited from the previous administration. And so, for that fifth, so that 13 and 14, you know, we really didn't have money because we're operating month to month, but we found a way to restructure our budget finances and we went before the voters to pass, you know, the first cannabis ordinance in southern California. And 72% of the residents [sic] voted for it. Now, many voted for the one cent, but it was a clear sign that people didn't want more taxes in Desert Hot Springs. And so, we knew that moving forward we had to do that nexus study, otherwise we're going to end up in a lawsuit which we have right now with Coachillin' business park. A hundred and sixty acre park, the largest in California, and we ended up in a lawsuit with them and that's totally unacceptable. We can't run a city while we're in a lawsuit. [There is never a time when the city is not involved in a lawsuit.] So right now the council, the mayor, they have no input on this because it's all in the lawyer's hands. We can do better Desert Hot Springs, we can't have lawsuits that is costing us economic development." [Can anyone figure out what the "two things" were he told the council and mayor?]

BETTS: There always is more you can do on the economic development front. He said the new business in the KMart building will create a hundred new jobs paying $42,000 and more. The cannabis industry has provided jobs on a regular schedule. But it's too cumbersome for small businesses to open. It's the city's responsibility to make sure new businesses open up. It's not the responsibility of the businesses.

GIBONEY: Again, he felt the need to read back the question verbatim. "First answer is no." The city is not headed in the right direction. First, because it is not organic. The growth is being dictated by larger groups that are up above, umbrella organizations above our city. The designs for our city are just about the same as for any other city our size or larger. It's all mixed use and all European designs passed down to us. It all leads to the same end point. It's not our growth; it's being given to us, dictated by us. We can't be a one-industry town. The city lost its auto body shop "when the one trick industry moved into town." "Our spas are failing." We have to diversify our growth. "Jobs are not going to be growing." AI is taking over.

[I want to point out here that DHS was a one-industry town (tourism) until the cannabis industry came along. Now we're a two-industry town. Auto body repair was never a major economic driver in this city. We have never had an auto repair neighborhood like Cathedral City has along Perez Road.]

GILBERT: We are headed in the right direction. Last December the city hired one of the best economic development people. Royal Emerald just opened. The Grocery Outlet opened in July and hired locally. A new dog groomer/animal day care business opened. A new chiropractor opened her office here. Forbes recently included a DHS resort on their list of six glamorous hotels opening soon in California. Real estate prices are up. Homes are being built in Skyborne. Rolling Hills is building out the rest of its lots. Her goal is to try to get more young families into home ownership. Rents are skyrocketing. The county has great programs for first-time home buyers.

GRIFFITH: There's always room for improvement. We just updated our General Plan and zoning. We updated our housing element. He believes we are headed in the right direction. Now mixed-use is permitted in commercial areas. The Planning Commission will consider next week a 400-unit condo complex that includes some affordable units. All the developments that were stalled by the recession have restarted, including Agua Dulce, Rolling Hills and Skyborne. Grocery Outlet's opening has provided some jobs. Royal Emerald expects to have over a thousand jobs in five years, and they have committed to fund some of our youth programs.

MATAS: Yes, but there is always room to improve. He said his State Of The City address would be available soon and it would include exciting announcements. We have hired an economic development manager. Multiple restaurants and commercial developments are in the pipeline. Tyson Ranch is still moving along. 2021 will be a very strong year for DHS.

MOORE: There's always room for improvement. The people who don't pay attention to the city council have the opinion that the city council doesn't have a future vision. He sees the city being reactive not proactive. The city moves from project to project based only on whoever comes before them at a council meeting, or "things that are happening on social media about what's happening in the city." He is looking for a future vision that includes fairness and access for all citizens. Cannabis will continue to drive growth in DHS. The city must show support to businesses. The city should not find ways to squeak in extra little taxes on our businesses. If there is a clear vision he would like to see it. [The last taxes approved by the voters here DHS were the parcel and utility taxes; before that it was the cannabis taxes.]


Q: WE HAVE INCREASINGLY SEEN CITY COUNCILS ACROSS THE NATION PLAY ACTIVE ROLES IN THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION AROUND SOCIAL JUSTICE, WHETHER IT IS COMMUNITY POLICING, AFFORDABLE HOUSING, OR ADDRESSING THE NEEDS OF YOUTH. AS A COMMUNITY HOW IS DESERT HOT SPRINGS FARING WHEN IT COMES TO EQUITABLY SUPPORTING THE NEEDS OF RESIDENTS?

MOORE: The city has addressed the needs of Seniors quite well. The needs of youth are not being adequately addressed. "Where is the youth center in our plans?" Where are the sidewalks? We have great athletic programs for youth. The city does not have a parks and recreation department. The recreation center sits idle after 6 PM. The Furbee pool sits idle from September to June. Those facilities should be in use year-round. He has not seen community policing in DHS. [When Pat Williams was Chief of Police we had community policing.] He works at an elementary school and the police never visit the school unless the school calls them. He has never seen a police officer in his neighborhood.

NUÑEZ: "I haven't seen the city do anything about social justice." He hasn't seen the police engaged or involved in the community. He's lived here three years, but no one has welcomed him to the city. He expects someone from the city council or city staff to come and welcome him. [That, IMO, is a bizarre expectation.] The police officers just seem to punch in and punch out. They don't live here or work here. [I'm pretty sure the police officers consider their jobs to be work.] They don't eat here. They don't play here. He says that is true for some of the (non-sworn) city staff too. DHS lacks a sense of community. How many staff members live in the city? How many shop and dine here? He wants the police officers to volunteer their time. He wants to build a partnership with the parks and rec department in the east valley. [He is probably referring to the Desert Recreation District.] Kids are doing yoga in the east valley. [He continued to talk for 25 seconds after the "Times up" signal.]

SANCHEZ: "Who is Desert Hot Springs?" The median income is around $30,000. In the schools 75% of the children are Latino, and 75% of that 75% qualify for the federal meals program. When Anayeli Zavala, who is Latino, resigned from the council she was not replaced with another Latino. "So that tells me that there's no leadership at the mayor's office cause she shoulda had diversity. She shoulda had equitably. I mean, you should've put another woman or gentleman of Latino there on the council. It was like a no-brainer. But that's the leadership you get at city hall. They don't want you to be represented by people who live in this city and so you don't have that type of social justice." [By law, every member of the city council lives in Desert Hot Springs, and that has always been so.]

BETTS: His goal has been to help and be an advocate for every resident who is economically disadvantaged. He's gone to bat for tenants who are being bullied by their landlord. He has done ride-alongs with the police and seen how they interact with the public. We've had community policing, but it is expensive. The Health & Wellness Center is for youth. We should open it up and use it. But the building is paid for.

GIBONEY: Once again, he read the question out verbatim. "Social justice" can be defined different ways, so we should talk about where the problems are coming from. "When you have a system that is feeding these fatherless homes - when you have a system that's actually supporting mothers to have more children that stay on welfare section 8 they have no incentive to get out into the world and they raise children in a home where there's a father missing. So when you talk about kids getting involved in crime and needing community policing, you're omitting where it's originating. So I can't talk about how to deal with it until we talk about where it's coming from. It's like the whole cancer debate. We're not talking about where cancer's coming from. It's always 'buy a pink badge for cancer.' So 'social justice' is a term that was created for people to get, you know, angry at something. I know there are problems and I know there are bad cops. But community policing is not the answer because that's disarming the cops and what do criminals do to cops that are disarmed? They attack them, so you're creating more problems by going into community policing. So, affordable housing, I pointed this out earlier, affordable housing the best situation is Coachella Valley is the number of units cost to build it $680,000 for affordable housing. Someone's making money. And there's a waiting list of seven years for it." He re-read the question "AS A COMMUNITY HOW IS DESERT HOT SPRINGS FARING WHEN IT COMES TO EQUITABLY SUPPORTING THE NEEDS OF RESIDENTS?" and answered it, "Terrible." They need more information, he said. [I don't think Giboney knows what community policing is.]

GILBERT: She began with what she said was an off-topic comment: "Everyone needs to attend city council." You can watch on YouTube. You can get involved. We can't expect the city council or city staff to come and welcome us. That's what the Chamber of Commerce is for. She thinks the police department is doing a good job. She would like to see us work on a marketing program to get more volunteers (COP officers) to help the police. Affordable housing is lacking badly. Over half the residents of our city rent their homes. Currently a one-bedroom/one-bath rents for $900 or more. "That's crazy. It's just crazy." A three-bedroom/two-bath house rents for $1,900. We have section 8 programs. We used to have programs with Habitat for Humanity and the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition. We are lacking in our housing. DHS is doing the best it can, there's just so much need.

GRIFFITH: THe police department has had several town halls. He attended one. There are many demands on the city, but right now we have to get through this pandemic. We have a lot of very active people and businesses. Now that we have finished our housing element, we can qualify for grants for affordable housing. Coachella Valley Housing Coalition has several infill homes in progress. We have Food Now. The Chandi Group twice has served meals to thousands of people. Royal Emerald has given thousands to Food Now. "We are focusing slowly, but surely, and in the right direction."

MATAS: The city is very diverse. Over the past five years we've had little division within our city. He meets with people who have needs the city can meet. He talked about meeting with the family of the girl who was killed in traffic at Palm Drive and Camino Aventura. Subsequently they had a town hall and, ultimately, the city changed its priorities and redirected funding so that a traffic signal could be erected sooner at that intersection. We should continue to focus on job creation. More than 2,300 jobs have been created in DHS in the past five years.


Q: DESERT HOT SPRINGS WILL BE SUCCESSFUL OVER THE NEXT DECADE IF ITS CITY COUNCIL DOES ________________________

MATAS: Most cities focus on the continued progress of their vision. "The vison for Desert Hot Springs in cannabis, commercial development, public safety, community programs and fiscal stability is strong." Hew wants another term to make sure the vision stays on track.

MOORE: We need a clear and definable vision. We need to take care of businesses increase the quality of life for residents. Taxes must be kept to a reasonable standard. We need to offer incentives for businesses to come to DHS.

NUÑEZ: Don't sell out the city. He repeated his "blank canvas" metaphor. We should make sure growth is responsible. Put families and community first and the rest will come. CVLink should be extended to DHS. We should capitalize on our hiking trails. "I'm not against cannabis, but we have a dispensary on every corner." We have no strategy for our youth. "My kids especially, your kids, to get out of that, you know, systemic. It's just ridiculous the city hasn't strategized a pathway for kids not to be using, you haven't invested in anti-drug use, billboards, social media. You know, we're big on social media at city hall. Why not send a message? We can't lose our kids to cannabis. And it's not going nowhere, it will be here. It's going to be here long, you know, as long as it can sustain. But we shouldn't subject our kids to be future...we're not cultivating users. I'm not. So let's be responsible."

SANCHEZ: We have to look at the strengths in our community. It's the diversity of the people who live here. You have to engage the residents. Develop a strategic plan on where we should be in 10 years.

BETTS: In every community where he's lived the common denominator that made things better was good-paying jobs. One of the biggest challenges for youth is an impoverished family. The incumbents do have a vision for the city. The city is gradually getting better. We're bringing in businesses and jobs that will provide the base for future changes.

GIBONEY: A man of unbreakable habit, he re-read the question verbatim. "Get rid of the city council monopoly and diversify the minds of the council by getting rid of their groupthink." Residents should be allowed to participate in the direction of the city. [He did not explain what the city council monopoly is. The only monopoly they have that I'm aware of is the same monopoly held by every other city council: a monopoly on legislative power on local issues within the city.]

GILBERT: If the council continues to be fiscally responsible. Health care is the most important issue for her. We should have at least two urgent care centers. We desperately need more youth programs. "Not just sports, but music, arts, police activities league, build on Rotary's Early Act and Interact."

GRIFFITH: If its city council continues on the path they have set over the past several years. Fiscal stability has improved. Roads have been improved. More and better street lights are being installed. We can continue progress only if we make decisions that don't jeopardize our revenue stream.

Filed under Coachella Valley,Desert Hot Springs,Politics | October 10, 2020 at 11:43 AM | Comments (2)