‘One fact is glaringly clear: local government must be responsive and transparent’ — Wayne Avrashow [Opinion]

RANCHO MIRAGE — The Coachella Valley boasts natural beauty, sophisticated residents, top-shelf museums, libraries, and medical care. Coachella Valley’s city councils are responsible for a multitude of critical services: police, fire, emergency medical services, refuse collection, land use, maintaining safe streets, and much more.

CV residents enjoy an enviable quality of life, and local governments must preserve and protect that excellence. The city managers of all CV cities are dedicated stewards of their respective cities; while invaluable, only city councils cast votes as the people’s representatives.

My career began by serving in decision-making positions in Los Angeles city government and was appointed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to serve on two government commissions. As an attorney, I have represented clients before government bodies and agencies throughout Southern California. One fact is glaringly clear: local government must be responsive and transparent.

Most CV city councils are superb, but one falls short. Positive examples include the steady and experienced Dana Reed in Indian Wells and Palm Desert, Mayor Karina Quintanilla, and Mayor Pro Tem Jan Harnik leading the fight to convince state legislators to restore the $8 million grant funding to improve Palm Desert’s flood retention basins. We are one valley, and flooding in Palm Desert affects all CV residents.

On the flip side, while Rancho Mirage’s City Manager, Isiah Hagerman, is very skilled, the Rancho Mirage City Council fails to reflect the excellence of our community. The Council has stripped the decision-making of its residents by usurping their fundamental right to elect its leaders. Our city’s 20,000 residents — not a handful of council members — should select our representatives.

An enlightened city government engages in a dialogue with its stakeholders on significant issues. That is Government 101, but sadly, my hometown’s Rancho Mirage City Council is notorious for its “top-down” decision-making that disrespects our residents. Here are a few noteworthy examples and some constructive solutions:

City Council meeting times: The Rancho Mirage City Council meets twice monthly at 1 p.m. This time slices into the work and school schedules of many residents who would otherwise wish to participate. The Council snubbed a petition signed by residents to adopt a more inclusive meeting schedule. The Council needs occasional 5 p.m. meetings to maximize resident input.

Stop the backroom deals: Rancho Mirage has an unenviable history of treating its voters with disdain. Three of the five current council members gained their original positions via appointment by the Council and not election by the residents. California’s Government Code prohibits a city from having a majority of its Council seated via appointment. Rancho Mirage violated the spirit of the law by staggering council appointments, one in 2012, another in 2021, and the final one this past December. At that time, I spoke out, as did others, at the Council and urged them to name an interim appointee who would pledge not to run in November. The Council refused and concocted an anti-democratic scheme to put their thumb on the scale to appoint a “buddy” as an unelected incumbent, giving him a distinctive edge when seeking election. This buddy system leads to groupthink and stifles honest debate. Let’s respect the voters, halt the appointments of buddies, and end the Council’s cycle of cynicism. The “smell test” applied in law and common usage: the Council appointing its colleagues fails to pass the smell test.

Regular contact with citizens: All city council members should be available at set dates and times to meet with stakeholders, similar to professors who have regular office hours for students to drop in. I would meet with interested residents monthly at City Hall and have “Coffee with the Councilmember” events at local coffee shops. Koffi anyone?

City Council accessibility: During COVID-19, the Rancho Mirage council conducted virtual meetings. Current council meetings are livestreamed in real-time, but residents cannot ask questions or participate in agenda items from the comfort of their homes. Many residents are seniors, and the stifling summer heat can dissuade even the heartiest younger voters from attending live meetings. We need to promote and maximize public engagement with city government. Palm Desert residents can ask questions via telephone or ZOOM, and Palm Springs has long employed ZOOM to encourage participation. Rancho Mirage needs to be transparent and convenient for its residents and adopt the practices of neighboring cities.


Image Sources

  • Transparency: Shutterstock