Verbal jabs, personal attacks, more highlight College of the Desert Board of Trustees meeting
PALM DESERT — If verbal jabs and icy stares could physically puncture and wound a person, the board room in which College of the Desert Trustees meet would have been a bloody crime scene on Thursday, June 15.
It all started over what appeared to be a routine consent item and unraveled into a nearly hourlong discussion of insults.
A consent agenda is a board meeting practice that groups routine business and reports into one agenda item. The consent agenda can be approved in one action, rather than filing motions on each item separately. Using a consent agenda can save boards anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour. A consent agenda moves routine items along quickly so that the board has time for discussing more important issues.
The types of items that appear on a consent agenda are non-controversial items or routine items that are discussed at every meeting. They can also be items that have been previously discussed at length where there is group consensus.
The process failed miserably for Trustees on June 15.
For the second time in as many months, Trustees Bea Gonzalez and Rubén AríAztlán Pérez took issue with a contract for $5.5 million to WRNS Studio for work known as Design Consulting
Services for the Palm Springs Development Project Palm Springs Campus.) The contract is to account for increased design time and effort across all project phases, per direction for the District to revisit and complete the March 2021 design.
This increases the current contract amount of $16,106,736.21 to a revised amount not to exceed $21,693,600.00.
On Thursday, Gonzalez moved to indefinitely table the item. Her motion failed. It was the second attempt in as many months. There remains an East vs. West mentality among some members of the board.
WRNS is the architectural firm in charge of the West Valley schematics who will turn them into plans that the Division of State Architects will review for the construction phase. The final schematics were approved Wednesday, June 14.
Gonzalez, who has been the subject of a prominently placed billboard accusing her of turning her back on students, said her primary concern is over money, where it’s coming from and where it’s going,
“I know that when I first was elected three years ago, there was a lot of conversation that somehow this design was already done and then it turned out that it wasn’t. But I kept hearing it’s 50% already completed,” Gonzalez said. “Then, as we all know, there was an upgraded design that didn’t include the hotel and all that other fluffy stuff, so that was another investment. And now here we are increasing it again with a whole other design. So, it just seems to me, I know there’s a lot of conversation about taxpayer dollars and bond money, which I’ll remind everyone the bond is paid for throughout the Coachella Valley and not specific to one city, one area.”
“It doesn’t sit well,” Gonzalez said. “… I’m still very concerned because the data does not support that specific location in the west valley, although I do believe and have always believed that the west end should have a campus as well, even though our feasibility study didn’t support the project either. So, I know those are multiple concerns, but I’m going to challenge all of you as trustees to do the right thing here.”
Trustee Pérez said he echoed Gonzalez’s comments and shared her concerns.
“This project is getting incrementally more and more expensive as we knew it would be,” Pérez said. “We already had a design that was 100% complete with the scaled-back campus that we would’ve been able to afford without pulling different pots of money that was allocated and earmarked for different construction projects throughout the district. I’d like to know … from our staff where it is that we’re getting these $5 million from. Are we pulling them? And specifically, which project is being affected? Are we pulling it from the Mecca/Thermal campus which has been historically underserved and underfunded, or are we pulling from the Indio project, which was promised to those constituents as well, and to that city, because I’m getting phone calls from different city administrators that we’re scaling back on some of the promises that we promised the city of Indio.”
A finance expert attempted to explain to Trustees, “Let’s start by being completely clear that the money for this particular amendment is already contained in the project budget. The $405.7 million that was allocated by the February action of this board covers that fund, so that money is not being taken from any other project. Okay? That seems like the first salient point.”
A defiant Gonzalez was having none of it. “It’s a lot of words, but I’m still hearing that the money was moved from there,” she said.
Perez said what he was trying to say was that, “the money is everybody’s, it’s the peoples in the eastern Coachella Valley as well as the ones on the western Coachella Valley. Let’s make sure that we spread that equitably.”
Newly appointed Trustee Ron Oden said he concurred.
“I certainly agree with that,” Oden said. “More than 17 years ago when I was mayor of the city of Palm Springs, we negotiated specifically for a campus in Palm Springs. That’s not been built. But I have a real concern that we’re talking about funds being moved from other projects and so one end of the valley is against the other. I think that’s completely wrong. We have students in the entire Coachella Valley, and they all need to be served. And there are people who feel in one area, and specifically in District Three, that nothing’s been done for them since the project was approved. So, I just think it’s very dangerous.
Trustee Joel Kinnamon said he believes results of a forensic audit will reveal many answers to financial questions, Trustees have.
The ever-feisty Gonzalez seemed itching for a fight.
“If you ask me, has there been a waste of money? Absolutely. But why is that? Why do we continue to funnel all this money to certain entities? It doesn’t make sense to me. There’s something going on here. And I know a lot of fingers point one way, but I think we have a case of, ‘Look over there and not over here,’ because there was definitely options. And there was the former president (Joel Kinnamon) that actually went and made promises at city council meetings and in meetings with elected officials.”
Kinnamon hastily pounced, “Madam Chair, I am offended by her inaccurate framing … She wasn’t there.”
Gonzalez retorted, “Well, I’m offended by you insinuating that board members had pet projects, so do we want to go there?”
“I do,” Kinnamon said glaring at her.
At that point, Chair Bonnie Stefan interjected to say, “Excuse me. We’re going to have order. If anybody doesn’t have anything new to share without accusations, then we’re going to bring this to a vote. Does anybody have anything new they’d like to share with no accusations, please?”
Oden, at one point chimed in to say, “I take this position here quite seriously. There is a biblical passage that says, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’ (Proverbs 29:18) We had a vision, and I’m dealing with constituents who still see that vision very vividly. And initially, to show the commitment from the city, we purchased the land up to, I think it was $5 million to support what was the vision at that time. So, there’s a commitment. And not only do I know there’s a commitment, it’s my responsibility to go back to my constituents and where there is a shortfall, we’ll have to assume that. And they’ll have to assume the responsibility of helping us fill those classrooms. So I’m not shying away from the commitment any way at all. And I’m assuming the responsibility to make sure that it happens.”
This is an abbreviated (yes, really) version of what was a lively meeting. In the end, Trustees voted 4-1-1 to approve the contract for WRNS Studio. Kinnamon, Oden, Stefan and student Trustee Allen Pahl voted in favor of it. Gonzalez voted no, and Pérez abstained.
- Bea-Billboard: Lamar Advertising
- College of the Desert: COD