RANCHO MIRAGE — The highly-hyped March 25 dedication of the observatory in Rancho Mirage has hit a sour note with the three challengers in the upcoming City Council election who question the timing of the event.
The dedication fell coincidentally in the midst of an all-mail ballot election, giving the incumbents – Mayor Charles Townsend Vinci, G. Dana Hobart and Iris Smotrich – a wealth of free publicity and a see-what-we-did accomplishment.
Is it something the city can be proud of or a major misstep? And, how much did it really cost?
“The only thing transparent about the observatory is the timing of its debut,” Robert Mueller told Uken Report. “The incumbents have managed to use a $4 million taxpayer boondoggle in hopes of boosting their election standing. Certainly seems fertile ground for the Fair Political Practices Commission to examine their motives, if not their judgment.”
Mueller is one of three people to challenge the trio of incumbents. The others are Katherine “Kate” Spates and Michael Harrington.
“The new observatory may be a great novelty but the project’s cost, genesis, purpose and usefulness are all disappointingly obscure,” Mueller said. “The project’s total cost is anything but transparent.
According to one local news report, city officials claim the project cost less than $3M, not including the telescope and the dome, Mueller said. In a candidate forum, Dana Hobart said the project would ultimately cost $4 million.
“No definitive disclosure has been published, to my knowledge, Mueller added. “Residents have a right to know how their taxes are being spent.”
Hobart claims the project had its genesis when a group of residents was asked, “What does Rancho Mirage need that it doesn’t already have?” A single voice responded, “An observatory”. That appears to be the extent of the research and community involvement behind Hobart’s spontaneous decision to spend $4 million in taxpayer funds, Mueller said.
“There have been moments when Mr. Hobart expresses confusion between an observatory and a planetarium,” Mueller said. “One wonders which he thought he was buying.”
At 85, Hobart is the oldest and longest serving member of the Rancho Mirage City Council.
In speaking several authorities who have degrees in astronomy, Mueller said Rancho Mirage is arguably the last place to locate a “research” observatory. Light pollution, particulate pollution and thermal conditions create severely adverse conditions for astronomical research. Research, as a purpose, appears to be ruled out.
“So, if research is proved a practical impossibility, the observatory’s only remaining usefulness is as a tourist attraction, not unlike a panda bear at a city zoo or the world’s highest water slide.,” Mueller said. “Four million dollars , not including ongoing maintenance and staffing, may be chump change for Mr. Hobart, but it’s a great deal of money to most of us — particularly without asking if residents really want the funds spent on a novelty attraction.”
Rancho Mirage residents deserve greater transparency, community participation and vision in the operation of their city, Mueller said.
As a self-described fiscal conservative, Harrington said he believes the city should spend the taxpayers’ money on the basics such as public safety and infrastructure.
“An observatory is not a city project. It is a pet project,” Harrington said. “While I admire lofty goals, I disagree with the spending of city funds. Instead, the city council could have worked with colleges or even private enterprises to partner with on an observatory project. Hobart and Townsend led the project from beginning to end. It ran over budget, with the total price exceeding $4 million. It is not even really open. The grand opening was merely a campaign stunt paid for by the taxpayers.”
When Uken Report called the Rancho Mirage Public Library to inquire about whether it is really open, the receptionist said, “Oh, yes, we’re giving tours.” She referred all questions to Aaron Espinosa, library operations director. He did not return phone calls.
“The project is a testament to the council’s disrespect for the needs of the majority of the community,” Harrington added. “The observatory benefits only a handful of Rancho Mirage residents. We should instead prioritize the basic needs of the entire community, with improved public safety, road safety, parks, and quality of life, especially for our active seniors who more and more look for safe and healthy recreation, transportation and elder care.”
Spates said she is excited to see that they have come up with some programming for the observatory.
“But doing a little math it appears as though at best, only 520 people will be able to enjoy stargazing per year,” Spates told Uken Report. “This is because it’s limited to 40 people per night. At first they were only going to do one star gazing event a month, but I saw today they are now doing it weekly, which is great. But still, at a cost that no one has yet confirmed but is speculated to be $5 million, the cost per person served is absolutely outrageous. I still am unclear as to who paid for this. They have flip-flopped on this several times.”
The election is Tuesday, April 10. Results will be available shortly after 8 p.m.