Our Man in Riverside
Waning farmland and affordable housing challenge popular Supervisor Roy Wilson.
In the combined 100 or so elected officeholders in all the Coachella Valley’s many jurisdictions and levels of local government, Riverside County Supervisor Roy Wilson is pre-eminent. This is partly so because his position tops the pecking order of city council or school board members, special district directors, and the like. But a far greater reason is the man himself. (Disclosure: We’re old friends.)
Can you think of another politician who has served as long as Mr. Wilson — nearly three decades if you include his years on Palm Desert’s city council — without once having to face any serious re-election challenge? He has recently begun his fourth supervisorial term, an official certainty since last spring’s primary failed to entice even a token opponent. There are good reasons for that, of course. Close associates and the general public perceive him as tireless, open, and fair. Add those qualities to his trademark modesty and low-key manner and you have what is probably the valley’s most respected policymaker.
Supervisor Wilson’s Fourth District is vast; it stretches from Palm Springs to Blythe. He’s taking a rare break from work to share a leisurely lunch at McGowan’s Irish Inn. It’s a fitting spot, because this popular Palm Desert restaurant began life as Romeo’s Steak House, whose namesake owner was Mr. Wilson’s council colleague 25 years ago. Pleasant memories like that have put him in a ruminative mood, and we shamelessly take advantage. We ask what has been his district’s least-expected change since he first took office in 1995. What, if anything, caught him by surprise?
“The intensity of our growth,” he replies. “I wasn’t prepared for that. Homeowners elsewhere, especially in Orange and San Diego counties, took advantage of the huge run-up in their real estate prices. A lot of them relocated here and escalated our building boom. That really hit what [the late] Paul Ames used to call the ‘green end of the valley.’ The result has been an unprecedented loss of agricultural land. Among other things, it has created big infrastructure problems. How do you get to anywhere from your beautiful new subdivision except along two-lane country roads?
“There’s one thing, for sure: We’re not going to repeat the mistakes of the western county, such as the traffic-nightmare Route 79 that runs from Hemet to Murrieta and Temecula. Fortunately, some major valley developers have gotten together and are working on a master plan for roads and other infrastructure.” But he’s not sure what is going to happen to valley farming. He frowns, “We were the state’s ninth largest agricultural county. Pretty soon, I don’t think we’ll even be on the list.”
We ask whether the valley is getting its fair share of county spending. “Yes, I think so,” he says. “[Patricia ‘Corky’ Larson, his predecessor] did a lot of good work on that front. For example, when Palm Desert expanded its redevelopment area, it generated millions in county pass-through funds that she got her colleagues to agree to use here in the district. That’s how we built a number of projects from here to Blythe, including the valley’s new Animal Campus, a new sheriff’s substation, etc. There is an escape clause, though, that lets the county take the money for its own use whenever it wants. Too bad. Four or five years ago, [county CEO] Larry Parrish and his vultures grabbed $12 million to plug a budget hole.”
Mr. Wilson is chuckling now. We know he thinks the world of Mr. Parrish. “Larry has an uncanny ability to pick the right person for senior jobs, and then he turns them loose. He’s a big-picture guy who never loses sight of the details — he sees both the forest and the trees, which is a rare quality in any executive. That’s why Orange County and others keep trying to steal him from us.”
What does the supervisor see as the biggest challenge of his fourth term? “Affordable housing,” he answers without a moment’s pause. “I’m not talking about low-income housing. I mean housing for average working persons and their families. Regular people just don’t have the income to qualify for $500,000 starter homes. What to do? Well, [the Coachella Valley Association of Governments] is planning to set up a special bank for issuing second mortgages to make up the shortfall in home purchases. This would be one way to subsidize employed, credit-worthy buyers who couldn’t otherwise qualify for a loan.
“A second way of helping first-time buyers might be to provide a kind of stripped-down version of a standard contemporary new house — smaller in both square footage and lot size and with fewer amenities. You’d have to be careful not to create a ghetto, of course, and local government would have to cooperate by reducing zoning standards and fees in special cases.
“There are other possibilities as well. But face it: Any attempt to mitigate the prohibitive cost of new housing to the average, or even above-average, valley working person will have to be government-driven.” He ruefully notes that “one huge complicating factor is the cost of land hereabouts. It’s one thing to try doing these things where land sells for $5,000 an acre. It’s quite another when the same acre runs closer to $100,000.”
It is a problem, all right; but Roy Wilson has spent an entire career dealing with problems. Clearly, this former College of the Desert professor and author of a widely used university textbook on mass communications is still very much an idea man — and that’s good news for the valley he represents.
“Who cares what happened pre-me?”
“All politics is local,” the late Tip O’Neill famously opined. The former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was a character straight from The Last Hurrah, a Boston pol who knew where all the bodies were buried, so to speak, having planted more than a few of them himself. Old-timers here remember him at the Hope Classic tournament — back when the Classic attracted celebrities you actually cared about, not to mention all the top pros — where he and his A-list golfing pals (Gerald Ford, Bob Hope, and the like) would banter back and forth on the course and maybe share a wee drop later in the clubhouse. He always left the crowd laughing. We miss him.
His definition of U.S. politics remains true in most places, eight of our nine desert cities included. Municipal elections continue to roll around every couple of years; sensible residents care, some more than others, though few consider it a matter of cosmic importance who sits on a city council. Still, differences over small-town issues can run deep, and voters tend to bring versions of those meat-and-potato concerns to national elections. That was Speaker O’Neill’s common-sense point.
Not so in Palm Springs these days, where his maxim has virtually been reversed. Here, the balancing of complex community interests is increasingly sacrificed to partisan ideology, and only fellow true-believers are deemed worthy of election to the council or as mayor — or will be if an aggressive new political faction continues to have its way. It consists mainly of people who have recently moved to Palm Springs and are bent on running city hall (and everything else) as they see fit. Meanwhile, their leaders routinely employ self-important verbiage to divert attention from their glaring lack of local knowledge.
It’s a well-practiced technique, and it works. Mere days before Palm Springs’ 2003 municipal election, one newbie candidate — now the mayor pro tem — told a Desert Sun reporter, “I’m not interested in the history of this city. I’m interested in the future. … Because you’ve been here for 23 or 50 or whatever years doesn’t make you more qualified.” In other words, “Who cares what happened pre-me?” Sadly, this attitude currently permeates public affairs in Palm Springs. From its practitioners comes a set of implicit electoral criteria, and woe to the candidate in the coming mayoral/council election later this year who doesn’t conform.
First, only registered Democrats need apply for these nonpartisan posts. Moreover, they must come from the party’s left wing and not the wimpy center — Boxer Democrats, not Feinstein Democrats or other potential compromisers. Second, acceptable candidates should be militantly gay/lesbian. Nonactivist, you-mind-your-business-and-we’ll-mind-ours gay and lesbian Palm Springs residents — however long they’ve lived here — are consigned to civic irrelevance, as are all Republicans and most independents of whatever sexual orientation. Open dissent brings slash-and-burn public denunciations, using media and virulent blogs/e-mail chains, etc. These bully tactics have driven many traditional players out of the game. As a result, the city’s active political class is far less diverse today than it was, say, 10 years ago. Ironic? You bet.
As for their municipal policy concerns, one can’t do better than cite a late December vox-pop letter from one of the more agenda-driven members of this “Reinventing Palm Springs” (our term) bunch: “I hope that voters will ask all candidates [for mayor and council] where they stand on civil rights, business, mountain preservation, health care, gay issues, youth and education, taxes, and yes, the war too, and then hold candidates accountable if elected in 2007.”
Don’t you love it? Council members in one small city should be “accountable” for matters they cannot possibly control or even influence. But not a word about the everyday services local governments exist to provide — filling potholes and fighting crime, for instance. Tip O’Neill would find all of this beyond bizarre.
Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City), due to be termed-out in two years, wants to shift to the state senate. She has filed notice of intent to vie for the 40th District seat when term limits force out incumbent state Sen. Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego) in 2010. The 40th is weird: It runs east from the Pacific along San Diego County’s Mexican border, then sweeps north to include all of Imperial County and a chunk of our valley. It is heavily Hispanic and considered a safe Democratic seat. In November, Ms. Ducheny beat her GOP challenger 2-1. It’s hard to see how even the gutsy Ms. Garcia can overcome odds like that.
Some innocents believe in the “can do” approach to any difficulty, no matter what. Recently retired Los Angeles County chief executive David E. Janssen isn’t one of them. In a January Los Angeles Times valedictory piece on his eminent career, he mused about “major problems facing the region, such as overcrowded jails, failing medical services, [and] chronic homelessness.” Said Mr. Janssen, “There isn’t enough money in the world to solve those problems, and no one should be led to believe they can.” His is a bleakly realistic view, an antidote to blathering politicians and fatuous activists who preach solutions that never work — because they can’t!
The opinions expressed in the Valley Observer are those of Hank Stokes. You can reach him in care of Palm Springs Life.