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Vote may bring new outlook to desert city

In Desert Hot Springs, Tuesday's election could help bring new purpose to a contentious council. It faces a report that alleges ethics violations.

March 05, 2007|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

In the boom town of Desert Hot Springs, the mayor's breakfast committee no longer includes the mayor, who was ousted from most city committees.

Mayor Alex Bias also was chastised by the City Council after recently telling a council member to "go play with yourself." And these incidents came after a scathing Riverside County Grand Jury report alleging ethics violations by a city official, and denouncing the city for allowing one official to serve simultaneously as city manager, city engineer, building official, development director and executive director of the redevelopment agency.

City leaders hope to work toward shedding that tainted past and provide a fresh political start in Tuesday's local election, when voters will be asked to select a new council member and to decide if council members should serve rotating terms as mayor, going in order of seniority. If the measure passes, it will go into effect in November when Bias' term expires.

"We are in political turmoil and faced with monumental challenges as we begin to emerge into a viable community," Bias said. "We have a great deal of corruption that has occurred in the city, and in some respects it has escalated since I've become mayor."

The political problems come as Desert Hot Springs, incorporated in 1963, grapples with serious issues. The Riverside County city of 20,000 is growing rapidly, and the way its many tracts of undeveloped land are developed will shape its future.

The community, about 12 miles north of Palm Springs, has one of the state's highest crime and poverty rates for a city its size. At $28,000, the city's median income is one of the lowest in the Coachella Valley.

"What I see are five people representing the city, and it's gotten to the point where I know I can do as good a job or a better job than they are doing," said Adam Sanchez, one of five people running for an open council slot.

The other candidates are Karl Baker, Bobby Bentley, Scott Matas and Ted Mayrhofen. The seat opened after Mayor Pro Tem Gary Bosworth died last summer.

In August, the City Council voted 3 to 1 to remove Bias from several city committees and agencies after they said he publicly discussed details of closed-session meetings with local media.

Although Bias still has a council vote, the three other members typically vote against him.

"I think there was a little misconception," said Councilwoman Yvonne Parks. "He [Bias] felt like the mayor had more power and could arbitrarily decide on his own what he felt could be the message instead of moving that message based on the majority of the council's direction."

At a heated council meeting in October, Bias told Parks to "go play" with herself.

He apologized shortly after, saying the statement had no sexual connotation.

Instead, he said, it meant that he was forced to "play with himself" because the other council members routinely vote against him.

"The way it was reported, it sounded like I used a sexual slur," Bias said. "The reality was, I shouldn't have said it because I was upset. But when you're on fire 24/7 and in a hostile camp, what else can you do?"

Parks didn't buy it: "He just lost it. Unfortunately, that particular night he was completely out of order. When he didn't get his way, he got angry."

Last summer a county grand jury report criticized a city official for holding several prominent city jobs concurrently. The report did not name the person, but former City Manager Jerry Hanson held several city jobs before resigning last year.

It also listed ethics violations by a former city employee who altered a developer's contract so street improvements would extend past the official's own property.

The employee then asked the City Council to approve the contract without disclosing the personal interest.

The report recommended ethics training for the City Council, an audit of the city's special funds, and a ban on city officials holding more than one position at a time.

Many see this election as a key to restoring the government's tattered image.

"The public has been purely deceived by my council," Bias said. "For anybody to think there is not a lot at stake in this election, they would be very naive."

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jonathan.abrams@latimes.com

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