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Local Government the Palm Desert way American Studies Today On-line

American citizens are known for their desire to "do it my way", and local government in the United States is certainly no exception. Here, Buford Crites, Mayor of Palm Desert, shows us how.

Buford Crites Local democracy

Council meetings

Population and industry

Land use planning

Sub-committees

Staff

Raising revenue

 

There are a wide variety of governing styles to be found in local government. These differences are reflected in how officials are elected, by whom they are elected, for how long they are elected and what powers they hold. Some municipalities still operate a direct participatory democracy in which all of the citizens gather together one or more times of the year in a common place, debate the issues and make decisions for their community.

Other communities, by far the majority, have what is called a representative democracy in which representatives are elected for terms of two, three or four years and entrusted to make most of the decisions. Some governmental agencies place limits on the number of times in which a person can be elected, while in other places that is not the case. Some communities have a mayor who is directly elected by the citizenry, and others have a mayor who is chosen by members of the city council. Elected officials are referred to by various titles. City council members, selectmen, or aldermen are among the common official titles. (Many of the unofficial titles are not printable but easy to surmise.) In some communities, local government has a wide and extensive range of responsibilities, while in others, the responsibilities are significantly smaller in scope.

Local democracy

While the responsibilities of governing may be left in specific to city councils, the citizens of local communities do exercise a variety of methods of having control over those decisions. Among those methods are concepts of recall, referendum and initiative.

  • Citizens who are displeased with the actions of an elected member of local government have the option of collecting a specified percentage of signatures of local registered voters within a certain period of time, and upon that collection a date is set for an election in which a person stands for recall. If a majority of those voting so choose, that person is then removed from office.
  • Referendums occur when, again, through the process of collection of signatures, the citizens of a community decide than an action passed by their council needs to be voted on by the entirety of the citizens. An election is set and a given action (as an example, a zoning decision) is then referred to citizens for a vote to affirm or nullify the decision.
  • An initiative occurs when local citizens place an item on a ballot which has not been acted upon by their governing body, (for example, put an initiative on that would restrict building in mountains).

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Council meetings

In addition to these formal methods of citizen input into the governing process, the citizens of Palm Desert exercise the right to come to local council meetings where they participate in discussions on any issue that is on the agenda. Citizens have both the right and the responsibility to come to public meetings to express their opinions to the entire City Council concerning matters on the agenda. There is an even higher awareness now of local government meetings as most cities in the Coachella Valley televise all of their meetings to their constituents over cable television channels. I believe that because local government is the layer of government closest to the citizenry, we have an especially strong obligation to make sure that citizens not only have the right of participation, but also feel that their comments are listened to and considered in the deliberative process. In addition, the California Constitution now provides that all tax increases voted on by local government must be referred to the citizens for approval, in some cases by majority vote and in most cases by two-thirds vote through the election process. One interesting quirk of the California Constitution affecting local cities is that political parties are not allowed to formally participate in local government elections. Local government members stand for election as individuals in a nonpartisan fashion. You are not allowed to campaign as a member of a political party. This is designed to keep partisanship out of local government and, to a large extent, it has been effective in doing so. With the all this as general background, let me turn attention to my home city, the City of Palm Desert, which will be the focal point of this article.

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Population and industry

Palm Desert is a community of approximately 40,000 residents and 26 square miles located in the Southern California desert approximately 120 miles from both Los Angeles and San Diego. Palm Desert is located in the Coachella Valley, which is a classic rain shadow desert environment with approximately two and a half inches of rain per year. The Valley itself is at or below sea level, with mountains rising to near 12,000 feet on the edges of the Valley.

Located on one side of the Valley is Joshua Tree National Park, and the Santa Rosa Mountains National Scenic Area is on the opposite set of mountain slopes. The Valley is rich in scenic splendor and plant and animal life. The primary industry of the Coachella Valley is tourism, including 95 golf courses, botanical gardens, an aerial tramway, thousands of tennis courts and major shopping districts. The Valley's local government is comprised of nine separate cities, the most famous of which is the City of Palm Springs. The cities of Palm Desert, Palm Springs and Indio are comparable in population at around 40,000 and are the largest cities in the Coachella Valley. The smallest, the City of Indian Wells, has only 3,000 residents. In addition, some parts of the Valley are located in what is referred to as unincorporated land. This means that these areas are located in the governing jurisdiction of no particular city. Its land use and other local decisions are made directly by county government. The nine cities, plus the County, have formed a regional council of government which meets to work on multi- city issues, including flood control, inter-city roadways and air quality programs.

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Land use planning

The center of the City of Palm Desert's responsibilities is local land use planning. Cities within the State of California have primary jurisdiction for zoning and other land related issues, including types of buildings that can be built, restrictions regarding building heights and requirements regarding landscaping, architecture and water use. The City is also responsible for planning and maintaining its own local street network and public safety (otherwise known as police and fire protection and disaster planning) within the City. We plan and maintain a series of parks and recreational programs for our citizens, as well as build and administer affordable public housing for local residents.

Within these general responsibilities, the City reserves the right to delineate areas in which we wish to add programs and take on responsibilities. As an example, the City of Palm Desert was the first city in Riverside County, and one of the first in Southern California, to institute a mandatory public art fee program. This program requires developers to deposit one half percent of the value of their project to either purchase or have the City purchase public art to be either incorporated within their project or on public property. This program is one that the City of Palm Desert believes in because of its strong commitment to the arts. Our program has prospered and helped the community to become known as an arts center within Southern California.

A second example of the type of program cities in the State of California have the option of creating would be our alternate fuels program. The City of Palm Desert was the first city in the State to receive approval in the State legislature to allow golf carts to operate on local streets, with specifically designed routes and lanes, to provide an alternative to using automobiles. In addition, the City is now sponsoring a program to develop hydrogen fuel cells to power golf carts and other alternate transportation vehicles. We believe that this helps our city maintain our current environmental quality and will also assist in providing us with the potential to develop appropriate light industrial growth. It also creates positive publicity for Palm Desert, including a visit this spring by the B.B.C.

As with all municipalities, the City of Palm Desert can exercise only those powers that are delegated to it by federal, state or county governments. We also have the opportunity to acquire powers that while not granted are not expressly forbidden to local governments.

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Sub-committees

The City of Palm Desert is governed by five council members who serve for four year terms and may stand for re-election as many times as they choose.

The mayor is chosen from among the council for one year term and the office rotates on a yearly basis. The Council appoints a professional City Manager and staff to administer programs and appoints a variety of commissions and committees to assist with the process of local government. Listed below are the main bodies who assist the council in its decision making process.

  • The Planning Commission makes most, if not all, of the preliminary land use, zoning and building density types of decisions.
  • The Parks and Recreation Commission reviews the City's recreational facilities and programs.
  • The Economic Development Advisory Committee reviews current and potential business activity in the City.
  • The Art In Public Places Selection Subcommittee reviews proposed public art work.
  • The Civic Arts Committee reviews all cultural activities within the City, including music festivals, concerts in the park, a student art and essay competition held for students enrolled in our public schools, a rotating gallery display as well as a variety of kindred programs
  • The Architectural Review Commission examines the specific aesthetics of how projects will look when they are built
  • The Housing Committees examine the mix of housing and attempt to help in achieving affordable housing goals for low and moderate income housing.
  • The Sister City Committee works to develop and enhance reciprocal relationships with cities of similar climate, population and focus.

All of these committees are composed of local citizens with City staff support. These individuals are appointed and serve at the pleasure of the City Council.

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Staff

The City of Palm Desert's staff consists of approximately 100 individuals ranging from a City Manager, who earns approximately 66,666 pounds per year, to entry level clerk typists, who earn approximately 16,000 pounds per year. The City of Palm Desert employs a relatively small number of city employees for a city of its size because it is known as a "contract city". Until recently, most cities in the United States and in particular, California, operated as what are known as "full service cities." This meant that the cities employed a staff to repair streets, mow city lawns and medians, collect refuse, provide police and fire protection as well as other necessary local functions

The City of Palm Desert is a relatively new city, having been incorporated in 1973, has chosen a different path and is called a "contract city." This means that we contract out many of the basic services and responsibilities for local government. For example, often the City simply lets out to bid all of our municipal construction projects. When a road needs to be repaired, we send out "requests for bids" and allow private companies to bid on the contract. Typically the lowest responsible bidder is awarded the contract.

For police and fire protection, the City hires deputies and fire fighters from the County of Riverside to act as our local police and fire department, thereby providing our citizens with the services of an experienced and qualified team without having to be personally responsible for recruiting, training and addressing all the various legal issues that are time consuming and expensive. It is our experience that contracting out for private services wherever possible lowers the cost of public government and allows us to stretch our resources further.

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Raising revenue

The City's resources, meaning moneys for public projects and staff are generated, through a variety of sources. The largest single financial resource for the City of Palm Desert is state sales tax. The State of California levies a sales tax of approximately nine cents on most goods and services that are purchased, and local governments keep one cent of each of those nine cents for their use. This makes communities desirous of having shopping districts within their jurisdiction, and Palm Desert has captured the largest share of all retail sales in the Coachella Valley. Last year, we had approximately $722,200,000 in retail sales, which gave the City around $7,000,000 in local revenue. In addition, we received approximately $1,000,000 a year from property taxes. This figure is much lower than one would normally expect due to some odd quirks involved in the timing of the City's incorporation and state law. For most California cities property taxes comprise the major component of their annual revenue stream.The second major contributor to the City's revenue stream is the Transient Occupancy Tax, which is the tax placed on every room rented at hotels within the City of Palm Desert. The largest hotel in the City of Palm Desert is a world class Marriott destination resort of almost 1,000 rooms, but there are other hotels ranging on down to some small family owned operations of less than 30 rooms. In total, these hotels provide us with approximately $4,500,000 per year. In addition, the City receives some revenues from franchising cable television rights within the City, franchising our refuse collection to a private business, as well as various other franchises and fees. In total, the City's general fund revenues for 1996 was approximately $20,000,000.

In addition to the general fund budget, the major source of revenue available to the City for certain uses comes to us through our Redevelopment Agency. By state law, the City has the authority to set aside certain incorporated areas for redevelopment to add and improve public infrastructure, correct blight and, in general, improve and stimulate parts of our local economy. The City of Palm Desert has aggressively pursued these programs and this year the amount of money coming to us for redevelopment type issues will total nearly $23,500,000. While our city is, in terms of population, fairly small, in terms of revenue we have the tenth largest Redevelopment Agency in the State of California and rivals cities 10 to 30 times our size.

All levels of government in California have become increasingly strapped for resources during the last decade, and Palm Desert is an exception in that our budget has a surplus each year. The City has invested approximately three years of operating funds, and our surplus has grown each year for the past ten years. This is very atypical of most cities in California, as most local governments are either in debt, cutting back services or facing the possibility of having to increase local tax increases. Palm Desert probably places in the top one percent of local governments in terms of financial stability and wealth. This allows us to create and implement programs for local citizens in ways which attracts both businesses and residents. Palm Desert has the advantage of being able to make discerning choices regarding development options, and the types of businesses it chooses to have located within the City limits. It also has allowed us to take time to organize long term planning. Through citizen committees, the City is in the process of completing a planning effort for the year 2020, including the areas of transportation, public safety, environmental quality, business development and retention and recreational programs. We are also in the process of buying environmentally sensitive lands to provide permanent open space and wildlife habitats, since our city recognizes we are dependent on a quality environment for our long term financial health.

The flexibility of local government has allowed Palm Desert to "do it my way" in a fashion that has created a community which is the pride of the Coachella Valley and has brought us leadership within the State of California. Top of document


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