Judy Deertrack has 35 years experience in government, downtown development, and historic preservation. She has an AS in Paralegal Studies (Summa Cum Laude), a BA in Communications (Magna Cum Laude), a Law Degree (#1 ranking GPA), and a Master’s Candidacy in City and Regional Planning (Magna Cum Laude). Judy’s also completed her studies in commercial real estate, and intends to obtain her license this coming year. She’s been an assistant City Attorney, county planner, tribal consultant, land use consultant and preservationist, and is currently running for Palm Springs City Council. Judy’s campaign slogan is “Stay on the right track with Deertrack.”
The four candidates running for two open seats on Palm Springs City Council include incumbents Mayor Pro Tem Chris Mills and Councilwoman Ginny Foat, and challengers Judy Deertrack and Jeffrey Nichols. Mills, an architect, has been a council member since 2001. Foat has served on the council since 2003 and is executive director of the Mizell Senior Center. Deertrack is a land use consultant and Nichols is a nonprofit director and businessman. The election is November 5, 2013, in Palm Springs, CA.
Kate Buckley: Judy, we were introduced by our mutual friend, Tracy Conrad, who described you as a: lawyer, Broadway/opera singer, city and regional planner and city council candidate. To what or to whom do you ascribe your diverse passions and drive?
Judy Deertrack: Without question, my greatest influence is my mother! I just followed in her tracks (no pun intended). She was an absolute pioneer in multiple directions. Her name is Lila Evans, she resides here in Palm Springs, and she just turned 91 years of age last Friday. The name “Lila” is a Sanskrit term for “creative play,” and my mother certainly fits the bill. She was a pioneer in early speech and hearing in Central California, a union steward for California Teacher’s Association who went on strike and negotiated one of the first significant pension increases for teachers in the 1950s, while also functioning as a prolific artist who mastered seven musical instruments, taught a chorale of 100 students on top of her regular teaching schedule, and served as the first woman in the UCLA marching band during the war. In her spare time, she flew planes in the 1930s, climbed El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, and owned/operated “The Sunset Theater,” one of the first film theaters in California in the early 1930s. I am the quiet one in the family!
KB: You’re running for one of two open seats on the PSCC. If elected, what do you see as your role on the Council—what will you bring to the table?
JD: The extent of my training and education is highly specialized and can be very helpful to Palm Springs. I have 35 years in government, downtown development, law, historic preservation, and multicultural outreach. Modern planning has only recently been introduced in the United States. In the early 1970s, California changed the “advisory” general plan to a legislated document that operates under enforceable community mandates. Legislative powers have now been transferred to the local level, and not all cities have completely adapted to this responsibility. General Plans now operate under policy mandates that must be complied with, and cover everything from zoning, transportation, natural resources, design and development standards, open space, historic preservation—a full spectrum of subjects that interweave to create urban form and urban function.
Compliance is not an easy task, and can be avoided for lack of understanding, or sometimes for less flattering reasons. These standards are public obligations, and operate under the general welfare clause of the state constitution. I am trained and disciplined to expect that government actions follow the law, allow proper notice to affected residents, and implement community goals and visions in a proper manner. Primarily, I am skilled at listening to a community’s dreams and long-term objectives, and can assist in translating those dreams into responsible government action and support.
KB: You, along with your late husband, Richard Deertrack, worked successfully to have the Taos Pueblo Tribe in New Mexico designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. You then worked to secure land, air and water, cultural and architectural protection for the area. How did this experience affect your political growth, experience and ideas?
JD: The elders of Taos Pueblo are great and wise teachers, despite the social and economic problems of the tribe. Taos Pueblo is still a sovereign residing on its original lands. My early respect for culture was reinforced during these years, strengthened by the imprint of a governmental system that responded to nature and incorporated important cultural protections. Tribal people in the Southwest live under what I call a land conservation ethic. It is an understanding that our land is a precious resource that must be sustained over time. The tribe has always extended this ethic to its built environment and to its cultural practices, and it pays close attention to how these relate to one another. The UNESCO Committee understood this ethic, and granted Taos Pueblo a heritage designation that not only responded to its architecture, but also recognized that as a living culture, the Taos Pueblo offer timeless lessons that address not only human survival, but how to thrive as a People. This inspired me.
KB: Your campaign literature mentions your commitment to “Maintain Ethical Government and Full Disclosure to all Citizens.” In this age of Edward Snowden and the NSA, I find that a particularly relevant statement. How would you deliver on such a commitment? What, if anything, would you change about the way the current council operates in that regard?
JD: Let’s start with public notice. I would recommend internal changes in the way the City notifies our citizens of upcoming development and agenda items. First, notice should be given to renters co-equal to property owners, because both absorb the impacts of development, and currently renters are not notified. In fact, notice has been such a problem, that the City (in response to complaints) recently changed its ordinance to require posting of signs on vacant lots where a permit is in process along with written notification.
Second, project descriptions must be concise enough that the public can understand implications. For example, if the City is proposing single family residential in an area that prohibits these low densities, then density and housing type should be in the project description so citizens can properly challenge the action in a timely manner. Litigation requires public commentary at the hearing stage. If the community is not aware of the issue, they will lose important rights of challenge from not attending a hearing. Rights to challenge government action, for reasonable cause, should always be respected—the public is the watchdog of City Hall.
Another area of public protection is a requirement that city councils demonstrate clearly in their fact-finding how they reached their decision, and on what basis. If the general plan sets a height limitation within a zone, the City’s findings should overtly discuss compliance; and it must add up. These are the many nuances of due process. Returning to the mandates I discussed earlier; obligations are explicit in the general plan and non-compliance with standards or environmental review may impact affordable housing, soils stability on hillsides, the proper design of storm drainage, viewshed protection—any number of outcomes that ultimately not only impact public safety, but may also compromise the ultimate goal of neighborhood compatibility
As a voting member, and as a commenting member of the council, I propose to monitor this closely. I have had the advantage of working as a lead planner for the County of Riverside Desert Office for four years, and the County held a very high standard. There is no reason we cannot implement and follow Best Practices with scorecard criteria.
KB: Judy, in addition to your service on the City Council, are there specific subcommittees on which you’d want to serve—that you feel your experience would particularly enable you to contribute in a meaningful way?
JD: Yes, I am deeply interested in historic preservation, sustainability, green-building, public art, parks and recreation (open space), and neighborhood organizations. I also would love to serve the small business community in a meaningful way. I really respond to the aesthetics of a city, and love to understand the way people choose to relate.
KB: You are endorsed by the Riverside County Democratic Party, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of the Pacific Southwest, the Desert Stonewall Democrats, the Palm Springs National Organization for Women, the Democratic Women of the Desert, the Small Hotels of Palm Springs, and the Historic Tennis Club Neighborhood Organization Board. In such a fractured political climate nationally, how do you plan to build consensus with differing groups locally?
JD: That is my greatest pleasure as a technician and communicator; I have a mindset that sees the potential for harmony at every point. One great lesson from Taos Pueblo is understanding that failures stem from poor communication and pre-set, limited thinking. People that look backward to justify what does not work create poor results. As much as I suggest change in systems, I do not emphasize criticism of people. I look forward to finding common ground. I am the first to respect what others have accomplished, and I hope to build trust based upon that attitude, because progress is always possible.
Hopefully, I convey that respect so that others feel comfortable in working with me. Education and respectful dialogue go a long way. My desire is collaboration; my obligation is firm boundaries when I know a direction is not workable, and I insist upon upholding standards I know are non-negotiable, such as legal or ethical obligations to the general public.
KB: What are your views on the Downtown Revitalization Plan, currently underway?
JD: The City has brought about some real changes and progress. There are many wonderful things: new hotel openings and renovations, movement on the downtown plan, outreach in tourism development, Measure J expenditures on public projects, and the constant maintenance of a vibrant, artistic, historic community that still enjoys an international reputation.
Does that mean the downtown plan is home free? No. The City is operating under a Finance Agreement with the developer with timelines on compliance, and Plan B if financial capability is not demonstrated, which has not yet happened. So it is “wait and see,” on a combination of finances and pending litigation that’s challenged height issues, design, and environmental compliance. Controversy also exists on historic preservation, particularly the Town and Country site. I hope for the best, because it is everyone’s common goal to see progress and an end to long-term vacancies in the downtown area. My commitment is to look forward.
KB: One of your core commitments is the historic preservation of the City of Palm Springs. Your campaign platform states that you wish to: Protect the historical character and charm of Palm Springs; encourage sustainable practices toward treasured resources; create generous public spaces and viewsheds, and blend traditional Palm Springs with tourism & new growth. Can you tell me more about your ideas around this?
JD: All of these core commitments describe the planning environment known as Smart Growth. My experience is through a Master’s Thesis and project work across California on downtown specific plans. Smart Growth involves planning for the general welfare of the populace instead of responding only to the demands of a developer. It is a policy-orientation built into a General Plan that ensures standards are identified and followed to protect community requirements. It means pay as you go. Growth cannot outpace infrastructure; new growth must pay its fair share.
When these core obligations are met, cities can partner with developers to finance and design a broad reach of public services and amenities. Often, these improvements are accomplished through sector planning—downtown specific plans and neighborhood plans. I worked as project planner for the City of Benicia on a downtown specific plan. Key components of the plan were preservation and adaptive re-use of all historic buildings, a destination campus with heritage tourism program, artist live-work industrial space, viewshed protection, multi-modal transportation linkages around historic sites, and coordination with state/federal authorities on environmental requirements for military ordnance. This is the full reach of modern planning—distinguished by its integration of all sectors of a community into downtown design, rather than a single-project orientation. Palm Springs has an incredible historic legacy to maintain, and this requires long-term, integrated, modern planning, rather than ad-hoc development responses. Palm Springs has the opportunity to distinguish itself as we define our future growth model and community vision.
KB: Judy you completed your Master’s coursework in City and Regional Planning at San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly, with a pending Master’s candidacy in Smart Growth Planning. As the cities of the Coachella Valley are so closely linked, how do you see the City of Palm Springs interacting with the surrounding cities and the region as it continues to grow?
JD: It would be nice to see Palm Springs as a leader in the green building industry, continuing to build upon a conservation ethic, engaged in regional transportation plans, maintaining strong linkages to other cities and the county as to how the City expands into its Sphere of Influence, or those lands reserved for future development that are not yet incorporated into the city limits. A current challenge is water rights and tribal sovereignty in a checkerboard land pattern within city limits.
All of this returns to the same baseline, that the City must demonstrate that it is proactive and capable of responding to a broad reach of obligations, both local and regional. This can only be accomplished with strong fiscal planning, transparency in debt management, and setting strong priorities on distribution of monies between new projects and pre-existing deficits. What is missing currently is a good information system on spending priorities and deferred maintenance obligations.
KB: Serving as a City Councilmember is a poorly paid, often thankless position. Why are you driven to serve in this regard?
JD: My choice follows a lifetime pattern. Public service has always been the driving force behind my career. It gives me joy to connect in a very specific way to a community with all of its talent and diversity. I have met with neighborhood organizations, churches, civic groups, historic preservationists, hotel owners, union members, small business, schools, health providers, and LGBT civil rights advocates. What other profession better allows one to understand the passion and commitment that results in Palm Springs being one of the finest places to live in our Country?
KB: How do you believe we can best retain the essential character of Palm Springs and still address key issues around infrastructure, tourism, conservation, and growth?
JD: Retaining the essential character of Palm Springs can only be accomplished through vigorous public participation, and our city is fortunate in that aspect—we have a caring, committed population. The role of a City Council is to prioritize the public role, recognize it as indispensable, and adapt city policies to the task. Diversity in opinions should always be respected. Transparency in government action is always a goal. General Plans can be vacuous documents that paint pretty pictures, or they can become powerful constitutional frameworks—implemented by well-designed ordinances, capital improvements plans, performance-oriented budgets, and sector plans that specify funding and timelines. I know from studying Smart Growth that the tools are effective. Dr. Robert Freilich, father of modern day growth management, took it upon himself to re-design the inner cores of over 250 cities, and when he did so, the cities revitalized within relatively short timelines. This is available to us.
KB: What is the future you’d most like to see for Palm Springs?
JD: I think it is what most people want in any City that functions as their home. I want a City that continues to feel proud of who it is. I want a City that is recognized as a leader in good planning. I want a functional, downtown plan with businesses, restaurants and hotels that no longer experience high vacancies and rapid turnover. I want to walk through any business sector—north, south, or central, and hear business owners express that they feel included and consulted in the plans of a city. I want us to retain the relaxed lifestyles, openness and artistic splendor that I see today. I want local residents who feel the city is still their own. I want to walk downtown and continue to experience it as people-oriented, approachable, and real. I want tourists to feel welcome, but also understand we set high standards, because this is our home, and we care about it. Let’s continue to act as good partners with our Kaweah neighbors, bypass the resource deficiencies, traffic congestion, and high crime, and reach out to displaced populations and at-risk families. Most of all, may every day continue with our clear skies, clean water, and beautiful, unimpeded mountain!
KB: Judy Deertrack, why do you feel so passionately about the City of Palm Springs?
JD: I feel passionately about life; and life has always (sometimes mysteriously) brought me to where I need to be. One of my greatest pleasures is music, and Palm Springs is still (and hopefully forever) tied to music, arts, entertainment, and the film industry. I am passionate about music, and I am an entertainer in Broadway/Opera/Cabaret. With all my cabaret friends, musicians, and mentors, I could not imagine leaving. And for many years, I served on the Board of the Well in the Desert, a food distribution program serving families and individuals in need. All combined, I believe this extraordinary convergence of talent and heart explains a good deal about the City’s vitality. Our historic roots are tribal, musical, and artistic. I also believe we are special because the LGBT community has imprinted Palm Springs with all of its creativity, soul, and political passion. We are just very, very lucky to be residents of this fine City.