Both sides in the battle over the future of a planned College of the Desert campus in Palm Springs traded jabs Monday, with only one thing becoming clearer: taxpayers will continue to be caught in the middle.
Driving the news: At a press conference called Monday morning at the steps of City Hall, Palm Springs Mayor Lisa Middleton, flanked by a city attorney and other officials, announced the city has filed a lawsuit in Riverside County Superior Court against the Desert Community College District Board of Trustees.
- The city hopes a judge will find College of the Desert (COD) officials violated the state’s public records act by failing to produce documents it has been asking for since Dec. 8, 2021 in a timely manner.
- It also asks that those records be delivered “promptly for inspection by any person requesting them.”
At issue: Andrew Jared, the attorney representing Palm Springs in the case, said the city hopes the documents will reveal why COD has delayed breaking ground on the construction of a satellite campus in Palm Springs and why its plans continue to differ from those promised voters in 2004.
- “What’s taken so long?” Jared asked. “Why was there a need to delay? We’re trying to get a timeline of when (the Board) made decisions and who made them. Rather than continuing to rely on lip service, we would hope to have actual documentation.”
The other side: A spokesperson for COD said Monday afternoon the college has been cooperating in good faith with the city’s requests and fully plans to provide the information. Under the law, public agencies have 10 days to initially reply to records requests, a deadline COD attorneys said they met in a letter dated Dec. 20, 2021. In that letter, COD attorneys commented on each of 67 city requests, estimating the college would need until April 2022 to supply the documents.
- “(T)he College has, and will continue to operate in good faith to respond to the City’s inquiries,” the spokesperson wrote. “However, the College has limited staff and several sources of documents it must carefully review and assess whenever it receives a Public Records Act request, including requests from the City.”
Zoom out: The city has been pressing the college since late last year to provide answers to questions over why there had been delays in constructing a new campus on 29 acres off Tahquitz Canyon Way. Both government and civic leaders claimed new leadership at the college was purposely trying to scale back the Palm Springs plans in favor of campuses in the East Valley.
- Voters began approving what was to become nearly $1 billion in bond money for the college to use on new campus construction in 2004. In Palm Springs, they were promised a sprawling campus on 118 acres in the north end of town, but those plans shifted to the site of the former Palm Springs Mall in 2014.
Behind the scenes: Last month, COD officials unveiled initial plans for the former mall site that showed a campus so scaled back it shocked hospitality industry leaders. They are hoping the campus can be used to train much-needed management staff, as had been promised.
- Last week those industry leaders brought forward a study that claims the need is more than double what COD is currently offering to build.
- Several of those leaders were present Monday during the announcement of the lawsuit.
But wait: COD still holds the 119 acres in northern Palm Springs the city transferred to it in 2010 for the campus development there. It’s hoping to sell the land to a developer and use the money to help build the Palm Springs campus.
- In July, the city — which did not require the college to return the land when plans changed — sent a letter to COD offering to purchase the land back at the exact cost — $5.7 million — Watermarke Homes had agreed to pay.
- COD replied to the offer at the same time the city was announcing the lawsuit Monday. In a statement sent to the media, a spokesperson wrote, “(T)he City continues to inappropriately use this Property sale as leverage to attempt to direct COD’s decision making regarding the Palm Springs Development Project at the mall site.”
Next up: The college’s Board of Trustees is set to meet Thursday morning and promises “an in-depth presentation of the findings from the programming phase will be shared.”