Officials at College of the Desert were asked Tuesday for greater transparency by members of the community and the chairman of a committee charged with overseeing bond monies approved by voters for capital improvements — including a significant Palm Springs campus.
The requests came during public testimony of the College of the Desert (COD) Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee. They follow media reports — including those first appearing in The Post last month — of allegations that new leadership at COD is deliberately planning to kill a promised campus in Palm Springs in favor of projects preferred by East Coachella Valley politicians.
“Is that money just gone?” asked Ginny Foat, a former member of the Palm Springs City Council who was instrumental in pushing for a COD campus in the city, referring to nearly $600 million in bond sales approved by voters in 2016. “I’m really asking that this committee looks at your fiduciary responsibility for those bond funds. …Have they been just thrown away?”
At issue for Foat and others is the fact that, once the bond money was approved, COD committed to building a Palm Springs campus in the northern part of the city, accepting land valued at $7 million. COD then abandoned that site and purchased 29 acres of land off Tahquitz Canyon Way for $22 million. The college tore down the decaying Palm Springs Mall at that site in preparation for building a campus in the city but has yet to break ground.
Further fueling concerns was the fact that since COD’s newly-installed president, Martha Garcia, was appointed earlier this year, the college has announced several potential land purchases and projects in the East Coachella Valley, placed plans for an automotive project in Cathedral City on hold, and had remained mum on plans in Palm Springs until a November 17 meeting of area business and community leaders at the Hyatt Palm Springs.
During a brief presentation to the Oversight Committee Tuesday, a program manager from the college’s bond office showed charts reflecting more than $500 million remaining for the construction of the COD Palm Springs campus and other projects. In addition, Jessica Enders, the college’s interim executive director for institutional advancement, repeated assurances from Garcia that she and other administrators are simply new and pausing to review priorities for the bond money.
“This administration is committed to moving these projects forward,” Enders said when pressed by Bond Oversight Committee Chair Andrew Harker, who represents the West Valley. “We need to ask if we are putting forward things that make sense. Doctor Garcia is committed to making the best decisions for the long run. Any new project needs to be operational and sustainable for not just tomorrow, but 10, 20, 30 years from now.”
Enders added that the college’s Board of Trustees will meet Friday to review a request to fund a “feasibility study” Garcia has requested. That study is designed to explore options for the Palm Springs campus, but is not expected to be completed until June of 2022.
For Harker and other members of the Oversight Committee, Enders’ explanation and her assurances that Garcia remained committed to major projects in Palm Springs and Cathedral City was well-received. Still, they maintained it would have been better to have those assurances much earlier.
“The lack of transparency has truly been appalling,” said Margie Eklund, a Bond Oversight Committee member who represents senior citizens. “This has never happened before. …It is really disheartening to see what’s happening now.
“Rumors are flying, and there doesn’t seem to be anybody doing damage control. …The college has always been very transparent and open to the community. To see this is very disheartening.”