‘Shitshow of all shitshows’: Some worry power play at COD will kill Palm Springs campus, drive projects East

Worried that College of the Desert (COD) leadership plans to cancel a campus in the city, Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstege went on the offensive Thursday morning.

“My residents are extremely concerned about how COD is operating and have questions about how decisions are being made” Holstege told the Desert Community College District Board of Trustees during its regular meeting Thursday morning. “We know you spent $22 million to purchase the mall. Now the site sits vacant with no information from COD, the president, or its trustees. It’s unclear what will happen to that site.”

At issue for Holstege and others is a recent decision by the college to unexpectedly cancel a project in Cathedral City and accusations from its recently retired president that East Valley elected officials are working to shift money promised for West Valley projects to Coachella.

The money comes in the form of nearly $600 million in bond sales approved by voters in 2016. COD Board members voted unanimously Thursday to sell $300 million of those bonds, but made no comments about how they will be used.

Campaign ads at the time of the bond vote touted construction of a Palm Springs campus. The measure earned overwhelming support from voters. The college subsequently purchased a 29-acre site off Tahquitz Canyon Way and tore down the decaying Palm Springs Mall in preparation for building a campus in the city.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, the retirement of COD’s president, and the appointment of Martha Garcia — president and superintendent of Imperial Valley College — over longtime COD administrator Annebelle Nery, by a 3-2 vote.

Since Garcia’s appointment this summer, COD has announced several potential land purchases and projects in the East Valley, suddenly canceled plans for an automotive project in Cathedral City, and remained mum on plans in Palm Springs.

“My phone has been overheating with calls from Palm Springs and Cathedral City,” Trustee Fred Jandt, who represents Palm Springs and parts of Cathedral City, told fellow board members during the Thursday meeting. “It’s not just one issue. It’s just general uncertainty and [discomfort] with what we are doing and what we are saying.”

The last word on the COD campus in Palm Springs was prior to Garcia’s appointment, when Jeff Baker, then serving as acting COD president, told The Desert Sun newspaper: “This whole COVID thing has caused the college to step back, to pivot and look at all the plans we have out there. Palm Springs is one part of that.”

Lack of answers from COD leadership has Holstege worried. But others, including Joel Kinnamon, who retired as COD president in March, see politics at play. They worry the shift in power at the college was purposely driven by East Valley politicians, including Ruben Perez, vice-chair of the COD board. Perez is the son of Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez and a field representative for State Assembly member Eduardo Garcia, who proclaimed the new COD president “Woman of the Year” in 2018.

“College of the Desert is now a tool or a pawn or a device to further the political interest of some of the elected officials in the Coachella Valley,” Kinnamon said during a Zoom meeting with college faculty last summer, viewed Thursday by The Post. “This is about politics, and money, and power.”

One of Kinnamon’s former colleagues, present in the online meeting, was more direct.

“I’ve been here 35 years,” the retired faculty member said. “This is the shitshow of all shitshows.”

Kinnamon grew emotional as he spoke with faculty members, including COD Faculty Senate President Kim Dozier, urging them to fight the new COD president’s appointment, and encouraging them to cast a vote of no confidence for her, Perez, and the other COD Board members who voted her in — Board Chair Aurora Wilson and Trustee Bea Gonzalez.

That vote has yet to take place. But during the Zoom meeting Kinnamon proposed another route to oust Garcia.

“You’ve got to vote out Aurora Wilson and Ruben Perez,” Kinnamon told faculty members during the meeting. “You’ve got 18 months to do it. I don’t care who you find, but for the college to get back control of being a college and not a political pawn …that’s the reality of what you’re dealing with.”

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