Indio city officials are concerned about how the public perceives safety in the city and on Tuesday talked about how they should — or shouldn't — release information to the media.
During a special city council meeting on Tuesday, City Manager Bryan Montgomery led a presentation on a draft of the city's strategic plan into 2024, which included projects tied to public safety like building a police and fire campus, implementing “state-of-the-art” body cameras for police and enhancing fire and ambulance services.
But the conversation quickly veered toward what information the city could stop releasing to local media outlets, with some councilmembers saying reports only increase a negative perception of safety in the city.
"There's some things that maybe need to stay in-house," said Mayor Pro Tem Waymond Fermon. "I think what's happened is we've gotten caught up in the word 'transparency.' Sometimes, transparency doesn't mean putting everything out. It may be just, it's available if you request it."
Fermon said that road construction and similar things that "pertain to safety" could still be released proactively to media organizations, but that other situations, mainly related to crime, may require filing formal requests for public information through the city clerk.
Officials discussed trying to streamline the three main forms of communication with local media — through the city's director of communications and marketing, the Indio police department's spokesman and in what the police department releases on its social media accounts.
"Everything needs to come through one channel," said Councilmember Lupe Ramos Amith. She said "there shouldn't be anything going directly to the police department," and that requests from journalists or the public should only go through the city clerk.
If reporters try to contact anyone else, Ramos Amith suggested saying that "It's under investigation, that's what we always say," or "Just say we have no comment: The kitten got stuck in the tree and the firefighter got him out."
Indio's courthouse is where many criminal cases from across the Coachella Valley are tried, and Montgomery said he believes that news coverage out of the county courthouse often creates the impression that all crimes happened in Indio itself. Director of Communications and Marketing Brooke Beare took issue with a headline on crime statistics in Indio which she said, "makes it appear as if Indio is problematic and other cities are not."
But Councilmember Oscar Ortiz said that the city should consistently provide crime data and "have numbers that we can show people," good or bad. If the city only shared positive information, he said, "then, when we ask the community for extra (funding for) officers, they're going to say, 'It's going so well, why would you need extra officers, if you are saying everything is so safe?'"
No specific action could be decided during the strategic plan meeting, but Montgomery concluded that there was consensus among councilmembers that the city should change how people access public information about safety in Indio.
The Desert Sun reported in August that homicides in Indio jumped in 2020 and aggravated assaults trended higher, but other crimes like robberies and burglaries have dropped dramatically in recent years in the Coachella Valley's largest city. The report was based on data the city is required to collect and report to the FBI and included comments from police and city leaders.
Seven people were slain in Indio last year — the highest death toll since 2014, when eight people were killed. The pace seems to be slowing this year, with three homicides reported in the first eight months of 2021.
Burglaries have trended sharply downward in the last decade — even as the city's population has risen by about 13,000 people since 2010. Other crime categories, though, like aggravated assaults, have buoyed up and down from year to year, with a rising trend to the present.
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Indio recently has also seen controversy swirl around its police department, with two police unions holding votes of "no confidence" in Chief Mike Washburn.
The rest of Tuesday's meeting focused on other areas of the draft strategic plan.
The plan outlines seven main areas of focus: public safety, business and job growth, community infrastructure, community beautification, downtown and Highway 111 revitalization, community outreach, and "financial and environmental sustainability and operational excellence."
Here is a look at some of the key initiatives in each area:
Business and job growth
The draft strategic plan says the city wants more residents to work in the city rather than commuting elsewhere for their jobs.
Indio aims to develop a "jobs to housing balance action plan" to boost the overall number of what it called "family-wage jobs" in the city. The action plan would set a goal of reducing the current percentage of employees that work outside the city from 74% of the population to 50% over a 10-year period.
The plan discusses business and job growth in the city, with a 10-year economic development strategy that would assess what niche industries Indio can target, as well as economic policies, programs and business site selection opportunities or limitations.
Overall, the draft strategic plan calls on the city to refocus internal and external practices and resources on nonresidential development rather than residential growth. This, the plan notes, would enhance the city’s property tax and sales tax bases and grow the city’s employment base.
The draft plan also calls for making the city more of a regional destination for shopping, dining, and entertainment. It calls for boosting the number of businesses in the restaurant and entertainment categories by 10% from the numbers reported in June 2021 by the end of fiscal 2024.
During the city’s last council meeting on Nov. 17, the council explored removing a ban on cannabis in the city, which would open up that type of business in the city, as well.
The draft strategic plan proposes a number of ideas for improving the look of Indio, including:
Establishing a “Keep Indio Beautiful” or similar program for community beautification.
Possibly establishing a residential facade improvement program for targeted areas of the city
Creating a commercial beautification and facade improvement grant program for major north-south and east-west commercial corridors, including Monroe Street, Highway 111 and Jackson Street.
Holding rotating “Clean the City” events to clean up properties.
Refreshing landscape medians
Designing and installing new art and signage at key gateways into the city.
The plan proposes selling at least three city-owned properties for the development of 300 market-rate and workforce housing units downtown. Other ideas proposed in the draft included:
Painting, providing blade signs and adding flowers on city and private properties on Miles Avenue and Oasis Street
"Activating" empty city-owned storefronts with interim window-wraps and public art.
Constructing the downtown “living room” park and entertainment venue.
Implementing a facade improvement program for businesses in Downtown and along Highway 111.
Creating a downtown history walk
Festivals, arts and culture
The draft plan says the city should work with Coachella and Stagecoach organizer Goldenvoice to increase the number of large music festivals to the allowed maximum of five.
Other suggestions included working with Desert Theatreworks to establish an annual Performance Art Festival and holding monthly events in a new amphitheater park that the city wants to establish off of Smurr Street in downtown.
Outreach: returning calls and emails promptly
Indio also has a plan to enhance community outreach, mainly by returning phone calls and emails to City Hall within 24 hours or the next business day. The city is currently revamping its website and plans to create an “I love Indio” app in partnership with the Greater Coachella Valley Chamber of Commerce, which would help users access information on local restaurants, shopping, services and events.
Additionally, the city is considering providing uniform city literature in both English and Spanish.
Because the strategic plan is meant to prepare Indio’s budget for the coming years, residents can also expect regular progress updates from the city on the city website at www.indio.org, its Facebook page, and via email if requested.
Also addressed in the draft strategic plan was community infrastructure, including changes in streets, bridges, parks, and electrical and broadband systems.
Specifically, the city listed interchange projects set for Monroe Street and Jackson Street.
Montgomery also pointed to the city's need to upgrade water irrigation and spray systems to more cost-effective options.
"To do that, we have to rip out the old plants and we can replace them with desert plants. We get more water-friendly irrigation and IWA funds the whole thing," he said of the Indio Water Authority, which provides water services to the city.
Eliana Perez covers the eastern Coachella Valley, including the cities of Indio and Coachella. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElianaPress.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Indio officials suggest sharing less info with media to boost city's image