Name: Paul Lewin
Occupation: Palm Springs City Councilmember
Interview done: Phone
1. When you stand at the intersection of Tahquitz Canyon Road and Palm Canyon Drive, and look northwest, what comes to mind?
Oh, progress. I think that’s going to be a really terrific spot, and it’s very hard for people to visualize the final product, because all we’re looking at is the first legs of that skeleton. But as you know, there’s a lot of beauty that gets wrapped around a skeleton, so what we’re going to have there, in that corner of course, is a wonderful pedestrian path that runs from that exact corner at Palm Canyon and Tahquitz and runs right through the center of Blocks A, B and C and runs into a new entrance into the Hyatt hotel.
So what we’re seeing is just the beginnings of the reshaping of an urban landscape, and I think that for our residents, it’s been so long since anything like this happened. It’s a very new and startling experience, but we’ve got to remember where we started, which was 15 acres of blight, and this old mall that was absolutely killing a lot of downtown. And now when you add in the new walk … we’re going from an old bank that was vacant and I guess a CPK that was hanging on, to this walking path that meanders through the project, a nice hotel with the first ever—and I think this is one of the biggest selling points—rooftop swimming pool on a hotel, and the views from the top of that Kimpton pool are going to be outstanding. And then people will be able to walk through a mix of retail, residential and restaurants … and of course, behind that is the new central park, which will be directly in front of the museum. So that’s what I see.
2. Does Palm Springs have a crime problem? If so, what should be done about it?
I think Palm Springs is a safe city to live in—a very, very safe city to live in. Does it have crime? Absolutely. It mostly, thank god, is limited to property crime—crimes of opportunity. In other words, we’re not a very dangerous place to live. You can go shopping and, unlike in Los Angeles, you don’t really have to be afraid of being held up at gunpoint in this town, and I’m proud of that—that we’ve got a very safe city.
But, and I mean this very sincerely, we do see a rise in property crimes. I’ve been chairman of (the Coachella Valley Association of Government’s) public safety committee for the past two years, and we’ve been studying very closely the effects of two laws: One is known as AB109, and the other is Prop 47. AB109 came first, and what that did was reclassify and remand people who would normally be housed in state prison, and sent them instead to county jails. So the class of prisoner that would normally be in state prison now started filling up our jail system. That forced us to increase early releases of other people, and then on the heels of that, the voters approved Prop 47, which reclassified a whole other set of crimes, most especially drug possession and stealing property less than $950—those become misdemeanors now, whereas before, they would be felonies. The result is, yeah, criminals surprisingly, are not dumb. They may be dumb on some level in their life choices, but they are learning to exploit this loophole where they know that, “Hey, if I go in, and all I do is steal a $500 TV, a flatscreen, that’s just a misdemeanor. I’m not going to be faced with prison time.” So that’s a perverse outcome, an unintended outcome of this law.
What we need to do about it? I think we need more feet on the beat. So what are we doing? We added a new lieutenant to our police force, and that’s the command-staff level, right? Because you can’t add more frontline officers until you have enough people to oversee them. So that’s step one. Step two is, most police agencies are having trouble filling gaps in their hiring. So we fully funded our police department, but due to the very, very high standards that we have in Palm Springs for background checks and how they score on their tests and things like that, we’ve been having trouble filling the vacancies that we have. So I think that one of the things we need to do as a city is look at: How we do we incentivize what are known as lateral transfers? … I’m looking for someone who meets our high standards, and I’d like to attract those laterals who already have a few years of experience under their belt so they can hit the ground running when they arrive here, rather than go through 18 months of training in preparation before they’re ready. I think we need a mix of both overall, and I know our chief of police is very, very good at determining who’s a good hire, and who’s a bad hire.
3. What, if anything, should be done about alleged corruption in Palm Springs city government? Be specific.
The FBI investigation has to be fully carried out, and everyone at City Hall needs to cooperate to the fullest extent. I don’t think I can be more explicit, can I?
I think a lot of people use the word transparency without understanding it. It’s become a bit of a buzzword in this campaign cycle, but, really, we need to know: What does it all mean? Fundamentally, every elected official has the obligation to not just recuse themselves, but explain what their relationship is, and why they’re recusing themselves on something. You could have all the transparency rules in the world you want; if someone chooses not to volunteer that information, how would someone else know? You know, ethics is what you do when no one’s looking.
I’m completely open to new ideas on how we can be more transparent, without a doubt, because it’s been heartbreaking. It’s been my first time in public office. I’m from this town, and it’s heartbreaking to watch this happen, but you’ve got to realize something: I learned about this the same way you did, which is through The Desert Sun. OK, so not only that; I’m the councilmember (who) when I learned about it, I called for an independent investigation to find out what the truth of some of this was. Did we make a mistake? Did we not? What’s going on here? And thirdly, when it was revealed that the mayor had voted improperly on a land transaction, I’m the guy who picked up the phone and said, “We’ve got to cancel that transaction entirely,” and that’s what happened. So from my perspective, when I learned about something, I acted on it. What else can I do? We don’t have staff to investigate each other; that doesn’t exist, so people are going to have to be honest. This is a sad day, but it’s necessary.
4. What specific steps will you take to help solve the city’s homelessness issue?
I am really glad you’re asking this question, and more importantly, I’m really glad that the community cares about this question, because four years ago, I don’t think the public was really looking for a lot of humane solutions. The city was broke at the time, four years ago; we didn’t any extra money. So there were a lot of proposals to try to push people out—make it illegal to camp, make it illegal to panhandle, things like that. … Now the city’s turned the corner financially; we do have some extra resources. We also have this political will in the community to spend that money on more humane options.
So first of all, the homelessness task force is comprised of the right people to come up with the solutions. In my heart, I know there has to be a housing element. It’s very, very important. We’ve got (a dedicated police officer) who walks around to different encampments, but right now, he can’t say to them, “Hey, if you’re ready to get off the streets, we’ve got a place for you to go.” My hope is that when this process is done—when we’re done working with our stakeholders, with our experts in the field—we’re going to devote a significant amount of money to doing just that. Some people call it “housing first”; there are a lot of different labels for it, but I think offering a more humane option, other than, “Here’s a ticket for illegal camping; now go away,” is a priority for me.
I’m interested in the other things that have come about, because there are issues of basic sanitation—where people can store their personal goods. If you’re homeless, you only have a few possessions in your name, correct? That’s why you see encampments set up, is because, gosh, you barely have anything, so you don’t want to lose anything that you have. I’m hoping that the people that we’re working with, like Arlene Rosenthal of Well in the Desert, and people from Jewish Family Services—hopefully, we’ll have some ideas on what we do, so that people’s lives can be improved.
I don’t mind telling you this also: In the end, we’re not going to solve homelessness. We might transition some people out of it, but I’ve talked to a lot of people who are homeless, and a lot of people who work with that population, and there’s a very strong consensus that in that population, there’s a certain group that has become so habituated in that lifestyle, that there’s really nothing you can do to change it, outside of forcing someone against their will.
I think what we as citizens need to focus on is twofold. No. 1, through Roy’s Resource Center, we have helped 2,000 people get out of homelessness and back into stable housing, and you don’t see those people, because they’re success stories. Now the question is: What are we going to do with this much more difficult population that’s become very habituated to living outside in a lifestyle, as they call it, camping? How do we entice them and encourage them, in a voluntary manner, to accept living like the rest of us? It will be very interesting, but if we get 25 percent of them off the streets and into something more stable, I think that’s a win. If we do more, that’s an even better win.
5. Do you support electing City Council members by district, or do prefer the current at-large system? Why?
You know, that’s an interesting question. Intuitively, just at an emotional level, I like the at-large system, because I am forced to, and it’s my obligation, to represent everyone in the city. I worry (that) in district elections, we’ll be pitting neighborhood against neighborhood. Now, if we were a very large city geographically, or population-wise, like Los Angeles, I really think it’s important to have district elections in environments like that, because, at that point, if you don’t have a district, you could just become too isolated from the voters entirely. But in a little town like Palm Springs, I think it’s something we should tread carefully on, and really examine the implications of having five council members, each representing just a geographic area. What would that do? So I don’t have a strong opinion. Those are my concerns. It’s something I think the community needs to have a conversation about.
6. If you were not running for this office, which of your two opponents would get your vote? Why?
I’m not going to answer that! I’m running for me. No one should answer that question. If they’re running, they’re running for themselves. I will say this, though: For the first time in a long time, I’m greatly relieved to see that the majority of candidates who are running for office in this cycle are mature, responsible, worthy representatives.
7. A dear friend is in town for just one night, and asks you where to go for dinner. Where are you sending this dear friend?
That dear friend is going to have to spend several nights. This is not a one-restaurant town. I think I’d make them eat my famous grilled steaks in my backyard and enjoy a good glass of wine with them.
8. Name one business or service that you wish Palm Springs had (but currently does not have).
I’d really like to have a bookstore. I miss having a bookstore, but I know it’s not likely, because Amazon has changed that model.
9. Which annual Coachella Valley event or festival is your favorite? Why?
I’ve got to say Splash House. They are all fantastic, first of all. I just really, really love all of (the annual events), and I hope you’re going to print that, because I’m just going to get everyone angry at me for this. Splash House, to me, is so important, because it’s the first major event to take place in the summer time, and it’s bringing in a very important demographic, which is the millennial demographic, and they are getting introduced to the Palm Springs brand for the first time, and having a very positive experience. We know that if they come here when they’re young, they’ll come back throughout their lives, and over time, they’ll end up buying second houses or moving and relocating here. Attracting the millennial generation is really a key part of our long term economic growth. (Editor’s Note: Lewin later made a point to disclose the fact that his girlfriend is involved with Splash House.)
10. If the FBI was about to raid your home or office, which personal item would you grab to make sure it didn’t get broken?
First of all, I don’t think the FBI comes in and breaks things. … I have a painting that’s done by a very famous artist, and I wouldn’t anything to happen to it. It was given to me by my father, and I would want to be broken. The FBI doesn’t break stuff. … I would grab my dog and my cat, quite frankly, now that I think about it. I do not want them broken. I would rather my painting get busted up than my dog or my cat.