Name: Erbil “Bill” Gunasti
Occupation: Executive producer
Interview: In person
1. When you stand at the intersection of Tahquitz Canyon Road and Palm Canyon Drive, and look northwest, what comes to mind?
Well, any development is a good development. We need investment in Palm Springs, and we need investment throughout the valley. So Wessman, it’s good that the Wessman project took place, but the only thing is that it took 14 years or 15 years, or however long it took; it took too long. I put the blame on whoever was in charge for the past 10 years. If a certain number of people, and in particular the councilwoman who is running for mayor now, and she claims that she has been here, whatever, 10 years or so … in that time, is this the only project you can do?
In a city like Palm Springs, next to Hollywood—this is an American brand. America is a brand; Hollywood is a brand; Palm Springs next to it is a brand. Is this what you were able to do? Are you able to only manage to manage or build or operate, administer, three blocks of Palm Springs? After all, (there are) 47,000 people living in it. It is, what, two miles long? Three miles long? This is a very small town. You couldn’t build a university which you were supposed to build next to Mountain Gate, and you couldn’t build a hospital on the south end so there wouldn’t be any homeless or there would be some amount of economic activity? All you built is The Wessman project, and even that Wessman project is negotiated in such a way that Wessman doesn’t have to put up a model—a $40,000 model? … Wessman doesn’t have a clause that he has to do a $40,000 budget to show me where the palm tree will be, where the offices (will be)? I say nothing to Wessman—kudos! He deserves everything. He negotiated one (good) contract. Like Donald Trump says, he negotiated the best contract against people who don’t have the capacity to negotiate anything. This shows what their capacity is. … They are dealing with the three blocks only, and even that is not handled properly for interest of the citizens—simple as that. There’s nothing else. … Maybe there should have been 10 other clauses that will ensure that the project is (completed in) the best way possible. So it is good for the city—anything is good—but on the other hand, how shortchanged were the Palm Springs residents in this contract? I’m sure we will find 10 different things that have got to change.
2. Does Palm Springs have a crime problem? If so, what should be done about it?
Because of the complaints, there is a crime problem, and one of the elements of the crime problem is homeless people, and again, we are back to the city councilwoman who is running for mayor now, Ginny Foat. Whenever there is a question on this issue, she proudly says, “I devoted my life to the homeless issue; I did so much.” … On one or two occasions that I was with her on the panel, I said “Ginny, if what you did in 10 years for the homeless, this is the result, this is one of the biggest problems; please don’t do anything else anymore, because it’s getting worse every day you are doing something for them.” And I said, “I pledge when I am mayor I will not do anything that Ginny Foat did, because it has already proven that it is bad.”
Now, am I putting all of the crime issues on the homeless? Of course not, but the homeless (problem) is one of the major issues, and there are so many homeless apparently in Palm Springs, and they don’t know how to handle it. … There are so many ways to answer that question of how to handle that, but the issue is unless you resolve the homeless problem to a certain degree, there will always be crime issues.
And then you look at the police department … it’s 10 spots or so (short). It has a recruiting problem: No matter how much money they are able to pay, it’s still lower (than) where else they can find this job, so they recruit people, and after 15 months, 16 months … they go to some other job, so this is a real problem. A shortage of manpower, of course, encourages crime.
3. What, if anything, should be done about alleged corruption in Palm Springs city government? Be specific.
We have to see what the FBI, IRS and the (district attorney) are going to do. … Due process is going to take its time, but from what we know so far, what my partner (Daphne Barak) knows so far, some people have to answer for that.
I put the blame for corruption on one or two things. One thing is, everybody has an economic interest on the council. … Once the authorities finish up with this criminal investigation, whoever is in power is going to say, “Hey, we have to change this system, because it (didn’t just) start yesterday; it has been happening all the time.” The extent of it is being investigated right now.
When this question came up from another paper, recusal (and the) 700 forms, I said, “What are you guys talking about? When the FBI and the IRS closed down the City Hall and took all the computers, what form should be changed? … How can you correct somebody like that?” You have to get rid of everybody—out. If I am not saying this, some authorities will. This whole thing is, they should all go out. … New elections should be there because of the criminal investigation. The authorities … they may determine anything during their investigation. They may determine nobody is guilty, or everyone is guilty, or one or two are guilty. My opinion is, two people—more than one person—(will be) found with something, because the facts are on the table.
From that perspective, the corruption issue in Palm Springs is an endemic issue. There’s a problem with this. So I say … the election system has to change; maybe it has to represent the people better. Also, the recusal issue. … When you elect somebody to an office, you have to say, “Hey, you’re not qualified to represent people, because you have so much interest, or you cannot take $11,000, $10,000 from one person.” … Right now, it’s superficial that you’re going to change this paperwork, and it’s business as usual again.
You have to have a fundamental change. … There’s a socio-political revolution, and what does that mean? Everything changes. The system is caput; it’s gone. Well, there needs to be a socio-political revolution here, but this doesn’t mean that the Wessman project should stop, or the other projects should stop. Whatever the projects are should be ongoing.
(Editor’s note: At this point, I re-asked the question, emphasizing specifics.)
First of all, as a mayor, I will make sure that all the other City Council members, whoever they are at that moment, be looked into based on the investigation that is completed by the authorities. … It is not clear they should be forced to resign after the investigation is concluded, (whether) they are tainted … or their economic interests are too much embedded into the taint, they cannot be a part of the City Council, So in other words, the City Council has to be reformed fundamentally so that the corruption element is not there anymore, based on the criminal investigation of the authorities and their findings. … No paper work-fixing. Just fixing the paperwork, you hand to another bureaucrat to look over; that’s a superficial way of handling that problem. Right now, there is a big problem, and it is finished. The camel’s back broke down.
4. What specific steps will you take to help solve the city’s homelessness issue?
First, you have to know who the homeless are. There are five types of homeless, I learned. One of them is veterans. (Another) one is youths; we don’t know why they leave their home and become homeless. Then the third one (is) mentally ill people. And the other people are AIDS-related type of people. Why? Because they need the social services. … Economically, they are in bad shape because of their illnesses, their issues.
So I say that homeless people are lonely people. We have to resolve the loneliness issue. How do you resolve the loneliness issue? For veterans, you have to get their retired peers. There are plenty of them here, so an R&R program or something like that—and then the retired veterans can take care of these veterans. Youth need a big brother or big sister— somebody to take care of them. Mentally ill (people) need doctors; nobody can help them. You have to have a doctor for them. And then social workers are there to help the AIDS-related, economically deprived people. The other 20 percent, we don’t know who they are, so your guess is as good as mine; we have to take care of them.
Now the other way to look at … those five groups: Half of them, we have to give them a fish, because they cannot feed themselves. Mentally ill, this, that—you have to give them something, so you have to take care of them. The other half, you can teach them how to fish. That’s what you have to do. In other words, it’s not only categorizing them into five, but also splitting them into two.
Economically … I am going to do two things. One: Clean the house; clean the system; clean everything in Palm Springs. Two: Bring investment. That’s what I’m coming in for. I am becoming a mayor to bring investment—no thanks to these people (at City Hall). I have to clean it first, then bring the investment, because no investment is going to come to Palm Springs (otherwise). If they don’t come to Palm Springs, then they are not going to come to the valley. Its reputation—it has a ripple effect.
5. Do you support electing City Council members by district, or do prefer the current at-large system? Why?
I didn’t have any study on that; I didn’t reading anything on that, but I read some material that was presented to me. Representation is important. Who are you responsible to? We are for Palm Springs. Good—47,000 people. I am responsible for my home, for my neighborhood, my community, my neighbors around my community, and only then do I go to the next layers of that. I am impacting my actions and decisions, my care, my attention will be first where I am. It has to be like that. I have to be responsible to people so that I cannot throw the burden: “Oh, I did my share; he didn’t do it.” That is what they are doing right now. … I survived eight prime ministers, 15 years. You know how I survived? By not making mistakes, by showing up to work. That’s what you need to do as a bureaucrat. Don’t do anything; collect your salary. That’s how you survive. … I did more than that. That’s why eight prime ministers kept me, whether Republican, Democrat, different elements; they couldn’t get rid of me. They said, “This guy is important.” … We have to change the system; they have to be responsible. Whether they go on a vacation or live somewhere else, their people have to say, “No! We don’t want you to go. We want you to be here.” So I am for breaking into districts.
6. If you were not running for this office, which of your opponents would get your vote? Why?
I would give it to Bob Weinstein. … We come from the same background—the background is Israel. We are two Jewish people, and Israel is the first thing that comes out of our mouths. … I find something (good) about being a fiscally conservative Republican; that’s one way I look at it. … He is an active lawyer, so that makes sense.
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?
I would give them more than one option, because I like Japanese food, and I also like Italian food. Next to Starbucks, there is a Japanese restaurant (Gyoro Gyoro). Or it could be Kaiser. It could be Lulu. It could be (the Purple Palm).
8. Name one business or service that you wish Palm Springs had (but currently does not have).
Palm Springs doesn’t have a resort. It has about 40 hotels, but it doesn’t have a resort. … Where is it? What does Palm Springs have? That’s one thing. The other thing it should have: There’s no place for the youth to spend their time. Youth need places to go … that engage them. Otherwise, they go home, and they get bored at home. You asked the question of crime. Of course, things happen. They’re bored. They have all the energy.
9. Which annual Coachella Valley event or festival is your favorite? Why?
The (Coachella) music festival is good, because it is known, and then Stagecoach is good. … Of course, the (Palm Springs International) Film Festival is important for us, because that’s what (my partner and I) do. … We’d like to make that 15 days, and then, because we know all these famous singers—whether it’s Lionel, whether it’s Bocelli, all kinds of singers, and they’re good friends, so when I become the mayor, and this becomes our home, we’d like to do events focusing on music. It’s not that we have to do the Coachella festival again … but do a high-end, some sort of an event that will be 10 to 15 days, so we’ll be known for that music. The other thing is art. There’s a great museum here, and lots of great people.
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?
I’ll protect my teddy bear. … I have more than one, and they are very precious.