The year 2015 was not easy for Palm Springs government, especially after City Hall was rocked by an FBI raid targeting documents related to then-Mayor Steve Pougnet’s relationship with various developers and businessmen.
Then came a contentious and at times ugly election season, which ended with businessman and former military man Rob Moon defeating City Councilmember Ginny Foat by 11 percentage points in the eight-way mayoral race—a result that shocked many political insiders.
The Independent recently caught up with Rob Moon at Townie Bagels to talk about his first three months in office. I asked him if anything had surprised him about being mayor.
“The only thing that’s been difficult has been keeping up with the e-mails,” Moon said. “I probably get 150 a day, maybe 200. Just reading and responding to the ones I need to respond to, forwarding the e-mails I need to—it’s vastly time-consuming. Even my executive assistant finds herself 200 to 300 e-mails behind. It’s crazy!”
However, he said nothing really surprised him regarding city government.
“I’ve been following the city for a long time and haven’t missed more than three or four City Council meetings over the past few years,” he said. “I attended Planning Commission meetings, and I was chairman of the Measure J Commission. I had my finger on what was going on.”
Right from the get-go, Moon and the revamped City Council—newcomers Moon, Geoff Kors and J.R. Roberts joined hold-over incumbents Foat and Chris Mills on the five-person council—have been hard at work. Of course, downtown redevelopment has been a major focus.
“The very first night when I took over, we had to vote on the historic designation for Tahquitz Plaza, which we did. That had been hanging for years, and we resolved that our first night,” he said about the Hugh Kaptur-designed midcentury modern buildings at 600-700 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, which once were targets for demolition. “Then we worked on the downtown development project.
“At the last City Council meeting, the staff wanted us to do a public hearing and take public testimony and continue it to a time indefinite. As a council, we said no. It wasn’t fair to the developer, to the residents or the downtown businesses to drag this out. We wanted to make decisions—which is what we were put in office for. We had a meeting that went until 1 in the morning and voted on every single outstanding issue, with the height of the buildings and all that stuff. We did vote after vote after vote. It wasn’t all unanimous, but we did our job that night.”
One of the things the council took action on was the ever-controversial downtown development being built by John Wessman. The council frustrated the developer by limiting the height on one of the proposed buildings.
“We settled the height of the hotel at the City Council meeting, and that’s going to be 49 feet. It’s not going to overwhelmingly large, and it’s a compromise,” he said.
The spirit of compromise shown by Moon and the other new council members has eased the concerns of some community activists, who were afraid Wessman was getting whatever he desired from the previous council.
“It hasn’t really been a struggle,” Moon said. “We made decisions, and we took a good compromise and the developer didn’t get everything he wanted. (Advocates for Better Community Development, led by Frank Tysen) and other activists who didn’t want to see the development done didn’t get everything they wanted, either, but we reduced the density by 40 percent, and we widened some of the streets. So needless to say, everybody got something.”
The Hacienda Cantina and Beach Club—which had been operated by developer Richard Meaney, one of the primary targets of the FBI investigation—is now shuttered, with no revival seemingly in sight. It’s likely to be one of the new council’s major headaches.
“The Hacienda is something I can’t really comment on, because we’re in litigation now, but the previous City Council agreed to give them $250,000 as an incentive, and apparently they did not use that money for what one would expect—to pay their contractors—and no one knows what they did with it,” he said.
Moon said the city budget is a constant concern for him and his fellow council members.
“Any city, state or federal government has concerns about budget, because you can’t do everything you want to do,” Moon said. “We’re really understaffed at City Hall; we have a serious problem with the homeless; we have infrastructure (work) that needs to be done and roads that need to be paved. The library needs to be redone, and City Hall has a leaky roof. There’s a massive amount that needs to be done. We did pass the Measure J tax that adds the 1 percent sales tax that brings in $13.1 million a year; $3.5 million of that goes toward the bond for the downtown development project, which leaves close to about $9 million a year right now to do additional capital projects.”
Moon said one of the biggest challenges for the city is the homelessness issue.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “Councilwoman Foat has a task force she’s working on to get services to homeless people who want services, but what about the people who don’t want services—the ones who don’t want a place to stay, don’t want help, and just want to live in empty lots, panhandle and be a burden on society? That’s a challenge, and I don’t know how to address it. One of our problems is we have a lot of open land in Palm Springs, which the other cities don’t have, which makes it more difficult for us.”
Moon said the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which is currently making plans to redevelop the Spa Resort Casino, continues to have a good working relationship with the city of Palm Springs.
“I had lunch with Chairman Jeff Grubbe a few times, because we have a good relationship, and I’m working very hard to make sure we have a relationship of trust and respect between him and me, and that helps when reaching out to the tribe,” Moon said. “… Chairman Grubbe told me, ‘What’s good for Palm Springs is good for all of us.’ I think that’s important. The tribe only has 400 members and owns half the land in Palm Springs. A lot of the members don’t live here and live elsewhere. They have a very complex governmental organization. What I want to do going forward is make sure we have better communication with them to where we talk to them about what we’re doing, and they talk to us about what they’re doing, and we work together.”
Moon said he’s committed to keeping the workings of the city government transparent.
“Transparency, like democracy, is messy and takes a lot of time,” he said. “We have City Council meetings going until midnight and beyond, because we’ve been debating things in public … and not passing through things quietly. We’ve been bringing it out in the open and discussing these things. Councilman Geoff Kors and I are also heading up a new commission to write some new rules in regard to transparency. We’re both on the finance committee as well and are scheduling public meetings about the budget, and residents can come down and talk about the budget and how they’d like to see their tax dollars spent. We’re also going to have a separate meeting for the City Council where they debate the budget instead of doing it as an agenda item on the regular meeting.”