If elected to the Palm Springs City Council, Lisa Middleton wants to be as transparent as possible, she said, while engaging with the community.
Middleton is well-known as a transgender activist, and she has an impressive work history as well; she retired after 30 years as an executive with the State Insurance Compensation Fund of California, where she was at one point the senior vice president of internal affairs. She’s also a member of the Planning Commission, and was a chair of ONE-PS, the coalition of Palm Springs neighborhoods. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Lisa Middleton since 2013; I met her while I was a volunteer at the LGBT Community Center of the Desert.)
During an interview at her home, Middleton—who would become the first openly transgender individual elected to a non-judicial office in the state, should she win—said the city of Palm Springs is finally starting to handle the issue of homelessness in the right way. She said that the efforts of Well of the Desert and the housing programs proposed by the Coachella Valley Association of Governments are both steps in the right direction.
“The city is making progress when it comes to homelessness,” Middleton said. “We have a dedicated homelessness police officer going from four days a week to seven days a week. … The two additional social workers who have been contracted with the county have produced success, and the city is trying to expand that program. One of the things we found is that it takes multiple interventions for there to be success. There have been, over the last year, 50 people who have been housed, and another 100 who have received housing. It’s been because of these programs.”
Middleton helped to create the ordinances and regulations on vacation rentals that were recently enacted. She said she believes they’re working so far.
“I believe the reforms that were passed earlier this year were very much a step in the right direction,” she said. “The restriction of no more than one (vacation rental) home per person going forward—those who have more than one now are grandfathered in—will remove the investor from the market going forward so that the people getting permits will be the individual or couple who plan to transition to full-time living in Palm Springs. … I came up with the idea through ONE-PS for that restriction. The increase in fines, I supported very strongly, but the most important change was the increase in staffing, and going from a half-time person to nine people in a department, and changing the first responder to complaints from the rental manager to someone within the city, and having them out in cars to where they’re able to respond, as well as being out in cars … (so) they can monitor and drive by. The homeowners and managers are stepping up their game in the review of the people they rent their homes to, because after three strikes, you’re going to lose your license, and could potentially lose your license for good. Those are steps in the right direction, and we need to give this law a chance to work.”
Middleton said she intends to work with local nonprofits to increase the amount of affordable housing in the city.
“I want to work with organizations such as Desert AIDS Project and Coachella Valley Housing Coalition to build more affordable housing in Palm Springs” Middleton said. “A recommendation I’ve made is that … we take and change the public benefit, which is a negotiation that goes back and forth with the Planning Commission and the developer—that it be switched to the public benefit being affordable housing: Either you build a certain number of affordable housing units as part of your project, or you pay a fee to the city to be used to provide funding for other affordable housing projects, based on the value of the project you’re building.”
When it comes to transparency, Middleton said said being accessible and communicating with the public is important, and that she plans to regularly visit each of the neighborhoods in Palm Springs, while making herself as accessible as possible.
“One thing I think would help … is being accessible so people can ask questions and understand things,” Middleton said. “Transparency is extremely important coming from someone such as myself, who managed a public-records office, and I know all of the rules as to what must be released and how it is to be released. Frequently, what I find is somebody says, ‘You’re not being transparent.’ What they really mean is, ‘I didn’t know that was going on.’ It’s that ‘I didn’t know’ that we need to do a better job on … (so that) it becomes easier for them to know what’s going on.”
Middleton said the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has a great relationship with the city. She cited discussions about the plans for the area around the Spa Resort Casino as an example.
“I do think that for almost everyone who was concerned when they saw that dotted line put into the Desert Sun, and then saw this first set of drawings of the new hotel, there should be great relief that the tribe is a great neighbor and has historically been a great neighbor,” she said.
As a member of the Planning Commission, Middleton said she’s happy the downtown redevelopment project is progressing.
“I’m thrilled that we’re finally getting the hotel up and ready for occupancy, and that the leases have been signed and stores will be opening,” she said. “As for the businesses up further on Palm Canyon, they feel like they’ve been in a construction zone for years, and this project has taken longer (than we anticipated) when we voted for Measure J in 2011. There were lawsuits that slowed down construction, and I was part of the Planning Commission that worked with the new City Council in January 2016 that reduced the scale of the overall project by 40 percent. There have been bumps in this road, and we’re starting to move forward, and the vast majority of people in Palm Springs want to see that succeed.
“The Hyatt Andaz,” the long-delayed under-construction project at Indian Canyon Drive and Alejo Road, “has brought up ideas for a change in the approval process. As a part of the planning and review process when the project is approved by the Planning Commission, we need to review the financial viability of the product. Nowhere in the current process do we ask a developer why they feel the project will succeed financially. That can be built into the approval process, and before someone begins construction, they should be required to demonstrate to the city that they have the funds in place to complete construction.”
She believes the best way to prevent more corruption within the city government is to do reviews and make sure everyone has proper information on what they can and cannot do.
“We should sit down with them constantly and review their 700 form, asking them, ‘If you work for other entities, who are these entities?’” Middleton said. “Annually, we have a very clear understanding of what they reported and why.”
Middleton laughed when I asked her if she considered the Palm Springs City Council to be opposed to fun—a criticism some, such as the Cactus Hugs website, have made of the current council.
“I don’t think Palm Springs is against fun,” Middleton said. “I absolutely want it to be fun, and I want our city to keep its sense of humor and be able to laugh with others and at ourselves from time to time, because we need to do so. I was asked this question a few weeks ago: Is Palm Springs a small city of neighborhoods, or is it a world-class destination? The answer is both. Most people want it to be both. That happens when you set balances so you can truly have communities and neighborhoods where people feel safe, secure and quiet in their home and neighborhood—but also a side that can attract people from all over the world to come and have a good time, to go to the parties we have, to enjoy the restaurants, and to enjoy the cultural facilities.”