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On Nov. 7, voters who live in the city of Palm Springs will go to the polls to select two new members of the Palm Springs City Council.

This election will mark a complete changing of the guard, so to speak, after the indictment of former Mayor Steve Pougnet and a couple of developers on corruption charges two years ago. The two new members will replace retiring City Council members Ginny Foat and Chris Mills, and joining three new members who were elected two years ago: Geoff Kors, J.R. Roberts and Mayor Rob Moon.

With City Manager David Ready, this new council will help guide a city that is enjoying the best of times … and, at the same time, suffering through the worst of times.

The city is more popular than ever as a tourism destination—yet it is enduring the aforementioned scandal involving its huge, signature downtown development project. Some areas, such as the Uptown Design District, are enjoying a resurgence—yet the homelessness problem continues to worsen.

The Independent’s Brian Blueskye recently spoke to each of the candidates about these various issues and more. He asked them about the issue of homelessness; the new vacation-rental ordinance; the lack of affordable housing in the city; ethics and transparency;the downtown redevelopment project; and the city’s relationship with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Finally, he asked each candidate whether the city is opposed to fun—a charge against the current council leveled by some, including the Cactus Hugs website.

Here’s what each of the candidates had to say.

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Christy Holstege

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Glenn Flood 

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Henry Hampton

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Judy Deertrack

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Lisa Middleton

The Palm Springs City Council Candidate Interview: Robert Julian Stone

Published in Politics

Of the six candidates running for the Palm Springs City Council this year, Robert Julian Stone is certainly the most blunt.

The author, film critic and community advocate certainly was not shy about sharing his views during a recent interview—including a conspiracy theory regarding the current City Council and two of his opponents.

But before we get to that … on the subject of homelessness, Stone was rather thoughtful and analytical. He told me the recent film The Florida Project was helpful in exposing the national problem of homelessness.

“The solution everyone talks about is the ‘housing first’ solution,’ Stone said. “It’s the best solution for a certain number of people who find themselves without homes. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that there are three things human beings need to be productive in society: They need food; they need shelter; and they need clothing. If you take any one of those things away from them, they cannot be a productive member of society. That’s the challenge that we’re facing: We must provide shelter, but how you go about doing that is a very expensive proposition, because (homelessness) numbers continue to grow. The ‘housing first’ solution works best for people who are living one paycheck to another. When you fall out of your housing, and you’ve lost your job, or you have a ruined credit rating because you’ve been evicted, or you’re unemployed—what it takes to get back in is the first month’s rent, a security deposit and employment. If that’s not immediately available to you, you’re out on the streets. The ‘housing first’ model works really well. because (these people) aren’t used to living on the streets, don’t want to live on the streets, and want to get back into a stable situation.

“If you’re talking about the people who don’t want four walls and a roof over their heads, or have addiction and mental health issues—those people are more difficult to handle.”

Stone said the vacation-rental situation in Palm Springs has been poorly handled.

“Airbnb is not going to go away, and it’s here to stay. The thing that we need to do is figure out the best way to manage it,” he said. “I don’t think creating a $1.7 million-a-year bureaucracy to handle the problem was necessarily the right way to go. When Palm Springs did their big vacation rental ordinance, they did not run it through the Planning Commission; they didn’t hold public hearings over a period of time. It was mostly Geoff Kors and J.R. Roberts in a back room coming up with this proposal, which went through a tumultuous unfolding when they got slapped with petitions to recall them and recall this ordinance if they didn’t change it. It was badly handled, and the biggest thing they missed was they didn’t do any density controls, and there’s nothing that prevents 98 percent of the homes next to your home from becoming short-term vacation rentals—and that’s a problem.”

Stone didn’t mince words on transparency—especially involving the funding for Measure J, a 1 percent sales and use tax approved by voters in 2011 that was slated to go toward city services, maintenance and redevelopment.

“They’re certainly transparent on the general-fund portion, but there are dozens of other side funds that don’t appear anywhere in the public forum for the city’s residents to understand or (figure out) exactly what’s going on with that money,” he said. “The city budget is $110 million; the other dozens of other funds make up an aggregate of another $110 to $120 million—things like the airport fund, the Measure J fund, the utility tax fund, the gas tax fund—and they’re run like a sideshow. They’re controlled by the city manager, who dips into those funds to transfer into the general fund as he sees fit, or to transfer from the general fund into those funds when they have shortfalls. Some have income; some of them, like the golf course fund, have income and expenses. We never really get a true picture of what our budget is, because half of it is run behind a curtain, and that’s a problem.”

Regarding the city’s relationship with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Stone said the city needs to work with the tribe in a more cooperative fashion.

“That’s a very difficult question, because the city has taken a position that changes from day to day depending on the subject on the table,” Stone said. “Sometimes, they say, ‘They’re a sovereign nation; we have nothing to do with them.’ I’ve heard Ginny Foat articulate that many times, saying they don’t get involved in their business. At the same time, we have a master plan … a bilateral agreement that both sides signed and should be adhering to. But when it comes down to enforcing it, the city never tries to. We need to invite them to the table. … If you look at the history of Palm Springs and the tribe, it’s very checkered. We need to have a better agreement with the tribe; we need to have one that is neutrally supportive. With the way the downtown (redevelopment) project was handled, and the 31 counts of corruption which relate directly to the downtown plan, we can’t really take the moral high ground when it comes to the tribe’s property, given the way the city handled their own downtown development.” 

Stone is not happy with the downtown redevelopment project.

“I think the hotel is a scar on the landscape. It will always be that,” he said. “If you look at the very first building near Tahquitz (Canyon Way) and Palm Canyon (Drive), that building which will house the Starbucks, that’s exactly the scale we were promised: It’s single story; it’s a tall building, and it’s a nice addition to the neighborhood. Then you look at these other buildings, and they’re horrible. It’s better than what we had, because what we had was terrible, but it’s so much less than what we deserved.”

What does the city need to do to be more transparent? Well, here’s where that conspiracy theory part comes in.

“The first thing that we can do is elect me,” Stone said with a laugh. “I also want to talk about where we’re headed if the Lisa (Middleton) and Christy (Holstege) train pulls into the station: We are going to be doing old-school Chicago politics with Councilmember Geoff Kors in the role of Mayor Richard Daley. We’re going have two people seated solely because of the support and the campaign management and campaign contributions that came from a sitting councilmember. Lisa’s campaign is being run by Geoff Kors’ husband. … They are the chosen two—so Geoff Kors will have the two votes he needs if they are seated, and then all bets are off, because it’ll be government by Geoff Kors, for Geoff Kors and about Geoff Kors. If you think that those two women are going to do anything to oppose what he wants, you’re too naive to be talking to—because that’s what we’re going to get, and that’s very troubling, because that’s not good for democracy.”

When I asked Stone whether he thinks the city is opposed to fun—a criticism some have made against the current City Council—his answer, much to my surprise, involved the ethnic makeup of the city.

“They are so not fun,” Stone said with a laugh. “Hell to the no on that! I’m sorry, but we have too many white people living in this town. I lived in San Francisco, and I’m used to living in a very diverse city where Caucasians were the minority. I was born and raised in Detroit, which was largely an African-American city. That’s the kind of demographic I’m used to. I’ve lived here full time for the past 12 years, so if you don’t mind me mixing metaphors: I know where the bodies are buried, and I can hit the decks running when I sit in that chair. I understand the demographic that lives here, because I’m a part of it, but I always wish there was more diversity in the community and diversity on our City Council. I’m sorry—I’m a white male, and I can’t help it.”

After our interview, he emailed me additional thoughts that were a bit more measured.

“Las Vegas has glitz, but Palm Springs has chill,” Stone said. “And chill is cool, sophisticated, and somewhat fragile. We can’t let (the city) be dragged into the vortex of beer bongs and guzzler helmets. So if the City Council may seem a bit stodgy on some points, I think it’s because they have an intuitive understanding of what makes our city special, and a commitment to maintaining it.”

Published in Politics

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.”

Published in Politics

Judy Deertrack is one of the loudest and most dedicated critics of the Palm Springs City Council—and it’s no surprise that she again decided to run for a council seat, after an unsuccessful run in 2013.

However, as a voice of opposition, Deertrack—who takes credit as one of the whistleblowers regarding the corruption scandal that led to the indictment of former Mayor Steve Pougnet—is often criticized as being “against” everything and not in favor of much. Deertrack said she’s aware of the criticism—but said her tone is necessary, because the city faces a danger of bankruptcy, and few people are acknowledging the dark cloud hanging over Palm Springs.

When I met with her at her campaign headquarters, she provided photocopies of various information related to the city budget and Measure J—a 1 percent sales and use tax approved by voters in 2011 that was slated to go toward city services, maintenance and redevelopment. The attorney and urban planning consultant has been one of the most vocal voices against the downtown redevelopment project; in fact, she told me she has a storage locker full of this information.

On the subject of homelessness, Deertrack said the problem is due to a lack of affordable housing. She said that the city’s homelessness task force has not been effective and that the city is not devoted to resolving the homelessness issue.

“This is not just a city problem; it’s a state problem,” Deertrack said. “The state is behind in almost 1 million affordable housing units across the state. It’s a crisis at this point. There are multiple causes, but certainly one of them was the loss in redevelopment funding. I’ve looked at housing throughout the valley, and the city of Palm Springs appears to be behind the other cities significantly. There hasn’t been a unit of affordable housing in this city (built) in over a decade.”

As for the new restrictions on vacation rentals, Deertrack mentioned a ballot initiative coming in the summer of 2018 that may decide the fate of vacation rentals—and added that residential zoning laws already define how to handle vacation rentals.

“The primary restriction is set by state law. It’s also set by local law in the general plan update—a general plan that takes years of work with the community working directly with their elected officials to come up with a long term vision for growth and development,” Deertrack said. “One of the first principles of residential development set by zoning laws in the state of California and all across the country is that residential zoning is primarily for residential use of a home for noncommercial purpose, with the outcome to be neighborhood peace and quiet. If you want to put in any type of commercial use, it can only be permitted under state law if you can demonstrate that by adding that … you are not creating a disturbance or not undermining the residential designation. This has been horrifically violated over time, and we have districts over in Warm Sands where you have residential zones … now with major noise problems. I support the people’s vote on it.”

Regarding affordable housing, Deertrack again said the city needs follow its own ordinances and plans.

“There’s a housing plan (city officials) committed themselves to that they abandoned,” she said. “If we do not follow the laws, there needs to be a state audit of the funds in the city, and the state needs to come in with some oversight. Following the general plan would the major part. Bringing in the state oversight due to lack of compliance—part of the problem with that is a good part of California is out of compliance. But I don’t think (other cities) are out of compliance as seriously as this city is.”

Transparency has been one of the key issues in Deertrack’s campaign—and she almost seemed offended when I asked her about it.

“Do you know who you’re asking here?” Deertrack said. “… It’s very unfortunate. We got something (in the downtown redevelopment project) that is five to six times the height and density of what was advertised to pass Measure J. What happened is that they passed a bond issuance a year after Measure J was passed, where they issued $47 million to (now-indicted developer John) Wessman; $42 million went to the project; $11 million that was for the parking structure; and $32 million went into a private escrow account for Mr. Wessman with no auditing powers. To date, when a public request goes into the city, they indicate that they have no powers to check whether the money is there, how it has been used, and what portion of it is remaining.”

Deertrack said she has the experience to maintain good relations with the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

“I’ve worked in tribal affairs for over 13 to 15 years in the Taos Pueblo tribal government. My late husband was full-blooded Taos Pueblo,” she said. “I was in a culture where there were 2,000 tribal people, and there were seven non-native people, and I was one of those seven. I lived in the tribe’s restricted area during that entire period. It took years for them to build trust, and it took me years to build confidence and sensitivity to tribal issues, because there is a huge cultural gap. But I’ve had extensive training in tribal sovereignty, and I have enormous respect for tribal culture. We have tribes here that have acted as guardians of this land throughout the millenniums, and I do not intend to see us tear that to pieces.”

The success or failure of the downtown redevelopment project did not seem to be something Deertrack cares about; instead, she expressed concern about the finances of the project.

“Mr. Wessman gets 100 percent of the profits as it stands and gets 100 percent of the ownership value,” she said. “What he did was took the income-producing lots, and got a 75 percent rebate on bed tax over 30 years, which is unheard of. The problem with a project like that is that no one has any information as to the underlying financial structure of it.”

Deertrack said the FBI public corruption task force has a 90 percent conviction rate.

“This isn’t a popular thing to do, but it’s a very necessary thing to do, and I’ve been relentless on this,” she said. “The indictments (include) the names of nine to 12 people who were trading information. Some were on the Planning Commission, and some were on the City Council. … The scandal hasn’t been addressed or touched in this town, and you have a candidate on the Planning Commission who is running, and no one is talking about this. Every person on that Planning Commission should have, when they knew someone was influencing their vote outside of the public-hearing process, had an ethical and legal responsibility to go to the city attorney and report misconduct, or go to the district attorney.”

When I asked her about claims by some that the City Council seems opposed to fun, Deertrack managed to steer even that question toward the downtown corruption scandal.

“They’ve taken the fun out of my life for the past three years,” Deertrack said with a laugh. “They’re pretty protective of the city’s party environment and its diversity. We have an extraordinary level of public events here, and it’s the strength of this town. We do know how to party, and I have a background as a vocalist in Broadway and in opera, and I go out and sing all over town—restaurants, private parties, assisted living, and it’s part of my donated time. That is the one thing we all have in common. We all need to clean up the other things, because (they’ve) created a dark cloud. There’s an imminent threat of bankruptcy in this city, and nothing is going to stop the party faster than that, so we better attend to this business.”

Published in Politics

Henry Hampton wants you to know that Palm Springs is the city where he grew up—and that he believes in its future.

Hampton, a real estate agent, has spent a good portion of his campaign fending off claims that because he’s a Republican, he’s a Trump-loving conservative. Hampton’s response: He said he’s conservative on fiscal issues while being liberal on social issues. He has stated he does not agree with Trump on immigration and that he did not vote for the man who became the 45th president; he’s said his views fit in well with Palm Springs values.

On the subject of homelessness, Hampton said the logistics and locations of services are all wrong

“I’ve done the most research on homelessness than any other thing,” Hampton said. “I actually participated in the time and point count, which is the mechanism that determines how many people are homeless in your community. The numbers have gone up a bit, but realistically, the police department has told me there are 80 solid individuals out there on the streets. These 80 individuals—they don’t really want the option out of homelessness. But you need to have a mechanism that allows people to get into that scenario to get out of it.

“Homelessness is a geographic and geocentric issue. It really has a lot to do with services. … Behind Revivals, there’s a food bank, and wherever there are going to be services, that’s where the homeless are going to congregate. Honestly, I think the city’s model for dealing with the homeless issue—it’s been flawed from the get-go. Roy’s (Resource Center, which closed earlier this year) was a good thing, but it was near the freeway, and 40 percent of the budget was spent on transportation, so it was flawed. We don’t have a rapid shelter. The idea (for a new shelter) now is a former fire department on Dillon Road, which is further out! Honestly, I think one of the best ideas is to have services that are all located in one spot, such as job placement, mental health, food, clothing, rapid rehousing and quick shelter.”

Hampton said he believes the new vacation-rentals ordinance is effective enough.

“The ordinance that we have on the books in Palm Springs was crafted after so many conversations, so many iterations of what was right and wrong—and the community got together and put input in those discussions. Right now, we have an ordinance that doesn’t make everybody happy, but it works,” he said. “It limits them, because one person can only have one vacation rental; it grandfathered in the people who have more than one, but the biggest thing that it did was put teeth in the enforcement and took the enforcement away from the rental company. (Enforcement now) is a city employee who shows up and says, ‘Your partying way too loud, and it doesn’t work.’ Somebody gets cited; they get cited three times, and a fine comes down, and you lose your permit. I’ve seen this play out, and they have what I call ‘Vacation Rental Court.’ It is a day-long exercise of fine appointed commissioners who are like jurors and people who signed up to deal with this issue, and they are like, ‘Here’s what you did. You didn’t have a permit; you are advertising online,’ and it’s pretty serious where people are getting fined. There are teeth in the ordinance, but there weren’t before; it was just an ordinance on the books.”

On the subject of affordable housing, Hampton said the problem is significant, because many jobs in the city are in tourism-related industries that do not pay all that well, and the city is home to a lot of seniors on fixed income.

“What can we do to make sure these seniors aren’t pushed out? You don’t want to push a senior out on the streets,” he said. “There are (apartments), but they are all rented out. So let’s come up with incentives for developers to come in here and, on the few remaining parcels that happen to be left, offer some kind of incentive so they can build apartments into our housing stock and provide housing opportunities for the people who work here. I think that’s important.”

Like most of the other candidates, Hampton feels the city website is next to impossible to navigate.

“Transparency was a word that was coined in the last election cycle a couple of years ago,” Hampton said. “Where are we now? I still don’t really think we’ve progressed anywhere from where we were two years ago. Yeah, the budget is online now; you can see it, and it’s a lot easier to understand it, so that’s good. But I think that Measure J—the website for that could be updated. It’s hard to get around, and when I started campaigning, I was looking on there for where meetings were and this or that, and you couldn’t find what you were looking for. Creating an online presence for Measure J would be a lot more transparent for someone who works and doesn’t have time to be at a Measure J meeting. That’s taxpayer dollars, and everyone wants to know where they’re going.”

Hampton said he would be the best candidate to ensure the relationship between the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the city remains strong.

“When I grew up here, the tribal council had a very strong relationship with the city government. (Former Chairman) Richard Milanovich was the go-to man for the tribe. There has to be a relationship with the tribe. I come from a background and a generation of kids who grew up here, and those kids are running the tribal council right now—people like (current Chairman) Jeff Grubbe and (Secretary/Treasurer) Vincent Gonzales. These are guys who went to high school at the same time I did. I think there’s definitely an opportunity for someone like myself to have conversations with these people. I am absolutely open for it. The tribe was here first, and we were here second. We have to come to an agreement on things in this town.”

Hampton is a fan of the downtown redevelopment project.

“I remember when the only thing going on down there was Hamburger Hamlet,” he said with a laugh. “We’d go on Sundays and have burgers. There was a California Pizza Kitchen right next to it, and that went away, then Hamburger Hamlet went away, and then there was nothing. For me to see Blaze Pizza—I take my kids to Blaze Pizza once a week, and they love it; it’s fantastic.

“I like what’s going on there. All these hotels wouldn’t be signing up to have a hotel in downtown Palm Springs if they didn’t think they could fill the rooms.”

Hampton said the corruption scandal was devastating to the city.

“This is a heartbreaking story for most people, because everybody was behind (now-indicted former Mayor) Steve Pougnet from the get-go,” Hampton said. “My parents were really involved in helping him to get elected the first time. Most people would probably agree that he brought Palm Springs up to the levels we’re experiencing today. When I came back in 2014, during that whole corruption-scandal thing, it was like getting kicked in the stomach. Watching the FBI come into your City Hall is also like getting kicked in the stomach. But transparency is lacking, and I think a lot of people are tuned out and don’t have that opportunity (to find out what the city is doing). Most people don’t want to sit in at a City Council meeting from 6 to 11:30 p.m. People want to be heard but can’t speak on anything on the agenda until 11:30 p.m. What is that? That’s crazy to me. Transparency is this,” he said as he pointed to his cell phone. “It’s about being able to see it and it being instantaneous. We need to bring it up to a level so everyone can see it.”

When I asked him whether he thinks the Palm Springs City Council is opposed to fun—a criticism leveled by some in recent years—he gave a serious and matter-of-fact response.

“I think what council members are going to do is look at the issue of liability and concern,” he said.

Published in Politics

Glenn Flood told me at the beginning of our phone interview that one of his favorite words is “transparency.”

The Navy veteran and former Pentagon employee—who has run, by far, the lowest-profile campaign of the six candidates on the Palm Springs City Council ballot—said he was aware of how to deal with waste in government agencies.

“Any bureaucracy or government institution—you look at places at where there’s waste, fraud and abuse,” Flood said. “… When it comes to fraud, you have to weed it out. People are using equipment for things they shouldn’t or when they shouldn’t, and you have to cut that out. Waste, abuse and fraud are things I would look at. If you start at the little things, you find out that the little things turn into big things. People at City Hall might be doing something they don’t realize is waste, fraud and abuse—and you have to nip it in the bud before it becomes a big scandal.”

On the issue of homelessness, said the city needs to take a realistic approach.

“It’s a problem in the city, but it’s not just a Palm Springs issue; it’s a nationwide epidemic of people who are out on the streets,” Flood said. “I know the city has a homelessness task force, and if I were elected, I would take a hard look at that, and I’d want to know if they have any concrete proposals on the table. If they don’t, I’d put some on there relating to some of the vacant buildings in the community for those who want to have shelter. We also have to realize we can’t help all of the homeless and lump (them all) into one bag thinking that (one solution) applies to everyone. There are some people out there who never want to come in off the streets, and there are some who have mental issues; some are strung out on drugs, and some are out there because of the economic situations of the times.”

On the subject of vacation rentals, Flood said the existing rules and regulations don’t go far enough.

“From what the people in the community tell me, it doesn’t have enough teeth in it,” Flood said. “We need to make sure that it has enforcement and that it has teeth. If you say that you’re going to get rid of the bad apples, and that it’s ‘three strikes and you’re out,’ you have to be out.

“I don’t believe we should have short-term rentals in residential areas. If you want to run a hotel, get into the area where there are hotels.”

Flood said he’s noticed there is not a lot of moderate- and low-income housing in Palm Springs. He believes developers need to provide plans for affordable housing as their other projects are approved.

“The developers have come into Palm Springs. You’ve probably noticed some construction going on, and they’re building new homes, and they’re starting at some really high prices based on the signage they’re putting up on the developments,” Flood said. “I think we should talk to the development companies who want to come in and build these high-class homes, which are fine and good. At the same time, you have to understand there’s a need for moderate- and low-income housing, so we need to do something to work out a deal with them to build that. We have some vacant lots and land around town; maybe we can convert some of those. I see these buildings that used to be hotels, and maybe we could convert those to some moderate- to low-income housing. We need to look at that with a high priority, and I’m going to do that if I’m elected.”

Flood said the best way to deal with transparency is to be out in the community, making sure people are engaged.

“The people I’ve talked to feel like they have not been represented,” Flood said. “They want someone in there who is going to be fair, honest and give them information as to how their tax dollars are being spent.”

While working for the Pentagon, Flood had some experience in talking to Native American tribes, he said—an important qualification for a new council member to ensure that the relationship with Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians remains intact.

“When I worked at the Pentagon, I worked on base closures. That’s like a four-letter word to some communities, especially back during the ’90s,” Flood said. “Members of Congress would say, ‘Yeah, close the bases—except the ones in my district!’ I would go out into the communities and talk to the people who were impacted by the bases closing, and the fewer jobs that would be in the community. I reached out to all of the people, including tribes in areas when I was in Oklahoma, Texas and even in California. We’d reach out to them and say, ‘What can you do with this land that might be vacant after the military leaves?’ They’d come in and had ideas. In Palm Springs, we need communication, and we need to get out of here and talk to these people. Native Americans have been here since before we got here. Let’s bring trust to the table and open the conversation. We can’t control what they do, but we can put our interests across and work on it. I think communication is key.”

Flood is not a fan of the redevelopment project in downtown Palm Springs. He said he was surprised when he moved here and saw it being built.

“I asked, ‘How did this get approved?’” Flood said. “It looked like the rules were bent to get those buildings so close to the street. There isn’t much of a walkway, and that’s what you see when you walk in downtown Palm Springs. The downtown needed to be redeveloped, but I don’t see us having to do this continuously like the way it’s being done, and I will make sure we don’t do it that way again. I’m for growth, but for smart growth, and in the right places. We don’t need buildings that get started and then not finished like this monstrosity on Alejo (Road) and Indian Canyon (Drive). It’s just sitting there, and it’s an eyesore. If a developer wants to start a project, we make sure the developer has the money upfront and that they’re going to submit a plan to the council that can be approved.”

The city has been criticized by some, including the Cactus Hugs website, for being opposed to fun. What does Flood think of the accusation?

“One thing I’ve been telling people is that if I’m elected, I’m going to make sure Palm Springs stays safe, friendly, affordable, honest and fun,” he said. “The fun part is in there, and I want to make sure the people who come here and live here continue to have fun in this city. It’s a great city, and that’s why I’m here. I don’t want to take the fun out of Palm Springs. Let Palm Springs be Palm Springs.”

Published in Politics

As the youngest candidate running this year for the Palm Springs City Council, Christy Holstege says she has a lot to offer.

When I met with her at her campaign headquarters, she said the city needed to move forward, and added that as a millennial, she can relate to the younger people trying to start businesses in Palm Springs.

Holstege has extensive knowledge and experience in dealing with the local homeless community as an attorney. She’s served on the boards of Well in the Desert and the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition, and is a member of the City of Palm Springs Homelessness Task Force.

“Homelessness is a crisis that’s affecting cities nationwide,” Holstege said. “Affordable housing is a crisis, especially in California, with (the state) only having a third of the housing stock that we need to house people. We haven’t had any affordable housing built in Palm Springs in 10 years. The waiting lists for the two affordable-housing units in Palm Springs are three years long.

“I think we’re talking about homelessness the wrong way. It’s a complicated issue, and there are different groups of people who are homeless, and there are different problems and solutions for each one. We’re never going to solve homelessness, and I’ve heard some of the other candidates say, ‘I’m going to solve homelessness!’ Homelessness has always existed, and we can never completely solve it; no city has ever done that in the history of the world. We need permanent supportive housing; the data shows the ‘housing first’ model works. There’s a lot of research and are successful models out there, so we just need to adopt them in Palm Springs. We need to create incentives and recruit nonprofits that do this work and build permanent supportive housing in Palm Springs.”

Regarding vacation rentals, she said the current restrictions and regulations are effective—but only as long as they are being enforced.

“It’s a city-created problem in a number of ways, because we failed to enforce (regulations) on vacation rentals and waited until it was almost too late, and there was backlash from residents and neighbors,” she said. “I don’t think our city did enough strategic planning for the future. I supported the new (vacation-rentals) ordinance, because I think the prior problem was a lack of enforcement. The ordinance has teeth and puts an emphasis on enforcement and reasonable regulations against the bad actors.”

Holstege said both affordable housing and a mixed economy are important.

“We need to grow and diversify our economy and grow and diversify our housing market; that way, one can make a living and afford to live in Palm Springs,” she said. “I see that directly affecting our economy, our work force, our city’s diversity and the ability to have families. I’m one of the only candidates who actually works to make a living in Palm Springs, and as a younger person, it’s difficult to afford a house. My husband is born and raised third-generation in Palm Springs, and most people our age … are moving out of Palm Springs because they can’t afford to live here. I’m concerned about what it’s going to look like here in five years if we’re losing out on people who work and have families.”

When I asked her about ethics and transparency, she—like other candidates—noted that information can be hard to find on the city website. She said the city also needs to implement the suggestions of the ethics, transparency and government-reform task force.

“I think we have a lot of work to do on ethics and transparency to regain the public trust after the FBI raid and ongoing criminal investigation, and (the criminal investigation) is for the courts to decide,” she said. “As a candidate, I’m not going to talk about guilt or innocence, even though other candidates are doing that, and I find it concerning. But I support the ethics and transparency government reforms that the task force spent a year working on. I believe we need to implement them right away. It’s a big issue with our city, because we don’t do a great job of updating the public and sharing information.”

Holstege said that as an attorney, she took an oath to be ethical. She also said it’s important to look forward, not backward.

“I’ve made ethics and transparency part of my platform; it should be part of any elected official’s (platform), and we need good ethical leaders for our city,” Holstege said. “We have work to do as a city to improve our oversight and transparency. We’re going to have a new council, a new vision for Palm Springs, and we’ll be moving forward into the future. I really want to talk about the future of our city and what we can do to build together in the next four years—that’s really exciting. I don’t want to spend the next four years of a potential term rehashing things that will be decided by the legal system. People are ready for it to be in the past. We had the transparency election in 2015; we’ve had this conversation, and a lot of us are ready to say mistakes were made. It’s a big issue; it was a big issue for that elected official (Pougnet) which will be decided by a court of law, and we need to improve our transparency processes.”

Holstege called the relationship between the city and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians complex—and said that it needs to improve.

“It’s a partnership, and I think we’ve waxed and waned our relationship with the tribe over the past few decades,” she said. “The relationship has been more strained than it has been in the past. In the past, it seemed we worked together better. We need more collaboration. That starts with reaching out to the tribe, and it starts with respect of the tribe (being a) sovereign entity that doesn’t follow the rules we set for our city. They could build anything they want, essentially, so we need to work together. My concern is that we have two separate entities doing their own thing independently.”

Love it or hate it, the downtown development is here to stay, Holstege said, adding that it’s time to help the property be successful.

“Mistakes were made in the downtown development,” she said. “The developer and the city admitted they messed up and set it way too close to the street—10 to 15 feet too close. That’s a problem when people complain about the height, and part of the problem is it’s just too close to the street. Generally, I think it’s exciting and a good thing for our city and the local economy. I’m glad that it’s going to be finished and up and running soon. I think that will be a huge boon to our city. Too often in Palm Springs, we have a vocal minority that tries to take over the conversation, and they’re extremely negative. It’s easy to be negative about something; it’s easy to criticize, and criticism is cheap. What’s harder is pointing out positive aspects and creating real solutions. I’m really excited there’s going to be retail, because I want to spend my money on things a working professional in this city needs, like shoes, clothes and makeup. We really do need more retail in Palm Springs.”

In recent years, the City Council has been accused of being opposed to fun, as it has enacted roadblocks to food trucks, murals and other cultural things appreciated in other cities. Holstege agreed that the Palm Springs City Council needs to lighten up and allow more innovative new forms of fun into the city.

“I think we’re an incredibly fun city, and we’re the funnest city in the Coachella Valley,” she said. I think millennials and young people are drawn to Palm Springs in particular. I personally live here because it’s fun and I like the downtown, I like the energy, and I like the vibe. But I think sometimes our council doesn’t always have the voices of people who want to have other types of fun. It’s a problem with diversity on our council. We don’t have any young people. I think our youngest council person is 56, so I think it’s a problem: We’re not having fun in ways that are new and innovative, especially as technology evolves.”

Published in Politics

John Wessman was a mighty developer, known for his lucrative deals across the Coachella Valley—and his significant influence at Palm Springs City Hall.

The high point of his career was supposed to be the Palm Springs downtown revitalization project, currently estimated by experts at $350 million in value.

Today, however, Wessman is better known for being indicted on numerous counts of alleged bribery involving former Mayor Steve Pougnet—and involving that downtown development project.

Wessman effectively retired upon the indictment and is not talking to the media. So, in an attempt to find out the latest news regarding the downtown development project—which has benefitted from millions of dollars from Palm Springs taxpayers via Measure J—we reached out to city officials, all of whom still publically support the downtown project. We started by trying to talk to Mayor Robert Moon.

We received this response from Amy Blaisdell, the city’s communications director: “Mayor Moon asked me to reach out to you regarding your request for an interview. He and the other councilmembers along with the city manager will not be granting interviews at this time regarding the investigation and recent indictments.”

This was a lie: Three weeks later, Robert Moon, City Manager David Ready and City Councilman J.R. Roberts sat down for a chat with KMIR.

In any case, we reached out to Judy Deertrack, a local urban lawyer and activist. She is a land and government-affairs consultant, and a legal specialist in land-use law. She is a Palm Springs resident and has lived and worked in the Coachella Valley since 2004. Here’s an edited version of our chat.

Let’s dig in from scratch: When did the trouble start brewing with the Palm Springs downtown project?

The problem with the downtown plan is that it was processed as … a relatively modest redevelopment project for the Desert Fashion Plaza that involved demolition and renovation.

How was Measure J entangled with the downtown project?

In early 2012, the state of California (ended cities’) redevelopment powers and financing, but the city went on to enlarge this project anyway, and financed it with a municipal bond issuance for $47 million that is paid back through Measure J funds at $3.3 million per year for about 25 years.

What was Wessman’s cut in the whole deal?

Since the original release of $47 million in 2012, change orders, (the) purchase of the event center lot, and its proposed approvals have added about another $20 million. Wessman has also gotten an additional $150 million in hotel subsidies coming to him through a bed-tax rebate. This project originally did not anticipate hotels. That is inching toward a quarter-billion in subsidies.

Has the $47 million been spent by Wessman, and has it been spent solely on capital improvements?

No one knows, but $32 million went into a private escrow account owned by Wessman for this project, and the city claims it has no access to know the status of that account currently.

How did the city of Palm Springs end up in such a mess?

I can’t in a few words give an exact story of what happened. Suffice to say, the permits started going through as project finance agreements rather than engineered diagrams. The city and Wessman kept the conceptual plans fairly private and vague enough that the dimensions could be changed at will, and there was no clear planning process in sight. A lot of this bypassed public hearings, except for the hotels.

So Wessman was also given a lot of freedom?

There appeared to be no upper limits … because the city used and abused the planned development permit (PDD). The specific plan set limits on height… and setbacks, and bulk, and floor-area ratio. Then the PDD took those limits away.

Is it possible the city violated any significant regulations and laws?

California’s environmental-review laws say that when cities set limits in their general plan and specific plan, it creates an environmental threshold for impacts, and when they build in excess of those limits, violating the threshold is a “significant environmental effect” that creates the need for further data, evaluation, public hearings and mitigation of project impacts.

How exactly did the city get away with such inconsistencies?

Palm Springs exceeded the limits of its plan on downtown, and then concluded there was no significant environmental effect of doing so—and made what I consider to be false findings that the project “was consistent and in conformity” with the general plan and specific plan, when, in fact, using the PDD and the project finance agreements to set the project development standards and requirements was a violation of those mechanisms.

The resulting “inconsistency” between the project and the specific plan is why in January 2016, the new City Council went back in and re-did about 50 percent of the wording of the specific plan to eliminate all of the outstanding inconsistencies. It was a major cleanup—but is not allowed in the state of California. A plan cannot be later amended to conform to illegal approvals that violate the plan.

It appears that the whole downtown affair is far from over.

Well, the original specific plan is lost to time and many, many changes. All of this occurred during an alleged racketeering scheme between the mayor (Pougnet) and the developer where the mayor, in the words of District Attorney (Michael) Hestrin, was paid to influence the vote of a majority of the sitting City Council. And no matter what was happening, and how illegal the permit processing became, there was always a majority vote—and tremendous pressure put on the architectural and planning commission boards to pass this project up and along, not on evidence, but on influence.

There were some attempts by the city to clean up the mess, correct?

That awful specific plan cleanup … in January 2016 was the tail wagging the dog! … The city over time absolutely bastardized the development restrictions on this project, and now City Hall is bragging they have cut the size by 49 percent. How unique! This sounds like a retail fire sale where the prices are increased 100 percent, and then cut back 50 percent, and we are told we just got a bargain.

What can be done to remedy this downtown quagmire?

This city and its citizens should be demanding change—a lot of change—and a lot of explanation for what has happened. Instead, we are allowing ourselves to be bullied and hoodwinked. The citizens of Palm Springs have been far too compliant with this outrage. Part of the problem is that no one is demanding information. Virtually no one is challenging the inconsistencies and untruths that abound on the public record. Just a few have stood up—too few!

If you were on the City Council, what would you do?

It is an obligation of the sitting City Council to first order a full accounting of expenditures and funds from Wessman on the project to date. Then, audit all accounts, and confer with the state of California on compromised public funds, such as municipal bonds or subsidies. Identify notification responsibilities to the bond-holders. The city has not acknowledged these obligations to date.

Published in Local Issues

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is at a crossroads.

The tribe, which has some 32,000 acres of land across Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and outlying areas, is making big plans for its prime downtown Palm Springs real estate. Meanwhile, the tribe is involved in a controversial lawsuit against the valley’s two largest water agencies over control of the area’s water rights.

In addition, tribal leadership, with Chairman Jeff Grubbe at the helm, is preparing for an uncertain future that includes online gambling—which may or may not hurt the tribe’s casino revenues.

The late Richard Milanovich (1942-2012) reigned as the tribal chairman for 28 years, during which he placed winning bets on the gambling industry. He led his people from obscurity to become the first Native American tribe in California to own and operate two major casinos—Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs, and Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa in Rancho Mirage.

The Tribe’s 480 members significantly benefit from the casinos. “There’s a direct per-capita payment to all tribal members, both minors and adults,” Milanovich told me in a 2003 interview.

Milanovich was a brilliant speaker and a clever leader who was always open to the media. However, Grubbe is a different kind of leader. He’s not media-savvy like his predecessor was, and prefers to lead from the background.

The current Tribal Council consists of familiar names. Grubbe’s close childhood friend, Vincent Gonzales III (whose aunt Barbara Gonzales was a tribal chairman) is the secretary and treasurer. Tribal councilmember Anthony Andreas III needs no introduction; after all, Andreas Canyon is named after his family. The vice chair, Larry Olinger, 78, is the oldest councilmember; the youngest is Richard’s son, Reid Milanovich, at 32.

Grubbe, who was elected to the council in 2006 and became chairman after Richard Milanovich’s passing in 2012, recently granted the Independent a rare interview. He recalled an occasion at what was then the Wyndham Hotel in Palm Springs when Richard Milanovich “threw him in the fire” to test his mettle.

“It was one of the first times I spoke publicly for the tribe,” Grubbe said. “Richard called me and said he wanted me to speak instead of him, and to welcome everybody to the tribal reservation at this conference. He said it’d be about 20 people.”

When Grubbe got there, he realized there were actually 500 people present.

“I started my opening remarks with how Richard had just pulled an Indian trick on me,” Grubbe said. “Later, Richard told me that I did great, and that at some point, I’d have to talk, anyway.”

During his first stint as governor, Jerry Brown appointed Grubbe’s grandfather, Lawrence Pierce, to the state Water Quality Control Board. Today, Grubbe said, the tribe enjoys a positive and a solid relationship with the governor.

“Gov. Brown has been good to us, and he respected us,” Grubbe said. “I’d been close to the governor. We had dinners a few times, and we talked several times.”

The tribe is presently pursuing two hefty lawsuits, regarding water rights and taxes.

Grubbe said he could not talk about the lawsuits. “But the water issue is that the aquifer is overused, and the quality of the water dumped in is low,” he said. “And for some reason, both the (Coachella Valley) Water District and the (Desert) Water Agency refused to hear our concerns. So we had to address the issue.”

The water litigation is ongoing.

As for the tax lawsuit: Riverside County assesses and collects a possessory interest tax from leaseholders on tribal lands in the valley. In a sense, the tax is a replacement for a property tax. Tribe spokeswoman Kate Anderson claims those taxes are not returned to the valley in the form of services, but are primarily used elsewhere in Riverside County. The tax lawsuit is also ongoing.

From time to time, tribal leadership gets criticized for a lack of transparency.

“I think that is not necessarily true. The tribe has been open, and it continues to be open,” he said. “I just spoke at a Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce meeting before 300 people—local and state officials, business owners and community leaders—and talked about what the is tribe working on. Sometimes, when the tribe does something that certain groups don’t like, they throw in that the tribe is not open enough.”

The tribe has plans for a new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum building on Tahquitz Canyon Way in Palm Springs. However, the tribe wants the community to chip in to help with the $65 million capital campaign.

“It’s a tough job to raise the money for it,” Grubbe said. “My mom’s been on the (Cultural) Museum Board for years. I’ve been talking to the mayor and a couple of City Council members in hopes that the city could possibly get involved, too.”

Grubbe addressed the relationship with the city of Palm Springs, considering the two governments need to exist side by side.

“I try to meet with the mayor nearly every month or so,” Grubbe said. “And there are two new City Council members, Geoff Kors and J.R. Roberts, who seem interested in talking and working with us. But Ginny Foat said some negative comments about us in the newspaper.”

I also asked Foat about her comments, made to The Desert Sun last year, during which she was quoted as saying she “would never do anything on Indian land.”

“I didn’t say what was in the paper,” Foat said. “They took my quote totally out of context. I didn’t say anything negative about the tribe and tribal land.”

Grubbe also talked about former Mayor Steve Pougnet and the current federal investigation of him and the city of Palm Springs.

“We’ve been very careful not to get involved with anything that will put the tribe in danger,” Grubbe said. “I always thought that the mayor (Pougnet) did some good things for the city, and I had no idea about all these other things. I still don’t know what’s going on, and the tribe does not deal with those kinds of things. We’re far removed from it.”

Of course, everyone in the area is curious about the goings-on around the Spa Resort Casino in downtown Palm Springs. Grubbe and the other tribal members have thus far been tight-lipped regarding their plans, although he did offer some hints about what is to come.

“We’re excited about the plans and design for the new downtown hotel, about the style of the rooms, etc.,” Grubbe said.

According to Grubbe, the old Spa Resort hotel had to be torn down because of errors made when the building was constructed in the 1960s. He cited a poorly designed and located entrance as an example.

“We’re looking for possibilities to have a new hotel with an entrance from Indian Canyon (Drive),” Grubbe said. “We’re talking to our membership about all these ideas. We want to build something special to redefine the downtown.”

Tom Davis, the chief planning and development officer who’s been with the tribe since 1992, offered yet more hints. He said it was possible the tribe could construct two hotels downtown.

“I expect that sometime this year, the tribe will come up with a certain architectural plan for a spa development, and perhaps some type of a boutique hotel,” Davis said.

Davis also said the tribe expects the city to return the street portions of Calle Encilia and Andreas Road to the tribe.

“This is consistent with the Section 14 master plan and the existing agreements with the city,” Davis said.

Grubbe—a former football jock who stands tall at 6 foot 2 inches—also addressed the current lack of women on the tribal council.

“We’re a very democratic tribe,” he said. “We have a strong presence of women at our tribal meetings, and they tell us exactly how they feel. In the past, we had an all-female tribal council. We don’t have any women running now for the council, but I’m sure it’ll change.”

Published in Local Issues

A bottle, perhaps two, of Barolo might have helped cost the city of Palm Springs a fortune.

The Italian red wine was served during a meeting in 2010 between Steve Pougnet, then Palm Springs’ mayor, and developer John Wessman. Before the meeting, Pougnet had publicly talked about filing eminent-domain proceedings against Wessman’s Desert Fashion Plaza—which the developer had kept largely empty for almost a decade.

The following day, at the State of the City luncheon, Pougnet announced a deal with Wessman and a “new downtown vision that will benefit all of Palm Springs and the valley.”

The bond between Pougnet and Wessman grew after that. The mayor was hired to work for the Palm Springs International Film Festival—which has long included Wessman as a board member and vice chair. IRS records show that the Palm Springs International Film Society, the nonprofit that runs the festival, paid Pougnet $37,500 in the fiscal year 2011-2012, while Wessman Development Co. was paid $90,638 for building rent.

That was not the first time Pougnet and Wessman would find their financial interests linked.

In 2012, according to public records, Wessman purchased a property at the foot of the Tramway Road for $1.1 million. The property, known as Pedregal, was once owned by developer Dennis Cunningham, who lost the development. In addition, the City Council, led by Pougnet, awarded Wessman $4 million that Cunningham owed in bonds on the property.

The high-profile FBI raid of Palm Springs City Hall on Sept. 1, 2015, gathered documents and other evidence regarding Pougnet’s deals with developers, including Wessman. But beyond the ongoing scrutiny and the corruption probe, Wessman finds himself busier than ever.


Despite his high profile, Wessman remains an enigma: Not much is known about the man himself. His age is even hard to pin down; a Palm Springs Life article from May 1980 said he was 40 then; if accurate, that would make Wessman now 76 or so.

Wessman—who did not directly respond to requests to speak to the Independent—grew up on a farm in Hemet, surrounded by his six brothers and Swedish-born parents. As a teen, he worked in construction and never finished a college.

In 1964, he was employed by a construction company owned by Warren Coble and Arthur Press. A year later, Wessman bought out Press, and in 1972, he parted with Coble as well.

He’d soon develop one of the most unusual—and profitable—developing philosophies the valley has ever seen. In that aforementioned Palm Springs Life piece, he stated: “… I make more money from keeping property than I do by building and selling.”

The most prominent example of Wessman’s business strategy can be found smack-dab in the midst of downtown Palm Springs. It all started with the Desert Fashion Plaza, which he managed to keep largely vacant after purchasing it in 2001. Over the years, he held on to the property—and wore down many of his critics, a group that at one time included Pougnet.

Then in 2011, Palm Springs voters approved Measure J, a 1 percent increase in the city sales tax slated to be used on various city projects. Soon thereafter, the Palm Springs City Council, lead by Pougnet, opened the city’s wallets for Wessman Development Company.

“In the initial round,” said local real estate broker Robert Stone, “he got $32 million in public funds to help with the private improvements to the Desert Fashion Plaza parcel. It was simultaneously accompanied by another $11 million for streets, sidewalks and infrastructure improvements that are typically a developer expense.

“Then there were a bunch of change orders to the original giveaway,” Stone said. “When Wessman failed to provide adequate open space as required by the city’s specific plan for the site, the city bought a large parcel from him and made it permanent open space. They paid him $5.3 million for it, based on an appraised value which considered the value of the parcel if fully developed.”

One of the key elements of Wessman’s development is a Kimpton Hotel, rising quickly where the Fashion Plaza once was. However, Wessman has never built a hotel before.

“The 155-room Kimpton Hotel is our first hotel project,” said Michael Braun, the senior vice president at Wessman Development Co.

According to Braun, who’s also Wessman’s son in law, the Kimpton will be first new relevant large hotel in Palm Springs since 1988, when what is now the Renaissance was built.

Wessman recently announced plans to build yet another significant hotel downtown: a 150-room Virgin Hotel. Some opponents of Wessman’s project have expressed concerns about density, traffic and parking space for the proposed 69-foot-tall hotel. According to Braun, there is no problem.

“Based on current approvals, the downtown site has more parking spaces than required,” Braun said.

Another problem is the current occupancy rate for Palm Springs hotels, which is less than 60 percent. Additionally, other hotels may be built soon, including one by the Agua Caliente tribe on its downtown property.

Again, Braun said there was no problem. “You have to distinguish between various hotel-product offerings,” he said. “Palm Springs needs several new four-star products to attract a different tourist segment. The … occupancy rate is irrelevant, as it relates to all product offerings in Palm Springs.”

According to Judy Deertrack, a local urban lawyer, the downtown project morphed over time into something quite different than what was in the original plan.

“There has been no attempt at a market study or feasibility study since 2011, even though the project has grown from an expected $110 million in construction costs to its current estimate of $350 million,” Deertrack said.

“All the way through, the downtown development has shown a lack of public hearings and transparency, (and an) inappropriateness (in) the way the entitlements have gone through on the consent calendar and new business agenda without public notice, hearings and citizen review,” she said.

Over the years, Wessman has been associated with at least 44 companies, according to public records; 33 of the companies are still active.

“About five years ago, I did a search to find out how many parcels Wessman owns personally or in conjunction with other investors under his many DBAs,” Stone said. “At that time, he owned 135 properties in the valley. They were all commercial properties or unimproved land.”

Deertrack expressed serious concerns about the ongoing FBI investigation.

“The elephant in the room,” Deertrack said, “is the connection between the ongoing public corruption investigation, for possible fraud or undue influence, and the extraordinary entitlements granted to Wessman. The cities are prohibited from granting contracts or land entitlements to a developer or party who is a source of income to any City Council member, the mayor included.”

As for the FBI probe, Braun had only this to say: “It is company policy not to comment on any ongoing investigation.”


Meanwhile, Pougnet is no longer part of the City Council. While the new council slate seems to be keeping a more watchful eye on Wessman’s project, new Mayor Rob Moon said via email that construction will definitely continue.

“At our last City Council meeting, our council agreed unanimously that we were not content with continuing to ‘kick the can down the road’ on the downtown development. As I said at that meeting, further unnecessary delay is not fair to the developer, the residents, and certainly not to the downtown businesses who have been impacted by construction and the associated traffic, dust and noise. The council therefore stepped up to the task for which we are responsible, and we voted on each and every designated block and decided on height, density and setback for each of them.”

Moon said that while Wessman is currently planning to build two hotels, he has agreed not to build a third—at least not for a while.

“Wessman Development has agreed not to build a third hotel, currently described as a JC Marriott, until the members of the downtown hotel association have two years of occupancy over 62 percent,” Moon said. “That is a request made by the other hoteliers, which our Planning Commission has publicly supported, as well as the City Council. Nobody, least of all the other hotel owners, want to saturate the market.”

As for what Deertrack called the “elephant in the room”: What would happen to the city funds given to Wessman if he or Pougnet were ultimately prosecuted?

Moon said he did not know the answer to that question, and that he would forward the query to City Manager David Ready. Ready, in turn, forwarded the question to City Attorney Doug Holland.

“The developer’s obligations are secured by a performance deed of trust, and in the event the developer defaults on its obligations, the city has the right to exercise its rights under the performance deed of trust, and ultimately force a sale of the property for which financing has not been secured, and building permits have not been issued,” Holland said “This is the city’s primary enforcement tool.

“The city has acquired the parking structure and certain lots, and therefore, the payments for these assets would not be part of any default. Two properties have been released from the performance deed of trust (the Kimpton parcel on Block C-1 and the “West Elm” building on Block A) because these properties were fully financed, and building permits were issued. The remainder of the project is still subject to the performance deed of trust.

In other words … since the Kimpton and West Elm properties have been released, the city would have no real recourse regarding those parcels should criminal charges be filed.

Published in Local Issues

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