CVIndependent

Sun11172019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, Palm Springs residents living in the newly drawn Districts 1, 2 and 3 will head to the polls to elect three City Council members.

These elections are the first step in the city’s transition from at-large to district-based representation, to comply with the California Voting Rights Act. The changeover will be complete after the November 2020 election of council members in Districts 4 and 5.

(To see the newly drawn districts, visit www.palmspringsca.gov/government/city-clerk/election-general-municipal-election.)

Another change: The city will no longer have a directly elected mayor; instead, Palm Springs will join most other valley cities in designating a councilmember as mayor for a year on a rotating basis.

The Independent recently reached out to the three candidates running for the new District 3 seat. Both incumbent Geoff Kors and challenger Michael J. Dilger spoke with us at length, while candidate Alan Pettit declined to be interviewed.

Here are their complete answers, edited only slightly for style and clarity, presented in the order in which the candidates will appear on the ballot.


Michael J. Dilger, Gig Worker/Perennial Candidate (formerly ran for New York City mayor and Congress; his Twitter account says he’s a “Write-In Nonpartisan Candidate: The President of The United States of America”), 46 years old

What do you believe is the single most important and immediate issue facing the city of Palm Springs?

There are three things that I think need to be addressed: the security issues of Palm Springs, the “quality of life”—which includes the homelessness (situation) and the unfunded liabilities which amount to more than $300 million—and I’d like to include medicine and science. But for brevity, if I had to pick out the single most important issue facing Palm Springs, it would probably be the “quality of life”/security.

If you look at current trends across the United States, we live in a very polarized political environment that has cascading effects such as police officers being shot, citizens (being) antagonistic toward the police, and you see it manifested in other areas, too, because it’s like a trickle-down effect. So, it’s quality of life. “Quality of life” is the single most important issue facing Palm Springs. And, under “quality of life” come security, homelessness and economic viability. These are very complex issues. I know you want an answer that will just reduce it down to one thing, but I can’t do that, because they’re all intertwined.

But, if you’re asking me what would I do first if I’m elected to office, in the first 90 days, there are certain things I’d like to do. I believe in getting off on the right footing, and being very strong out there and doing a lot of things right away. So I’d like to talk to the police. As we move forward and evolve in the United States, we’re going to need new policing standards, because the old tactics are not going to work as effectively. Palm Springs is not a sleepy community any more. The big cities are growing larger, and policing in New York City now is not the same policing we had back in the 1970s. That wouldn’t be effective today, and what we’re doing right now is not going to be effective 10 years from now. The same goes for Palm Springs. So if you ask me what I would do in my first 90 days, I’d like to address a lot of key issues, like to talk to the police department and introduce new methodologies of policing. Then, I’d like to address the power structure of our community. You have underground power lines and above ground power lines, and yet you have entire blocks that are dark sometimes at around midnight. Now I know that some of these are planned outages, but a lot are unplanned, like when we have inclement weather, and for various other reasons, entire blocks just lose power. That’s not healthy during the summer; it’s not healthy really any time, and it’s just a very bad environment to have that. So I’ll work with the governor on that within my first 90 days.

Also, I want to help the homeless immediately, because you can’t have anyone just living on the street. Everyone talks about helping the homeless, but no one knows what to do. No one’s going to help. They need houses; they need actual physical homes to go to. There’s a lot of reasons why people are homeless, but in 2019, one of the largest reasons why people are homeless is substance abuse. It used to be that you were on the street if you’re mentally ill. Now people are displaced due to opioids and heroin, and we have to address that. I talked to one person on the campaign trail, and he said, “You know, Mike, we owned a clothing store, my wife and I. But we had to close our store, because the homeless would come in to use our bathroom, and they ‘d inject heroin in there. We called the police, but the police couldn’t legally do anything, because they couldn’t stop and frisk them, and they didn’t see them injecting the drugs. So, we finally closed the clothing store because it just got to be too much.” They signed their names to get me on the ballot.

So, these issues are not going to go away. In the first 90 days, I think another important issue is security and the “quality of life,” and I’ll get the ball rolling on all these things. I talked to a security guard at Rite Aid in the Palm Canyon area, and he said there was a beauty store robbed. One (recent) Sunday at 11:30 a.m., two people came in; then they brought another guy in, and they all had guns, or two had guns or whatever the story is, and you can’t have that stuff. These are all things that I would address actually within the first 30 days, 60 days. I know how you get the ball rolling. And the most important thing is giving people safe (surroundings). Especially in Palm Springs—people aren’t coming here to work on Wall Street. They’re not coming here to make a flourishing living. They come here to vacation, to retire, to relax, to be safe and have a good time. So we have to come up with that kind of environment.

What grade would you give the city of Palm Springs regarding its response to date to the homelessness problem? What has the city done well, and what future actions and policies would you support?

The city of Palm Springs sprayed for mosquitoes over the summer time, and I think they’re continuing. It was around 2, 3, 4 a.m. in the morning, and I saw the helicopters. I deliver food. I’m a gig worker, so I was out then. I saw the helicopters, but I didn’t exactly know what they were doing. But then when I read about it in the paper, I thought, “Oh geez … they’re spraying.” So I’ve got to ask the question, “Did anyone get the homeless off the street before they sprayed?” … Regardless of whether or not they say the spray is innocuous, it’s not innocuous. I looked up the chemicals. It’s not innocuous, you know. Anyway, that’s another story. But if the homeless weren’t removed off the streets prior to spraying, then I give Palm Springs a total “F”; even an “F”-minus. Come on.

Now, if they were removed off the street (prior to spraying), what would I give Palm Springs in regards to the homeless? I’d still give them an “F”. You know why? Because the (homeless) are still on the streets. And if they’re still on the streets, that means someone is being derelict in their duties. Someone is doing a really bad job, because you have another human (living insecurely). I see them, and it’s always someone else’s responsibility. There’s no shelter here. … I tell you what: I’ve been around, and I’ve done a lot of things in life, and I know how things work. And, I still give (the city) an “F” for helping the homeless. And I give the entire state of California and “F” for helping the homeless, because they’ve got them in tents and under viaducts all the way from Northern California down to L.A. And if you really want me to be honest: Do you remember when San Diego had the hepatitis “A” outbreak? Well, what happened is, and they don’t tell you this, but I suspect that a lot of the places all around the United States all want the homeless out of their communities, so they give bus tickets to (homeless individuals) and send them to California. And everyone thinks that San Diego has the perfect environment. Even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio might have paid people to come to California. So anyway, San Diego gets a hepatitis “A” outbreak, and how does that happen? (Editor’s note: On Sept. 1, 2017, San Diego County declared a local health emergency due to a hepatitis “A” outbreak that lasted until Jan. 23, 2018.) It’s transferred through fecal matter. Anyway, long story short, a lot of the businesses in downtown San Diego would allow the homeless to use their bathrooms, no problem. But suddenly, San Diego gets an influx of homeless, and the business owners start to say, “Hey. No, you can’t use our bathroom today.” So people started to defecate in the street. So that’s how the hepatitis “A” outbreak started, but no one will tell you that. I don’t have proof. That’s just a postulate.

Again, is there any specific strategy or plan that you would employ to better deal with the homeless issue in Palm Springs if you’re elected to the City Council?

I don’t think that hotels work. I’ve seen the effect when New York City commandeers hotels, and people on the block don’t like it. It lowers house values in the community, and it just becomes a free-for-all at that point.

First, I think you’ve got to get people housing. You can 3-D print a home in less than 24 hours, and you can do it for as little as $4,000. Now, that’s not long term, but people just need to have a place to go. And for people who have cognitive abilities who can get back into the work force, we’ve got to get them into the work force right away. And, for people who have severe mental illness, we have to have resources for them, (including) counseling staff, but they still have to have a place to go—not a halfway house, and not a tenement, because that’s not a solution. So, immediate housing (is needed) and not using a hotel, but perhaps using innovative means like 3-D printing a house, or you talk to people and give them subsidies to bring a person in (to their home), but I don’t know if that will work. The thing that could probably be most effective is finding certain pieces of land and actually building places. Getting businesses involved and making it like a (recreation) center: If you’re down on your luck, or things aren’t working in your life, or you’ve got a substance-abuse problem, you know, you come here. And not to stay in a shelter, because it’s not a shelter, because a shelter is like a camp where you’ve got to sleep 100 to 200 people in a room. Actually, it’s more like a hotel, because you have your own room, but it’s not staffed with people who are apathetic. It’s actually staffed by good people who want to get people back on their feet. And you get businesses involved, like Starbucks, because it’s good for them, and it’s good publicity. Once you get them involved, and they want to hire these people on an interim basis, then you’re getting (these homeless individuals) back into the work force.

But there’s got to be more done to implement something like this. If it were up to me, I’d burn down every shelter in the United States, because I think they’re all cesspools. I don’t think they’re effective, and they’ve got lice and bed bugs. I think there’s rampant drugs (being abused), prostitution and crime. You’ve got to have a good place. It should be kind of like a YMCA. You ever been to a YMCA in New York City, like the Vanderbilt YMCA? It’s a block from the (United Nations campus), and you tell people that you’re staying at the YMCA, and they think, “Oh … the YMCA, really?” But no, because the Vanderbilt YMCA is like an oasis in the city. You’ve got a gym there; you’ve got a pool, and it’s got a great staff. You’ve got good values (at work), and everybody’s got their own room. This isn’t a homeless-priced community, but it actually costs only $100 per night to stay there. So, my point is that if you had a place like that, that operates on the same model as that, but you’ve got businesses involved, I think it could be effective. Let me just say that what we’re doing right now isn’t working.

The cannabis industry has come to Palm Springs. How has the city handled it so far? What changes, if any, would you make regarding dispensaries, lounges and other cannabis businesses in the future?

In 1970, when people used to smoke marijuana, it was totally different than now in 2019. The legalization of marijuana is in its infancy, so there’s not research to (explain) how it’s affecting people. But, let me say that emergency-room physicians in Denver, Colorado, have had people come in to their ER with symptoms that they can’t explain, because they’ve never seen them before. Then, the (patients) say, “Well, I’ve been smoking marijuana.” And, the ER doctors say, “Hey, this is totally different than how marijuana used to be back in 1970s-1980s.” Marijuana now is like 25 times stronger. So, if people really want to be honest, they don’t know how this is going to affect people mentally in the long term.

But, I can’t answer the question of how Palm Springs has handled the cannabis business, because it’s too new. I’ve read that they have some new dispensaries opening; there’s one on South Palm Canyon across from Rite Aid, but the only reason people have marijuana now is because there aren’t enough Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerbergs and other creative people who can create jobs and careers for people to allow them to unlock their talents, their gifts. The politicians, we can’t do that, obviously, so they give people marijuana to keep them high. Meanwhile, do you think they keep everyone high in China? Come on … not a bit. Meanwhile, every one’s going to be high in the United States. What do you think will happen (in) the mid-2020s when China’s economy really starts to rocket, and India goes into second place, and you’ve got Americans who just want to get high? It’s not a good policy. I know people want to have a good time; I get it. I know human nature. But, as a leader, I’m not going to advocate that. I’m not going to do it. I don’t have kids, but I want to have kids someday. And when my kids sit down with me, I’m going to (tell them), “You know, I don’t want you to do that. I want you to save your faculties and see if you can become the next Einstein. I want you to do something magnificent in life.” I don’t think a lot of people smoking pot are doing amazing things with their life. But I could be wrong. You can write that, too. I don’t care.

What can or should be done to decrease crime in Palm Springs?

They’re building a new arena for hockey, and I guess it will be used for more than hockey, and that’s going to bring as much as 10,000 people into our community at a time. I don’t think the current Palm Springs police force is going to be able to handle the excess people. So, they (could) enlarge the police force by (getting) more citizens involved, like citizens on patrol, but I think obviously, they’re going to have to hire more officers. But at some point, the current policing standards that we have will start to break down.

So what can we do? Well, I think we need to rely more on technology to help police. It seems very bad when an officer approaches a car, lets down his guard (and then is killed), as we saw with what happened in Texas with the deputy sheriff who was shot in the back of the head. I have ideas for a certain kind of technology that (allows) the officer to feel safe approaching a car and walking away from a car. … There are all kinds of things we could do. Also, with respect to mass shootings, although “knock on wood,” we haven’t had one here yet, I’m not an advocate of having teachers carrying holstered guns within the school. But I am an advocate of having creative ways to know if a kid is bringing a gun into a school. I have ideas for that, too. And thirdly, if you have a poor quality of life and a lot of drugs in a community, I know there’s people giving drugs to a lot of people (living) on the streets so that they stay on the street. So, we have to reduce that. Also, the security guard at Rite Aid said, and it’s probably speculation on his part, that the people who were responsible for the holdup they had at the beauty salon recently were probably from a gang in Desert Hot Springs. So, we have to completely reduce that. There’s all kind of things we can do. You’ve got to have the will to do it, though. There’s no reason that crime can’t be reduced dramatically, but you have to want to do it. That doesn’t mean getting out there and having a police department that’s militarized. Nobody wants that. It’s not good for the citizenry. We want to reduce crime by relying on technology or a smarter way of policing that keeps officers safe and keeps the community safe. Make Palm Springs a “smart city” where you don’t rely entirely on technology, but make it a lot more reliant than it is, and I think crime will be dramatically reduced.

When you speak about technology, are you talking about cameras and surveillance, or are you talking about other forms?

No, I’m not thinking about cameras and surveillance. Like with an officer approaching a car, there are certain devices—you could call it a “guardian angel”—that approaches the car before (the officer), and everything is handled remotely. It’s almost like a robot. And for the school system, I wasn’t thinking of cameras; it would be (a device) that is like an octopus, that has a way of detecting if someone has a gun, and it doesn’t harm the student who has a gun, but it benevolently wraps them up so they can’t move and therefore can’t fire the gun.

Again, as for the community at large, I’m not thinking of cameras. I’m thinking of certain (strategies) such as not having blackouts, either planned or unplanned. As for the police, there are all kinds of ideas that come to my mind. Off the top of my head, we need to have (the police) more involved with the community. In 2019, it seems that they’re not people’s friends. And it’s not the officers, and it’s not the people; it’s just the environment. We have to have more of an Andy Griffith-type of police (department). I know it sounds like a joke, and too good to be true, but you don’t want to feel like the officer is trying to pry for information and knowledge. You want an officer who’s around, and you think, “He’s my friend,” or, “She’s my friend.” In New York, you’ve got 8 million people living in the city, and they just lost an officer recently, and I tell you what they do there: The officers go out (because the city is made up of different precincts) and they’re the greatest intel officers, because they know everyone in the community. So if there’s any anomaly or aberration, they ask people during casual interactions. This has been happening for like the past eight years, but it is still effective, and that’s how every community has got to be all across the United States. If you enhance that (approach) with everything else like bulletproof windows on cop cars, and protective technology for officers and improving the quality of life for everybody, it’s going to reduce crime.

The only reason a kid joins a gang is because he doesn’t know who he is. He feels peer-pressured, and he’s got the wrong friends, and he might not have family. He doesn’t know where he’s going in life, because he can’t think yet. But if you put a community officer with maybe a celebrity who walks in the community from time to time, you get people involved and excited about life and their dreams and their goals. The next thing you know, the kid says, “Hey! What am I in this gang for? This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” I get it. It takes willpower, and it’s a constant struggle. You’ve got to inspire people to do this kind of thing. Otherwise, it works for a month or a short time, or it doesn’t work at all, and we’re back to the same stuff. It’s more imperative that we do this in 2019 than at any other time in history. I’m only 46, but I would venture that you never had people who disrespected police like we do now. It’s really imperative that we get back on track. That will enhance the community and keep it safe.

You know, I was at Rite Aid last night buying ice cream. I go there almost every night to buy ice cream; I get my ice cream and then go to bed. So I’m buying a scoop of ice cream, and there’s no one in the line. I start to pay, and then I walk back to get something to drink and then walk back up to the cashier, and he’s already ringing me up, and all of sudden, two guys in line start giving me a hard time. And I’m like, “What the heck?” Finally, I got sick of it and I said, “What are you talking about? I was here before you guys got (in line).” And they said, “Are you sure about that?” And I’m thinking: This is ridiculous. This is the kind of stuff I went through in the city (of New York). I don’t want to go through this here in sleepy Palm Springs where everybody is supposed to be nice. So I’ve noticed a change in people’s behavior, and we’ve got to get people back to wanting to be helpful and charitable to (other) people. The way it starts is with the leaders exuding that benevolence, giving people that reason to do good things and inspiring people. Then, every one else in society starts to follow suit. I know I’m only running for City Council, but it starts there. Whatever happens in Palm Springs can be a model for the entire state of California, as well as the United States. I firmly believe that in my heart.

What is your reaction to the proposed construction of a downtown 10,000 seat arena by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians?

It amazes me that nobody, not Native Americans or local politicians in Palm Springs, can work out the parking. That aside, it’s a positive for the community. It’s the 32nd amateur hockey team. (Editor’s note: The team slated to play at the arena is a professional minor-league hockey team.) So, that’s a real positive for the kids around this area, because it gets them involved in things. It gets them out of their shell. A kid might say, “Hey! I want to be a hockey player, or I like sports.” You know kids are spending too much time on their iPhones and social media. It’s a positive.

When I first heard about it, I thought, “It’s going to change the downtown of Palm Springs.” And it is. But I think it’s a real boon for Palm Springs and the kids as well as the local citizens. Now I get it, too, because I know that a lot of people who live in that area and are worried that it’s going to block their view of the mountains. But I read today that a lot of it is going to be built underground, and that’s genius. So, I’m thinking real optimistically about it right now, and I’ve got ideas about how to handle the parking if they don’t come up with ideas. There are all kinds of things we could do. We could have people park remotely, and we could make a train to get people in (to the arena downtown). There are all kinds of things we could do to really jazz things up. I think it’s a win-win deal. I think it’s a good thing.

Is the city of Palm Springs ready for an economic recession?

That’s a complex question. From what I understand, Palm Springs has, I think, it’s $340 million in unfunded liabilities. I’m not on the inside track right now. I haven’t looked at the books. I don’t know where their investments are. To be honest, I can’t answer if Palm Springs is ready for another recession, because I don’t know where the money is or what they have as a surplus. But if you ask me how I would appropriate resources if economic hard times hit the area, the police department, fire department and paramedics would always get resources from me. I would never stifle any emergency worker, because if you stifle emergency workers, then you stifle your citizens, because that’s your protective fabric. You need them. We’d have to get money for them. Then I’d worry about the people who are struggling in our community. If there are elderly who are struggling to pay their rent, I would help them. Or if there are children who are with parents who don’t have air conditioning in the summer time, I’ll always help the people who are without resources. But, honestly, I can’t answer the question if Palm Springs is ready for another economic downturn. I’m not at City Hall right now, and I haven’t looked at the books.

What’s your idea of the perfect night out in Palm Springs?

The perfect night out … you know, whatever I do in life, I always seem to work a lot. I did have a date, though. I had a date about six months ago with this woman who was from Amsterdam. So, what did we do? We went to Ruby’s and had milkshakes and burgers, and afterward, we went to Starbucks. So, that seemed like a nice night out for me. I’m pretty simple.

Indian Canyon Drive will soon be a two-way thoroughfare. Yay or nay?

So, I’m driving this past Saturday night, and I’m on Palm Canyon going toward Ramon Road. There are so many cars on the street, and I’m thinking, “The season hasn’t even started yet, and there are all these cars.” And I went to Starbucks, and they had closed already; they’re turning everyone away at the door. Follow me here for a second: There are all these people, and the season hasn’t even started yet. What happens when the season starts, and we’ve got an extra 10,000 people here?. Everyone speeds down Palm Canyon if you’ve noticed. As we increase with people, we’ve got to worry about people’s safety. Maybe (the city should) block off Palm Canyon between like Amado and Baristo. Now, do we make Indian Canyon two-way? I’ve got to think about this. This is where the smart city comes into play—if we had an app that people could go on and see how the transportation schedules are working with the buses, the traffic and maybe a train. Maybe a train is not a bad deal, too.

We could have remote parking for the arena, and then we could have a train that actually makes various stops. You mentioned “the perfect night out.” Well, the perfect night out for a lot of people—for me, it’s going to Ruby’s—but for a lot of people, it’s walking down Palm Canyon and going to restaurants like Le Vallauris or LG’s. So if we had some sort of mass transportation that was clean, all solar and efficient, people could take it to go to key points. There’d be the downtown sector. And let’s say we built an artificial intelligence center for the students to go to after school. And let’s say that the train went all the way up to the Tramway. And let’s say we had a longevity center with all the latest ground-breaking technologies and where doctors could come in, so the train could stop there. And since space is a big deal now, let’s say you had a space center sponsored by big business or people who have an interest in this (pursuit). So it could stop there. You move people around like this. Making a train for just one thing, just the arena—I don’t know if that’s a good idea, but if you had these five to seven hot spots that I’ve got in the back of my head right now, then you wouldn’t have to make Palm Canyon a two-way, because you’d get people moving efficiently. Palm Springs is beautiful, so they’ll all be looking around at the scenery, and you’ll cut down on congestion, and cut down on accidents. You can do a lot of different things, and this is safe. You won’t have people getting hit by cars, or perhaps you won’t have crime.

I was sitting at the Coffee Bean last year, in the summer of 2018, and I was on my phone. A man walked in, and a man ran out. And a woman screamed and yelled, “He took my purse!” Her husband ran out after him, so I ran after him too. Her husband caught up to the guy in the parking lot next to the Palm Mountain Resort, and he’s pulling the guy out of the car. Meanwhile, I’m taking a picture of the license plate and car, then I called the police. The police came, and they never did get her purse back, but my point is that as we increase with people, you’re going to have weird stuff like this happen. But with smart ways of getting around the city, and enhancing the city with other pleasurable things that are cool to do, and looking to the future, we could actually have a “smart” train, whether it’s solar or hydrogen or electric—we could do all kinds of things. So, the jury is still out on making Indian Canyon a two-way, because I don’t know how it would be. It might just be chaos. So that’s the second question I don’t know, and I’m not afraid to say I don’t know.

I guess we’ll find out, because they’re doing it.

Oh, they are doing it right now? They’re making it two-way?

Yes. Work has started already.

Well, when I get elected, I’ll introduce my ideas, and maybe we’ll change it back.

What question should we have asked you that we haven’t so far? And what’s your answer to that question?

When I’m elected, I bring three important things. I bring integrity to that office. I will always do what is right for the will of people, not for my own interests, but for the community and the entire state of California to make life better for people. I’m not a politician. I’m a person who has ideas and wants to fulfill his calling to do good with his life. At this point in my life, this is what I’ve been trying to do since 2007. I’ve been trying to get elected to office. I do it honestly. I don’t take money from people, so that once I get there to elected office, I’m not going to have to do their will, and can do the people’s will. I do it the honest way. I’ll bring integrity to the office in its truest sense. Secondly, altruism. It’s bigger than I am, and it’s about being selfless. I believe in a greater good. I believe in God. It’s about doing work for the greater good. Thirdly, I bring new ideas, but I’m also a realist, too. I don’t believe that every one of my ideas is the best idea on earth. But if I come up with a hundred ideas, one idea will be the best, and it’s going to work. That’s how I operate. I continue to farm out ideas, until it’s like ,“Eureka!” And it’s the best idea to make life better for people. Maybe the “guardian angel” approach robot (for police car stops) is not the best idea in the world, but if I come up with another 99 ideas, one of them is, hopefully, going to help a police officer and save his life, and save another person’s life.


Geoff Kors, Palm Springs City Council Member/Mayor Pro Tem, 58 years old

What do you believe is the single most important and immediate issue facing the city of Palm Springs?

The No. 1 issue facing Palm Springs is to ensure that we continue our economic growth, so that we can provide a high level of services to our residents, and address homelessness, the issue of affordable housing, infrastructure repairs and other matters that all take resources. Given CalPERS losing 40 percent of the pension money that local governments have paid in, we need to continue to build our reserves, as we’ve done over the last four years, and (continue to build) our economy, so that we can honor our pensions and our other obligations while continuing to move our city forward.

Any specific thoughts on how you’d like to see the city maintain or generate more revenues?

Our budget has grown substantially since the recession; I created and the council adopted a pension-reserve fund so that we could start putting money away to pay for future pension costs instead of having to make cuts to pay them. We have close to $40 million in reserves, more than double from when I was elected four years ago, and we have engaged in a number of programs to continue to pump our business community and spur economic development. I started a bimonthly meeting of a new Economic Development and Business Retention Subcommittee which I co-chair with Councilmember (Christy) Holstege. We have launched a number of new economic-incentive programs in order to keep our economy moving, and we’ve also created our “Uniquely Palm Springs” program to promote our local small businesses in Palm Springs, so that those will continue to fuel our economy and create jobs.

What grade would you give the city of Palm Springs regarding its response to date to the homelessness problem? What has the city done well, and what future actions and policies would you support?

I’ve served as the co-chair of the homelessness task force for the last four years, and part of that time, the city wasn’t doing very much other than contributing some funding to Roy’s, the homeless shelter that the county closed down three years ago. Homelessness, poverty and mental health are all issues that are the responsibility of the county under state law, and not cities. The county is the entity with a social-service department, and (it’s) the entity up until now that has received all the funding for investment purposes. Over the last three years, the city and the subcommittee I co-chaired have decided that given the lack of funding from the county, we needed to step up and fill that void. So, we’ve hired now two homelessness and health crisis teams that are on the ground seven days a week. We’ve put something into a number of programs, including the housing-first program; (we’ve) transitioned 200 residents into housing. And recently, Councilmember Holstege and I led an effort to work with Assembly member Chad Mayes to lobby legislative leadership and Gov. Newsom for direct funding to Palm Springs. The result was that we’ll be receiving $10 million to help address homelessness in Palm Springs. We’re the only city other than the largest 14 cities in the state to be receiving money.

Do you have any potential steps or strategies looking forward that you’d like to share with readers/voters?

Sure. While we don’t have all the rules and restrictions on (that) funding from the state, our focus is on permanent solutions to move people off the streets and into housing. What we lack in Palm Springs, and throughout the west valley, is transitional and permanent supportive housing. Without that, it’s very difficult to help people transition off the streets. That housing is essential, and it needs to have wrap-around services. So, that is the priority as we move forward.

The cannabis industry has come to Palm Springs. How has the city handled it so far? What changes, if any, would you make regarding dispensaries, lounges and other cannabis businesses in the future?

Palm Springs was the first city in Riverside County to allow medical marijuana many, many years ago. We were also at the forefront when recreational cannabis (use) was passed by the voters. Cannabis is a legal business and should be treated as a legal business, but cannabis facilities need to adhere to the rules, which include not emitting odor, and ensuring that all their products are safe and tested. I think one change that we have proposed—and I’m on the subcommittee with Councilmember (J.R.) Roberts—is that there are business requirements in all zones of the city, including industrial zones. Since industrial zones border some of our residential neighborhoods, we are proposing significant fines and suspensions for any cannabis business that is in violation of the odor requirements. We’ve retained an outside odor expert, and all cannabis facilities have to have a plan approved by this expert in order to open and operate. This has had a significant impact on reducing some of the odor issues that were being experienced, and we are looking at creating a “green zone” with tax incentives to encourage cannabis facilities, particularly growers and manufacturers, to be further away from residential neighborhoods.

We are continuing to meet with groups in the cannabis industry and other stakeholders as this industry evolves to make sure that we are doing it in a way that is fair to the businesses, that doesn’t create a burden on our neighborhoods and residents, and works for everyone involved.

What can or should be done to decrease crime in Palm Springs?

I think our police chief and department do an excellent job. Their community and neighborhood policing programs have been very successful. We are very fortunate that we continue to maintain our own police department as compared with many other cities that contract with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

There’s no level of crime that we should ever be comfortable with. We always want to do better. Since the recession of more than a decade ago, we have provided full funding to staff our police, fire and emergency medical departments. That is due in large part to voters having passed Measure D, which provided us (with) the resources to do that. The police recently hired six new graduates from the police academy who have just started their on-the-ground training with the department. Upon their graduation (about 3-4 weeks ago), all of them were top-rate and did extremely well, and we’re looking forward to having those additional people working for us in the city. We’ve also added significant numbers of fire fighters and emergency medical personnel, as ensuring the health and safety of our residents is a prime priority of government.

What is your reaction to the proposed construction of a downtown 10,000 seat arena by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians?

The arena will bring a hockey team, the first professional sports team, to Palm Springs, as well as entertainment, family shows and additional convention space, all (of which are) things that greatly benefit our residents and our city. That said, it’s important that we work to mitigate any potential negative impacts affecting public safety.

As soon as the arena was announced, I reached out to senior staff at the tribe to engage them in working with us on a parking study, which we are in the process of doing. It’s important that, on nights when there’s a major event, we don’t lose parking for our other businesses, our residents and our neighborhoods. Given past ventures from the tribe, we know that they are very good at business, and that they’re going to want this significant investment to be successful, which means making sure that those issues are addressed. The city will continue to work closely with them on those issues as time moves forward.

I was pleased to see the renderings (of the proposed arena design) which show that this is not an extremely tall arena, as many have feared. It’s being built partly underground and with a very midcentury design that is appropriate for the city of Palm Springs. Plus, I like hockey, and I look forward to going to games, as I think many of our residents are.

Palm Springs is such an amazing place to live, and I can’t think of another city with some 45,000 full-time residents that has an international airport with direct flights to 20 cities, a world-class museum, festivals like the Palm Springs International Film Festival and Modernism Week, incredible restaurants, and wonderful retail—and that all causes a lot of people to come here. A city of 45,000 would not have all of these wonderful amenities for residents without us maintaining our charm, our warm, friendly environment and our beautiful natural surroundings. That’s what makes me so love Palm Springs.

Is the city of Palm Springs ready for an economic recession?

I believe we are much better situated if there is another economic downturn than we were prior to the last recession. We have close to $40 million in reserves. We have put in place numerous incentive programs to encourage investment in Palm Springs. We have more full-time residents than we had previously, and a much more diverse demographic living here. We have focused on promoting tourism, not just for people who live across the country or around the world, but also more locally. We’ve added some $200,000 to the budget this year for research on, and promotions to, people living within a 60-mile radius—people who can come into Palm Springs for the day, shop, go to an event, go out to dinner and generate tax revenue and help our small businesses. In an economic downturn people may not travel (in) from as far away, but people who live closer are not going to travel as far away, either. So, keeping our focus, in part, on people who can drive here, or fly from close places like San Francisco, Portland or Seattle, has been a high priority. That will help us keep our tourism-based economy moving in the event of an economic downturn. So, that research is just getting underway, and I would anticipate that the marketing pieces will probably launch right around the beginning of 2020.

What’s your idea of the perfect night out in Palm Springs?

For me, I think the perfect night out would be to make dinner on the barbecue and sit outside under the stars with my husband, James, and my dog, Dash, and have some quiet alone time in paradise. Being on council and having so many events that we all do, the thought of having a totally relaxing night and cooking outside is great. That’s not to say that there aren’t wonderful restaurants, and attractions, and theater, and other events to go to in Palm Springs. We have so many of them, and I enjoy doing (those things). But the perfect night would really be to just be outside—at this time of year, it’s just so beautiful out—enjoy the stars and spend time with the two beings that I love.

Indian Canyon Drive will soon be a two-way thoroughfare. Yay or nay?

I support changing Indian Canyon from what was known as the four-lane freeway out of town to a two-way roadway. Most of the money (for the conversion) came from a competitive grant process for public safety which Palm Springs was awarded through (the Coachella Valley Association of Governments) thanks to the great work of our staff. Indian Canyon was not safe for pedestrians or bicyclists, and was also dangerous for cars. It was on that basis that we were rewarded the grants. It will slow down traffic and make it safer. It will make Indian Canyon part of what is now a wonderful downtown. From the museum to the convention center, with the cultural center and spa and the new arena on tribal land and the rest of our downtown on city land, it will really integrate all of it. It will also help a great deal to spur economic growth and help businesses on Indian Canyon, because it will be more pedestrian-friendly, and cars will be coming in from both ways, so it will feel more like an integrated part of our city. You know, with the arena coming now, too, this will allow the city to move traffic freely, when necessary, in either direction to (facilitate) getting people in or out based on traffic studies and what makes the most sense. It also gives us a two-way road when Palm Canyon Drive is closed for VillageFest every Thursday, or Pride or any of the other events that happen on Palm Canyon.

What question should we have asked you that we haven’t so far? And what’s your answer to that question?

Your questions have touched on some of the important issues such as our economy, public safety, infrastructure and homelessness which are among the many issues we are working to address. In January, I became the liaison for the Parks and Recreation Commission, and one of the issues I recently started to focus on is upgrading our parks. I’ve lived in other cities and grew up where the neighborhood park was integral to our lives. It’s where I played kickball after school. It’s where my dad taught me to play tennis. It’s where we had family picnics. Here, we have such wonderful and beautiful parks, but we need to activate them, and we need to upgrade them.

I recently worked to get water fountains and watering stations in our parks. We’re testing one out in Ruth Hardy Park, and then we’ll be moving on to other parks. I want to help clean up Sunrise Park so that our residents can enjoy it. We stopped some behavior that was going on there, and I really want us to continue to focus on how we treat every single one of our parks.

The last thing I’ll say is that I love living in Palm Springs. I can’t think of anywhere else that I’d rather live. It’s been a privilege and an honor to serve the city and its residents over the last close-to four years, because our residents and our businesses are so engaged. So many people want to give back. They want to make a difference. They volunteer; they donate; they come to council meetings; and they bring their best ideas to us. I’ll be truly honored to serve the city for another term.

Published in Politics

It’s official: Palm Springs now has the highest sales tax in Riverside County. Thanks to newly approved Measure D, the rate will be 9.25 percent. The half-cent sales-tax hike will bring in an extra $6.7 million annually, according to estimates.

Voters in November also approved Measure E, a new tax on recreational marijuana.

These new revenues will be coming into city coffers along with, among other revenue sources, funds from Measure J, the one-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2011.

Measure J has indirectly led to a lot of bad publicity for the city—because some of those funds were and are being used for the now-coming-to-fruition downtown redevelopment project that was embroiled in the shady dealings that led to the arrest of developer John Wessman and former Mayor Steve Pougnet on bribery charges.

With an entirely new City Council taking office over the last two years, it’s worth taking a look at those Measure J funds, as well as the whole city budget—a budget that is, according to many observers, not so transparent and very hard to understand.

Palm Springs, with 47,000 residents (and a lot of visiting tourists), has a general-fund budget of $110,130,162 for the fiscal year 2017-18. However, the city’s various special funds actually total more than the general fund—bringing the total fiscal-year budget to $229,966,656, an amount confirmed by City Attorney Edward Kotkin, although he added that the amount has yet to be audited.

Figuring out what’s going on with all of these special funds is nigh impossible. I spent several weeks trying to get information from the city’s director of finance and treasurer, Geoffrey Kiehl. After not getting a response, I reached out to Councilman J.R. Roberts.

Roberts said there are 64 separate special revenue funds. “I had to look that up,” he said.

Why are there so many funds—totaling an amount more than the general fund?

“Unlike most cities in the valley, Palm Springs has an airport, a sewer treatment plant, a convention center, etc.,” Roberts said.

Of course, having so many separate funds raises questions about transparency and fiscal responsibility. Roberts responded that city’s website OpenGov website is easy to navigate. He also pointed out that Measure J funds are under the strict supervision of its oversight committee.

“Once the Measure J oversight committee has made its recommendations, the money is moved to the various projects that were decided upon,” he said.

However … if everything concerning the city’s use of Measure J funds is clearly posted on the city website, how did the fund end up getting FBI attention, including a raid at City Hall? Robert Stone, a self-proclaimed FBI informant and constant city-government critic who unsuccessfully ran for the City Council this year, said one of the problems is that the public is only able to find out how the funds were spent after the fact.

“The Measure J funds are controlled by the city manager and the council, with recommendations from the Measure J Committee,” Stone said. “The reasons behind who gets what are not always clear, and disbursements are pretty much at the discretion of the city manager for smaller disbursements, and council for the larger disbursements.

“We only find out how the funds have been administered at the end of the fiscal year,” Stone said. “We never know in advance where the Measure J money is going. We only find out as the transfers are made.”

As for the new Measure D funds: In their pitch to voters, city officials claimed the funds would help the city maintain essential city services, such as public safety. However, it’s unclear what the city will do to handle its huge long-term pension obligations.

“Measure D does nothing to address the ongoing $220 million unfunded pension and health care liability of the city,” Stone said, claiming that the burden from pension and health-care liabilities will bring the city to its knees if it does not fundamentally change the way it does business.

One common complaint about the city budget: generous salaries. In recent years, Palm Springs City Manager David Ready has been the Coachella Valley’s highest-paid public official, with salary and benefits totaling more than $420,000. However, the problem extends well beyond Ready: According to TransparentCalifornia.com, 68 city of Palm Springs employees earned more than $200,000 in pay and benefits in 2016—and when these employees retire, they’ll be in line for huge pensions. Councilman Roberts confirmed that former Palm Springs Police Chief Al Franz, who retired in December 2015, is receiving a pension of $189,083 per year.

In other words … when it comes to transparency and getting the city budget under control, the all-new Palm Springs City Council has a lot of work to do.

Published in Local Issues

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

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