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Wed09202017

Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

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

A Palm Springs City Hall power struggle involving freshman Mayor Rob Moon and longtime City Manager David Ready seems like a classic David vs. Goliath battle.

In this case, the mayor is playing the underdog role of David, while the role of mighty Goliath goes to Ready. Since 1994, according to the city charter, Palm Springs has basically been run by the city manager, while the role of the mayor is largely ceremonial: He’s just another City Council member who also gets to cut ribbons, greet dignitaries, attend events, give speeches and so on.

However, that does not mean a mayor has no power whatsoever: A mayoral term is four years long, which offers plenty of time for a motivated mayor, if he so chooses, to put the pressure on the City Council to use its power to fire the city manager.

That’s exactly what Moon proposed, more or less, back in April, when Moon called a special meeting to evaluate the performance of Ready and Doug Holland, a contractor who serves as the city attorney. Moon’s proposal came in the wake of a turbulent year during which the city was dragged into an FBI investigation.

However, Moon soon learned that he was the only council member who supported removing the city manager. After a closed session on April 13, the City Council voted unanimously to keep Ready.

Today, the power struggle continues—and Moon is now saying he wishes he’d stood his ground and voted to fire Ready.

“I wanted the City Council to go on the record,” Moon said. “I did then vote to endorse the city manager, but I regret that vote. I should have stood my ground and at least made a symbolic vote against it.”

Since becoming city manager in 2000, Ready has largely reigned unchallenged during the terms of four mayors: Will Kleindienst, Ron Oden, Steve Pougnet and now Moon.

Ready offered a diplomatic response to the “evaluation” of his job performance that Moon initiated.

“It is the prerogative of the mayor and any member of City Council to discuss my employment contract,” he said, “and as always, I serve at the will and pleasure of the City Council.”

Ready earned $421,221 in pay and benefits last year, making him the highest-compensated city government employee in the Coachella Valley—and one of the highest-paid city managers in the state. I asked Moon what he thought about capping the city manager’s salary.

“That’s probably a good idea,” Moon said. “… But if there is a cap, perhaps a person who has been around a long time would not like it and would go to work in a big city, like Chicago.”

While Ready’s salary has increased over the years, he said he’s made some personal sacrifices when it comes to his pay. 

“With regard to salary increases, in several years, I have refused to take increases outlined in my contract as we went through the recession,” Ready said. “Hence, salary or salary caps are not an issue for me, personally.”

Both Moon and Ready said they’re awaiting the results of the ongoing probe into city affairs—apparently involving the conduct of former Mayor Steve Pougnet.

“The FBI, the IRS and the (district attorney) seized certain documents, servers, cell phones etcetera,” Moon said. “I’ve no idea what they were looking for. … I expect that sometime by end of this year, my guess, we’ll hear what the outcome of the investigation is.”

Ready said the city has been transparent throughout the investigation and added that documents removed during the raid have been returned and posted on the city’s website for public review.

“Those agencies were doing their jobs,” Ready said about the law enforcement agencies investigating the city. “The city is fully cooperating with the investigation, and we are committed to keeping our citizens and the public updated on any information that we receive.”

However, the city has indeed suffered from some lapses in transparency. Shortly after the Sept. 1, 2015, FBI raid, former Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco—despised by some members of the community thanks to his hard-line role in a 2009 Warm Sands area sex sting that was tinged by homophobic remarks—was hired to “assist” the City Council in the matter. However, that information was not released to the public until this spring—after Ready at one point told The Desert Sun that the city had not hired outside legal help.

Moon said he was shocked when he learned the city had hired Pacheco.

“Right after I was sworn in, we had a closed-session meeting, and Mr. Pacheco was introduced to the new council,” Moon said. “Once I found who he was, I felt that it was inappropriate for us to be employing him, even indirectly. I was one of those people who very strongly led a movement to cut any ties with him.”

Ready said it was not his idea to hire Pacheco in the first place, and instead pointed a finger at City Attorney Doug Holland.

“The city attorney decides to hire outside legal services,” Ready said. “In this case, in order to fully cooperate with the district attorney, the city attorney indicated his decision to hire Mr. Pacheco was based on his extensive knowledge and understanding of the operations and procedures within the District Attorney’s Office.”

Moon is now leading a charge to replace the existing contracted city attorney with an in-house city attorney. Moon is on a city subcommittee working with recruiting firms to find a new city attorney.

“It’s been approved by the City Council, and it’s in the budget,” Moon said. “I’ve strongly felt that we need a city attorney to be a member of our team—actually employed by the city. I would like to get it done in six months.”

Ready said he is indifferent regarding the issue, and added that the matter is out of his hands.

“As with the city manager’s position, the city attorney is a position that is hired by the City Council,” Ready said.

Published in Politics

Just after 2 a.m. on Sunday, June 12, Omar Mateen walked into Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and started firing at the 320 or so people who were still in the club after the bartenders announced last call. In the three terrible hours that followed, at least 50 people lost their lives.

The country woke up to this horrifying news on Sunday morning, and the LGBT Community Center of the Desert quickly assembled a vigil to be held at 6:30 p.m. on Arenas Road in downtown Palm Springs. 

Mike Thompson, the LGBT Center’s chief executive officer, explained how the vigil came together.

“It was really kind of a matter of minutes,” Thompson told the Independent. “A few people already coordinated some activities, so it was immediately getting together with them and organizing the community organizers. It was great to have something to rally around, and the support has been tremendous.”

Thompson said that he had not spoken with anyone at The Center, Orlando’s LGBT community center, but he said he was heartened to see how many similar vigils and events had been scheduled in solidarity with Orlando.

“I’m on a list with a bunch of other community centers, and it’s been phenomenal to see the kind of support that’s being shown. There are 152 events scheduled over the next couple of days in 32 states, including San Juan, Puerto Rico and in Mexico City. In a 12-hour period of time, what’s been able to come together when communities mobilize—it’s pretty fantastic.”

He said it was important for the vigil to be held on Arenas—the epicenter of gay nightlife in the Coachella Valley.

“Because this event in Orlando happened in a gay bar, and we had our own tragedy with George Zander on Arenas back in November, it was important for us as a community to gather on this street and show our solidarity in our community. This is significant on so many levels for this community.”

Richard Noble, who walked across America with the rainbow flag to promote LGBT civil rights, was present holding a sign that said “Enough Gun Violence.”

Mr. Palm Springs Leather 2016, Christopher Durbin, said he felt sadness, followed by anger, when he heard about what is now the deadliest mass shooting ever in the United States.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “We’ve had many incidents like these of gun violence in the past, and nothing is being done. Maybe with the largest and most severe one in American history, something will be done.”

Durbin said the vigil offered inspiration on what was otherwise a dark day.

“I am so filled with pride and joy right now. This incredible turnout happened in a matter of a few hours,” he said. “It is heartwarming to see, and it is incredible to see what can be done so quickly in our beautiful town of Palm Springs.”

Just before the vigil started, the Palm Springs Gay Men’s Chorus gave a beautiful performance of “God Bless America,” which resulted in some people choking back tears during the moment of silence that Thompson led, shortly before Congressman Raul Ruiz started to speak.

Ruiz spoke at length about the need for better gun-control laws.

“This is a time where we reaffirm our commitment to defeat terrorism around the international community,” Ruiz told the audience to applause.

At that moment, a man screamed, “Raul! What are you going to tell the NRA when you get back to Washington?”

Ruiz’s response: “I’m going to tell them to stop their bullshit!” he said to thunderous applause.

Ruiz ended his speech on a high note.

“I want to say that I stand with you; I mourn with you; and I dream of an equal America that demonstrates its greatness through the equality of its values, and I will always march with you,” Ruiz said.

When Palm Springs Mayor Robert Moon spoke, he emphasized that safety was a priority.

“I want to assure you as your mayor that the city of Palm Springs and your Palm Springs City Council recognizes public safety is the No. 1 responsibility of our city and our City Council,” Moon said.

Moon added a call for solidarity.

“We must put a stop to this violence and tragic loss of life,” he said. “We must continue to work together, to support one another, and not give up the fight for equality for every person in the United States—regardless of their gender, their gender identity, their age, their religion or their sexual orientation. Let’s keep fighting until we win this battle.”

The first of three religious leaders to speak was Rabbi David Lazar, of Temple Isaiah.

“Look where you are standing, because you’re standing on holy ground,” Lazar told the crowd. “We are sanctifying this ground, this street, this row of clubs by being here and saying and doing and just being here. We’re sanctifying this ground. A place where other people come to be together to hold hands and celebrate—that place was defiled. While we can’t go to Orlando right now to do what we’re doing, we symbolically do it here.”

Imam Reymundo Nour from the Islamic Society of Palm Springs spoke out in support of the LGBT community.

“The Islamic Society of Palm Springs wants you to know that we stand with other Islamic organizations, civic leaders, human rights organizations, the clergy and the LGBT community,” Nour said. “We stand together in condemning this senseless act of violence.” 

Imam Nour reminded attendees what happened to the Islamic Society of Palm Springs back in December—an attack which made national headlines.

“Recently, in December, our mosque was firebombed by an individual who had similar hate sentiments,” he said. “The LGBT community stood behind us, so we’re here to stand behind you today. We pray for the victims and their loved ones, and we urge the residents of our valley, we urge the citizens of our nation, to stand with them in their time of need as they stood with us in ours and consistently stand with us in our time of need against bigotry, hatred, and discrimination.”

Kevin Johnson, of Bloom in the Desert Ministries, referenced the jigsaw-puzzle pattern on the stole he was wearing.

“It is a time for drawing together, and we are doing that,” he said. “It is also a time when we are called to action. The ordination stole I am wearing right now is rainbow-colored puzzle pieces. I wear it because it represents the intersection of oppressions … in the LGBT community. Let’s eliminate the lines, but until that can happen, but like jigsaw puzzles, our communities are connected to one another, and we can live, support, and work for one another.”

Johnson said it was important to speak out against violence and included the old ACT UP slogan, “Silence = Death.”

“Thoughts and prayers are fine, but they are not enough,” Johnson said. “Ending this madness will take votes, and I encourage everyone of good faith to cast votes to elect leaders and pass laws to bring sensible gun laws into our communities.”

Lisa Middleton, a transgender woman who is a member of the Palm Springs Planning Commission and former board member at the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, choked up when she first started speaking.

“We remember Harvey Milk; we remember Matthew Shepard; and we remember Brandon Teena,” Middleton said. “We did not need another reminder, but now we have Orlando.

“I have news for the haters: You are going to lose! There are more of us than there are of them. We are stronger than they are; we are better organized; and we have a pulse. It is time that people like Omar Mateen cannot get an AR-15. It is past time for that to happen. We know the club he went to; we know why he went to that club; we know who he targeted; and we know who he was after. He’s not going to win. They have tried to stop us before, put us in jail for who we loved, fired us when we came out, tried to stop us from getting married—and it didn’t work out too well for them. We are stronger; we are together; and this is our town and our country. It is our time! We’re going to stand together. We will stand strong, and ladies and gentlemen, we shall overcome!”

Published in Local Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deertrack expressed serious concerns about the ongoing FBI investigation.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Local Issues

The year 2015 was not easy for Palm Springs government, especially after City Hall was rocked by an FBI raid targeting documents related to then-Mayor Steve Pougnet’s relationship with various developers and businessmen.

Then came a contentious and at times ugly election season, which ended with businessman and former military man Rob Moon defeating City Councilmember Ginny Foat by 11 percentage points in the eight-way mayoral race—a result that shocked many political insiders.

The Independent recently caught up with Rob Moon at Townie Bagels to talk about his first three months in office. I asked him if anything had surprised him about being mayor.

“The only thing that’s been difficult has been keeping up with the e-mails,” Moon said. “I probably get 150 a day, maybe 200. Just reading and responding to the ones I need to respond to, forwarding the e-mails I need to—it’s vastly time-consuming. Even my executive assistant finds herself 200 to 300 e-mails behind. It’s crazy!”

However, he said nothing really surprised him regarding city government.

“I’ve been following the city for a long time and haven’t missed more than three or four City Council meetings over the past few years,” he said. “I attended Planning Commission meetings, and I was chairman of the Measure J Commission. I had my finger on what was going on.”

Right from the get-go, Moon and the revamped City Council—newcomers Moon, Geoff Kors and J.R. Roberts joined hold-over incumbents Foat and Chris Mills on the five-person council—have been hard at work. Of course, downtown redevelopment has been a major focus.

“The very first night when I took over, we had to vote on the historic designation for Tahquitz Plaza, which we did. That had been hanging for years, and we resolved that our first night,” he said about the Hugh Kaptur-designed midcentury modern buildings at 600-700 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, which once were targets for demolition. “Then we worked on the downtown development project.

“At the last City Council meeting, the staff wanted us to do a public hearing and take public testimony and continue it to a time indefinite. As a council, we said no. It wasn’t fair to the developer, to the residents or the downtown businesses to drag this out. We wanted to make decisions—which is what we were put in office for. We had a meeting that went until 1 in the morning and voted on every single outstanding issue, with the height of the buildings and all that stuff. We did vote after vote after vote. It wasn’t all unanimous, but we did our job that night.”

One of the things the council took action on was the ever-controversial downtown development being built by John Wessman. The council frustrated the developer by limiting the height on one of the proposed buildings.

“We settled the height of the hotel at the City Council meeting, and that’s going to be 49 feet. It’s not going to overwhelmingly large, and it’s a compromise,” he said.

The spirit of compromise shown by Moon and the other new council members has eased the concerns of some community activists, who were afraid Wessman was getting whatever he desired from the previous council.

“It hasn’t really been a struggle,” Moon said. “We made decisions, and we took a good compromise and the developer didn’t get everything he wanted. (Advocates for Better Community Development, led by Frank Tysen) and other activists who didn’t want to see the development done didn’t get everything they wanted, either, but we reduced the density by 40 percent, and we widened some of the streets. So needless to say, everybody got something.”

The Hacienda Cantina and Beach Club—which had been operated by developer Richard Meaney, one of the primary targets of the FBI investigation—is now shuttered, with no revival seemingly in sight. It’s likely to be one of the new council’s major headaches.

“The Hacienda is something I can’t really comment on, because we’re in litigation now, but the previous City Council agreed to give them $250,000 as an incentive, and apparently they did not use that money for what one would expect—to pay their contractors—and no one knows what they did with it,” he said.

Moon said the city budget is a constant concern for him and his fellow council members.

“Any city, state or federal government has concerns about budget, because you can’t do everything you want to do,” Moon said. “We’re really understaffed at City Hall; we have a serious problem with the homeless; we have infrastructure (work) that needs to be done and roads that need to be paved. The library needs to be redone, and City Hall has a leaky roof. There’s a massive amount that needs to be done. We did pass the Measure J tax that adds the 1 percent sales tax that brings in $13.1 million a year; $3.5 million of that goes toward the bond for the downtown development project, which leaves close to about $9 million a year right now to do additional capital projects.”

Moon said one of the biggest challenges for the city is the homelessness issue.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “Councilwoman Foat has a task force she’s working on to get services to homeless people who want services, but what about the people who don’t want services—the ones who don’t want a place to stay, don’t want help, and just want to live in empty lots, panhandle and be a burden on society? That’s a challenge, and I don’t know how to address it. One of our problems is we have a lot of open land in Palm Springs, which the other cities don’t have, which makes it more difficult for us.”

Moon said the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which is currently making plans to redevelop the Spa Resort Casino, continues to have a good working relationship with the city of Palm Springs.

“I had lunch with Chairman Jeff Grubbe a few times, because we have a good relationship, and I’m working very hard to make sure we have a relationship of trust and respect between him and me, and that helps when reaching out to the tribe,” Moon said. “… Chairman Grubbe told me, ‘What’s good for Palm Springs is good for all of us.’ I think that’s important. The tribe only has 400 members and owns half the land in Palm Springs. A lot of the members don’t live here and live elsewhere. They have a very complex governmental organization. What I want to do going forward is make sure we have better communication with them to where we talk to them about what we’re doing, and they talk to us about what they’re doing, and we work together.”

Moon said he’s committed to keeping the workings of the city government transparent.

“Transparency, like democracy, is messy and takes a lot of time,” he said. “We have City Council meetings going until midnight and beyond, because we’ve been debating things in public … and not passing through things quietly. We’ve been bringing it out in the open and discussing these things. Councilman Geoff Kors and I are also heading up a new commission to write some new rules in regard to transparency. We’re both on the finance committee as well and are scheduling public meetings about the budget, and residents can come down and talk about the budget and how they’d like to see their tax dollars spent. We’re also going to have a separate meeting for the City Council where they debate the budget instead of doing it as an agenda item on the regular meeting.”

Published in Politics

It was a simple, four-step exercise:

1. We came up with a list of 10 questions—five serious, issue-based questions, and five questions that are a little more light-hearted—to ask all of the candidates for city office.

2. We set up interviews with all of the candidates.

3. We asked the candidates the 10 questions.

That’s exactly what Palm Springs resident Jimmy Boegle did over the last couple of weeks. He interviewed every one of the 14 Palm Springs candidates—eight mayoral candidates, and six City Council candidates.

Now, comes the last step.

4. Report the answers to those 10 questions.

Here’s what all of the candidates have to say. We only made minor edits on the candidates’ answers for grammar and style; in some cases, we also edited out redundancies. Finally, in some instances, we did not include portions of candidates’ answers if they went completely off-topic.

Welcome to Candidate Q&A.

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Guy T. Burrows

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Robert “Rob” Moon

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Ricky B. Wright

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Bob Weinstein

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Ginny Foat

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Bill Gunasti

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Mike Schaefer

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs Mayoral Candidate Ron Oden

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs City Council Candidate Anna Nevenic

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs City Council Candidate Paul Lewin

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs City Council Candidate David Brown

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs City Council Candidate J.R. Roberts

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs City Council Candidate Jim King

Candidate Q&A: Palm Springs City Council Candidate Geoff Kors

Published in Politics

Name: Rob Moon

Age: 65

Occupation: Retired military officer/businessman

Interview: In person

1. When you stand at the intersection of Tahquitz Canyon Road and Palm Canyon Drive, and look northwest, what comes to mind?

Overbuilt. The building that’s going up next to the Hyatt—to be technical, it’s on block A-1—is way too big. It’s way too close to the sidewalk. It’s too massive. It’s too tall. It is not in the spirit and feel and vibe of Palm Springs. That was supposed to be 16 feet high, and the building that was there originally was supposed to stay. That adjoined the Hyatt, and it was going to be pop-up shops, similar to Raymond | Lawrence, which is really popular. On my walks, I like to go in there and walk around and see all the cool little entrepreneurial shops, which is ideal for downtown Palm Springs. That’s what it’s supposed to be, but John Wessman, the developer, Wessman development, went back to the City Council and said he changed his mind, and he wanted to do retail in that space, and the ceiling wasn’t high enough, so he wanted to do a remodel. So his remodel consisted of ripping down the original 16-foot-high building and building a three-story-high building that’s actually five or six stories high, so that was a bait and switch, and that’s not what was presented to the residents of Palm Springs during the town hall three years ago; that was not a part of the general plan for the downtown museum project, and it’s totally inappropriate … .

One thing about being older is you learn there are some things you have to live with, and you focus on what you can affect. I’m right now very much against his proposal, which is going before the Planning Commission, to build a seven-story, 85-foot hotel right in the middle of the downtown project on block B-1. I’m absolutely opposed to that. That was not part of the original plan. I stood in the City Council three years ago and strongly endorsed the downtown museum project. I strongly endorsed the Kimpton Hotel, and I strongly endorsed what had been presented to the residents of Palm Springs. However, that has changed. … I’m pro-development. I’m pro-growth. However, what they’re doing now is not what the residents of Palm Springs wanted, and what we were sold.

2. Does Palm Springs have a crime problem? If so, what should be done about it?

Yes. The crime problem in Palm Springs—all of the information is not being given to the residents of Palm Springs on the actual, overall crime statistics. I’ve seen the crime statistics, and I’ve asked for a copy of them, and crime is up significantly in the last year. Significantly. I don’t want to quote a figure, but it’s up a lot. Unfortunately, the number of police officer we have is also down. The number that the city gives officially is that we’re short nine police officers; that’s not true. There are also four that we’re short, but we have a couple people coming out of the police academy, and a couple people who have been offered lateral (moves) from other police departments; we’ve offered them jobs, but they haven’t accepted yet. So we’re actually 13 short. … Plus we have several police officers who are coming up for retirement here very shortly, and this is an unacceptable situation, because our crime rates are going up, and the number of police we have available is going down. Also, we should have 42 police on patrol, and we’re running about 24, so we’re barely over half the number of police who should be on patrol. It’s a serious, serious problem, and we need to sit down and address this in a very serious way.

If you look at Palm Springs, the population is 46,400, or something like that. But it’s not. The population of Palm Springs, because of our tourism industry, is probably usually at least 100,000 and up to a quarter of a million. We need to have a police force that is able to handle this, and the City Council tells us things that are misleading. At the last City Council meeting, Councilmember (Ginny) Foat stood up there and said, “Oh, some people are saying that we’re using police officers to run prisoners to (get booked at the jail in) Banning, and that’s not true. We have contract (retired) police officers to do that.” That’s a complete fabrication. She did not tell the truth. She told part of the truth. Yes, we have two people who are hired, who are not police officers, who work 30 to 40 hours a week each, who are used to run prisoners to Banning. However, they are not available all the time. That’s only a proportion of what’s required to get the prisoners there, particularly on a busy weekend when we have a lot of tourists here, and people are arrested for drunk and disorderly, etc. What happens is the police officers have to run them to Banning, which (presents) several problems. One: When they go to Banning, they get outside of radio range, which means they cannot be called, even if there’s an emergency here. Secondly, particularly the drunk and disorderly people, they have a tendency to, shall we say, soil the back seats of the police cars, and when they do that, the police have to come back and swap into another car, and those cars have to go offline until they can be sanitized and cleaned and prepared to be used again. So it causes a problem with the number of police cars and the number of police officers. And Ms. Foat sat up there and told the residents of Palm Springs a lie … .

She also said it would cost millions of dollars to reopen the jail. That is not true. The jail—I’ve taken a tour of it, not long ago—we already spend half a million dollars a year maintaining it, not even using it, and what we need to do is look at a cost-benefit analysis of that jail. To sit up there and say, “Oh, it would cost millions of dollars, and it’s not worth it,” is the way the City Council operates now. They just pull things out of the air. If they were real business people, they’d do what’s called a cost-benefit analysis, and they would look at it, and they would sit with the police, and sit with the CFO for the city, and they would work out what it would cost, and what the benefits would be. How much money is it costing us to use police officers and contract people to run prisoners to Banning? How much does it cost us to run vehicles back and forth to Banning? Also, there’s a way—and we did this before—where we could use space in that jail (and we) can actually charge the federal government, and other local governments, for us to hold their prisoners there, so we can make it an operation that is cost-effective. We just need to look at it and see how to do it.

3. What, if anything, should be done about alleged corruption in Palm Springs city government? Be specific.

It’s alleged. There’s a lot in the media about it, and all I know is what I read in the media. However, it’s very true that in a relationship, whether it’s a personal relationship, a business relationship or a government relationship, once trust has been lost or has been compromised, it is extremely difficult to get it back or repair it, if not impossible. That’s why I really feel because of the lack of trust and confidence in the integrity of certain members of our City Council, including the mayor, we need fresh blood and fresh perspective in City Hall, particularly people whose integrity cannot be questioned. I use as an example my 40 years of (a) professional career, 22 years as a Naval officer and 17 years as a corporate executive. My reputation, my history, is spotless. Those are two professions—military officer and corporate executive—where you’re under a microscope. You’re watched closely. My career is very well-documented. That’s not something I can just say. People Google me.… I was very highly decorated senior officer, and if you go to my website, you can read the citations for medals that I won, and if you Google my career, you can find all kinds of magazine articles about my career. My life is an open book.

4. What specific steps will you take to help solve the city’s homelessness issue?

Right now, we have a task force, and this task force, I’m sure, after the election is over, will quietly fade away. It’s not something that’s going to be effective, because it’s temporary. The homeless situation is a permanent problem, a permanent challenge, and it needs to be addressed in a permanent way. I’ve said since Day 1, over six months ago when I first kicked off the campaign: We need a permanent commission, comprised of probably nine, like the Sustainability Commission, residents of Palm Springs who have a passion and knowledge (of) and concern for the homeless situation and for social services, to look at this on an ongoing basis, to study what other cities are doing and come up with some innovative ideas … and bring them to the city and the City Council and the mayor. I don’t pretend to be an expert in social services; I’m not. However, there are people in the city who are, and I learned in the military and in the corporate world: When you have a problem, you put together people who are really experts in that field, and you let them do their job, and you listen to them, which is what we need to do.

Also, we need to hire a permanent person on staff who is a specialist in social services and in homelessness. We have somebody on the city staff now, Michele Mician, who’s our sustainability manager, and she does an excellent job of bringing ideas to the City Council and the Sustainability Commission on how to address sustainability issues. We need to do this with the homeless issue.

We need to go out to the county, the state and the federal government and ask for grants. We currently have no requests out there for grants, and there’s plenty of money in the federal government for this. Also, one out of five of the homeless people out there, from my reading, are veterans, and we need to find these homeless people who are veterans and put them in touch with existing programs to help our homeless veterans. There is money in the federal government to do that, and we need to get that. Also, on this permanent, permanent homeless commission which I want to establish, I would ask the tribe to provide at least two or three seats on that commission, because the homeless issue is something that’s a concern of the Native Americans in Palm Springs … as well as to the city of Palm Springs. I would like to see this as a joint effort between the tribe, and the city of Palm Springs, and the residents of Palm Springs, and the members of the tribe, to find some solutions to this problem, because the homeless problem is getting worse and worse. It’s threatening our neighborhoods; it’s threatening our downtown. It’s threatening our primary industry, which is tourism. I’ve seen tourists virtually chased away from in front of restaurants where they were looking at the menus to go inside, and homeless people come up to them, and they grab their kids and they go down the street, because they’re intimidated. We cannot have this. The first thing you have to do with homeless people is get a roof over their heads—get them in a place where we can help them, where we can get them the resources they need. This is also a very difficult problem which has to be handled carefully. I would work hand in hand with this commission I want to establish. I want to be involved in it, and I want to … meet with them frequently and hear what they’re coming up with, their ideas and their solutions, because one thing you don’t want to have is an unintended consequence of making our city too attractive, where people go, “Oh, Palm Springs is the place to go if you’re homeless, because they have all these wonderful programs. We need to make sure that these are programs where homeless people can help themselves, where we’re not just giving things away to them.

5. Do you support electing City Council members by district, or do prefer the current at-large system? Why?

Absolutely (by district). It’s on my website. The city charter says we would have four City Council members and a mayor. One of the first things I want to do is convene an ad hoc committee—this is what ad hoc committees are for, a one-time look at something, not something like homelessness—with a couple City Council members and some residents to look at our 1994 charter, and look again at a couple of issues. One is, I would like to see six City Council members plus one mayor, because there’s a lot going on in the city, and right now, because of the Brown Act, if you have an ad hoc committee of City Council members, you can’t have more than two, because three is a majority. So if we had seven on the City Council—six council members and a mayor—we could have ad hoc committees of three, and we could have more ad hoc committees, so more work can get done. When I was chairman of the Measure J Commission, that’s how we got our work done, was ad hoc committees … .

I would hope that this task force would look at whether we need four, five or six districts in Palm Springs. We’d have to look at the best way to do this, to be careful we don’t gerrymander it, to make it fair, and perhaps one of these seats would be at large. That’s what some cities do. Perhaps each one, perhaps they should all  … the jury’s out on that. I’d like to see what would be recommended. But people in Desert Highlands, north Palm Springs, Four Seasons, even in south Palm Springs—they’re not being represented, and if we did this, we would have representation of all the people in Palm Springs. Palm Springs is 46,000 people; Palm Springs is not a small section of Palm Canyon Drive and a few wealthy developers and a few powerful businesspeople.

Also, I think we should have term limits. One, there are term limits on every board and commission in the city except the City Council. It’s sort of like Congress, when they exempt themselves from law. The City Council has exempted themselves from the term limits they require for every other board and commission. We need to have term limits, because if you’re in office too long, I don’t care who you are, I think there’s too much temptation to become a little too cozy with the rich and powerful, and we have to stop that. Also, if someone’s been in City Council for 12, 16 years, it makes it virtually impossible for anyone unseat them, because they’ve got all these relationships built, and they can get large amounts of donations from wealthy and powerful individuals, which someone challenging them cannot do. That’s the problem I’ve had. My incumbent is getting large checks from Harold Matzner and other people who have vested interests in what happens on the City Council. They don’t want to see me come in, because I won’t do that.

Third, I think we should have maximum contributions to people who are running for mayor and City Council. Right now, if you were going to support a presidential candidate or a congressional candidate, or virtually any office but City Council or mayor, you’re limited. … However, in city government, if one individual wants to write a check for $100,000 to a candidate running for office, it’s legal, and they can do it. What’s really terrible is if a person or a business writes a check to a candidate for $100,000, and that (candidate) wins, as soon as that candidate’s seated, they have no recusal requirements for those campaign contributions. That is just a rich environment for influence-peddling, and it needs to be stopped. Also, I would like to see us put a spending cap on campaigns, because people who do have the ear of the rich and powerful, with these unlimited contributions, you have to raise $200,000, or $250,000 to run a campaign in Palm Springs. We need to put a limitation, maybe $50,000, $60,000 for a campaign, and let the person who can manage their money the best get the most bang for their buck.

6. If you were not running for this office, which of your opponents would get your vote? Why?

I’m sorry, but there’s not another candidate running who I would support. One candidate who I would have perhaps looked at very closely and supported was Michael Birnberg, who dropped out.

7. A dear friend is in town for just one night, and asks you where to go for dinner. Where are you sending this dear friend?

The opportunities in Palm Springs are virtually limitless. I usually send people to Lulu. The reason for that is because it’s fun; it’s very Palm Springs; it’s got that wonderful mid-century vibe; and it’s right in the middle of downtown. The food is good; the drinks are good; the happy hour goes until closing, and it’s just a fun place to go. It’s not real serious dining. If they want to go out for serious dining, really good food, I’d probably send them to Eight4Nine or Spencer’s. But one night in Palm Springs, and I’ve done this quite a few times, it’s normally Lulu, because it’s fun; it’s Palm Springs; it’s mid-century modern; it’s bright; it’s cheerful; it’s colorful. And the waiters are cute. Jerry Keller says he knows his audience. Oh, one other place, if they really wanted good food, is Zin. Zin has really excellent food.

8. Name one business or service that you wish Palm Springs had (but currently does not have).

One thing I’ve been pushing for is, I’m a retired (information technology) executive. I know the IT world. I know people like Larry Ellison pretty well. Right now, in Palm Springs, our one and only industry, really, is tourism. I would like to see us encourage high-tech businesses, high-tech companies, to open branch offices in Palm Springs. I know, because of experience, that the young people who make good money and are in that field, they like the kind of lifestyle we offer in Palm Springs, and it really doesn’t matter where they work. We can encourage these companies to have their people come to Palm Springs. We have plenty of room around here to build condo-type office space. These young people, these programmers, they don’t use an office on a daily basis. They work from home. However, they need a place where they can go occasionally and work as a team, so to build some quote “condo offices” unquote for high-tech companies here in Palm Springs would be a real shot in the arm, and it would give us young people who have good incomes and are well-educated. They like to go out to eat; they like to go out and enjoy the kind of things we have in Palm Springs. They like the bicycle; they like to hike; it would be ideal for them. And also, if they need to go to San Francisco or Dallas, to where their corporation is, they can jump on a plane and be there in a very short time.

I am going to start, at the very beginning, and reach out to the people I know in the high-tech world, and start encouraging this. When I was an IT executive, I had staff on four continents. I had people in India working; I had people in South America working; I had people in remote cities working, so it would be ideal for Palm Springs.

9. Which annual Coachella Valley event or festival is your favorite? Why?

Opera in the Park. It’s in Palm Springs; it is hugely popular. I think this year, there were like 3,000 people there. It provides an introduction to culture to young people, and it’s free! It’s free, and it’s not provided by the city. The Palm Springs Opera Guild (of the Desert)—full disclosure: I’m on the board of the Palm Springs Opera Guild—raises money through their annual fundraising, etc., to put this on. The Palm Springs Opera Guild also provides an annual program for bringing opera in to all of the schools in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. We have plenty of rock music and stuff going on out in Coachella, but having a classical venue like this, a beautiful event on a Sunday afternoon, in beautiful Palm Springs, in one of our parks, that is free and open to the public, is absolutely wonderful.

10. If the FBI was about to raid your home or office, which personal item would you grab to make sure it didn't get broken?

It would probably be one of my art pieces. I have a 15th century Ming Dynasty piece of porcelain which I purchased 35 years ago when I was in the Navy that’s very important to me. I would probably grab that, because I wouldn’t want this 15th century piece of porcelain broken.

Published in Politics