Faced with whether to award a contract to an organization that would ultimately be responsible for recommending a path forward for reparations in the city, a majority of the Palm Springs City Council on Thursday night instead asked that staff go back out to bid.
During an hour-long discussion that followed an hour of public comments, a majority of councilmembers expressed doubts that the organization — The Trustees of Columbia University — could be unbiased in its approach.
At issue for a trio of councilmembers was the fact that the nonprofit organization from New York includes members of groups that have advocated for reparations in the past. While staff noted that experience would pay dividends, some on the Council feared they might be inclined to jump ahead in the process.
“I don’t believe this organization is the right one to lead us down the path we want to go,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Bernstein, who, along with councilmembers Ron deHarte and Lisa Middleton, cast the three votes needed to reject the proposed agreement. “Until we have the actual historical facts and research out, I don’t think we should be starting to talk with an organization that advocates for reparations.”
City staff, which has been working on the reparations issue since being directed to do so by the prior City Council in 2021, assured councilmembers that fact-finding would come first, should the $500,000 contract be approved.
“I get the concept that somebody who advocates for this cannot be objective,” said Kim Baker, the city’s procurement and contracting manager. “However, that’s not how they came across. They are looking for the facts. Once they have the facts, and only if the council is comfortable, will they move forward.”
“It’s really important that you know the work we do is not exempt of anybody’s voices,” added Linda Mann, an associate adjunct professor at Columbia and director of the Redress Network who would have served as project manager. “We engage with all stakeholders within a community where they are looking to reconcile their history. The research leads our work. … There are no prepackaged solutions at all.”
For now, however, Mann and her colleagues at Columbia are out of the picture. Instead, the city will go back out to bid on a contract, seeking individuals or organizations that can focus first on completing the most accurate picture yet of the city’s role in forced evictions of minority residents who lived on a one square mile section of tribal land in the heart of the city more than 50 years ago.
Finding qualified candidates, however, could prove difficult. City staff noted that only two organizations stepped forward to bid on the contract that was up for consideration Thursday evening, and that was after a deadline for bids was extended.
The possibility of more delays in making amends to Section 14 survivors and their descendants didn’t sit well with Councilmember Christy Holstege and Mayor Grace Garner, who were both part of the Council that issued a formal apology and put the wheels in motion to explore reparations that attorneys for a group known as The Section 14 Survivors estimate could cost billions of dollars.
“I’m disappointed in this outcome,” said Holstege just before the vote. “The City Council for the city of Palm Springs issued an apology. We apologized for our role and said we want to do a reparations program, and we know the urgency as so many of the residents are aging. It’s just adding many, many months to this process.”
However, for residents who spoke Thursday evening, slowing down before agreeing to spend $500,000 on a consultant, let alone potentially spending billions of dollars on a reparations program, was worth the extra time. While not opposed to making amends, some urged city leaders to gather the facts first before moving forward with negotiations with the Section 14 Survivors and ultimately deciding what reparations look like in Palm Springs.
“We need an independent arbiter to gather all the facts,” said former Councilmember Ginny Foat. “There are many conflicting stories. All of us want to know exactly what happened.
“We definitely cannot pay a half a million dollars for a predetermined outcome. …I implore you to reject the contract and hire an independent researcher or firm.”
Ultimately, City Attorney Jeffrey Ballinger said, time could be on the city’s side, especially if prior court rulings in similar cases were considered.
“The claimants would have a difficult time obtaining a judgment against the city,” Ballinger said when questioned by Bernstein about a potential lawsuit that could be filed by Section 14 Survivors. “They would have a steep, uphill battle if they were in court.”