Councilmember calls for ‘independent investigation’ of city commission chaired by would-be political opponent

Palm Springs City Councilmember Dennis Woods shocked his fellow elected officials Thursday evening as he called for an “independent investigation” of the city’s Measure J Oversight Commission, chaired by a local business owner who has declared his candidacy for Woods’ District 2 Council seat.

The request, made at the start of the Council’s regular meeting, was immediately met with backlash from Councilmember Geoff Kors, whose husband has volunteered to help with the campaign of the Commission chair, Jeffrey Bernstein.

“I find using our time on this council to attack a political opponent offensive and outrageous,” Kors told Woods. “All of your allegations are totally false.”

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The Measure J tax was first approved by voters in 2011 and allows the city to collect one cent for every dollar spent here, with a few exceptions. The majority of the funds go toward road maintenance, but the Measure J Oversight Commission oversees awarding a portion of the funds to projects proposed by community members each year.

At issue for Woods is the method by which the Commission chooses to allocate those funds — projected to be as much as $3 million this year — and specifically the involvement of Bernstein, the owner of a Downtown retail business who is also active in several organizations which Woods claimed could benefit from the funds.

“The Commission [is] asking people who have applied to pitch their projects as if they were on the Donald Trump show or something,” Woods said. “Yet they eliminated some of the projects before they were given a chance to pitch.”

“This has the potential to show favoritism and opens the process up to corruption, and it’s not a good model that we want to set,” Woods added. “The Commission has a rating sheet for the projects that was not available to the public or to me. The overall rating sheet is held by the chair.”

“That is not transparent, and that is not the protections we put into place,” he concluded, referring to the aftermath of a 2015 FBI visit to Palm Springs where the agency seized documents both at City Hall and a former mayor’s home. The FBI visit ultimately resulted in corruption charges against that mayor, Stephen Pougnet, and local developers.

Woods, who has yet to formally declare his reelection bid, also took issue with the fact some of his fellow Council members were backing Bernstein. He asked that they be removed from any decisions involving his proposed investigation due to their relationships with him.

“I’m going to ask because of the chair’s political ties with several of the councilmembers and his close friendship, and the fact that he’s giving donations, that the Council not be involved, that it be independent,” Woods said.

Reached for comment Thursday evening, Bernstein said there was no merit to Woods’ claims.

“Measure J  is strictly an advisory commission,” he said. “We have no financial authority. We have actually not allocated almost all of the 2021-2022 budget. I personally have been advocating that we speak with City Council for some time due to COVID. That has been difficult to schedule and there have been many other priorities.”

He also objected to the timing of the request.

“The fact that Mr. Woods raises these accusations two weeks after I announced my campaign to run in the same district as he currently serves speaks volumes,” Bernstein said. ” Anyone who knows my track record respects my integrity.”

Kors, whose husband James Williamson volunteered to help Woods with his 2019 campaign and is listed as treasurer of Bernstein’s campaign this year, not only objected to any investigation but defended Bernstein’s actions as chair of the Commission. He said none of the various boards and organizations Bernstein is involved with would benefit from any of the tax monies.

“To use the dais for a candidate attack, I think that’s one of the most outrageous things I’ve seen on this dais, and I’ve seen a lot,” Kors said. “It’s totally offensive.”

In the end, Woods’ request fell far short. Looking for advice after the unusual request, Mayor Lisa Middleton asked for the city attorney’s guidance. He instructed the Council to move forward with other business unless it was prepared to place the matter on a future agenda.

After failing to find a second for that action, Woods said he would file his request as a whistleblower complaint.


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