Councilmember calls for ‘independent investigation’ of city commission chaired by 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 is managing 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.”
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 filed paperwork for his reelection bid in early January, 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 managed Woods’ 2019 campaign but chose to manage 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.
COVID RESTRICTIONS: The Palm Springs City Council on Thursday gave City Manager Justin Clifton the authority to roll back restrictions put in place in order to battle COVID-19 in the city at a time he deems proper. Clifton was instructed to remove the restrictions based on scientific data and other signals that he chooses to monitor, including moves made by the state and county and consultation with experts. He is also authorized to remove the restrictions in phases, meaning a rule requiring proof of vaccination to dine indoors can be rescinded prior to the rule to mask-up inside businesses. There was no immediate timeline given for when Clifton may begin lifting the restrictions, but the city will communicate his decisions as soon as they are made.
NO COD UPDATE: College of the Desert officials who were expected to attend the Palm Springs City Council meeting Thursday evening to answer questions regarding the planned West Valley Campus and other facilities were unable to attend due to scheduling conflicts. A presentation and discussion will take place at a date in the future. The West Valley Campus, which will be located in Palm Springs, has been in development since 2004 and raised almost $1 billion dollars in tax revenue for construction. It remains in the planning phase, frustrating taxpayers and city officials alike.
REMINDER ON STREET STREET CLOSURES: Motorists in the city are being advised to be aware of road closures this weekend for the annual Tour de Palm Springs cycling event. the 24th annual event will take place today and Saturday, impacting traffic throughout the city, primarily on Saturday when up to 4,000 cyclists will navigate local roadways on rides up to 100 miles. A complete list of streets that will be impacted was made available by the city and can be found here.
MIZELL CENTER: The Mizell Center, 480 South Sunrise Way, offers multiple classes and programs today, starting at 8 a.m. You can find a complete list of all today’s classes online here.
SUNSHINE SISTERS: The Palm Springs Sunshine Sisters will be doing an easy bike ride together through Mesquite Golf Course at 9 a.m. You can sign up to be part of the group — formed to help women make new connections and friendships — on Meetup here.
BINGO WITH THE SISTERS: The Palm Springs Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence holds its next bingo event Sunday at 7 p.m. at One Eleven Bar, 67555 E Palm Canyon Dr. in Cathedral City. For $20 you can play seven games and win cash prizes. There’s even $1 shots every time the O69 ball is called. If you bring a friend you’ll get an extra 50/50 card. The Sisters are a registered nonprofit organization that supports multiple charities in the greater Coachella Valley.
BOOMER BOYS: The Boomer Boys Musical is making its way to Palm Springs for five performances this evening through Sunday. Performances are at 8 p.m. tonight; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Sunday, at Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road. Tickets range from $33 to $58. For more information, visit www.theboomerboysmusical.com.
FARMERS’ MARKET: The Palm Springs Certified Farmers’ Market is held at 2300 E. Baristo Rd. (adjacent to The Camelot Theatres) from 8:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. on Saturday. All Certified Farmers’ Markets offer a $15/$15 match to customers participating in CalFresh EBT and a $10/$10 match for WIC, SSDI, and federal unemployment. Find more details about all three Coachella Valley Certified Farmers’ Markets here.
BIKE EVENT: Online registration for the annual Tour de Palm Springs, planned for Saturday, is closed, but you can still register in person today and tomorrow from 6 a.m. until 10 a.m. on South Palm Canyon near Baristo. The event features walking and cycling routes, some as long as 100 miles, kicking off between 6:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. All of the routes start and finish on South Palm Canyon Drive near Tahquitz Canyon Way. More information about the event, which includes vendor displays and a high school jazz band performance Downtown this evening, can be found here.
FOOD DISTRIBUTION: Well in the Desert distributes food every Saturday at 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. at 181 N. Indian Canyon Dr. For the early distribution, guests typically begin lining up at 5 a.m. and must show proof of residency. Guests are asked to bring a box, bags, or other containers to transport food items for both distributions. More information is available by phoning the Well’s office at 760-656-8905.
FLEA MARKET: A flea market and food fest are held Saturdays at 675 Crossley Rd. from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. Information can be found here.
SUNSHINE SISTERS: The Palm Springs Sunshine Sisters will hold a “Galentine’s Day” lunch at Panera Bread on Saturday at 11 a.m. after participating in the Tour de Palm Springs earlier that morning. They will also have a happy hour and dancing at Wally’s Desert Turtle in Rancho Mirage at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. On Sunday they plan to attend The Boomer Boys musical at Palm Springs Cultural Center. You can sign up to be part of the group — formed to help women make new connections and friendships — on Meetup here.