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Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet Looks to the Future

Posted by Morgan Miles Craft On 2:17 PM

From Palm Springs to Washington:
Mayor Steve Pougnet Looks to the Future

Interview by Morgan Craft

Palm Springs mayor Steve Pougnet is in the thick of things here in the Coachella Valley. Elected to the Palm Springs City Council in 2003, he eventually won the Mayor’s seat in 2007 with over 70 percent of the vote, and now serves in leadership positions on numerous commissions and boards throughout the region.
Pougnet is the Chairman of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG), Chairman of the Energy & Water Conservation Subcommittee, as well as Vice-Chairman of the CVAG Energy and Environment Committee. He’s also Vice Chairman of Sunline Transit Agency, a Board Member of the Palm Springs Desert Resort Convention and Visitors Authority, and a member of the Riverside County Transportation Commission.
And he’s running for Congress this year, against an entrenched incumbent in a historically conservative district. I sat down with the Mayor to discuss the city, the region, and his race for Congress. (Click to read on...)

DVS: Much has been made of stimulus money reaching the valley. Give us your view.

MAYOR: The new COD Green Technology Center was partially funded by stimulus funds. There are new police across the valley, and local Pell Grant programs have been helped. In March, City Manager David Ready and I went to Washington to uncover the formula for getting stimulus money, and we asked for money for specific things. Most important for the city was funding the new control tower at the airport, which we hoped might happen through the FAA’s program, but were told then that it would not. We then went to the Air Traffic Control people who have control over airport capital projects and learned that it would be funded. Lots of people are taking credit for the control tower, but it was actually in the 2010 capital budget, so it was coming anyway. And nobody is talking about the fact that stimulus funds are going to be used to help fund the project.
(We did, and according to the FAA’s Western Region office, ARRA funds in fact are going to be used in the control tower project. The exact amount depends on the bids that come in.)

Last March when we went looking for money, most of it was earmarked for infrastructure projects. I also went there as a representative of the Riverside County Transportation Commission, and eventually, RCTC received $41 million for the valley i-10 projects. And since the bids for those projects are coming in less, it’s going to allow us to start the Indian Canyon upgrade in September using stimulus funds. We had some easement issues with the Indian Canyon project but those have been resolved.

DVS: What are the city’s greatest challenges?

MAYOR: The budget is issue number one. We’ve eliminated $12 million out of last year’s budget with a reduction plan that didn’t include cuts to police and fire, plus early retirement and furlough programs, and 10 percent budget cuts in all departments. This will remain the number one issue as long as Sacramento can’t figure out their financial situation; it will impact every municipality in the state of California when they keep gas taxes or take redevelopment funds that are ours. It’s just not right.

Clearly downtown is still an issue, and how and when it’s going to be redeveloped. What Wessman’s project actually looks like, the density, the height, will still be a major issue going forward. You have people in Palm Springs who want nothing and others who desperately want to see it moving forward. We removed all the hurdles for Wessman, and approved the general plan; the Town and Country issue has been resolved and the Modernism Committee isn’t going to sue. So now we’re working directly with him on moving it forward. We’re in a position that no other city council has been in with regard to development of Museum Market Plaza, and there’s nothing that should be stopping this project. We are in a 120-day period of drafting the development agreement which outlines what the city will do and where his proformas are at and can he do the project within an agreed-upon timeline. So, we’ll know in the next couple of months exactly what’s going to happen in terms of timeline and funding for the project, and hopefully we’ll agree on all those terms. We meet every month.

The third issue is economic development and how this city is going to grow and what that looks like. There’s no doubt that the bulk of growth and the population has moved east and that dictates where companies want to locate. We all know a Whole Foods would do great here, and three years ago they said they were coming, but then their corporate decided against it. The economic recovery and realities of where things have shifted to will remain an issue.

DVS: What’s the status of COD West, the new college in Palm Springs?

MAYOR: We are in the final stages of acquiring the 115 acres for the campus. We met with COD president Jerry Patton last week and they have shown me the master plan which we will unveil at the State of the City address on February 9th. I can tell you that it will be the most sustainable, renewable campus in the state, if not the country. Some very creative and interesting things will be happening there, and they hope to have students by the end of 2013, early 2013 at the latest. They have $29 million in bond money that’s moving the project, and are putting additional funds to the project which I will also announce on February 9th. We meet on a weekly basis and there’s a huge commitment of effort toward the project with their staff.

DVS: There’s an ongoing issue of broken windmills in the San Gorgonio Pass. Where do you stand?

MAYOR: It’s a huge issue. Windmills are great and they produce energy, but they break, and when that happens there are safety issues, and when they leak fluids into the ground that’s also an issue. We have an issue with a large out-of-state operator, and I think that the city needs to take a hard line with the operators, and the owners of the land that hold the leases, because they’re hazards. It’s unfortunate that operators are getting subsidies and tax breaks and not maintaining these things, and we’re going to be very aggressive in going after them to ensure the highest and best use for the city. These are very long leases we’re talking about, and with technology advancing so rapidly, having 25 year-old inefficient windmills out there makes no sense. The city is looking to do business with companies that are willing to adapt to change and make sure the equipment is legal, safe, and works. We’ll use every bit of legal means we have to ensure that things are operating safely in the city of Palm Springs. If not, they should move on.

DVS: How do you feel about the progress of your highly-publicized Sustainability initiative?

MAYOR: We’re beginning to hit our stride with the program. It’s been a year since it was adopted. Step number 20 of the plan was hiring the Sustainability Manager, who’s in place and doing a great job. The school district has implemented an excellent sustainability program operation-wide, and so has the health care district with their landscaping. We put in irrigation smart timers from the DWA in test homes in each of our 17 neighborhoods as a pilot project, and in all those sites water consumption is down 46%. We’re working on a rebate program for those $179 items because the cost savings is incredible. The city process doesn’t move as fast as I’d like it to, but we’ve gone through the process of redesigning the Tahquitz Canyon medians, which is going to be a very visible sustainable addition to the city. We have money in the Sustainable Recycling fund for the project and it will move forward.

We have an ecotourism task force which is doing great projects, and the city’s trails and trailheads are a focus, which hasn’t ever happened. We have a clean tech renewable energy task force which is also doing great work. Assembly Bill 811, which Palm Desert helped moved forward, and which makes solar affordable, is a great project, but it’s difficult to move forward without funding, and there’s very few municipalities in the state right now that can afford to do that. Along with the National League if Cities we’re looking for funding to make that happen. Until we find the source of money for those rebates to run with your taxes, it’s going to be hard to do it. Every city should be able to take advantage of that program.

I would love to have some sort of turf buyback program like has been introduced in other cities, and to work with Desert Water Agency on such an effort. There’s a number of developments and HOA’s that have gotten smart and are already doing it and saving themselves a lot of money, like the Biltmore’s phase 3, and their savings and sales are through the roof. The DWA has been very helpful in doing water audits for these HOA’s and showing them how to save lots of money.

DVS: What’s the update on your Congressional bid?

MAYOR: Since I announced we’ve raised almost $600 thousand, and my challenger does have more cash on hand since she started the race with $350K from her last campaign. Minus that, I’ve almost matched her dollar for dollar in the second and third quarters, which is pretty good for a challenger in a difficult economy. I’m raising much of my money within the district which is important because it’s where the votes are. And now we’re raising additional money nationwide. I’ll be in DC, Philly, and New York for fundraisers next week, and we’ve had successful fundraisers in LA, San Francisco and La Jolla recently. Much of my challenger’s money comes from back east, and we calculate she’s only raised 12 percent within the district, as opposed to my forty eight.

DVS: How do you differentiate yourself from your challenger?

MAYOR: The main difference between us I feel is leadership. I expect to be judged on what I’ve accomplished for the city of Palm Springs, an experience she’s never had, running the business of a city. If we had moved nowhere during my council and mayor tenures, then I wouldn’t feel as confident as I do about running. I’ve done everything I said I was going to do. When in congress you have to look at how much money you’re bringing back to the district, and we rank second to the last in the state right now. And how much legislation you’ve offered for the district. In 11 or 12 years, she’s offered virtually none.

All politics is local, and I’m in touch with the local issues, down to a municipal scale. She spends very little of her time here, and much back east. This is one of the largest districts in the country, and you simply cannot cover it all effectively by being back east, as an entrenched Washington politician. Real, local leadership skills are what are going to help you get down to business and make the deals that are going to make things happen for the district. I want to make life better for the people who live here. It’s no secret that since I announced she’s been spending more time here. To me the reaction is too little too late.

I would have voted for the Recovery Act, which she didn’t, but I would have made sure more immediate job creation was included. The Republicans created this mess and don’t want to be a part of any of the solutions. History has taught us that spending was the solution to get out of the hole we found ourselves in. The opposition frames the entire stimulus as wasteful and pick out any inefficiency they find to refute the whole program. Sure, there were some things that shouldn’t have been funded, but in terms of monetary policy it was absolutely necessary. You have to put money into the system. Am I concerned about deficits? Of course I am. I have 2 young children. I’m a Democrat, but with this city’s money I’ve been very conservative. I’ve had budgets to manage, which my opponent never has.

No one has “political capital,” because they represent every voter in the district, not just the ones that voted for them. When I won with 70% of the vote it was because I was able to bring people together and represent them effectively at the same time.

I’ve been spending a lot of time across the district, in Murietta, San Jacinto and Hemet, and the communities have received me very well. Plus, I’m on the Riverside County Transportation Commission and have been involved in planning for the entire county. I have a trip scheduled to Blythe soon. It’s a huge district, with half of it in the expensive LA media market, and no one has ever marketed themselves effectively to that part of the district. I will be. We have an active fundraising apparatus over there, and the Moreno Valley is historically Democratic-voting, a commuter city where many people vote by mail, so there’s huge opportunities there. The Latino vote is between 30-30% of this district now, and we’re going to be reaching out and talking to them about the issues that concern them and getting people to register to vote.

DVS: What are the status and your view on Prop 8, the Right to Marry?

MAYOR: It didn’t do well in the district, but better in the Coachella Valley. It’s in litigation now and an issue for the courts. Look, I married 118 couples, and I’m sure sometime during my campaign they will use that as a wedge issue. But when you see the love in those people’s eyes as I did, no one in their right mind could see anything but that they love each other. A lot of money goes into the effort against it, but the part that bothers me the most is when children are used as a weapon in the fight. And now that I have children I find that very offensive. Half the married couples in this country get divorced, so don’t talk to me about couples who have children with parents who unconditionally love them – straight or gay. But this is how democracy works and now it’s an issue of litigation, and eventually there will be a vote in favor. Without the courts, blacks and whites wouldn’t be able to marry in this country. Having a job, and taking care of and protecting your family are the most important things in their lives. The people who will pick this up and make it an issue in the congressional race, well they would never have voted for me anyway. But my family and my children and the love we have are no different than any other family.

DVS: What national issues do you think you’d focus on in Congress?

MAYOR: I come from a health care family, and it’s still going to be an issue. My father was a doctor and my mother a nurse, and Christopher has a nursing degree and MBA and works in the pharmaceutical industry. Sen. Boxer chairs that committee, among others, and can help produce a lot of money for this district. My job in DC will be to lead for this district, and the only way you do that is to learn. There are many caucuses and committees that I can be a part of, and groups to network with that didn’t vote for me. I’m excited about that.

DVS: What don’t people know about you?

MAYOR: I love chocolate way too much, hence the jar on my desk. And I love exercise. I’ve run 14 marathons and an Iron Man. There’s no better way to feel you can attack the host of issues before you than with a clear head and sharp mind from exercise. And politics is a passion for me. Ask my friends from years ago and they’ll say they knew this was going to be my course. If I serve one term and don’t do my job and improve our standing federally, I don’t want to be asked back. I’ve always worked hard and I’m passionate about what I’m trying to do, which is help make better lives for people here, and that’ll be no different when I go to Washington.

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