If elected to the Palm Springs City Council in November, Lisa Middleton would be the first openly transgender person elected to a non-judicial office in the Golden State, according to the LGBT civil rights group Equality California.
That fact alone carries significant weight here, and Middleton has never shied away from the topic. But she hopes the public can see beyond the historic implications of her campaign and toward the work she’s done, not only for LGBT communities.
In addition to 36 years with the State Compensation Insurance Fund of California, where she worked as an auditor and retired as a senior VP of internal affairs, Middleton chaired the Organized Neighborhoods of Palm Springs, or ONE-PS. She made recommendations for new vacation rental regulations and offered successful reforms to the way street repairs are prioritized.
The experience taught her the value of building consensus.
“Every point of view was represented around our table and to move anything forward we needed a two-thirds vote,” she said. “You learned to right narrow differences and find common ground.”
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After three years on the Palm Springs Planning Commission, she concluded that the city’s general plan needs a regularly scheduled update and that a review of the current plan involving neighborhoods, business leaders and residents should take place immediately. At the same time, she wouldn’t approve any revision that did not protect the city’s architectural heritage, mountain views and undeveloped hillsides.
In a sit-down interview with The Desert Sun, Middleton spoke of Modernism Week as a testament to the city’s success and rebound in recent years. The two-week celebration of Palm Springs’ architectural heritage drew nearly 100,000 people in February.
“They came to see something that we’d preserved,” she said. “It’s a fabulous example of balancing growth on the one hand and preservation on the other.”
The city is filled with competing interests and Middleton is acutely aware of this fact, preferring to see longstanding problems for what they are — complicated, but not impossible to solve. Homelessness is a bigger societal issue, she said, but having emergency housing, and two county social services workers in the area, pays off.
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Next, the city should consider finding a place where the chronically homeless — people suffering from addiction and mental illness — can sleep and sleep safely, she said.
As a former state executive with nearly four decades of experience, Middleton receives an annual pension. But she’s quick to admit that around 2000 state and local officials, including those in Palm Springs, increased benefits to workers on the basis of overly optimistic investment returns.
“Promises made must be kept, but we learned a hard lesson — we cannot make promises we cannot afford,” she said.
At the same time, she is a supporter of Measure D, a proposed sales tax increase that will help pay down the city’s long-term pension and retiree healthcare obligations, and she hopes some of the money will go towards hiring new cops and firefighters.
But she also wants to take a closer look at the data, so that she can see how many of the city’s workers retired between 2000 and 2013, when California lawmakers reduced benefits statewide and raised the age of retirement.
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If Measure D doesn’t pass, she’s open to discussions already taking place about possibly handing control of the animal shelter and the library to the county. The public golf course and swimming pool have also been mentioned as resources the city might consider shedding.
During her time on the planning commission, Middleton advocated for reform. Developers are routinely provided with zoning exemptions by citing a “public benefit” with their project — a small dog park is a common justification — but those benefits are often inadequate and ill-understood, she said.
Instead, she’s proposing that developers who can’t meet a standardized public benefit formula pay into a fund that will go towards affordable housing projects. Some municipalities in the Bay Area are already doing this. Middleton cited the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition as a possible partner with the city.
She’s also supportive of a proposal in front of the city council now that would require solar panels on all new construction, and she wants to see Palm Springs join a regional renewable energy program in the works that would allow residents and businesses to choose their power provider.
Middleton’s election would secure the council’s progressive majority. So why should independents, moderate Democrats and even Republicans consider her candidacy? When asked this question, she pointed to her endorsements and contributors from across the political spectrum, including businessman Harold Matzner and renewable energy developer Frederick Noble — both Republicans — as well as the police and firefighters associations.
More to the point, she’s vowing to hold public office hours every week at city hall and serve thoughtfully and reasonably.
“I am going to listen to every side of every argument,” she promised.
Robert Julian Stone
To read the complete responses to our 2017 Palm Springs City Council candidate questionnaire, please see the database.
Jesse Marx covers politics. Reach him at email@example.com or @marxjesse on Twitter.