Seven candidates vying for three seats on the Laguna Beach City Council together faced a public audience Monday during the first of several candidate forums planned prior to the Nov. 4 election.
While no candidate proved willing to become the standard bearer around a single paramount cause, several candidates said if elected they intend to focus on resolving long festering issues as their priorities, though some also expressed frustration at the current pace of governance.
Among the new ideas that emerged at the Village Laguna-sponsored forum: briefings with the Coastal Commission staff to smooth the path for local projects, a suggestion of Robert Zur Schmiede; hiring a leasing agent to fill empty storefronts, a recommendation of Jon Madison; and eliminating parking on one side of Forest Avenue to allow outdoor dining, a concept touted by Michele Hall. Eli Grossman called for contracting for police services with the Orange County Sheriff and Paul Merritt proposed an expansion of hiring teens for summer jobs within the city.
Candidate platforms with new initiatives were the exception. Finalizing how to freshen the village entrance and make improvements along Laguna Canyon Road –topics that have dominated civic discourse for months — resurfaced in replies to queries over top priorities from incumbents Kelly Boyd and Toni Iseman, as well as that of challengers Madison, Zur Schmiede and Hall.
Madison, a restaurant owner, ticked off a handful of topics of importance – from traffic to canyon development – that need decisions by elected officials instead of being “pushed to committees.”
Merritt, a lawyer, sounded a similar note. “I won’t constantly defer to study groups; we must take action and not study issues to death.”
Boyd, too, seemed fed up with city spending on planning studies, citing, for instance, questions about the effectiveness of a canyon parking lot. “Let’s do it or drop it,” he said.
In defense of such time-consuming committee reviews, Iseman, a multi-term incumbent, pointed out their value. “Committees are necessary to understand what the community wants; we need to hear their thoughts,” she said. In answer to another question about how to build consensus, she added, “when people think they’re being railroaded, they get angry.”
Zur Schmiede, a planning commission member who helped the city hire an urban planner to evaluate the downtown and canyon, expressed more patience with the pace of City Council decision-making. “I’d like to allow the process to move forward,” he said.
Candidate Eli Grossman defined his top priority differently. “The most important issue is the character of the leaders,” he said, adding that leaders “without proper ethics and morals cannot properly decide issues.”
Grossman, a vehement critic of the police department, submitted signatures to secure a ballot slot at the 11th hour. He often demurred in answering questions, saying he lacked enough knowledge of the subject.
Closing statements opened another window on the candidates’ views.
Merritt read a paen to utopian Laguna. Grossman vowed he would not lie. Hall vowed transparency and learning issues thoroughly. Madison promised to iron out contentiousness in a town that he described as becoming less friendly. Zur Schmiede boasted that his professional experience and academic credentials allow him to “hit the ground running from day one.” Boyd pointed with pride to recently enacted city measures. “I want to continue to get projects done,” he said. Iseman pointed out her efforts lobbying federal agencies on the city’s behalf. “I want to be back to finish this,” she said.
Candidates Spar, But Vets Deflect Newcomers
By Allan Simon
It felt like an early round of a boxing match. There was a big crowd, and seats were at a premium. In the left corner were the grizzled vets: Iseman, Boyd and Zur Schmiede. In the right corner, the fresh-faced rookies: Madison, Hall, Grossman, and Merritt.
The vets played defense, as might be expected in an early round, deflecting mostly left jabs; and scoring points with deft footwork and fancy maneuvers.
The newcomers took the offense early but clumsily, particularly Grossman, who hit below the belt early and often. Grossman accused the vets of immorality, unethical behavior, and lying, but the referee didn’t even admonish him. Merritt hit with statistics, but the vets seemed unfazed. Hall showed up with a written “Mandate for Renewal,” scoring the only hit of the night, except for Madison, who told the best joke, describing the new village entrance as a two-sided sign saying “welcome ” to visitors as they entered Laguna, and “get out ” as they left.
It’s a long season, folks. Don’t place any big bets yet. There may be surprises, and the odds may change. At the moment, the vets are holding on to their front-running status. Stay tuned.
Allan Simon owns the Indy and Firebrand Media, which is sponsoring its own candidate debates on