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Council Raise Smoking Fines, Approves Memorial Grant

Anyone caught smoking or starting an open fire in so-called “hazardous fire areas” where such actions are prohibited will be subject to a $1,000 fine, a steep increase from the previous cost, the City Council unanimously decided Tuesday.

Prohibited areas include the end of Alta Laguna Boulevard – where teens were recently caught shooting firecrackers into a trash can — along the fire road between Top of the World and Arch Beach Heights, and at the bottom of Canyon Acres.

With the introduction of a new ordinance, anyone caught lighting up a cigarette or starting a fire in areas that are clearly marked with visible signage could be fined $1,000 for each offense if caught. Previously, a first-time offender paid a $100 fine, $500 for a second violation and, finally, $1,000 for the third.

The city’s Disaster Preparedness Committee unanimously endorsed the new law, committee member and local resident Matt Lawson said. “It is difficult to overstate the risk,” he said, as the region enters a fourth year of drought.

Council member Toni Iseman questioned whether law enforcement officers would hesitate to cite first offenders since a $1,000 fine result in a misdemeanor offense and would create a criminal record. She approved a hefty fine, but wanted to be sure all miscreants would be cited, given the severity of the issue.

Council member Steve Dicterow said the Council needed to direct any code enforcing staff members that all scofflaws must be cited. And City Attorney Phil Kohn later noted that there is a provision in the municipal code that allows the city’s code enforcement officers the discretion to issue an administrative citation of $1,000 instead of filing a misdemeanor. City Manager John Pietig agreed to direct staff to cite an infraction at first, only raising it to a misdemeanor if the wrongdoer fails to pay the fine.

After passing the measure, Pietig asked about allowing for a grace period before the law goes into effect. “The only grace period is until the signs are up,” said Dicterow, maintaining a hard line.

“Everyone needs to be aware that the fire risk here in Laguna Beach is high and continues to escalate,” said Lawson.

In other business, the Council formalized a pledge promising a matching grant of up to $10,000 towards a memorial honoring Laguna Beach police officers who have died in the line of duty.

Sparked by the tragic death of Officer Jon Coutchie in September, the Laguna Beach Police Employees Association announced plans for a memorial and a $40,000 fundraising goal for its cost.

The association has received $24,000 so far in donations and ticket sales for a $100 a person fundraiser to be held on Jan. 27 at Mare Culinary Lounge.

With the City Council’s matching grant, association President Larry Bammer is optimistic they will reach their goal this month. Bammer aims for its completion on the first anniversary of Coutchie’s death.

“I am overwhelmed by the love and concern and support that we’ve had from all of you,” said the officer’s mother, Luciana Coutchie, who attended the meeting, barely holding back tears. “I totally understand why my son chose to work here.”

 

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