By Jennifer Erickson | LB Indy
Toni Iseman taught junior high and high school classes for 12 years before switching from teaching to counseling and discovering a preference for working with students one-on-one. That penchant now informs her approach as an elected member of the Laguna Beach City Council. “I’m always concerned about the individual,” she said in a recent interview.
As she winds up 16 consecutive years on the City Council, including three stints as mayor, Iseman, 68, last month announced her decision to pursue a fifth term because “there’s no one else running who represents my values.” Those include her appreciation for the historic elements in Laguna and a belief that “our decisions need to be made first with the residents in mind.”
Thus far, four challengers and two incumbents have declared their candidacy for three positions on the City Council in the Nov. 4 election. The final filing deadline is Aug. 13.
However, Iseman is quick to point out that serving residents first does not exclude her support for a vibrant downtown. “The merchants have two audiences, visitors and residents, and successful businesses cater to both,” she said.
Iseman’s respect for small businesses and their inherent risks comes from her own experience. She grew up in a suburb of Omaha, Neb., where her father owned a women’s clothing store whose fate was linked with the success of the farming families he catered to. When a drought in Nebraska put farmers in dire straits and drained their discretionary income, her father watched the receipts dwindle until he eventually lost the store.
Sometimes a storeowner can do everything right, but outside factors cause them to fail, she said. That’s why she intervened with Southern California Edison to postpone a planned power shutoff near Nyes Place for the Friday before Christmas in 2007. It would have meant a huge loss for retailers like Bill Merrill, the co-owner of Black Iris florist, on one of their busiest days of the year.
Iseman’s 35-year career in education included more than a decade as a teacher in Santa Ana classrooms and 14 years as a counselor at Orange Coast College. She retired 10 years ago, midway through her second term in office.
Iseman moved to California in 1969 and talked her then husband into moving to Laguna in 1970, because of it’s small size and a “real downtown” that reminded her of the town she grew up in. Proximity to diving finally convinced her husband it was worth paying the $240 a month rent for a two-bedroom, two-bath place on the Third Street hill.
Rents aren’t the only things that have gone up in Laguna since then. Now a hot topic, congestion was not really an issue when Iseman made the daily trek out Canyon Road to her job in Santa Ana. It was just a 25-minute commute, she said. But now she is very concerned about “our commuters who are trapped” and believes it is imperative to public safety to address ways to get out of town in the event of a disaster.
“We are an island of sanity, and our job is to figure out how to deal with the fact that everybody wants to come to Laguna. It’s a nice problem, but we have to get them out of their cars,” said Iseman, who successfully advocated for the free summer trolleys now enjoyed by tourists and residents alike.
Over her lengthy tenure on the Council, Iseman says she’s learned that “everything gets better with negotiation.” Completing the new lifeguard headquarters took years, for instance, but as a result, “we really did it right,” she said.
“I see solutions, and sometimes they take a long time and sometimes they don’t,” she said. But Iseman views it her responsibility as an elected official to keep pursuing the envisioned outcome, which includes her desire to carve out safe bike lanes on Laguna Canyon Road. Her proposal to post traffic aides at busy intersections downtown did not instantly take root, for example. But now everyone appreciates their assistance on busy weekends, she said.
Iseman’s desire to hold a decision-making position to help the people in a town she loves trumps the inevitable backlash from disgruntled constituents. “I’ve made everybody mad at least once over the years,” she said, adding that the people who get the maddest are the ones who supported her. “The expectation is that I’ll be there on every point,” she said, whereas opponents expect to be disappointed and then become inordinately pleased when they approve of your actions.
Besides serving on the City Council, Iseman served on the California Coastal Commission from 2003 to 2005, continues to serve on the South Orange County Wastewater Authority and represents the city at Orange County Vector Control, among public positions.
She’s also no stranger to advocacy as a citizen, earning a reputation as the “Phantom of the Canyon” in the 1980s when she surreptitiously staked anti-Irvine Company signs in the canyon to protest proposed development.
When it comes to a cause she champions, “I’m relentless,” said Iseman.