By Alan Boinus
It is Fourth of July weekend and a good time to reflect on our democratic republic. While we vote for representatives, in Laguna Beach we give up a little democracy in exchange for running things like a company with a city manager. In Laguna “our boss” is John Pietig. We cannot vote him out and he is not directly accountable to us. This tradeoff works most of the time, but the need for accountability is crucial when policy collides with management, which in the case of the village entrance, has become the “perfect storm” for things going wrong.
The village entrance is a big project designed by committee. As “they” say, “A camel is a horse designed by committee.” The village entrance camel would feature a five-story unaesthetic parking structure that may take more than five years to complete at the busy intersection of Forest and Broadway. It is a Bandaid on parking and congestion yielding only 200 net parking spaces at a cost of more than $42 million and would obligate the taxpayer to the risk of covering a 25-year bond. Many people (myself included) feel we would be best to prioritize undergrounding utilities and have a public vote like we have done on other big items, like Laguna Canyon or the Montage.
I am an experienced Internet and Google researcher and began researching village entrance with keywords including environmental impact report, toxicity remediation, congestion, response to comments, etc. But recently this has led to empty webpages: “Sorry, you have reached a page that is no longer available!”
I went to the Internet archives to investigate and discovered something quite remarkable: As recently as January 2013, the city’s webpage that is no longer available used to contain “menu items” with “links” to 37 environmental impact documents.
Mr. Pietig explained that this was likely an “Internet glitch.” But I challenged this because Internet menu items simply do not arbitrarily disappear. He later admitted that the city staff was trying to “reorganize” the information to make it more accessible. But interestingly, Mr. Pietig did not inform me “when” the changes were made. That information actually came from a junior level staffer who was ordered to change the website on March 14, 12 days before the critical City Council vote on the village entrance of March 26.
All of this led to considerable confusion. Why was it necessary to change the website that essentially had gone unaltered for nearly three years just 12 days before the Council vote? Were there any items left out in the newly reorganized website? Why didn’t city management tell anybody what they were doing?
Mr. Pietig tried to dismiss the significance by suggesting that the city doesn’t recommend Google and all EIR information is available at City Hall. But this falls flat: 1) Google is how the public uses the Internet, preferring it to going to City Hall; 2) the city created a perfectly fine website that the public relied on before it was changed on March 14; 3) city management did not inform the public it had changed the website prior to the Council vote on March 26.
Ultimately the City Council needed an informed public before its vote on the village entrance. While the mistakes may have been innocent, they are not inconsequential. Such blunders interrupted the public’s right to know and interfered with the political process. The remedy is to fix the website and have a public vote on the village entrance. What better way to celebrate democracy in Laguna Beach on the Fourth of July?
Alan Boinus is a 24 year Laguna Beach resident and community activist. He co-hosts with Jim Kennedy the weekly political and community talk show “Clashing Heads” on radio KX 93.5.