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Who’s Next in Line for Mayor?

Mayor Pro Tem Verna Rollinger’s losing bid for another four-year term on Laguna Beach’s City Council earlier this month opens the question of who will serve as Laguna Beach’s next mayor.

There is no particular order that the five-member council follows for the one-year appointment, decided at the prerogative of council members during their next meeting on Dec. 4, City Atty. Phil Kohn said. Council members-elect Steve Dicterow and Robert Whalen, who also take office at the same meeting, are as eligible for the honorary post as incumbents Kelly Boyd, Toni Iseman and Elizabeth Pearson.

“I certainly don’t want to disparage Bob or Steve and tell them they don’t have a chance to be mayor if they get three votes for it,” said Kohn.

Whalen, outgoing city planning commissioner with the lowest attendance record of that group over the past year, according to planning commission minutes, said he doesn’t expect the bid.  “I expect it will be given to one of the current council members because they have the experience,” he said.

Dicterow, who previously served on the city council for 12 years, said he, too, is not anticipating a mayoral nod.  “Traditionally, the new guys are put to the back of the line,” he said.  “Normally, whatever the order was the last time amongst Toni, Kelly and Elizabeth, the council stays to that order.”  Dicterow said he feels all five council members are qualified and that he’d be happy to serve as mayor if and when the opportunity arises.

The city clerk’s office said there have been several instances where the mayor pro tem did not automatically assume the mayor’s position either because the council member serving as mayor pro tem was not re-elected, as in Rollinger’s case, or for personal as well as political reasons.

Prior to Egly, Iseman served as mayor and, before her, Pearson.  Boyd is considered the next to wield the gavel.

More than who wields the gavel is expected to change with the newly seated council members. With 4,370 votes, Mayor Jane Egly garnered more votes than Rollinger’s 4,347, but she also lost her bid for a return term on the council.  Some consider the loss of the two incumbents a blow to the council’s pro-environmental faction, usually comprised of Rollinger, Iseman and Egly. But analysis of the past year’s council voting records shows inconsistency in the expected eco-voting block on issues affecting health, outdoor activity, water and air quality, and open space.

Village Laguna, a group dedicated to preserving Laguna’s original character and a strong supporter of Rollinger, considers the change a fresh challenge to win favorable future outcomes. “It’s much easier, of course, when you have a majority of environmentalists on the council,” added member Bonnie Hano.  “But we’ll just keep doing what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years and that’s saving the environment as best we can.”

Iseman, considered pro-environment on most issues, may find herself the lone vote on many related issues, according to some council-watchers. “I think the votes are going to be a little more predictable now,” said Steve Kawaratani, a 61-year native and local land-use consultant interested in city politics. “Jane was invariably a swing vote and I don’t see that any longer. Even though the council is supposed to be nonpartisan, there’s going to be three registered Republicans on board and I think we’re going to see an automatic majority for the three of those.  Let’s face it, Toni is going to be much more of a liberal than the other four.”

But Iseman doesn’t’ see herself as the lone wolf. “I don’t think there’s any member of the council now who ran on an anti-environment platform,” she pointed out.  Iseman said she expects to see different coalitions on different issues. “Laguna Beach is a green town,” she said.  “We care very much about the environment.  That’s one of the reasons why we choose to live here.  I think it’s up to the people to ask their leaders.  If their leaders don’t seem to be concerned, it just takes a phone call.  I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.”

Particularly when it comes to “reasonable” development and view protection, however, Kawaratani said he foresees a predictable block of votes from Boyd, Pearson and Dicterow.

Boyd, who has been undergoing medical treatments after breaking two ribs from a coughing spell induced by bronchitis a year ago, returned to council meetings in September after missing three meetings, noticeably straining his voice and having difficulty breathing rhythmically.  Those are his only absences since he was elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2010.

Iseman said she didn’t know who might be nominated or who might accept the mayor’s post. Pearson said the rotation order the council has been following would likely put Boyd next in line.

Still undergoing therapy from the ramifications of his earlier illness and subsequent injury, including therapy three days a week to strengthen his heart and lungs, Boyd is noticeably stronger, walking without a cane and breathing easier.  He said he’d “more than likely” accept the mayoral nomination if he gets the chance.

Boyd said he doesn’t see his health as an issue in fulfilling elected responsibilities.  He serves as the designated council representative on several city committees.

Kohn said the mayor’s seat is up for grabs every year.  “Frankly, more often than not, whoever was mayor pro tem is usually elevated but it doesn’t necessarily work out that way.  So, for this upcoming selection with Verna not having been re-elected, any one of the five could be nominated to serve as mayor.  There’s nothing etched in stone.”

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