Laguna Beach City Council candidates Ruben Flores, Mark Orgill, Jerome Pudwill, Alex Rounaghi, Louis Weil, and incumbents Peter Blake and Sue Kempf, took center stage at the Council Chambers for the first candidate panel Monday night. Each challenger is eying three open spots on City Council for a four-year term.
Village Laguna Vice President Merrill Anderson and board member Ann Christoph moderated the two-hour forum. After the candidates’ two-minute opening statements, the moderators asked a handful of pre-prepared questions ranging from climate change to code enforcement to incentivizing the art community. The public had the chance to submit their own questions prior to the forum.
Leading off was a question regarding how the candidates would protect and enhance Laguna’s beauty and character.
Louis Weil, a Realtor and Design Review Board member, emphasized coming together as a community to solve “real world problems” through the multitude of nonprofits in Laguna to preserve village character. Rounaghi, a Laguna Beach native and chair of the Housing and Human Service Committee, discussed preserving Laguna’s coastline, protecting open spaces and taking care of older community members.
Blake said he’d like to keep Laguna small, quaint and cultured. Kempf discussed keeping storefronts open, reducing Laguna’s population of unsheltered people, and beautification projects. Orgill wants to see a long-term plan for the community aesthetic. Flores answered similarly, emphasizing the need for trees downtown, and finally, Pudwill said he would like Laguna to return to what it was 30 years ago.
“We need low-rise buildings, locally owned businesses, moderate tourism, mitigate parking, and encourage compatible construction and architecture,” Pudwill said. “As Mark [Orgill] said, I also agree we need a long-range vision plan, something that we did have at one time, and we don’t have anymore.”
Climate change was also on the agenda. All candidates agreed the City could do more to move toward zero emissions and increase sustainability. Blake, however, said the responsibility should fall on the individual to see actual results.
The issue of employee morale and retainment of Laguna’s public safety employees was also tackled. The majority of the candidates agreed the turnover was high, especially in the police department, and the culture needed a revamp.
Village Laguna moderators also asked the candidates how they would achieve transparency after the Orange County District Attorney’s Office found significant evidence councilmembers violated the Brown Act during a June 2021 closed session discussion of Hotel Laguna.
Blake maintained the council was never in violation of the Brown Act, while Pudwill, Weil, and Orgill said all closed sessions should be recorded and transparency is of utmost importance. Flores added that incoming council members should be educated on the Brown Act, and Rounaghi said following the law is fundamental. Kempf, who was present at the meeting in question, said the council is trained and constantly reminded about ethics and laws surrounding their position.
Council candidates were also asked to discuss their ideas surrounding the California affordable housing mandate. Rounaghi, who serves as Chair of the Housing and Human Services Committee, said they’re looking at solutions that best suit Laguna.
“Recently to right now, we have our housing element that has not been approved by the state where we need to realistically plan for 394 units with 198 of them being for low or very low-income individuals,” Rounaghi said. “I think we need to be very, very serious about this issue and look at the facts, looking at the laws, and making sure that we’re meeting housing needs locally so the state doesn’t come in and take over.”
Pudwill added that while they are working toward a plan, he’d recommend that the City seek out private and public partnerships, and federal funding for infill housing, new projects, and the adaptive use of commercial buildings. Flores said the issue comes down to city management and Weil and Orgill agreed with Rounaghi, stressing the solution has to be the right fit for the community, but something needed to be done soon.
Kempf said she’d like to see the City donate land and work with housing developers to build and manage three potential sites the council has in mind, to convert second-story office spaces, and repurpose some existing or light commercial buildings.
“If we don’t get out in front of this and start actually putting a shovel in the ground, we’re going to be told to do it in a way that we might not like,” Kempf said.
Blake said activists are the reason a plan for affordable housing hasn’t been implemented.
“We really need to just stop and come to terms with the fact that the state will tell us what we’re going to do if we don’t decide to do it on our own,” he said.
Next up was the candidates’ opinion on the ballot initiative advanced by Laguna Residents First PAC contrasted with the new city law on property development. Measure Q would allow Laguna residents to vote for or against significant development projects.
Pudwill was the only candidate who openly endorsed Measure Q.
“It’s important to me because it gives residents the right to vote,” Pudwill said. “And our developers, we can determine for ourselves what we want the community to look like in the future. We can prevent overdevelopment… the only insurance that we have as citizens as residents of this town, to control our future, is Measure Q. I advise you all to vote for it despite the money that’s being spent to smear it.”
Blake, Rounaghi, Weil, and Kempf said the measure was too complicated and would create more problems.
“It creates obstacles for the city, because when you do ballot box planning, the only way to change it is to go back to the voters,” Rounaghi said.
The final question posed by Village Laguna moderators asked candidates how they would bring greater fiscal responsibility to city spending.
Kempf and Blake said the City has a sound financial policy and thought it managed its money well. Weil, Orgill, and Rounaghi agreed that keeping an eye on department spending and consultant costs would be worthwhile.
Flores said he did come across poor spending and that the council could do better. Pudwill said he looked at spending civic money like it was coming out of his own pocket.
“Unfortunately, a lot of those studies are heavy-handed and directed. They’re not independent studies,” Pudwill said. “They’re not anonymous. They’re often spun to create a different image than what we’re really getting.”View Our User Comment Policy