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Calls for More Downtown Policing

Laguna Beach may see more cops patrolling downtown and in neighborhoods if growing concern voiced by Council member Steve Dicterow and Mayor Kelly Boyd gains traction.

Also on Tuesday, the City Council adopted a budget largely as originally proposed last month, which shared the limelight with several other issues including a plan to remove waste from an old dump site in Laguna Canyon, taking a stance on local control of fire rings on city beaches, hiring an expert for a transit system analysis, and selecting a new tree species for ones recently removed from downtown.

As part of the budget discussion, which included $40,000 for a downtown policing program, Dicterow expressed his dissatisfaction with the suggested deployment of an officer two to three times a week. He made a passionate plea for “a visible patrolled presence” daily from noon to 8 p.m. Boyd agreed. “We need to get them off Coast Highway and back into the neighborhoods where we want them,” Boyd said.

Spending last Saturday at the Sister Cities’ Fete de la Musique downtown, amid swarms of locals and tourists, Dicterow was outraged that he never saw a single officer. He said the lack of police presence, especially on such days when events draw large crowds, can elicit a fear factor and noted that numerous merchants pulled him aside to discuss the issue. He also noted that many residents told him they often see police in other places, but not where they would like to see them. Whether through reallocating resources or providing new funds, “we need that presence,” he insisted.

Council member Toni Iseman also agreed, citing anecdotal yet consistent testimony from residents increasingly describing uncomfortable run-ins with vagrants downtown. “Public safety is our first job,” she said.

Boyd called for a re-organization of the department’s officers, with less concentration on DUI enforcement and more on policing downtown. “Why don’t we get back to community service?” he asked.

City Manager John Pietig suggested directing staff to explore the suggestions.

The council unanimously approved a two-year budget that calls for $76.9 million in operating and capital project expenditures for 2013-14 and $68.6 million in 2014-15. These figures reflect $12.8 million in appropriations for the recently approved village entrance project from parking and capital improvement funds over the next two years.

The adopted budget incorporates to some extent all of the requests made for additional funding during the budget workshop held last month, as well as an additional $25,000 to analyze traffic circulation and pedestrian and bike mobility, along with the aesthetic appearance, of Laguna Canyon Road.

Laguna Playhouse executives successfully pled their case for a $15,400 waiver of rent and insurance for 2013 due to accidental flooding. The council agreed to a $14,000 break, stipulating no future subsidies since a similar accommodation was made a few years earlier.

The council also moved forward with a plan to remove the contents of a ravine dump unearthed by the torrential rains of December 2010, which let loose glass and ceramic debris into the Sun Valley neighborhood below. City workers fortified the ravine’s floor and walls last year, considered temporary protection from debris termed “hazardous” under state law.

The council hired Keeton Krietzer to prepare an environmental impact report and RBF Consulting for engineering support for the project. A restoration project should be ready for residents to review next month and the EIR prepared by November, but permits may take another five months, said Bob Burnham, who is supervising the project.

On another environmental front, the council voted to send a second letter to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) pushing for local jurisdiction on decisions about restricting fire rings on public beaches.

Air quality regulators plan a public hearing on the issue July 12. Newport Beach sparked the debate by recommending removal of fire rings within 700 feet of homes.

Though fire rings are not permitted on city beaches, they are allowed on private beaches in Three Arch Bay and Irvine Cove and on county owned and operated Aliso Beach.

While a few Aliso Beach neighbors affected by the sometimes toxic smelling smoke expressed their desire to have the rings removed, council members said other constituents had contacted them about preserving the rings.

Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse confirmed that the department has not responded to any calls more serious than smoke complaints.

The council followed up a decision to hire experts to review the city’s transit services by awarding the job to a Canadian firm, IBI Group, with offices in Irvine.

Their task will be analysis of the city’s mainline transit service to identify potential modifications and cost reductions, as well as options for other revenue sources, said Public Works Director Steve May. They will also evaluate the current taxi voucher program and senior transportation options, said May.

Since the city’s current contract with Sally’s Fund to provide transportation for seniors to and from the Susi Q Center expires soon, the council agreed to renew the contract while awaiting the outcome of the analysis, which May said should be completed by November.

Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson noted the unreliable service provided by cab drivers in the city’s taxi voucher program and pointed out Mission Viejo has a similar plan with a more reliable service. Pietig said city staff is investigating their operator.

The rationale for the analysis is to look for efficiencies, said Pearson. “We do want to have reliable transportation” for people who rely on the blue and white buses, she said, but it may be possible to do it more efficiently.

“We owe it to ourselves to look for a better way,” agreed Council member Bob Whalen.

The council approved replacement species for four of the 10 trees felled from downtown streets in recent months. They had put off selecting substitutes earlier when questions were raised about whether replacements  would create similar maintenance problems.

City staff sought advice from Greg Vail of Selva Partners, the firm involved in updating the city’s landscaping criteria; James Dockstader, who reviews landscape design for the city and Beautification Council member; and Laguna Nursery owner Ruben Flores.

Reviewing criteria that included fire safety, maintenance, canopy size and ability to withstand wind, the committee selected three Tristania conferta , known as Brisbane box, for installation at 222 Ocean Ave., and a Metrosideros excelsa , known as a New Zealand Christmas tree, to go in at 300 Mermaid St. They also decided that due to crowding by existing trees, no replacement will be needed at 300 Second St. They are still deliberating replacement options for the six other trees.

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