City Council Will Teleconference To Govern During Health Crisis

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City employees practiced social distancing at the Laguna Beach City Council meeting on March 17. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

The Laguna Beach City Council will continue to meet, albeit by teleconference and for abridged agendas, in the coming months after a majority of councilmembers agreed Tuesday that the city’s business must continue amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

At the markedly somber meeting, councilmember Peter Blake was the only member of the five-person panel on the dais. Mayor Bob Whalen and the other council members teleconferenced into the meeting. Councilmember Sue Kempf said she called in from a conference room at Laguna Beach City Hall because of spotty cell reception at her home.

With the exception of a reporter from the Independent, only city employees were in the audience after city leaders asked the public to email their comments to the city clerk and/or watch the meeting from home.

“We obviously are in extraordinary times at this point but I want to assure everybody that our city manager and other staff at the city are working hard to prepare,” Whalen said. “We’re staying on top of all the releases from the federal, state and local levels and I just want to strongly encourage all members of the public to comply with those recommendations, which include seniors 65 and above self-isolating.”

City Manager John Pietig outlined the numerous actions taken by Laguna Beach, partner agencies and community organizations in his opening remarks to the city council. Based on conversations with other agencies, Pietig emphasized that in the coming weeks are so uncertain due to the spread of the coronavirus that it’s very likely that additional safeguards will be necessary to protect health and safety.

“We may be heading to a shelter-in-place determination at some point,” he said.

Laguna Beach appears to be better prepared to weather economic instability than other cities because previous city councils’ financial planning after the Great Recession, Pietig said.

Currently, property taxes make up about 55% of city revenue. Transient Occupancy Tax and Sales Tax collectively provide the city with about 20% of its income, which is expected to be severely hit by the flatline in local tourism, Pietig said.

“We do anticipate significant impacts to our city’s general fund but because of the prudent actions of the city council since the last recession we are fortunate to have a 20% reserve in our general fund of about $13.2 million,” he said.

The city’s coffers also include $6.4 million reserves in a separate disaster fund. Following the City Council’s unanimous vote to ratify the Proclamation of a Local Emergency on Tuesday, Laguna Beach will be eligible to received reimbursement from county, state, and federal agencies for disaster-related costs.

“I don’t believe we’ve seen the worst of this yet,” Pietig said. “It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.”

Pietig strongly encouraged the City Council to reconvene on March 31 to discuss critically important matters. Among the tentatively scheduled items is the renewal of the Laguna Beach Tourism Promotion District, which helps fund Visit Laguna Beach and various community arts organizations. A delay in renewing an assessment on hotels and motels would further diminish the city’s ability to attract tourists and hurt the local economy.

Blake supported the idea for the City Council to meet by teleconference.

“I’m concerned about pushing things off at this time because I don’t see us moving forward as a community with the coronavirus anytime soon,” Blake said.

Councilmember Toni Iseman recommended that the council should delay discussion on the topics the public is the most passionate about, such as the Downtown Specific Plan, because of the ban on public gatherings. Her fear is that fewer people would write emails to the city clerk than would normally speak during public comment on such a consequential vote.

It’s also unclear if the city’s digital infrastructure can accommodate a surge in meeting live-stream viewers. Laguna Beach’s video streaming service, Granicus, crashed as Tuesday’s meeting started. Laguna Beach residents were still able to watch the live broadcast on Cox cable channel 852.

Gavin Curran, director of administrative services, said he’s looking into meeting platforms such as Zoom to allow community members to queue up to speak on a particular item. This system would also be made available to the various city commissions, committees, and boards.

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