Shutting Down Residents’ Voices
There are many ways to fight opposition to your point of view. At the July 23 City Council meeting, we saw the City Council and staff ignoring taxpaying residents.
The first way you shut someone down is you don’t give them time to read what you are proposing, and you do it on a summer weekend when people aren’t paying attention or are on vacation. After seven months of secretive work, Councilwoman Sue Kempf and Mayor Bob Whalen’s Fire Safety Report was posted on the city website. It was silently posted for two weeks before it was announced on the agenda that in three days the City Council would be voting on it. Residents and the other city councilmembers had three days total to analyze 123 pages. Both Councilwoman Toni Iseman and Councilman Steve Dicterow wanted more time to prioritize the items or get more details. Not that night.
Another way to shut down opposition is to trot out the “experts,” as Councilman Peter Blake has pronounced city staff to be, who I believe present their version of the facts through their prism of self-interest. In my experience with other issues, the staff takes direction from the top—how do you want the report to come out? Selective use of statistics and facts—forget if they apply to Laguna Beach. Does anyone really think we look like Paradise, a forest-locked town spread out over 18 square miles, far from neighboring towns for help, with residents who refused to leave their land? These same “experts” needed to justify why we still have on payroll two Undergrounding Managers at over $200,000 each and are adding a Defensible Space Inspector at $200,000.
To really shut down opposing voices, you can yell at them from the dais and intimidate them. One of our councilmembers has perfected that technique, calling residents liars and peppering questions and statements at them during their measly three minutes of speech. What is baffling is why the mayor doesn’t get that behavior under control, because that councilmember is out of order.
The strongest evidence at the July 23 meeting of ignoring residents was the actual agenda item itself. Backing up seven months from when the committee started working on this gets us to right after the November election when the residents resoundingly rejected Measure P (undergrounding). How to get it past the residents who clearly are wrong? Ah, we’ll call it Wildfire Mitigation, but we will still underground for free two of our councilmembers’ homes. Residents can’t vote on it because it’s done by City Council vote. And if we hold community meetings telling Bluebird Canyon residents that they don’t have to pay, and that all residents will pay for it, I’ll bet they will all come to the meeting and speak glowingly of this plan. Then we can say, see, the people are for it—these residents know what they’re talking about. But, of course, the residents who are opposed don’t know what they’re talking about. Or to quote Blake, “We have residents here who know what they’re talking about and this is the way to go.”
But by far, the boldest and most egregious way to shut someone down is to discount other councilmembers, count votes, and stop discussion. Blake, in response to Iseman saying, “[So you want] the council to just say yes?” said, “Let’s do that. There are three here. Let’s vote.” To which Iseman responded, “I think we also have to respect the public.” That didn’t happen, as the vote was ramrodded through despite reasoned objections and analysis from residents all over the political and ideological spectrum. Only the ones standing to gain from this were listened to.
What I understood from this meeting is that as long as you have three votes on the City Council, you don’t have to listen to residents. You can go through the motions of Public Comment, but in the end, just vote. This shouldn’t be how city government works. I have been insulted, called names and threatened by an elected official in an effort to silence me. I hope others haven’t had to endure that in the act of trying to get their voices heard.
Michèle Monda has lived in Laguna Beach for 15 years with her husband, Emil, and three sons. She is secretary of Laguna Beach Republicans and treasurer of Laguna Beach Sister Cities.