A political action committee largely funded by local developers collected five times more than its opposition this calendar year, according to the most recent tranche of campaign finance disclosures.
Liberate Laguna PAC has raised more than $82,879 this year as of Sept. 29, according to public records. By comparison, Village Laguna has raised just $14,927 by Sept. 23, although it has more than $37,000 in its war chest.
The vast majority of the money collected by Liberate Laguna has come from three Laguna Beach residents: Michael Ray, a partner at Sanderson – J Ray Development; Samuel Goldstein of Radford Ventures, LLC, and Cindy Shopoff, a principal at Shopoff Realty Investments.
Ray is a volunteer columnist for this newspaper.
Ray has donated $43,000, Goldstein has donated $28,000, and Shopoff has donated $9,500 so far this year, according to public documents
Liberate Laguna PAC emerged as a powerful force in the 2018 election, raising more than $152,000 for political advertising supporting the election of Councilmembers Sue Kempf and Peter Blake to the Laguna Beach City Council.
“I think the biggest reason that we’re doing this is the status quo in Laguna Bach had created a situation where the citizens and city hall were separated in their vision,” Shopoff said. “We decided we wanted to know if others in town feel the same way. We feel the interaction of citizen and city hall is more elegant and user-friendly.”
The idea that three households are responsible for an outsized percentage of political contributions in a city of fewer than 23,000 residents has raised alarms among residents who favor preserving the city’s historic character.
In contrast, Village Laguna attracts fundraising from many more households contributing between $100 and $1,000.
“We do the best we can and, yes, they are the big money and they are trying to buy our election,” Village Laguna president Johanna Felder said. “It isn’t the will of the people. It’s the will of big money and three households.”
The genesis for the Liberate Laguna founders’ interest in local politics all appear to be connected to frustration over their experiences with the city’s design review and planning process.
- Ray has unsuccessfully tried for nine years to get city approval to add a front porch to his Hawthorne Road duplex, partly because it was previously placed on the Historic Registry.
- Goldstein grappled with city officials and preservation advocates for years over his restoration of the Heisler Building.
- Shopoff said it took her family seven years to get city approval to remodel their home.
“So far, Village Laguna tactics have cost me nine whole years of pain and effort attempting to obtain entitlements to renovate my duplex in north Laguna,” Ray wrote in an email. “In dollar terms, they have cost me more than $350,000 in legal and [architect and engineer] fees; plus the related cost of carry exceeds $700,000. Therefore, spending good monies to replace those responsible for this, Village Laguna-controlled city councilmembers, is a logical investment.”
None of the trio’s members have a pending application to develop property in Laguna Beach.
However, Dornin Investment Group gave $10,000 to Liberate Laguna in October 2018. This year, the City Council majority—including Blake and Kempf— voted to support the addition of a rooftop deck as part of Dornin’s renovation of the Coast Inn as well as a historic renovation of the Coast Liquor building. Both projects were modified and scaled-down during the planning process.
4G Wireless, a company controlled by Laguna Beach Co. President Mohammad Honarkar, contributed $20,000 to Liberate Laguna in 2018. Honarkar and his companies have not made any contributions to the PAC this year.
Liberate Laguna’s financial support has manifested this year in political mailers, online advertising, and full-page ads in this newspaper. The PAC supports the reelection of Mayor Bob Whalen, electing land use attorney Larry Nokes to the city council, and the city manager’s executive assistant Mariann Tracy as the next city clerk.
In a phone interview, Goldstein said he’d grown fed-up with the Village Laguna’s hard stance against new commercial projects in the city.
“They were able to take over the town basically for 65 years with a no-growth stance,” he said.
Felder took exception with this characterization.
“We support smart development and development that will actually benefit the residents not to benefit real estate investors and developers,” she said. “I guess everyone has to make money but not at the expense of the residents.”
As for Blake and Kempf’s performance during their first two years in office, Goldstein said, “we’re very happy with them.”
The City Council’s decision to adopt a voluntary historic preservation ordinance, providing relief to many property owners who have struggled to remodel their homes, is one of the most substantial consequences of the 2018 election. Nokes championed these changes long before the founding of Liberate Laguna.
Blake earned a public rebuke from Whalen for writing in an email to city leaders that Councilmember Toni Iseman is unfit for elected office due to a health condition. The mayor has chided him for calling certain residents offensive names and asked him to stop.
Shopoff said she still supports Blake’s policy decisions despite his controversial behavior.
“Peter can sometimes be volatile but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong,” she said.
Whoever wins a city council seat on Nov. 3 will have a weighty decision to make on future development in Laguna Beach, particularly the downtown. Elements of the Downtown Specific Plan governing building heights and merging parcels are expected to return for a vote next year.
“If the candidates that Liberate Laguna is supporting get on the council, Laguna will change not for the benefit of the residents,” Felder said. “My thing is if you like the way Laguna looks now, take photos because it will change drastically.”