Facing incivility and “brick walls”, Toni Iseman steps down after 24 years

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Councilmember Toni Iseman at Laguna Beach City Hall on Aug. 17. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

As Councilmember Toni Iseman visited mentor Bonnie Hano on her deathbed in April, the long-time Laguna Beach activist held her hand and said she should not run for reelection.

When the Aug. 12 filing deadline passed without Iseman declaring her intent to seek another four years in office, it marked the beginning of the end of her 24 years in public service. The veteran politician had mulled the decision for months but Hano’s words made the decision easier.

“I just wanted to thank her for pointing out to me how consuming this job is and how there are other things in life,” Iseman said.

In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with the Independent, Iseman said her decision to step down was partly motivated by the increasing incivility in the Council Chambers, a reflection of the rancorous tone of national politics trickling into an artistic beach town. Iseman also credits the move with her inability to get things done at city hall because she often finds herself in the minority of a 3-2 vote and faces a strained relationship with City Manager Shohreh Dupuis.

Despite her countless emails to department heads, Iseman claims many go ignored or are forwarded to Dupuis or other city staffers who analyze the request without offering to meet with her for context.

“I have solutions to issues that I believe would benefit the community but brick walls get in the way of good ideas,” Iseman said. “I think there’s a systemic problem in the City and I believe that it is fear-based. I think we have good managers who don’t have the authority they should have and they’re afraid of their boss.”

The rift between Iseman and Dupuis started before the City Council tapped its new city manager last year. During a meeting concerning stop work orders for unpermitted work at Hotel Laguna in May 2021, Dupuis shared that she knew Iseman didn’t support her appointment when the panel privately voted, Iseman said.

“She shouldn’t know how I voted because that vote was in closed session and in the open session it was a 5-0 vote and everyone was furious because I voted for her,” Iseman said. “I do believe that has carried over in her unwillingness to do many of the things I’d like to do.”

Dupuis declined multiple requests to comment for this story.

For years, Iseman has earned a reputation for thoroughly reading agenda packets prepared for councilmembers ahead of meetings. She comes to the dais with lists of questions for city staffers. When the clock ticks past 10 p.m., this grilling often earn scoffs or eye-rolling from some fellow councilmembers.

Despite their occasional disagreement on city operations, Iseman and former city manager Ken Frank, who retired in 2010 after 31 years with the City, were able to work together on landmark projects including the construction of the Community and Susi Q Center and Treasure Island Park and a public access trail as part of the Montage development.

Frank called Iseman’s public service over 24 years an “incredible accomplishment.”

“She has managed to keep her energy and enthusiasm high despite those many long hours in meetings,” Frank said. “Toni is really good at taking something that residents are concerned about and getting it fixed.”

Among Iseman’s pet projects was the creation of the current trolley system that has become a mainstay of residents and visitors looking for a low-stress option to navigate crowded roadways. Iseman suggested riders pay to park at the Act V lot in Laguna Canyon and ride all day for free. Collecting money in exact change from every trolley rider slowed down boarding,

“This is kind of my approach to governance. You never overlook the little things. You fix the little things while you’re working on the big things,” Iseman said.

When Iseman served on the California Coastal Commission, the City Council approved moving the corporate yard to Act V to the Village Entrance. The idea of moving heavy equipment and construction material next to city hall at the cost of many public parking spaces didn’t make sense, she said.

Heeding a local commissioner’s advice, the state panel voted 11-1 to not have the corporate yard at the Village Entrance.

Iseman has also been a fierce advocate of maintaining public open spaces. This love of the natural environment extended to the preservation of public trees, despite concerns from city staffers and community members about falling limbs and raised sidewalks.

Village Laguna president Caenn first met Iseman when they both worked for the Irvine Unified School District in the mid-1980s. Iseman was an Irvine High School counselor for 10 years. She went on to a 15-year career as a counselor at Orange Coast College.

Caenn reconnected with Iseman after moving to town and served as her campaign manager for the 2018 election. She sees Iseman’s aptitude for empathy as a former counselor for teenagers and young adults as important to her longevity as an elected official who has been the target of angry public comments for years.

“She was and is a person who really listens to what the other person is saying and respects their position even if it isn’t hers,” Caenn said.

Iseman leaves a legacy of a largely unspoiled natural beauty and village atmosphere has attracted many residents to move to town, Caenn said. Iseman’s critics point to vacant commercial buildings left unmaintained by absentee landlords as an embarrassment perpetuated by an arcane slate of city zoning and building codes codified over the last 40 years.

“I admire the fact that she has made a strong effort to be professional and to speak the truth in a courteous way as much as she’s possibly been able to. I don’t know how she’s been able to control her temper,” Caenn said.

Laguna Beach resident Samuel Goldstein bought the historic Heisler Building, the former site of the Jolly Roger, in 2006 and unexpectedly embarked on a multi-year endeavor to seek city approvals to remodel and add an elevator. Historic preservation rules tied up the project and required him to make 56 appearances before the Heritage Committee.

Iseman was on the City Council and she was supportive, said Goldstein, a fellow Democrat.

“We don’t always agree but she is a friend. She’s a classy lady and I hope she has a wonderful retirement. Although we aren’t always on the same page I always respect her opinions.” Goldstein.

The two Democrats have been at odds since Goldstein co-founded Liberate Laguna PAC, which financially supported the election of Iseman’s chief rival Councilmember Peter Blake.

Private property rights advocates argue that Iseman’s defense of the former Historic Preservation Ordinance put her at odds with many voters who purchased homes in recent years and want to maintain and improve their biggest asset. In 2015, attorney Larry Nokes started a campaign to reform the controversial city law. He claimed the City had run afoul of the California Environmental Quality Act in denying homeowners the ability to remodel homes identified as historic resources.

The question of whether to downsize the Design Review Board’s role in overseeing development became a central focus of the 2018 election. Although Iseman won reelection that year, the current council majority has moved to give city staffers more authority to administratively approve minor home upgrades without holding a public hearing.

As a junior councilmember, Iseman drove past the basketball courts looking at Main Beach when the weight of her responsible hit. “Don’t let them ruin this,” she recalled thinking.

“Today more than ever that should be the mantra of every single person sitting on the council and I don’t think they recognize how precarious things are right now,” Iseman said.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. In 2000, my NGO, Clean Water Now, broke new ground……er, maybe new SAND better explains the situation better?
    I passed muster with the Cal Coastal Commission, was granted local administrative duties previously unexplored/un-petitioned by any other SOC protectionist group that year: We became the sole parties responsible for both the minimum quarterly Adopt-A-Beach program plus the really big show: International Coastal Cleanup Day.
    This was a first, there were no organized, ongoing beach cleanups in SOC.
    For 13 years we lead the pack, were often specially cited/honored by the Commission and staff for our innovative, uncompensated, pro bono efforts.
    As I moved from general contractor to consultant, I just no longer had the time——we performed over 125 cleanups, thousands of pounds of detritus removed, thousands of volunteers, signed off on Community Service hours for scouts, students, etc.
    To the best of my knowledge, Toni was the ONLY upper echelon official to ever attend and participate.
    She came to my HQ at Main Beach, brought a fine sifter and on her hands and knees worked the area near our iconic Lifeguard Tower under a sweltering September sun (Coastal Cleanup Day).
    She was absolutely amazed at how many cigarette butts and fine plastic particles she strained out.
    So whatever else is said or written about her, we at CWN have witnessed her personal commitment to the environment and thank her profusely.
    Many work or serve here in Laguna, pay token lip service about how much they love it: Actions speak louder than words.

  2. Roger. Beautiful recognition of Toni’s commitment and accomplishments. Thank you both for the commitment and sweat equity that made a difference for Laguna.

  3. MJ, thanks…..it reads 9:33 am posting but I wrote it much much earlier ( I get up at 5 am daily), plus didn’t have the advantage of editing: One “better” too much in that first sentence!
    I’d add that for all of the “I Love Laguna” rhetoric, many who not just work here or serve in governance, but live here as year round residents, 2/3 of our beach cleanup volunteers came from beyond city limits.
    Ironic, huh? They understood the uniqueness, fragility of marine environs and when my volunteer station leaders spread out over our coastline inquired as to WHY they helped, they seemed amused: I mean, who WOULDN’T want to be a conscientious steward of such a beautiful little gem, right?
    They wanted to do their fair share, and if we had donated swag we always tried to make sure they went home educated about trash in our tidal ecosystems, with much mahalos, good vibes and a positive Aloha beach experience.

  4. Ditto, MJ. Wonderful tribute to Toni. There are those that walk the talk and get their hands dirty like Roger, Clean Water Now’s founder, and Toni, picking up the fine trash on the beach. And, a shout out of thanks to all you fellow Laguna-ites who pick up trash each morning and evening from our beaches. We have so many unsung heroes in Laguna. We also have one big heroine in Laguna, Toni Iseman, who even before her 24 years on City Council worked against turning Main Beach into a stack of high-rise hotels, and the Canyon into a sea of packed together planned housing units (PUDs). It is heartbreaking that a woman of such consistent service to our community spent her last term that started in 2018 insulted and attacked by two newly-elected council members at that time (and now running for re-election), and occasionally by a new CM. It’s one of the tragic traits of humanity that the small want to tear down and defame the heroes among us, rather than use these heroes work as an inspiration for their own good works.

  5. Toni will be missed in council chambers and at city hall. Her classy civility and attention to detail will be remembered and should be a model to current and future local politicians. I recently sent an email to each city council member inviting them to the 67th annual Laguna Open next weekend, the world’s oldest volleyball tournament, and Toni was the only one to respond. She’s going to hand out the medals! Thank you, Toni, for your long service and being a class act.

  6. Deborah Laughton: You and your husband Councilman George Weiss have a well-known and longstanding contempt for Mayor Sue Kempf. That does not give you leave to lie about her. She has never “insulted and attacked” anyone from the dais, including Toni. To state that she has is cheesy political spin, insulting, and factually wrong.

  7. Classy Civility! 1274 very touching words? Published proof: We Have To Drain The Swamp and Save Laguna from the current baloney. Under HRH Toni hundreds of useless regulations were enacted (like telling homeowners what color they could paint their exteriors),property taxes were increased to pay the incompetent bureaucrat politboro boot licking ring kissers indebted to her, and fishing IN THE OCEAN was banned. Oh I forgot about the millions of dollars extorted from the Montage for useless art and invasive parking for locals. Let’s unleash the economic potential of Laguna and elect more educated free market business people like Peter Blake.

  8. This is a wonderful opportunity to point out that guidance counselors insight isn’t a good qualification for a City’s growth and development. Under this realm, we’ve lost a large majority of restaurants and retail. It’s super nice that she took a strainer out to the beach but we need economic growth, not more holier than thou do gooders for Laguna Beach.

  9. There is nothing classy about Toni Iseman. And she was possibly the least civil human to ever grace the dais in Laguna Beach. She is the reason for all the negativity in the politics in this town.
    She should have left years ago and she certainly overstayed her usefulness. The two years of Zoom meetings highlighted her inability to stay focused without getting her Village Laguna matching orders via text. She spent the meeting always reading her phone and being unable to track the conversations.

  10. Interesting topics embedded here:
    The free market model, ideally, operates WITHOUT government intervention or interference.
    Meaning government should remain neutral, NOT be in a promotional mode.
    Municipal governance is supposed to find a balance regarding commerce and residential needs, not binary logic, pit them against each other (Either/Or).
    in such an economic atmosphere, not just prices but the basic capitalistic concept, “supply and demand,” plays an important, integral role.
    So instead of arguing about why Laguna governance needs to create amenable conditions to facilitate more restaurants and bars, might we be better served (couldn’t resist the pun) asking ourselves if we haven’t already hit or surpassed the reasonable equivalent of supply and demand, what in biology is known as the “carrying capacity?”
    Is it possible that we already HAVE enough to sustain our local economy? I guess in a consumer-only oriented mindset, more is better—but is it?
    No one seems to want to have that debate, but isn’t it possible that we have enough eateries and watering holes to sustain ourselves and tourists, both off-season and high-season? Maybe THEIR speculative, commercial marketing/revenue models are at fault, and why in a capitalistic society should government interfere or intervene?
    It’s on a business owner to analyze, review a risk/cost benefit assessment before launch. That’s not resident’s problem, that’s the reality of commerce.
    I mean seriously, “build a restaurant and they will come?”
    And if year round local residents never get the former historical off-season respite (Labor Day—Memorial Day), if we’re now that 24/7/365 destination resort that the Visitor’s Bureau and many public officials seem focused upon, doesn’t this selfish strategy axiomatically cause friction?
    So more visitations equals more irritation, doesn’t it?
    Isn’t it possible that if commerce got its way, as one new trendy place opens another closes, due to competition? Then we’d still have shuttered commerce, turnover because supply had exceeded demand.
    Truth be told, many of us can’t afford the costs associated with the increasingly prevalent fine cuisine and expensive libations—-The overhead necessary to run these places means a menu curve that is rising, less and less affordable to those who don’t make 6 figures.
    And less affordable leases as landlords try to take advantage of potential venture speculators.
    The driving force idea seems to reflect a Field of Dreams “build new high end food and booze outlets, they’ll all prosper.” Visitors will jump aboard, outsiders with hefty pocketbooks.
    It gives one a sense that probably locals aren’t in control, business owners and patrons who don’t live here are?
    What to me seems a socio-economic dilemma has gotten increasingly polarized, and I personally cannot see an end to the acrimony, regardless of who sits up on the dais in Council Chambers.
    There wouldn’t even be a LRF revolutionary movement if a more balanced and less venomous conversation was taking place, but it’s not.
    Do opponents of LRF ever reflect, ask themselves why it even came into existence? Obviously, there had to be some community resonance. Are their opponents just going to ignore that, think that prevailing will stamp out the fires?
    The negative campaigning and vociferous rhetoric is ramping up, I guess certain powers-that-be are hell bent on miming D.C., out of chaos something new and wonderful will emerge?
    That somehow consensus and tranquillity will emerge?
    But what if that scenario doesn’t happen, that the turmoil is endless, unabated?
    I guess for egotistical, self-centered anarchists, all fires are good fires, increasing the bitterness and expanding the chasm between commerce and resident’s needs supersedes all else.
    Then yes, MORE IS BETTER.

  11. It’s typically liberal Laguna that when one of the stalwarts faces “Incivility and Brick Walls” they quit because they can’t get their way anymore which is fine because someone better who’s been frozen out for the past decades will get us back on track. Instead of attending The World’s Oldest Volleyball Tournment, like that’s a job?

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