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.View Our User Comment Policy