By Jennifer Erickson | LB Indy
Seven candidates for the Laguna Beach City Council took the podium for a sixth debate Tuesday ostensibly focused on downtown development, but which strayed to cover a range of topics from homeless issues to climate change and senior housing.
Along the way, the candidates revealed positions that had yet to surface earlier in the campaign.
In some cases, newcomers floated new ideas at the forum co-hosted by Firebrand Media, the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce and the Laguna Board of Realtors.
Contender Jon Madison, for example, suggested that the Chamber of Commerce might supply a leasing agent to liaise between the landlords of vacant storefronts and city planners to facilitate the process of finding appropriate tenants. And candidate Michele Hall proposed looking into creating a citizens advisory committee to work with the police on issues such as the social host ordinance, or other issues that concern residents or merchants.
However, overall, incumbents Kelly Boyd and Toni Iseman, as well as candidate Robert Zur Schmiede, perhaps due to his 13 years on the Planning Commission, had the edge on basic knowledge of city affairs.
When a question was put to Boyd and newcomer Paul Merritt about what the Council might do to improve affordable housing options for Laguna’s growing senior population, Boyd readily admitted the need to address the issue, as well as the difficulty in finding land that could be developed for senior housing. “I might need it someday,” he said.
“I don’t know that it’s a city problem,” said Merritt, who said that while Laguna used to be a city full of seniors, “that’s no longer the case.”
Earlier this year, the City Council established a senior housing task force due to census data showing a 32 percent increase in seniors in the last decade and a projected increase to 40 percent of the population by 2020.
When a question came up for Zur Schmiede and Hall on streamlining the process to underground the city’s utilities, Zur Schmiede suggested budgeting funds to “prime the pump” to help neighborhood assessment districts get started and also called for a potential vote to see if residents might consider a citywide effort. Hall agreed with Zur Schmiede, but added that she would like to see an analysis of how many neighborhoods remain with above-ground utilities.
The topic of homeless issues revealed a range of conflicting views.
Boyd spoke of his participation on the homeless task force that eventually proposed the alternate sleeping location out by the dog park. Cities other than Laguna should also provide services, he said.
“I am pro homeless,” said contender Eli Grossman, who described himself as a liberal Democrat with empathy. The government has a duty to all of its citizens “to try to do the best we can for them,” he said.
While it is true that the homeless have rights, “so do the shopkeepers and the residents of this town,” countered Hall. “If the homeless are negatively impacting our businesses and our way of life, something needs to be done about it,” she said, though she did not offer any specific solutions.
Iseman, who also participated in the city’s homeless task force, noted that the fabric of the homeless community has changed over time. She said the shelter in the canyon grew out of a lawsuit that claimed the city could not cite individuals for sleeping in Heisler Park, for example, if they did not have an alternate place to sleep. The shelter changed that. But now there are homeless people in town who exhibit anti-social behavior that is often “highly inappropriate” and not being able to address that behavior is “not fair to residents,” she said.
“I think the city is trying really hard,” said Madison, in answer to a question about city resources devoted to the homeless. But he also noted the issue is broader than Laguna.
Laguna needs to show compassion, not just for the homeless, but for “the people who live here who have rights, too,” said Merritt, echoing Hall. “Laguna should not be a lure for the homeless,” he said.
Zur Schmiede called the creation of the shelter a “reasonable” approach to the original problem that confronted the task force, but admitted that the alternate sleeping location does now have “some operational issues.” Complaints from canyon residents and downtown merchants reveal the issue needs to be revisited, he said.
Asked for their ideas for improving environmental impacts in our town in the face of climate change, Hall said that while “car emissions are a big thing,” she appeared to agree with a column she read stating that humans have not had much of an impact on climate changes. She suggested that people might try to use their cars less, but added that “overall we do a pretty good job here.”
Grossman disagreed. “There is climate change and it is done by man,” he said, noting that the climate “has changed drastically” in the 150 years thanks to the influence of man.
“I believe in climate change, and I think it’s important that we not ignore it,” said Iseman. While the rising sea level doesn’t pose the same urgency to Laguna as other communities, it does threaten our downtown, she said. And every community has the responsibility to do their part in lowering their carbon footprint she said, suggesting that construction habits need to change.
Merritt proposed that one way to combat environmental impacts would be to encourage restaurants and hotels along the beach to stop using plastic straws and cups that patrons leave strewn on beaches. The city doesn’t need to legislate, he said, they just need to “set the tone” for participation on a volunteer basis.
“Addressing the sea level is part of being a sustainable community,” said Zur Schmiede. “We should do our part.”
A query about timely solutions for our very real water shortage led Merritt to suggest tiered rates on water bills, rewarding savers with a lower rate, to be offset by a “more punitive rate” for over-users. He then saw fit to add a note of levity by suggesting a “no shave zone” for Laguna men, which would save eight gallons of water each time they don’t shave.
Zur Schmiede countered that an electric razor might also work. He described the difficulty of promoting more water recycling, finding reliable supplies and storage options, as well as regaining blocked rights to a water basin. While wastewater is our biggest source for reuse, he noted that Laguna is not in a position to treat it. Iseman, who sits on the water board with Boyd, agreed that despite the technology being there, “we don’t have enough critical mass” to implement it.
Boyd pointed out that our city did reach the governor’s mandate for conserving 20 percent of our water 18 months ago. As for using recycled water for landscaping, the cost of putting in the necessary pipelines alone would be “unbelievable,” he said.