Laguna Beach City Council will return to dais on April 6

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City employees practiced social distancing at the Laguna Beach City Council meeting on March 17, 2020. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

By Lou Ponsi, Special to the Independent

For the first time in more than a year, the entire City Council will be present on the dais starting April 6.

The council voted 4-1 on Tuesday to hold meetings using a hybrid format, combining in-person and virtual components.

Mayor Bob Whalen, Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf, and councilmembers Peter Blake and George Weiss voted in favor of shifting to the hybrid model. Councilmember Toni Iseman turned in the dissenting vote.

“From what I’m hearing from other cities, most of them are moving to something like this hybrid scenario,” Whalen said. “So I think we are sort of following the trend here.”

Kempf said she has received complaints from residents saying councilmembers and city officials aren’t always paying attention, turning off their cameras and even eating on camera.

“To be honest with you, I think people are getting a little too loose on Zoom,” Kempf said. “I think it’s better to be back in a very structured environment. It’s time for us to be back in the Chamber.”

Under the hybrid format, the public still has the option of logging into Zoom meetings. Members of the public who want to address the council in person will be required to wait in line outside and enter the chambers when it’s their turn.

However, those speaking would then be required to leave the Council Chambers after delivering the comments. Plexiglass will be added to create a safe space between councilmembers and staff.

“The reason I object to it is that I feel it is premature and I’m in favor of waiting until we can actually let people in the Council Chambers who can prove that they have been vaccinated and have more public participation,” Iseman said.

The council last discussed changing the meeting format during their Jan. 12 meeting, opting to continue holding meetings virtually until Orange County progressed from the red tier to the less restrictive orange tier.

On March 14, the County advanced from the most restrictive purple to the red tier and is currently meeting the threshold to move to the orange tier in two of three main criteria: health equity quartile positivity rate and testing positivity.

The county needs to maintain that threshold for at least two weeks to progress to the orange tier.

The county’s adjusted daily case rate shifted from four cases per 100,000 residents last week to 3.5 cases per 100,000 as of Wednesday.

Twenty-seven deaths and 119 new cases of the coronavirus were reported on Tuesday by the OC Health Care Agency, bringing the total number of coronavirus deaths to 4,635, Laguna Beach has seen 816 total cases, including 11 new cases over the past 14 days, according to county data.

More than 1.2 million vaccines have been given in the state as of March 22, according to the California Department of Public Health.

In other matters, the City Council also approved the allocation of a total of $250,000 for Community Assistance grants for 28 organizations and $200,000 for Cultural Arts Funds Grants for 14 organizations.

Community Assistance Grants are typically funded by a portion of Pageant of the Masters ticket sales, but since the coronavirus forced the cancellation of the event, funding was allocated from the General Fund Reserve.

The Reserve also provided $60,000 to help cover the Cultural Arts Grants which are usually paid for by the Laguna Beach Marketing and Tourism District, which raises money through an assessment on Laguna Beach hotel and motel operators.

Many of the nonprofits and groups funded by these grants received less than the amounts given in the previous year.

Whalen and Weiss were appointed to consider and make funding recommendations for the Community Assistance Grants, while the Cultural Arts Commission make recommendations for Cultural Arts Grants.

The Sawdust Art Festival is receiving a Community Assistance Grant of $13,000 and a grant from the Cultural Arts Commission for $35,000.

After some discussion, councilmembers voted to allocate an additional $2,500 to the Laguna Food Pantry, bringing the total to above the $12,500 for the nonprofit.

The council also approved the allotment of $1,000 for the Laguna Beach HIV Advisory Committee. Initially, Whalen and Weiss had recommended no funding for the group.

The panel also granted $6,000 to the Laguna Beach Ocean Foundation, which is $2,000 above the originally recommended amount.

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