Letter: A New City Manager. Vision and Leadership or the Same Complacency?


The choice of a new city manager provides a wonderful opportunity as well as a quandary for the City Council as well as the many special interests in town. As the former chair of VisionLaguna2030 many years ago, I have something to say. Doesn’t everyone?

I had the opportunity to be a part of a community-wide endeavor. That effort, I believe, ultimately had a profound effect on understanding the existing and future issues that were facing our community 20 years ago. Early on, the Commission members agreed that the effort would be guided by facts and data. In a data-driven and data-accessible world, how are we making decisions now. It also became clear that regional population growth was going to have a major impact on Laguna Beach. Laguna leadership could plan for the future or let the future plan Laguna. Now, 20 years later, we face the results of timidity, complacency and lack of leadership.

Early on, when the VisionLaguna2030 Commission was formed, I traveled to Aspen to talk to their city manager. Aspen had just completed their own vision process and I wanted to get a sense of what they went through. Interesting to me was the theme of their finished report – “Aspen – A Messy Vitality”. 

It took COVID-19 to create the Promenade and to allow restaurants to provide seating on the public sidewalks. Where is the vitality? The Irvine Bowl cannot even be used for nine months of the year.

We are now far from a community with a “messy vitality”. Equally important, our community is now impacted by noise, visitor traffic, auto accidents and serious pollution and trash.

The dilemma? Laguna Beach will always attract tourists and day visitors. One of the issues is what type of visitors do we want? Multi-day visitors who stay in the hotels, shop, and eat in the restaurants. Or the weekend and summer onslaught of day-trippers? But, let’s face reality.

The new city manager choice is a great opportunity to hire someone who not only has good management and leadership skills, but also has a vision and is not afraid to push the elected and appointed leadership into new areas. The pandemic will end at some time in the near future. Will we then be able to bring back the soul of the city?

Fred Droz, Laguna Beach

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  1. Fred:
    Let me first thank you again as I did 20 years ago. You were great, I was skeptical at first but eventually converted and became enthused, it seemed an idea whose time had come.
    Myself & several of my cynical NGO Board members (CLEAN WATER NOW) were very active in the Environmental Subcommittee. In fact, kudos to many of our volunteer community activists who donated extra-curricular, beyond-the-call-of-duty time in other sub-committees over the course of that intense year or so.
    Shout out to Briggs (Corky) Morris-Smith of the LB Chapter of Surfrider, Mike Hazzard of Clean Aliso Creek Assn. (C.A.C.A.) plus Scott Woodard of The Whaleman Foundation…We 4 CWN members religiously attended and participated, including our own booth up at LB High School, at the Vision2030 Festival during the process.
    Now deceased Councilwoman Kathleen Blackburn was our City liaison and facilitator. She & I (though very far apart politically) became friends due to that close collaboration. We both got an education regarding our unique wish and implementation potential lists, where we saw Laguna and where we hoped it could go for better, improved ecological protection of waterways and ocean habitats.
    It all seemed positive, so promising, like the tune “We’ve Only Just Begun.” Our report to LBCC very upbeat, that final presentation night had an atmosphere of heady, extreme hope.
    Well, Fred, and those still alive reading this, who participated, the classic question “Quo Vadis?” (Where Are You Going?) has been answered: Stagnant. Like the Neil Young song “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” our aspirations have never been achieved.
    The current City Manager Pietig & Water Quality Director Schissler were brought aboard back then in the early 2000s, with fanfare, a new dawn, new day, they were tasked, were supposed to rehabilitate and update our stormwater and wastewater systems, several 10 year plans have followed, none of them successful or fully implemented, filled with deferred/delayed maintenance and zero overhauls. Fined millions by Cal EPA.
    We’re 20 years down the line, 2/3 of the way to 2030 and the Vision never happened, did it? Little if any increased enviro-protection, unmasked and epitomized by the City’s unrelenting, never resolved, ongoing battles with the Cal Coastal Commission.
    Ex.: 20 years ago we were demanding that our City’s watercourses be mapped, echoed by the CCC…..yet they still remain unmapped, sources of neighborhood development pattern disputes and litigation, like the Longi-Dornin project out in the Canyon
    “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Bruce Springsteen.
    Surfrider Corporate forcibly chastised, then dissolved the LB Chapter shortly thereafter over founder’s objections, thus gutting out local connectivity—-all because they were “too active.”
    Meanwhile, like John Lennon sang about the breakup of the Beatles, “The Dream Is Over.”
    The then Assistant now CM is retiring without ever having made a dent, never progressing what was an acknowledged, integral part of his hiring. Watch for the WQ Director to hit the exit door soon too, both having made millions of $$$, hefty public employee retirement packages while we try to put expensive bandaids on what should have been healed wounds (said water systems) by now.
    So what was attained? Neither of CM Ken Frank’s hirings in 2001-2, specifically to achieve change nor the Vision2030 went anywhere, I’d defy someone to show me the “Mission Accomplished” list. There isn’t one.
    Those familiar with the ending of “The Maltese Falcon” remember Humphrey Bogart’s parting line: When asked about the phony replica of the supposedly jewel-encrusted bird he’s holding, he simply replies that “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”
    In 2001, the city projected ≈$12-15 million to update our sewer system. Now it’s quadruple that if we want to be on par with municipal industry standards. We got “the bird” alright, the fickle middle finger of fate, a replicant and a bunch of empty, never fulfilled promises.
    In retrospect I’m a lot less naive, I guess instead of our chosen, aspirational name over 20 years ago, we’d have been more accurate naming ourselves “Clean Water Whenever.”
    As in whenever those in power get around to it. Which is pretty much looking like Never.
    Roger E. Bütow, Founder & Executive Director (Est. in 1998)

  2. Thank you Mr. Droz. Your statement “Now, 20 years later, we face the results of timidity, complacency and lack of leadership” is our haunting reality. Our City Council members during this period must take responsibility for where we are today and he problems we are being forced to live with. And their hiring and oversight of the city manager has everything to do with our current situation. We can’t go backwards. And in order to move forward, we must hire a new highly-experienced and proven successful city manager from outside of our small bubble that can LEAD with a vision and gain the support of the majority of stakeholders. Otherwise we will continue on the path we are on and a city culture and business as usual at the expense of our peace and quality of life.

  3. Thank you both, I wish residents were more involved and would send an email to CC regarding the hiring of a new City Manager, this is where the term limits come in, Our city Manager situation will be determined, no matter how much they spend out tax dollars to appease us by a 3 to 2 vote of 5 people with very much the sense of , “You do for me, I do for you” mentality no matter if it represents us (residents) or not. This needs to be stopped! As Mr. Droz says we need to get back to a vital community with new and updated vision, not controlled by what goes on in a very small elitist group. Please send an email and ask them to actually serve you by hiring someone that has not been formulated into the old regime so that we can move on from the past. This will reach all members of CC; [email protected]

  4. “You Can’ Solve A Problem With The Same Thinking That Created It”. For Something DIFFERENT: Hire a Triumvirate of Bill Gross, Richie Sambora and Wyland. Combine TOP LEVEL Business and International Creative to get THE BEST LAGUNA POSSIBLE — not the same old same old based on “what other cities do”. Forgive me if I’m wrong but wasn’t this place running better when Tim Leary was giving out Orange Sunshine for Free? Try that too?

  5. You are completely correct Mr. Droz. In the 3 listening sessions that the search firm conducted the overwhelming majority of residents agreed that we need new blood and new vision. The existing Assistant City Manager is part of the current regime and in my opinion has established biases and alliances. Nothing will change if she becomes City Manager. We need a fresh new perspective from a City Manager who is not afraid of entrenched interests, who is willing to push us into directions not thought of yet. Someone with existing City Manager experience, with a financial background to help navigate the difficult finances facing us like the pension problem and loss of tax revenue due to the shut down. Residents – please make your voices heard and email your thoughts to City Council at [email protected].


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