Mayor Bob Whalen Talks Priorities for 2019

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By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

In July 2015, then-mayor Bob Whalen arrived at a Festival of Arts ribbon-cutting ceremony in shorts and a T-shirt, direct from the scene of a brush fire that broke out in Laguna Canyon. Photo courtesy of the Festival of Arts.

As the Laguna Beach City Council attempts to find its footing in the wake of a chaotic election, Bob Whalen takes up the gavel as the next mayor to lead them through the transition.

After more than 20 years of public service to Laguna Beach, Whalen brings an even-keeled, policy-over-populist approach to city governance as the City Council faces some challenging decisions in the coming year.

Whalen was appointed to the Laguna Beach Unified District’s Board of Directors in 1997 during a time when Laguna schools were in fiscal disorder. As an experienced public finance attorney, Whalen was able to help right the ship, and in 2001, Laguna Beach voters overwhelmingly passed a $55 million school bond.

Since then, Whalen has served on the Board of Directors for the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach, the Planning Commission, and City Council. After all his years of service, Whalen said he still enjoys working with community members from all walks of life and hopes his skills and experience in public finance can play a small role in helping them.

“I think we’ve done a really good job of partnering with a number of organizations and making a better city for all of us to live in,” he said.

As Laguna Beach’s new mayor, Whalen said public safety will be one his top priority while leading the City Council. He’s very focused on the fact that most Laguna Beach homes are built on terrain that’s considered to have the highest risk of wildfire by insurance companies and that the city needs to do all it can to protect residents and visitors.

During the 2018 General Election, Whalen was one of the leading supporters of Measure P, which would have paid for the undergrounding of utility lines and other fire prevention methods by raising the sales tax by one percent. And although Measure P didn’t pass, the threat of fires sparked by downed utility lines remains.

Whalen said the City Council’s new fire safety subcommittee will work with city staff to see if there are other ways the city can pitch raising additional funding for fire prevention to voters. He added the committee will do a comprehensive analysis of what the city is already doing to prevent wildfires and what it can and should be doing.

“We’re no different than Malibu, Thousand Oaks, and Calabasas,” he said. “We can’t think we’re going to be safe because we had our fire in the ‘90s.”

Considering 46 percent of Laguna Beach voters supported Measure P, Whalen is hopeful that an amended measure could pass in the future. This could entail limiting the project to undergrounding utility lines on Laguna Canyon Road rather than throughout the entire city. However, he suggested that any future plan include fire preventions methods, such as removing dead brush from the open space that surrounds Laguna Beach.

Many of the City Council candidates this year agreed that Laguna Beach should change its building standards to allow for the development of affordable housing for artists, seniors, and young professionals. Although such projects should be tailored in a way that’s right for Laguna Beach, Whalen said the city needs to see them through or state lawmakers will take control of city planning.

One of the suggestions discussed by Council candidates is eliminating required parking spaces for new residential units built downtown. Whalen said he was open to exploring such a change with his fellow Council members.

“I think it’s something we should look at, but nobody has given us any information on it,” he said. “I don’t know the right formula, but we ought to be looking at whether we can loosen up parking requirement for these projects.”

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