Announcing his intention to run for City Council this week, Paul Merritt says the city of Laguna Beach needs to become more progressive regarding the safety of residents and tourists and tighter with collecting owed business fees from major corporations. Progressive and, at the same time, fiscally more alert, much like he said he sees himself.
Merritt joins four other residents who have announced their intention to seek a council seat. New candidates have until Aug. 13 to file their paperwork and signatures of support with City Clerk Lisette Chel, who says so far no one has submitted the information required for the November ballot.
“Whether there are homeless people harassing tourists or speeding cars that are killing local pedestrians and bicyclists,” he said, “the current City Council has failed to get control of those elements.”
As an immediate measure, Merritt said the city could enforce laws affecting the homeless more consistently as well as lower speed limits. “Not a week goes by that we don’t see some ugly event from an outside visitor upon a resident or a tourist and I think people are tired of it,” he said.
As an example, Merritt cited a friend who is homeless in Laguna with numerous outstanding warrants for his arrest. “He’s told me that the police simply don’t care and they won’t enforce the warrants,” said Merritt, who added that he has found a place for his friend to live. “If someone breaks the law, whether they’re a millionaire or whether they’re destitute, they should face the same sort of regulation.”
Growing up near Crescent Bay in north Laguna, Merritt now lives near Wood’s Cove on the other side of town, both homes near Coast Highway. “The speeding cars are increasing noticeably, especially since the so-called recession is over,” he said. “Maybe drivers feel they can just step on the gas. But I’m seeing cars routinely going down Coast Highway between 55 and 70 miles an hour.”
Merritt said recent road fatalities involving a local bicyclist and an art school student and nearly daily reports of violence and petty crimes involving homeless individuals are affecting the city’s reputation.
“We have people saying, ‘Why don’t other cities have these problems?’” he said. “We want to be tolerant of all people. We are a very tolerant community. But at the same time, we’re not going to be tolerant at the expense of the residents and the tourists.”
As an independent stock broker and real estate agent with two law degrees, a trust administrator, a former Laguna Niguel city council member and a Laguna Beach resident for at least 30 years, Merritt feels current council members are remiss in protecting the amenities of Laguna Beach for the next generation to enjoy. “We need fresh caretakers and fresh dreamers to take care of our masterpiece, which is Laguna Beach,” said Merritt.
He said he wants to keep what he sees as Laguna Beach’s low-key character and seaside spirit intact and that obligation, he said, lies with the City Council.
Merritt’s decision to compete for one of three seats available on the City Council was tipped last week when he learned that the California Coastal Commission decided to review the city’s process of granting approvals for refurbishing the former Aliso Creek Inn and Golf course.. Merritt said he found the coastal commission’s 12-0 vote to check the city’s consistency in actions regarding the property “repugnant.”
“The state trusted Laguna with a document called the local coastal plan and now the state’s telling us that maybe we didn’t follow all the guidelines. That’s what bothers me,” he said.
The 87-acre property in Aliso Canyon, now known as The Ranch, includes a hotel and a nine-hole golf course. The city submitted an eight-page rebuttal to the commission’s staff analysis.
Merritt says another focus of his candidacy is investigating the city’s ability to collect business license fees from major corporations operating in the city.
Merritt wants to match modern technology with the income in business license fees he claims is due from major corporations, he said, citing Cox Cable as an example. “It’s nice that we have volunteer groups raising funds for police dogs but if we collected the tax money that is due by major corporations, we wouldn’t have to have our hat out for collections.
“We live in a technological age and the city finance department didn’t contemplate things like pay-per-view (where cable subscribers pay for a private telecast) that would come in and compete with the downtown local movie theater,” said Merritt. “Why should the local movie theater have to pay $1,650 a year in tax to the city and pay-per-view, which broadcasts in Laguna Beach, is not only not licensed but they don’t pay us a nickel, not one penny.”
Council member Toni Iseman, who has yet to declare her candidacy, said she feels Merritt “is onto something” by looking into unpaid business license fees, although she said the businesses might be paying franchise fees instead. “I’m glad he’s asking the questions about are we getting the money we deserve from business license fees,” she said.
As for running again, Iseman said she’s on-again, off-again about this term. “I have plenty of energy and ideas,” she said. “There are a lot of moving pieces in the city that need to be decided in the next year.”
In addition to being stewards of development at Aliso Canyon, another area needing more merit by the City Council, said Merritt, is developing Laguna Canyon.
“Is Laguna Canyon going to remain a rural asset for the community or is it going to transition to some over-developed area?” he asked.
Incumbent candidates have until Aug. 8 to return official paperwork and a petition of at least 20 registered voters supporting their candidacy to the city clerk’s office. New candidates have until Aug. 13. Other candidates who have announced their intention to run for city council are incumbent Kelly Boyd and newbies Jon Madison, Michele Hall and Robert Zur Schmiede.