Regardless of who is elected to City Council, our dysfunctional city government is not going to improve until we address its structural flaws. How does Laguna Beach go about effectively changing its culture to be progressive, transparent, and fair? We have a hired city attorney from an outside law firm. The inherent flaws of this structure are at the heart of the fundamental dysfunction. Laguna is no longer a laid-back artist colony where our antiquated form of government worked well enough: we need a separation of powers in City Hall.
1) A hired city attorney is only beholden to those who hired him. The city attorney becomes the draw bridge, and litigation becomes the moat around City Hall, with an unlimited budget and all the resources of a large law firm.
2) Rather than ensure that city laws do not violate state laws or constitutional rights, hired city attorneys have every economic incentive to protect defective laws, and to deny due process and equal protection, since they are paid for litigation above and beyond their retainer, by the hour, with tax payer dollars.
3) Our boards, commissions, and city staff require an earnest watch dog to ensure that they know the limits of their authority, and how it should be used to serve the citizens and not thwart residents in their rights, hopes, dreams, safety, welfare, and businesses.
Recall the poor fellow who wanted to open an optical shop on Forest Avenue, and the Planning Commission decided to regulate the number of sunglasses that he could sell. Recall the woman before the Design Review Board who wanted a wine bar in her bedroom and was derided because it might lead to an illegal kitchen. Recall the city planner who said that as a matter of policy the city does not take landslide safety into account when ordering trees to be cut down. There are hundreds of these incidents of abuse every year. Is it any wonder that so many Lagunans feel alienated and patronized?
An independently elected city attorney, besides representing city officials, must also protect the property and constitutional rights of the residents, ensure that laws are not defective or over reaching, reign in abuse of authority, and minimize litigation, or he/she will not be elected again. It’s time to amend the general plan to have a salaried, independently elected city attorney, as other progressive cities do.
David Pahnos, Laguna Beach