With contentious issues rising among residents regarding short-term rentals, medical marijuana dispensaries and a burgeoning number of beachgoers, the only candidate so far to challenge two City Council incumbents in the November election says she’ll give the city back to the citizens.
“It’s time to move the residents’ needs and quality of life from the trunk of the car to the front seat,” said Judie Mancuso, a 21-year resident who spearheaded the “anti-puppy mill” campaign in Laguna Beach in 2012. Her efforts resulted in local law that stops pet shops from selling dogs, cats and rabbits bred in commercial facilities.
Mancuso said she knows how to work with bureaucracy to benefit humans as well. “We’ve got a lot of animals here, including human animals,” she said. “Things are happening to their health as well as to the health of the ocean animals and the wilderness animals. It all goes together.”
Her experiences as a successful environmentalist and animal-rights advocate provide a “take action” approach on issues that need immediate attention, she said.
Mancuso is running against two incumbents: Bob Whalen, a public finance attorney who previously served on the city’s Planning Commission and school district’s board, and Steve Dicterow, also an attorney who has served on the city council for a total of 15 years.
“Things are going in the wrong direction and for too long now,” she said.
“It’s time to get things back on track for the residents’ benefit. There’s a bunch of people like me and we seem to be getting ignored.”
Mancuso has worked with legislative entities for 10 years. In 2003, she quit her corporate job, where she specialized in information technology for 20 years, and started rescuing animals lost in Katrina and successfully fighting a liquefied natural gas terminal proposed off the coast of Malibu, with backing from several celebrities. Those experiences became the impetus for her Social Compassion in Legislation nonprofit, founded in 2007, as an advocate for the environment and animal rights.
As an animal activist, Mancuso propelled California and New York legislation last year, called Dining with Dogs, that gives pet owners the right to take their dogs to outdoor restaurant patios. While in New York, she met Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, who successfully led a bill through the New York Legislature that, if signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, would prohibit short-term home rentals when the owner isn’t present. A good resource for upcoming Laguna Beach issues, Mancuso said she noted.
With six years on the state Veterinary Medical Board, getting laws passed and working with legislators, including Hillary Clinton, Mancuso said she’s earned credibility to qualify as a serious candidate.
“She’s hardworking and she’s very focused,” said Los Angeles City Council member Paul Koretz, who worked with Mancuso to pass an ordinance five years ago that banned mill-bred pets from being sold in Los Angeles retail stores. “You need to be able to bring people together and get things done. She has that quality.” Other cities, a total of 144 so far, have enacted the law, Mancuso said, which encourages pet adoption from rescue groups or animal shelters.
Another growing undercurrent among disgruntled Laguna Beach residents Mancuso said she’ll address are concerns about unsatisfactory downtown redevelopment plans. Some residents say they don’t fit the needs of the people who live here.
“As a 30-year resident of this city, I get more frustrated every year watching our city government favor amenities and transportation for tourists, while totally ignoring needs of the residents,” said Laguna resident Lillian Reiter, who also commented on the Indy’s website about a plan to upgrade downtown Laguna. “I have now come to a solution the city government will love. Rename our city to ‘Disney by the Sea’.” The residents, she said, are last on the list. “It’s not fun to live here anymore,” she said.
Tourists’ needs, Mancuso agrees, need to take the back seat.
Lack of sidewalks along Coast Highway and bathrooms at the beaches, particularly in south Laguna, where residents have complained about visitors using their front-yard foliage instead, top the list, she said.
The influx of beachgoers upped the city’s annual tourist count to 6 million, according to Visit Laguna. “That’s why infrastructure is so important. We cannot keep these people out with all the developments surrounding us now,” said Mancuso. “We can’t be doing extracurricular stuff like we have unlimited disposable income.”
Another major issue on residents’ minds are short-term rentals, she said. “One of the (permitted) properties had repeated problems and they never revoked the license,” she said. “They don’t write enough citations, they don’t revoke enough licenses. If you can’t handle the 30 that’s out there right now, what would happen when it’s tenfold?”
Of the 36 legal short-term rentals now permitted, one provoked 27 disturbance calls, the city’s Community Development Director Greg Pfost said in a meeting last month. No permits have been revoked, he said.
She said the current council spends too much time on pet projects and too much money on outside consultants. “And nothing comes to fruition,” she said. “That’s my frustration. That’s my neighbors’ frustration.”