Opinion: Concerning City Council

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By Michèle Monda

Laguna’s City Council majority’s lack of transparency has long been an expensive problem for residents. Now, once again, thanks to Mayor Sue Kempf, it could cost us at least $227 million as she seeks to have the City assume control of 6.8 miles of Coast Highway without telling the public. Why the secrecy? What’s the benefit?

The City of Laguna Beach sponsored Assembly Bill 2817 with a Feb. 21, 2024 letter signed by Kempf asking for relinquishment (transfer) of Coast Highway to the City, running the 6.8-mile length of Laguna Beach – from Moro Ridge Road to Via Mentone. On April 1, the California Assembly’s Transportation Committee in Sacramento passed AB2817 by consent. It goes next to the Appropriations Committee. While this is just a “procedural step to initiate conversations with CalTrans” there are numerous problems with this.

First, the City Council did NOT vote on it. At council’s Jan. 19, 2024 Annual Planning Workshop, Bob Whalen asked what’s happening with item 62, the last item on the agenda. No one mentioned that it’s the relinquishment of Coast Highway through Laguna Beach. A staff member said the request for a Sacramento representative to introduce a bill is ready to go, but they need direction from council. 

Whalen asked what’s next? The Interim City Manager asked, “Would a nod and a wink suffice?” 

The staff member said yes. Alex Rounaghi then said that there was no reason not to proceed. And just like that, with no discussion and no council vote, Kempf’s letter to Assemblywoman Dixon was sent sponsoring the bill. Was this legal without a council vote? Readers can review the Annual Planning Workshop video at a timestamp of five hours and 16 minutes to verify this brief exchange. 

At the March 26, 2024 council meeting, Kempf claims AB2817 is just a procedural step to initiate conversations with CalTrans. However, agenda item 62 says, “$100,000 was included in the 2023-24 budget to complete the cost-benefit analysis; work is anticipated to begin before June 30, 2024.” The council is already funding this project, yet there is no document referencing why it is doing so, what issue it solves, what benefits residents will get, or how they will measure success once they start controlling the road.

Second, residents only knew this was happening if they were closely following the agenda. Even more disturbing is that two City Council members were unaware of Kempf’s Feb. 21 letter sponsoring the bill and that AB2817 was headed to the Transportation Committee on April 1.

Third, Kempf is pushing ahead with this project simultaneously with the proposed relinquishment of Laguna Canyon Road from CalTrans at an enormous cost. Here’s a quick breakdown provided at the Jan. 9, 2024 council meeting with a 137-page presentation prepared by a City-paid outside consultant. 

Cost of acquisition: $110 million, non-reoccurring cost: $1.5 million, reoccurring annual costs: $11 million. 

The total cost to acquire the 3.3 miles of Laguna Canyon Road is $122.5 million, or $33.4 million per mile.

Now, the extras. 

Undergrounding: $71 million. 

Widening: $109 million. 

Bike lane: $44 million. 

Beautification: $500,000. 

Project total: $224.5 million. 

Total project cost: $347 million with $11 million a year in perpetuity.  

Using these numbers, the 6.8-mile stretch of Coast Highway would cost $227 million just to acquire, plus recurring costs. We have no idea what improvements the City envisions for Coast Highway at additional cost. Where will the City find $122.5 million to acquire Laguna Canyon Road and $227 million for Coast Highway, for a total of $350 million plus millions annually for maintenance? And again, for what benefit?  

Ironically, this is all happening while CalTrans is under legislative pressure to improve the safety record of our highways and adopt the Complete Streets Policy to improve how it operates these highways. So why is the Council majority pushing both projects now? 

What benefit will residents who will pay for these acquisitions get? Laguna residents have yet to discuss the Laguna Canyon Road acquisition, and yet the City Council is already eyeing an even more costly acquisition and started funding it. How are these acquisitions justified in the 10 volumes of the Laguna Beach General Plan? 

The General Plan Circulation Element has not been updated since 1999. Further, are they consistent with the Laguna Beach Vision 2030 Strategic Plan?

This so-called “procedural step” is how they started the process with Laguna Canyon Road. We are headed down this same road with AB2817. Why is the Council majority doing this in secrecy (it has not been mentioned in any podcast, newsletter or city update) without the authorization or even knowledge of the full council and Laguna residents?

Michèle is a 21-year Laguna resident and actively follows Laguna politics. She is the Treasurer of Laguna Beach Sister Cities and is involved with the local arts scene. She can be reached at [email protected].

 

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6 COMMENTS

  1. LBCC Orgill declared this a “Can Do” period for Laguna—-More like “Can Spend!”
    Excellent analysis by the columnist btw, that breakdown becomes more intimidating when combined with the several hundred million $$$ necessary to build new multi-level parking structures: Now we’re projecting debt up to over 1/2 billion in red ink, regardless of how these Big 3 Fiascos are funded.
    And you are correct: Operation & Maintenance Costs, indemnification premiums, legal defense expenses regarding lawsuits for wrongful or negligent injuries/deaths, etc., should need a ballot measure vote due to the gross expenditures. Talk about taxation without representation.
    Cost & Risk Benefit analyses and long term expenditure projections seem to have been ignored, putting the cart before the horse fiscally.
    One has to wonder if after acquiring So Lag property/facilities from the County, is there a long enough track record to accurately assess if that transfer will have erased our usual yearly multi-million $$$ surplus?
    Acquiring assets without full comprehension and keen, independent, disinterested 3rd party peer review regarding liabilities is financial Russian Roulette, bordering on fiscal suicide, not prudence.
    Negotiated in such a stealthy manner should be a warning sign, why else the secrecy or obfuscation?
    Yet another example of why government can’t be trusted, or as President Reagan said in his 1981 Inaugural Address
    “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government IS the problem.”
    Another sad chapter in the ongoing story that I believe reflects a common theme, a mental challenge to the longevity of democratic governance going back to our Founding Father’s cynicism about our future “Tyranny Of The Majority.”
    The LBCC is arrogant and as long as they hold 3 votes, we, the hot-polloi can go eat cake (or many many more miles of asphalt).

  2. Forgot to include deepest thanks to both fiscal wizard John Thomas and superlative engineering/urban planner Les Miklosy in my comments……their in-depth analyses have enlightened me tremendously, both short, mid and long term planning which are not in my personal/professional wheelhouse.
    Their product widely circulated, one has to wonder along with Michele and MJ’s astute watchdog activities (LTE, columns, comments, LB Chat, et al), how is it possible that the bigger picture hasn’t emerged, more outrage incurred?
    The self-proclaimed “influencers and thought leaders” are actually neither urban/enviro planners or pedigreed honorees.
    They produce LTE and columns, also comment to same, yet have ZERO fiscal education or urban planning educational background.
    They hold no degrees in these fields, and worse, feel comfy with our City writing blank checks.
    While the 4 people I’ve specifically mentioned try and try to remove the veil of ignorance, propaganda to keep us myopic about negative consequences, ramifications and repercussions get public square space to promulgate their “buy buy buy” consumptive kool-aid.
    Apathy, coupled with ignorance are hazardous twins. And it does seem as though the critics of these 4 and their brethren play “whack-a-mole,” so I’m anticipating rebuttals with distorted manipulations of reality.
    Apathy, the lack of concern or care has been obvious in my 26 year service as an enviro-protectionist, it appears to permeate all aspects of Laguna’s community life.
    I dare say only a few hundred people are the vigilant actors, actually engaged in becoming more enlightened about ecological or financial impacts, constantly re-educating/updating themselves and doing something proactively.
    Seems around here, it’s one crisis after another, keeping the entire city in a reactive hostage mode.
    The projects MM mentioned are two blockbusters that are unfortunately due to LBCC duplicity, stellar examples of dealing with situations that have already gained inertia and traction without public stakeholder consent.
    Shouldn’t the acquisitions of both PCH & the 133 have gone through some kind of highly publicized scoping session (a la CEQA) first, a conveniently scheduled workshop to broadcast proposals (available online) well in advance and then maximize attendance & inputs?
    As both might beg for CEQA oversight due to the complexity of renovations, alterations and ongoing ecological protection as well as OSHA permits, that would have been the honorable thing to do.

  3. Michele thank you. Great info and questions every LB taxpaying stakeholder who will be left with such unimaginable investment debt should ask our Mayor and MPT as it appears they are basically pushing them through the legal system without any advance public notice nor public input and consensus support.

    If this is the case, our City leadership majority is completely out of control.

    Residents/Voters, ask yourselves; do you want to assume such enormous unnecessary long-term debts secured by your property tax dollars to fulfill this councils self-interest/future coastal development agendas?

    Think about how lucky we are to have intelligent and caring residents/watchdogs who take the time to pay attention for you and research, inform and educate the community on such important topics that impact us. This is what community inclusivity looks like.

    So please listen, ask more questions and demand facts and answers from elected’s. And don’t be afraid to reject their answers and decisions if you are not satisfied. It is your right to speak up at civic meetings and in writing to our officials. Any official who feels constituent input is unnecessary or just noise and trouble has no business leading and serving our city.

    We can make better choices.

  4. Thank you so much Michele for taking the time and getting this information and bringing it to the community’s attention. This community usually has a lot of input for these types of things, so I’m not surprise they are trying to push it through. Sue and Bob have figure out how to do this along with Alex, looking into new ways of governing so citizens no longer have a voice. So only a few will govern and keep the voice of the people quiet, I forget what is that called?

  5. No one is trying to push through anything. Our elected officials and staff are simply doing their jobs, and will be exploring the pros and cons of a step like this. The conversation will involve everyone, including self-appointed “experts” like the author and Nextdoor’s nattering nabobs of negativity who seem to be unaware that locals have been talking about this issue for decades. And it will take years.

  6. Chris, oh please! If not for the “nattering nabobs” we would have more than likely broken ground on a 3 story Parking Structure on 3RD. (The 3RD. St. Boondoggle, remember?) So let’s not pretend otherwise.
    We might have multiple Parking Structures from Lang Park to the Library.

    I had a former City Council Member once call me and tell me, and I quote “The new 52 Public Parking Lot is a done deal, get used to it”. Of course, the council approved the Lot “without” proper notice to impacted residents with homes just 30′ from the proposed lot. The Lot never came to fruition due to Resident input. How novel!

    Thanks to George Weiss, and Tony Iseman and the “nattering nabobs” that disaster was averted. In regard to the CC “doing their jobs”, if this includes propelling Laguna Beach into un-needed, un-wanted Parking Structures and backdooring the residents without community input on issues which are so impactful then it is time to re-think who we elect as our representatives on our City Council.

    Chris, it is not “negativity” it is just Us the Residents striving to maintain some measure of meaningful input on issues concerning Us. The current “Council Majority” has had and continues to show time and time again their outright enmity towards the citizens of Laguna Beach not in step with their Pro-Development, Pro-Tourism, Pro-Retail posture. Time for a “new” council focused on and for Us the Residents.

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