Opinion: Left of Center

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A Failure of Imagination

By Jean Hastings Ardell

The City Council meeting that took place via Zoom on Sept. 8, did not exactly zoom along. Well, many of us are fumbling with the technology that requires us to activate our mics before speaking. If only we could better activate our minds before speaking and doing. In this the meeting was discouraging to this viewer, in particular the discussion over The Downtown Parking Structure Study.

The initial study by Walker Consultants showed four images of parking structures, three of them recently built in other cities. The fourth image incorporated the much loved, if unappealingly named, Digester building. The others looked like what they were: generic structures that bore no connection to what makes Laguna Beach unique. This rightfully agitated several residents, one of whom declared “the need for a design out of the box, worthy of the city’s beauty.” So far we’ve seen a failure of imagination.

Several good ideas surfaced as the public comments went on. Those urging a “no” vote offered some compelling arguments. I agreed when Jennifer Welsh-Zeiter, representing the Greater Laguna Beach GOP, called the proposed parking structure “fiscally irresponsible in an uncertain time.” (I also liked Welsh-Zeiter’s choice of the term “fiscally irresponsible,” believing as I do that fiscally responsible voters can be found in both major parties.) Another speaker suggested that the owners of downtown commercial real estate pay into the cost of the parking structure. After all, he pointed out, their tenants are the ones who will most benefit from the increase in available parking. Besides, said property owners’ high rents are a big reason why it’s so tough to make it as a small business owner downtown. While we’re on the subject of money, rumor has it that the study was paid for by an anonymous donor. Assistant City Manager Shohreh Dupuis informed me that the Chamber of Commerce donated $20,000 toward the study. The city chipped in another $15,000. Does this make residents nervous?

Councilmember Toni Iseman suggested that the existing employee parking of about 100 spaces be opened to the public, with city staff parking in the Act V parking lot and catching the trolley the rest of the way to work. Now that’s imaginative. It’s also fiscally responsible, as it would cost little, but the idea was not pursued. Too bad.

Councilmember Peter Blake was on his mark, commenting at one point, “That was the most ignorant public comment I’ve heard.” The council’s policy on civil discourse has been in effect for one year, but Blake has not been held accountable despite ongoing outbursts and scatological emails. This, too, undermines residents’ trust in the council. Besides, as my mother used to point out, “If you have to resort to swearing you’re suffering from a lack of imagination.”

Which leads me to comments by Howard Hills in last week’s Letters to the Editor. Hills recently dropped out of the election to serve on the Laguna Beach Unified School District Board but continues his mission to discredit Supt. Jason Viloria, citing incidents from the past to make his case: “The column disappointingly turned into a puff piece about embattled Supt. Jason Viloria. Not a credible messenger on student empowerment or race.”

I take it that the “alleged hate incident involving LBHS students” Hills mentioned was their hurling of a watermelon against the front door of a Black student’s home late in December 2016. If so, I remember it well. Both Viloria and the Board stood up for that Black student—despite the backlash the student and his family experienced—so for Hills to argue that the superintendent is “not a credible messenger … on race” is, in my opinion, unfair and inaccurate. In addition, during his tenure Viloria has instituted training sessions for staff and teachers: No Place for Hate, Unconscious Bias Training, World of Difference Anti-Bias, and Welcoming Schools (LGBTQ). Black motivational speaker Keith Hawkins has spoken on campus. Students are asked periodically, “how are we doing on bullying and racism?” Viloria says racial tensions have improved. “How can we continue to improve? The next step is engaging the curriculum.” Specifically, he seeks “materials, texts, [and] training … to provide a more robust anti-racist course of study.” That’s also on the Coalition’s list of wants, which will have been addressed at the Sept. 16 school board meeting. I hope the Coalition continues its advocacy.

Sensibilities about systemic racism have changed in the year 2020. Viloria looks to be well-positioned to lead the district forward. But if the national soul-searching over the past months has taught us anything, it’s that we must stop firing pejoratives at opposing sides and re-learn how to listen to one another, not as adversaries but as seekers of common ground.

Imagine that.

Jean Hastings Ardell is interested in hearing from people who have had experiences, positive and negative, regarding systemic racism with both local education and the police force. Email: [email protected]

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