Who’s Running This Place?
When Laguna Beach was incorporated in 1927 there was concern for how Laguna Beach would respond to the pressures of growth and an emphasis on promoting the town as a coastal destination seen as a cultural center, an art colony, “The beach that’s different.”
The city government was a means for managing infrastructure and facilitating enhancement of the town.
At that time, the city was run by the citizens elected to the City Council. Local civil engineer Art Stead was an early employee. It wasn’t until 1954 that the voters adopted a city manager form of government and chose Benjamin E. Mead, Jr. as our first city manager. The city staff has grow to 279 employees. Citizens of Laguna Beach are now in the minority of those running our city.
Over many years we have developed our own “constitution,” the General Plan, intended “to ensure that the City of Laguna Beach will endure for future generations as a thriving, sustainable community that respects and nurtures our scenic natural surroundings, village character, and quality of life.” Strong detailed policies carry out that mission.
Theoretically, the citizens of Laguna Beach run the city through their elected representatives, the City Council. The city manager serves at the discretion of the Council, but all the other employees answer to the city manager.
One would think the council has a lot of power but unlike members of congress or state government, councilmembers are hampered by the Brown Act from developing a consensus with other members, except at a public hearing. They can’t even express an opinion on a matter prior to the meeting or they can be accused of prejudging the matter and can be disqualified from voting on it. All this gives the city manager even more power.
Still, the city manager is supposed to implement the City Council’s direction. Over the years we’ve seen that he seems to use his own discretion on what to implement and when. Here are examples:
Restoration of the Village Entrance’s digester building: After years of hearings and delays, despite a unanimous council vote in 2019, and a generous donation from the MacGillivray family, staffers have not moved the project forward. At last Saturday’s Council retreat the digester restoration had been omitted altogether from a long list of upcoming projects. Staff then explained the project has been scheduled for three years from now and thus didn’t make the list. Without preservation efforts, the structure will continue to deteriorate and needed repairs will be more costly. The restoration could be linked to a new parking garage, staff suggested. Somehow the parking garage can be greenlighted despite COVID-19 budget limitations, but the digester restoration is once again being ignored.
Historic preservation did not have to become a divisive community issue. Policies and ordinances were in place to guide this program, yet professional staff leadership was lacking. They overlooked the effect of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) on the process since the early 1990s. Historic preservation processes were confusing, staff and heritage committee training was lacking. Historic property owners were frustrated. This all bubbled over into a long series of rancorous meetings, and now there’s a lawsuit. This did not have to be—had staff supplied professional guidance for a smooth-running, fair program from the beginning.
Trees: Over the past 10 years, city management developed a tree choice and management approach contrary to the woodsy character of Laguna Beach’s traditional landscape. Prior to this change when a city street tree was fatally damaged it was routinely replaced in kind by Public Works. City management started removing mature trees in the downtown, imposed a moratorium on replanting, and urged replacing large trees with much smaller ones—dwarf Magnolia, for example. Again there were controversial hearings at council meetings. After years of delay, larger trees were finally agreed upon and replanted downtown.
Now the city manager is retiring and other managers no longer work for the city. Laguna Beach residents will live with their choices and the results of the controversies they generated for years.
We should not have to be fighting our city all of the time. It is our city after all. Most of us are not planning on moving anywhere, but staff retires, gets employment in other cities, or often lives elsewhere. They should not be engaged in their own campaigns to change important features of the community we love.
There will be an open process to select our next city manager—as announced at the Council retreat on Saturday, including two public meetings on criteria for that selection as well as a survey. Let’s urge selection of someone who agrees with the goals and content of the General Plan, sees Laguna Beach as a treasure to be enhanced not neutralized, and who will treat everyone with kindness and respect.
Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor.