No Laughing Matter
Billy Fried had a lot of fun writing his clever column about the “Beautiful Laguna” ballot initiative. Most jokes only provoke a smile or a chuckle, but Fried’s word play made me laugh, the kind of uncontrollable laughter my brothers and I would set off with our special juvenile inside jokes told around the dinner table, while our parents sat there straight-faced wondering where they had gone wrong in raising us. We can still set off that deep spontaneous laughter when we get together, “How did the car get into the barn when the door was closed?” Answer: “It was a hand car, and it opened the door.” Nonsensical I know. I can just hear you readers laughing away right now.
Thank you Billy, that kind of laughter is good for the soul, and commentary that doesn’t feed anger is good for us as Lagunans.
It got me thinking, why this ballot initiative? Why are our neighbors dedicated enough to walk the streets talking to us about the future of our town, asking for your signature to put the measure on the ballot? It wasn’t easy to come up with all the required special documents, to raise funds to consult with land use lawyers on the language, and to confront the city establishment’s ways of managing our town’s future. There’s no self-interest benefit in this for these “Laguna Residents First” advocates. They must feel strongly that there’s a problem and I have to agree there is.
We have been building up for a long time to the recent and most telling crisis focusing on the Hotel Laguna. It took emphatic letters from the public, knowledgeable consultants and former Mayor Paul Freemen just to get the city to follow up on unpermitted construction. When they finally did, the city demanded a master plan for the Hotel as a condition for lifting a stop work order. No master plan is in evidence. The council majority, city attorney and staff apparently wanted to avoid a public discussion of the controversial Hotel Laguna permits, and so they had a closed session meeting on it June 29, in which Mayor Bob Whalen, Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf, and Councilmember Peter Blake agreed to lift the stop work order.
In August, Whalen proposed an agenda bill to censure the minority councilmembers Toni Iseman and George Weiss for breaching closed session confidentiality in relation to that vote which they believed to be improperly considered. Only Weiss was censured on a 3-2 vote.
In response to a complaint by Councilmember George Weiss the Orange County District Attorney’s Office determined that there is substantial evidence that the city violated the Brown Act open meeting law. Instead of humbly agreeing to comply in the future and recording closed session meetings as the DA suggested, the council majority doubled down and tried to justify their actions.
Whalen and Kempf have found their third vote with the bombastic and accusatory Blake, so they do little to stop his diatribes against members of the public commenting before the council. Is it any wonder that serious and concerned members of the public who brave-up to testify question whether this group will have the interest of our city at heart when they manage development decisions? Whalen, Kempf and Blake were supported by Liberate Laguna, a PAC that spent over $250,000 in the last two elections, far outspending the campaign budgets of other candidates.
Citizen participation, the hallmark of Laguna decision-making, has led us to sound decisions like preserving Main Beach Park and the Greenbelt and developing the General Plan with its goals of enhancing the unique character of our town. We used to have citizen task forces that solved problems—like the Laguna Canyon Road and flood control task forces. Yet this administration’s citizen participation consists of interminable meetings featuring residents speaking about their concerns for two or three minutes. Then the council typically responds by “moving the recommended action” on a 3-2 vote with Iseman and Weiss dissenting. There is a reason why citizens and the initiative proponents have lost faith in the potential of our city processes to deal appropriately with major development proposals.
Lastly, the Community Development department appears to be in disarray, having lost another three staff members in the last two months. Despite sincere efforts to straighten out their procedures and expedite permitting, the Department continues to have setbacks. As a result of a review with the Coastal Commission regarding which portions of the city’s ordinance changes have Coastal approval, staff found that the city’s definition of major remodel hadn’t been cleared by Coastal. While this sounds like just a technical matter, it makes a big difference to those designers and applicants who are trying to process their plans. Finding out this glitch at the end of the plan review process has caused some applicants to have to redesign using this last minute new criteria. Again, faith in correct processing is questioned.
Perhaps the initiative seems heavy-handed, but there are strong reasons why it is needed. These problems are not laughing matters. A letter from Laguna Beach luminaries including Joe Hanauer, Morris Skenderian, and Greg and Barbara MacGillivray objecting to the initiative suggests ways that city planning processes can be improved. Even though the letter contains many misconceptions about the initiative, it demonstrates that this process is already raising awareness. This wake-up call is causing us to listen to each other and find ways to work together to solve the problems outlined above, perhaps in spite of our non-functional council. We all have the same goals—to make our town more beautiful and more harmonious. We can’t let a divisive council keep us from achieving what we the citizens envision.
Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor. She’s also a long-time board member of Village Laguna, Inc.