Opinion: Village Matters

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Is 2022 The Year of The People?

ann christoph

Its getting off to a questionable start! At the Jan. 11 council meeting consultants and staff presented their analysis of the financial impact of the Beautiful Laguna Overlay Zoning District” ballot initiative. The task of the financial consultant required speculation and assumptions and the results were complicated and unclear. Regardless of the analysis which at least two councilmembers found unconvincing, the measure of all this lies not in the finances but in the realm of psychology and emotion—a disappointed constituency that is frustrated at not being heard. Councilmember Toni Iseman pointed out, Theres a reason why this initiative is here.  Its the frustration from the public who sees whats going on… the attitude that is in the community about residents not being respected… The revenue in this town is from the residents. The property tax is going to continue to give. So we dont need to look at this from the standpoint of revenue but we have to look at this from the standpoint of having a town that the residents deserve. There is a problem out there and we cant ignore it.”

The people try to convey this message when they speak passionately at council about the impacts that proposals will have on the future of their neighborhoods and the whole town. They are discounted and insulted as activists” and horrible Village Laguna members by councilmember Peter Blake. Even though councilmembers Bob Whalen and Sue Kempf are more polite those three are a council majority that rarely supports resident testimony in their council votes. Other recent examples are allowing the funding reserved for the Community Garden to expire and not providing for requested public input into the deliberations of the parking subcommittee (of Whalen and Kempf).

There was another opportunity to be supportive of residents at Tuesday’s council meeting. At stake was the right for individual councilmembers to put items on the council agenda—simple enough you would think. Being one of five elected councilmembers must come with some power after all. That power is already limited in ways that are not immediately apparent. The Brown Act restricts the ability of council members to develop a consensus outside a public meeting—they are not allowed to talk policy or proposed actions with more than one other councilmember. Unlike other public office holders, like county supervisors, state assemblymembers or senators, councilmembers have no staff. The city manager and city staff is their staff, but they are to assist all of the councilmembers. If a councilmember is in the minority, apparently from some council comments, they have trouble getting assistance from that staff. Volunteers could help but councilmembers are not allowed to talk about items discussed in closed session, so it is difficult for volunteers to help in meaningful ways. With all these constraints, councilmembers can be isolated and may find the position more difficult than it should be—unless they get along well with the city manager.

In this proposal the city manager wanted to limit the number of agenda items a councilmember could propose to four per year, and wanted to require a vote of the council to approve putting an item on the agenda for detailed consideration. She also wanted 45 days to schedule a requested agenda item and didnt want to spend staff time on preparing information for the proposed first of two council hearings.

24 members of the public spoke—all in favor unrestricted freedom for councilmembers to propose agenda bills. The recurring theme was—they are elected to represent us, the residents, and they should be able to bring matters to the council meeting for public comment and action by the council.

The council had an opportunity to be both heroes to the clearly dedicated and concerned residents who spoke, and also represent their own interest. Being a council member is nearly a volunteer position—they are paid $908 a month for a job that is a constant worry and can be almost full-time. The city managers salary is $275,000 annually. Councilmembers should get respect and all the help they need from staff—regardless of which end of a 3-2 vote they are on.

In the end the council voted 4-1 (Blake dissenting) to keep a 1968 resolution in place, allowing councilmembers to submit agenda bills for the next council meeting. A victory for the resident testifiers and for the whole council because it continues the respect and support council should have. An acknowledgement of the value of the public testimony? Not so much. Some members of the council seem to specialize in discounting what they have heard from the public—no hero role for them. A year of the people? We shouldnt have to wait for election day to find out.

Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor. She is also a long-time board member of Village Laguna, Inc.

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