By Paul Freeman
Editor’s Note: Freeman is a former paid consultant for companies managed by Mohammad Honarkar. He has no pending claims against his former client.
Jonathan Sacks writes, “If your faith makes losing a sin, then cheating becomes a sacrament.” This sadly sums up much of contemporary American politics. It’s apropos what’s happening in Laguna.
Three months ago, the former city manager, issuing yet another stop-work order for Mohammad Honarkar’s funny business, this time at Hotel Laguna, wrote: “For this stop-work order to be lifted, you must first obtain the necessary land use entitlements.” No comprehensive plans have been submitted, much less entitlements granted—yet Honarkar’s new Hotel Laguna restaurant is reportedly opening soon.
What changed? Team Honarkar, even as his financial house of cards again looks close to collapse, seems stronger than ever, in City Hall. A new city manager and the council majority allow him to keep circumventing any public process. Look—everyone is anxious for the hotel to re-open. But it turns my stomach to see the drivel on social media celebrating Honarkar for cheating, with the City’s help, to open a restaurant that mainly benefits him, and does nothing to re-open the hotel.
Honarkar claims he’s met all his obligations. Yet local tradesmen are still owed money. Another developer—Honarkar agreed to sell him Hotel Laguna’s lease, then allegedly reneged—has sued him for fraud. His former architectural firm Architects Orange is suing him for more than $679,000 in damages plus attorney’s fees. His current major lender is suing him for $175 million, saying he’s in “monetary and non-monetary default,” that in obtaining his loan to (temporarily, I hope) keep the wolves at bay, he made material misrepresentations.
Equally outrageous is the City granted Honarkar’s Terra Laguna Beach a temporary certificate of occupancy on July 1, 2021, which allowed it to reopen with the Festival of Arts. This opening was 21 days before the restaurant and bar passed an OC Health inspection.
Just last week, Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis LLP sued Honarkar claiming unpaid legal fees totaling $270,000 and presenting evidence of the same. Additional lawsuits involve bad faith, misrepresentations, and failure to meet obligations. And then there’s his $5 million-plus in COVID relief funds, for payroll: given his limited payroll, people should examine his use of taxpayer dollars.
All of which begs a question for city leaders. Knowing all this, moreover knowing there are well-financed, capable, successful developers waiting in the wings, why are they going out of their way to help this no-account? No, it’s not to re-open Hotel Laguna. The hotel is not re-opening. There are no such plans—I mean that literally. City leaders are bending over backward, bending rules or disposing of them altogether, to help Honarkar open a restaurant.
Oh, right: he’s improved the look of the place. That’s hardly setting the bar very high. Oh, right: he’s got a world-class chef. Well bully-bully. This plays like some grotesque combination of Donald Trump and the Kardashians. Lies. People stiffed. A victory of celebrity and gesture over substance.
And oh, by the way—the cat is out of the bag about Brown Act violations. But no, I don’t mean by Toni Iseman and George Weiss. That the Council in closed session discussed and voted on matters that cannot lawfully be discussed in closed session: that was the first and primary Brown Act violation. Iseman and Weiss are effectively whistle-blowers. The relevant question is why should the City Manager, City Attorney and Council majority get away with making deals and decisions behind closed doors?
The real shame is this further polarizes an already divided community.
Predictably, a citizens’ anti-development initiative is circulating. Its passage is a smart-money bet. Why? Because faith has been lost in City Hall. The initiative would require any new project within 750 feet of Coast Highway or Laguna Canyon Road that would generate 200 vehicle trips daily (not merely in busy times) to automatically go to the ballot. Even if a project would generate less traffic than that, but when added to another new project within a short distance would bust the applicable limits, they both must go to the ballot. Oy vey.
This is a recipe not for smart or limited growth, but, most likely, no new projects. Remember the bad opera over the Montage? Montage generates more than 200 vehicle trips a day and I defy anyone to tell me they feel that traffic impact. By the way — and I know the current Council majority may find this all too radical—there were plans for Montage before construction began, after many hearings.
Wake up, Laguna! The adverse impact of visitors is from day-trippers, not hotel guests. Hotel guests don’t clog the streets, and they pay their way. Plus hotel guests buy local art, meals, and more. Quality developers can create spaces that residents enjoy as much as visitors. Shady no-accounts like Honarkar, especially when conspiring with City leaders, can do real, lasting harm.
Ends rarely justify means, but when people in power decide losing is a sin, cheating becomes a sacrament. Never thought I’d see that in Laguna. But City Hall today is inept, at best. Not that I find comfort in the opposition, as indicated. It recalls for me the brilliant headline over The Economist’s endorsement of John Kerry over George W. Bush in 2004: “Incoherence is Preferable to Ineptitude.”
Paul is a former Laguna Beach mayor.