A slate of newly-formed political action committees are poised to spend tens of thousands of dollars to influence how Laguna Beach voters decide on three ballot initiatives, public records show.
One newly formed political committee funded by the real estate community, merchants, and residents has reportedly amassed over $71,000 to defeat Measure Q, a ballot initiative supported by another PAC, Laguna Residents First, that would require a public vote on certain major development along Coast Highway and Laguna Canyon Road.
Among the largest funders of Citizens for Laguna’s Future PAC are the California Association of Realtors Issues Mobilization PAC ($10,000) and the short-lived Preserve Laguna Now PAC ($28,700).
The PAC’s treasurer is Glenn Gray, a retired bank executive who was tapped as the new CEO of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in May. Gray is also a former board chair of the Laguna Playhouse.
It’s likely that not all Laguna Beach voters are aware of the unintended consequences of the initiative, Gray said. He also argues that the existing layers of review by city staffers, appointed committees, and elected officials are sufficient.
“I think the initiative did make some public awareness in a good way,” Gray said. “Just fundamentally, I like the way government works. You elect representatives to do the job and if you don’t like the job they’re doing you elect someone else.”
Gray underscored that he is not a developer and no longer works in finance.
“I don’t have a dog in the hunt other than that I’m a residential property owner in Laguna Beach and I don’t want to see my property values go down,” he said.
The Laguna Board of Realtors requested the statewide PAC make the contribution to oppose the initiative, CAR spokesperson Lotus Lou wrote in an email. Lou referred additional requests to the local Realtor board.
“We believe in the preservation of our town’s special character and vibrancy and believe Measure Q, if passed, will cause short-term and long-term collateral damage to Laguna residents’ quality of life. We urge residents to take time to read and truly understand the initiative and the negative impacts it will have on our community,” Laguna Board of Realtors President Laura Baptista wrote in an email.
Among the local merchants contributing to Citizens for Laguna’s Future are Fredric H. Rubel Jewelers, Zinc Cafe and Market, and Johnson Fine Properties led by Compass agent Michael A. Johnson.
Supporters of the development initiative anticipated coastal real estate interests would put up a fight based on their past activity in other coastal towns.
“Spending $10,000 to oppose the LRF ballot initiative speaks to our initiative’s effectiveness in mitigating overdevelopment of Laguna. It also demonstrates the large amount of money that is available to those who are seeking to monetize the potential of this town,” David Raber, principal officer of Laguna Residents First PAC.
On Aug. 5, a committee called Protect and Keep Laguna Local filed records declaring its intention to oppose a pair of ballot initiatives. Measure S would set a minimum wage and other working conditions for hotel employees. Measure R would require a public vote on new hotels or major remodels of existing hotels. Regency Properties, L.P. and a corporate entity linked to Montage Laguna Beach are named as committee sponsors.
John Donne, president of Surf & Sand Resort owner JC Resorts, is named as the PAC’s principal officer.
In early August, Laguna Beach residents received a letter from the Laguna Beach Hospitality Consortia blasting the “two anti-Laguna/anti-hospitality ballot initiatives. The letter was signed by Joanna Bear, general manager of Surf & Sand Resort; Kurt Bjorkman, COO of The Ranch; and Mary Rogers, managing director of Montage Laguna Beach.
“One of these ballot initiatives undermines the incredible and familial relationships that we have always had with our employees while the other would severely limit our ability to improve and maintain our properties,” the letter states.
Meanwhile, Citizens for a Sustainable Laguna Beach has received at least $25,000 from the Southern California hospitality union UNITE HERE Local 11 to see both hotel-related initiatives are successful in November.
Developers and their supporters have questioned if the public has sufficient experience to make development decisions, said Fred Smoller, Chapman University associate professor of political science. The influx of cash into an election of a community of about 22,000 residents shows coastal property owners’ interest in protecting their investment, he added.
“I imagine the people who are going to donate are making a cost-benefit analysis—the cost of these initiatives passing is much more than the contribution to the campaign to defeat them,” Smoller said. “I think they’re worried about the precedent it will set and the possibility that it will take off like wildfire in other cities.”
Although Laguna Residents First’s supporters acknowledge they can’t expect to match contributions from their opponent, Smoller expects that they will be formidable in their pursuit of a thumbs up from voters.
“It’s hard to sell jobs and growth to people voters who are upper income. These people don’t need the growth,” Smoller said.