PACs throw cash at Laguna Beach ballot initiatives

The 118-room Museum Hotel proposed by the Laguna Beach Company would have redeveloped the ocean side of North Coast Highway between Cliff Drive and Jasmine Street. The project did not make it past a concept review by the Planning Commission. Rendering courtesy of Laguna Creative Ventures.

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.

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  1. Laguna enjoys some of the highest property values in the county, thanks to decades of volunteers who have saved it time and time again. Similar initiatives to the North (Newport Beach) and South (Dana Point) have already passed and, contrary to claims of dire consequences there, those cities are doing fine. The real question is: why wouldn’t you want the power to vote on projects that exceed set standards and affect your quality of life and property values? Follow the money. Realtors were behind the Death Tax (Proposition 19) too — with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association strongly opposed. The author and I do agree on one point “…if you don’t like the job they’re doing, elect someone else.” Great advice. Vote out all the incumbents on the city council this fall.

  2. Wow. Just what all LB property owners/residents need – the Real Estate industry joining the developer/investor big spender PAC’s and their funded politicians to control our city and determine if we get to have a vote in future major developments in our own city.

    Laguna Beach stakeholders it’s time to protect your interests, not just theirs. If you value your role as a stakeholder, your family assets and voice, don’t let profiteers control you or your ability to shape the precious city you call home. All stakeholders working respectfully together on Laguna’s future progress is the healthiest decision for the future. Be a part of it!

    Vote YES on the people’s LRF Ballot Initiative in November.

  3. “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
    Déja vu all over again, 25 years ago when Clean Water Now was founded, the real estate industry in Laguna was furiously set against us. So LRF, you’re in good precedential company!
    Realtors alleged that we would drive property values down by publicizing the ubiquitous pollution from urban runoff that constantly contaminated our beaches, high concentrations of Fecal Indicator Bacteria (FIBs) being just part of the nasty purging of our storm drain system.
    One need only punch in “urban runoff” in their browser, the gamut of persistent pollutants is mind-boggling.
    Another factor we socialized was the chronic sewage spills that reached our beaches, closing them for hundreds of yards in each direction from the stormwater system discharge outfall pipes.
    In the mid-to-late 90s, Laguna averaged 1 such spill reached receiving waters of the Pacific every 3 weeks.
    We gathered a lot of MSM attention via confrontations at not just LB City Hall but the inland cities and County that polluted our creeks. Don’t believe me, go online to LA Times and/or OC Register archives. Historical facts are facts.
    We were relentless, at my insistence, our founding board traveled and appeared at upstream city council hearings plus the Board of Supervisors quite a few times.
    So out of the crucible of that confrontation between CWN and the City came definitive regional change. And yes, we petitioned for and managed to convince the SD Regional Board to fine Laguna for these lapses in June of 2000: $240,000 worth of sanctions called “Assessed Civili Liabilities.”
    My recollection is that 25% went to the State, 25% to compensate for SD staff time, the remaining 50% was designated as start up seed funding/compensation for our Water Quality Department.
    This included hiring our first Enviro Compliance Officer (Mike Phillips).
    When founded in 1998, not one South OC city had a WQ Department, by 2002 the City had hired David Shissler as its first WQ Director as ALL of the other municipalities were doing.
    These cities and the County were never going to respect us, be sensitive to our enviro-concerns, but they’d fear us and our wrath. I’m not ashamed to write that embarrassing public officials was one of our successful tactics.
    Ask our previous generation of lifeguards, they were grateful that finally someone was being held accountable as they had to swim in polluted water to train and make rescues.
    CWN regrets none of it—-the LRF is reminiscent of that struggle. Though a PAC (or PACs) was never formed to oppose us, we were shunned, typified as radicals and troublemakers.
    All we did was speak truth to power.
    Much of what’s being directed at LRF are knee jerk, thinly veiled fear responses. How else to explain the screechy comments?
    CWN tries to avoid politicizing ourselves, and although sympathetic to the LRF cause, I personally have attempted to remain neutral.
    This particular skirmish does seem, prima facie, to pit Big $$$ vs. Core Community Values—unless of course voters decide that Gordon Gekko’s quote I used now “captures the essence of our evolutionary spirit.”
    There’s an entire food chain of real estate-related businesses that survive and thrive based upon the same GG principles, they must sense that the character of our town is not as high of a priority as the commodification, the monetizing of what LRF apparently wishes to protect.
    Well, the real estate industry survived our onslaught, in fact brag about how clean our ocean is as a marketing tool. Due to a subculture, a bunch of fringies no less, us!


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