The Laguna Beach City Council voted late Tuesday to censure Councilmember Peter Blake, marking the first time councilmembers have enforced a decorum and civility policy adopted in 2019.
The Council’s 4-0-1 vote, Blake abstained, caps a months-long campaign by a relatively small group of vocal residents who have urged Mayor Bob Whalen to use a censure process he introduced into city law. Censure is essentially an official admonishment and doesn’t invalidate any of Blake’s votes or restrict him from speaking at future meetings.
“This is not about trying to quell his speech and his viewpoints it’s about how you communicate your viewpoints and treat people who come before the council,” Whalen said.
The art gallery owner lashed out at his colleagues after Tuesday’s vote, calling them a “kangaroo court” as he registered his abstention.
“I was elected as a voice for members of this community who haven’t had a voice,” Blake said. “[My opponents] have destroyed my reputation, they’ve written terrible things about me, and when I respond they call me a bully.”
Blake has repeatedly embraced the bully moniker, arguing his supporters knew his personality when they elected him.
“Every comment I’ve ever made has been in response to someone,” Blake said Tuesday.
Laguna Beach’s censure of a councilmember marks a startling trend among Orange County cities. In November, the San Clemente City Council censured Councilmember Laura Ferguson, for publicly criticizing city staff and releasing public records to the public, Voice of OC reports.
In February, Huntington Beach Councilmember Tito Ortiz nearly lost his Mayor Pro Tem title after colleagues admonished him for refusing to wear a mask at public meetings and blasting a local restaurant for refusing to serve him after declined to serve him for failing to follow a public health order.
Councilmember George Weiss formally requested a censure vote last week, arguing the City Council needed to intervene in light of multiple statements by the art gallery owner that violate city law governing the conduct of elected and appointed officials.
“The censure request is based on two categories of unprofessional acts that violate the City’s Rules of Decorum and Civility Policy,” Weiss wrote in a letter. “First, insulting public communications directed to or about different Laguna Beach residents, which convey the (false) impression that community input is held in disdain by the City Council. Second, public derisive comment about fellow long-term Councilmember Toni Iseman.”
Among Blake’s statements cited in the letter, which include five comments he posted on lagunabeachindy.com, are disparaging remarks about his political opponents.
In a May 2020 email sent to Mayor Bob Whalen and senior city staff, Blake wrote Iseman is unfit for office due to a health condition and should resign.
Weiss also cited Blake’s response to a Feb. 5 letter to the editor on lagunabeachindy.com where Blake called Iseman “Village Laguna’s mouthpiece”, “sycophantic,” and a word that Merriam-Webster co-defines as “a lewd or promiscuous woman.” Blake has subsequently commented that he was referring to the other definition as “the dross or scoria of a metal” in light of his artistic background.
Blake said in a phone interview Thursday that he’s not apologizing for any of these comments.
As the target of many of Blake’s public comments, Iseman solemnly fired back Tuesday.
“I feel sorry for bullies. I feel sorry for people that have to do this,” she said. “I’m grateful to George. Anyone who thinks he hasn’t been effective hasn’t been watching council meetings.”
Even though the council majority shared distaste for Blake’s behavior over the last two years, Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf and Whalen noted that some residents are purposefully antagonizing him.
There couldn’t have been for a worse time to hold a censure hearing because city manager candidates are watching council meetings and reading news stories about Laguna Beach government, Kempf said.
“We have a beautiful community but we’ve got a toxic stew going on here for a number of reasons,” Kempf said.
She added that multiple people have asked her if she’s ever chided Blake privately for his bad behavior.
“Yes, of course, I have but this is the problem we have here,” Kempf said. “I think we all need to own some of this because we can’t even have a civil election in this town. What a joke.”
Whalen said the censure hearing is probably the agenda bill he’s liked the least.
“I think there’s some sport that goes on to get a rise out of him because they know he’ll respond,” Whalen said.