Follow the Coffee
In politics recently we’ve heard a lot about “following the money.” Here in Laguna we can also “follow the coffee.” It tells the story about respect and cooperation—or not so much.
When I first started going to council meetings in the late 1980s there was a table in the back with coffee. Anyone could help themselves. If council members wanted some they walked to the back for a cup just like those in the audience did.
Then a few years later the coffee was removed and there was no coffee at all. Now there’s coffee, but it’s to the right of the dais beyond the reach of the audience.
Saturday the council and staff had a strategic planning session at the community center. There was not only coffee, but also bagels. But there was a sign, “For Council members and staff only, thank you.”
In the 1980s, the days when we all gathered at the same coffee table, the city and the community were united in achieving a major inspiring goal—saving the canyon and the greenbelt. We needed each other and worked together, the city providing expertise and negotiation abilities, the community providing the tremendous push, the demonstration of broad support for preservation. Together we passed the $20 million bond, the first increment in paying for the canyon land.
This togetherness vanished with the 1993 fire, and we have never restored it. The owners of Treasure Island, who wanted to develop what is now the Montage, fanned the flames of blame and divisiveness so that they could change the council to one that would be more receptive to their project. The Montage was completed in 2003, but the divisiveness lives on.
Now we are faced with another cadre of developers (Liberate Laguna) who hope for approval of ever more ambitious redevelopment. This time it’s not just one property but sites all over town. They dragged out the same false and divisive mailers about the 1993 fire that other developers used in 1994. The developer-endorsed candidates Peter Blake and Sue Kempf were elected.
Saturday’s strategic planning meeting was open to the public but it was not broadcast or recorded. The public was not allowed to participate in the discussion. The session was a glimpse into the dynamics of city hall that reveal how staff and council are allied in limiting the community from having meaningful effect on the upcoming course of events. It’s not just the public’s being excluded from the coffee, it’s the resistance to community input in general and committees and task forces in particular. (“They slow things down.”) There’s a lack of appreciation for how the community as a whole, working together with the city, can achieve greatness. Apart, we are just engaged in a continual struggle to solve petty problems while the grand vision eludes us.
Council member Peter Blake stated, “The voters spoke loud and clear. We were elected to rule this city.” In fact the election was not so clear. The winning candidates (Blake, Iseman, and Kempf) each only received 13-14 percent of the vote. The losing candidates together received 58 percent of the vote. This seems more like an argument for having run-off elections, not a mandate for ruling the city.
The council is intended to represent, not rule, the citizens. (See the city’s organizational chart which puts the Citizens of Laguna Beach in the top box, in charge of all of the rest of the city entities, including the city council.) In order for the city council to perform its representational role the citizenry must be an important and listened to part of the decision-making process.
Citizen involvement doesn’t stop with election day. Responsible citizens taking part, working hard to speak up for our vision of the community good (as over 2,000 residents expressed in the Vision 2030 plan) are performing their role in the democratic process, the role that the founding fathers envisioned when they wrote, “We the people.”
Can you imagine the enthusiasm they all felt—an opportunity for the people to govern themselves and not be under the thumb of a monarchy—how innovative, how humane! Surely Laguna Beach is not the place for a resurgent domineering ruler.
We could say, “Now we have Starbucks” and each of us gets exactly what we want in our own individual cup, enjoying our little world around our homes. Let’s not worry or care about being pushed out of what used to be called “smoke-filled rooms” where all the decisions are made.
Or we could say, “We’re coming in, clearing the air, taking our places at the table.”
Ann Christoph is a landscape architect and former mayor and member of the city council.