With early mail-in votes paving the way, Laguna voters ushered in two challengers Tuesday to replace the incumbents running for re-election to Laguna Beach’s City Council.
More than 4,400 Laguna Beach voters turned out, according to the Orange County Registrar of Voters, and placed Robert Whalen, a finance attorney and current city planning commissioner, in the lead from the outset. Steve Dicterow, also an attorney who lives on the same street as Whalen and a 12-year former council member, was the second highest voter-getter, a position that remained unchanged from the first results.
Mayor Pro Tem Verna Rollinger, championing environmental causes and leading the four other contenders in financial contributions and political endorsements, and Mayor Jane Egly, who ran her own campaign and is often a swing vote between the council’s liberal and conservative factions, both failed to win enough support for continued terms on the dais.
With voters able to select two candidates, Whalen received a total of 4,583 votes, which accounted for nearly 28% of the voting electorate, according to the county registrar. Dicterow received 4,339 votes or 26.1%. Outgoing incumbents Rollinger and Egly were nearly even, garnering 3,566 and 3,534 votes respectively or about 21% of the total votes cast. Robert Ross, a retired film editor and the fifth candidate running for two available offices, received 634 votes or about 4% of the total.
Whalen, who relished his victory among a throng of noisy supporters at Big Fish restaurant, thought the results reflected his professional strengths. “I think people like the fact that I have a strong financial background with a particular expertise in municipal finance,” he said. “There’s $60 million a year that runs through the city budget and people paying taxes want somebody with a background and expertise in that area to look over it.”He also attributed his favorable turn-out to 20 years of getting to know people around town as a former president of the Boys and Girls Club board as well as a Little League and soccer dad. “You meet a lot of people through that who aren’t necessarily that plugged in to the political process,” he said.
Whalen said one of his priorities will be making the downtown friendlier to locals. A recent meeting on possible plans produced “all sorts of views on how the downtown can be sort of reinvigorated and made more attractive for residents of Laguna,” he said.
As for defeated open space Measure CC, which Whalen as well as Dicterow opposed, preserving untouched land, he said, was not the issue. “I don’t think the rejection of CC was the rejection of open space,” Whalen said. “It was just a view on the part of the voters that that wasn’t the right vehicle to get it done.”
Dicterow, who formerly managed world championship motorcycle racers, thought the measure put an unnecessary tax burden on property owners. “When I’ve examined the budget, I think that there’s enough room in there to buy open space when we need to,” he said.
Noting that the competition was tough against a current mayor, mayor pro tem and planning commissioner, Dicterow said winning was a formidable task. “Not in my personal life, but in my professional life, this is the happiest moment of my life,” he said Wednesday, after anxiously watching results the previous night among supporters at Mare’s Italian restaurant in the Holiday Inn. Even early absentee results that showed him in second did not calm his demeanor. As it turned out, early returns mirrored the final outcome.
Dicterow said he hit the streets early Wednesday, similar to his door-to-door campaign strategy, and met with City Manager John Pietig at 7 a.m. to start becoming better informed about upcoming issues. “Especially in local politics, accessibility to your council member really means a lot to people,” he said. “These are your neighbors and friends and they want to be able to talk to you and tell you what their concerns are.”
Dicterow said he’ll eventually introduce proposals on view preservation, a public safety committee and a skateboard park and teen center.
Rollinger was clearly unhappy about the early mail-in voter tally Tuesday night and only grimaced when asked her thoughts on what looked like a foreboding outcome for her. “Given that both incumbents lost, one conclusion has to be that there was clearly anti-incumbent sentiment,” said Rollinger’s campaign manager Paul Freeman.
Partisanship played a role in the outcome, Freeman speculated. “It’s fair to say that Republicans voted for the two candidates supported by the Republican leadership in Laguna,” he said, referring to GOP mailers touting Dicterow and Council member Elizabeth Pearson’s endorsement of Whalen. “By contrast, Democrats divided their votes among the three Democrats running, Bob, Verna and Jane,” he said, which effectively helped the winners.
Despite collecting the most in campaign contributions at $64,324 and endorsements from the preservation organization Village Laguna, the police employees association and the Sierra Club, Rollinger shied away from jumping to any conclusions early Tuesday night at the local Democratic headquarters. “I’m the type of person who doesn’t count my chickens early,” she said.
After serving 32 years as the elected city clerk, Rollinger said her first term as a council member was rewarding. “I think I’ve grown over the past four years,” she said. “I’ve learned I have to open my mouth and say what I’m thinking.”
Telephone calls and emails to both Rollinger and Egly, vying for her third term on the council, were not returned Wednesday. “Jane ran her usual, clean campaign,” said campaign treasurer Nancy Joseph, an Egly supporter since her first term in 2004. “She’s Jane and she’s always going to be that way. Loss to Laguna Beach, huh?” Egly, whose supporters shared pizza and beer at the Marine Room, departed for home Tuesday night before the absentee results were released at 8 p.m.
Whalen and Dicterow will take their place on the City Council’s dais at the meeting on Dec. 4.
Election spending for Laguna Beach City Council
Robert Whalen $57,195
Steve Dicterow $23,724
Jane Egly $33,773
Verna Rollinger $64,324
Village Laguna $22,940+
Measure CC backers $34,533
LB Taxpayers Assoc. $ 7,215**
Police association $ 5,490*
Unofficial total $249,194***
*Supporting Whalen, Rollinger
** Measure CC opponents
*** Based on Oct. 20 disclosure reports. A final expenditure report is due in January.
+ Reports don’t disclose candidates or measures backed.
2010 $ 92,825
Source: Campaign disclosure statements