Political notebook banner

2018 Election: Capacity audience attends Village Laguna forum

By ALEXIS AMARADIO and BARBARA DIAMOND

The Village Laguna candidates forum, held Monday in the City Council Chambers, drew an overflow crowd of more than 300, some of them very vocal. 

There was an appeal for decorum from moderator John Monahan, who said clapping was permissible following the introduction of the candidates and at the conclusion of the forum, but not during the Q&A, which was ignored. 

Eight candidates attended the forum: Judie Mancuso, Toni Iseman, Ann Christoph, Cheryl Kinsman, Allison Mathews, Paul Merritt, Lorene Laguna and Peter Blake. Candidate Sue Kempf was absent, as was Mayor Pro Tem Rob Zur Schmiede, who announced on Monday that he was no longer a candidate due to a family crisis. 

By far, the loudest clapping and cheering came at the introductions of Blake, Laguna and Christoph.

“Peter has quite the audience here,” said Monahan. “So I will tell you now that you’ve had a chance to get your energy out, that while we’re actually conducting the hearing, you do not applaud or cheer or anything else and just listen to what the candidates have to say, because it’s just going to slow us down, and we have a lot people we want to hear from. So, if you could contain yourself until the very end, then you can cheer for them again.

Candidates were given 30 seconds to respond to questions, later increased to 45 seconds.

Question 1: “The homeless issue is a difficult one for governments all across the country. How do you feel about the city’s approach to this problem, and what would you do differently, if anything?”

Kinsman: “More boots on the ground.” She said police need to be polite but explicit: the homeless cannot harass people, they cannot sleep in public, they cannot be on Main Beach. 

Laguna: “One of the problems is that homeless are brought downtown to the bus stop. We need to think about solutions that perhaps give them a purpose-driven life by opening up the ASL all day, 24/7 and keeping them there. Allow them the opportunity to express themselves and work for the community.”

Mathews: “I think the alternative sleeping [location] is fine, but it is a band-aid.”

Merritt: “Laguna Beach is faced with a title wave of legislation and a title wave of a billion dollars from Sacramento, wanting to push and shove into every community the homeless concept philosophy. It will not work here.”

He opposes bridge houses and permanent housing for the homeless. (Time expired) 

Blake: “Thirty seconds on the homeless is a joke. I can’t even begin to answer that.” Blake then referred to his website for people to hear his current and future plans on the issue.

Mancuso: “The time between when the homeless get a ticket and when they are actually prosecuted and go to OC Jail has to be decreased. That is one way to get them sober, and out of Laguna Beach.”

She also said veterans should be handled separately, and the City should help them. 

Iseman: “We have two social workers at the Alternative Sleeping Location who can diagnose on the spot and take people who have mental illnesses for further treatment. We have the best possible start on [a] solution, but there is a lot of money to be had at the county and I think we are going to go after it.”

Christoph: Friendship Shelter has outreach workers that work downtown and try to help people get assigned to the proper agencies. The county has lots of money that has been set aside for mental illness that has not been used. Judge [David] Carter is working on getting other agencies in Orange County to step up and do their part. We need to keep working together to address all this.”

Question 2: “According to the city’s specific plan for the area, Laguna Canyon is supposed to stay small-scaled and rural. What would you do to ensure this in the light of development proposals and increasing traffic?”

Laguna and Merritt: They agreed the canyon should be kept rural and small-scale. “Rural and small scale are two different things,” said Laguna. One is design aspects and the other is size. [They] have been enveloped together to claim that they are the same. We need to keep them separate, individual, and distinct and define those differences. We have the Laguna Canyon annexation plan, and that designates rural and small scale.”

Kinsman: “There is a Laguna Canyon Specific Plan, and I don’t think it seems to be working well. Let’s see what we can fix.”

Christoph: “To me, what you do is you look at what the character is of the parts of the Canyon that everyone loves, and you try to duplicate that.”

Iseman: “Those small businesses along the road are the things that we rely on. I think we can do small areas of housing, and we can protect our businesses.”

Mancuso: “I’d like to see the empty buildings repurposed. I’d like to see the continuation of the feel. I think we have to take it on a case-by-case basis that it is not one size fits all. I am not for encroaching on the environment or water issues. I think you have to learn by lawsuits and what we have on the books.”

Blake: “I view the Canyon as a place where we can expand parts of Laguna that are desperately missing from our mix. There can be more housing. We can work with the [Laguna College of Art & Design]. We can work in ways that don’t have to be rural. I want housing there for our artists and students. I don’t see it being this little rural place that everyone envisions. We have plenty of open space in the Canyon. We need to stop treating it with kid gloves.”

Mathews: She suggested the city could own housing and rent to people, not the homeless, charging a quarter of their income for rent to start. “We would make up our money in no time.”

Question 3: “The Planning Commission is updating the Downtown Specific Plan, which attempts to regulate the uses and how the downtown looks and feels. What would you like to see come out of this effort?”

Mathews: “I want to see those commercial properties turned into housing. Retail is in trouble all over the place. One of the reasons is Amazon. One way we could fix that is have them become distributors.”

Merritt: “We need a total picture and to work together.” 

Blake: “I am at a point right now where I really think that we should close Forest Avenue, at least the first part of it, and create some outdoor cafes, bring in some new businesses and look at what has happened in other areas.” 

Mancuso: “I think there needs to be some pilot programs. In the past when there has been discussion about closing some of downtown to [traffic], there has been opposition to it. But what I would like to see us try it in the winter months: like move the Farmers Market from the parking lot to Forest Avenue and use the parking lot as a parking lot. 

Iseman: “I am concerned about one of the suggestions of decoupling use and parking. If you have a dress store you might need two parking spaces. If you have a restaurant you may need six. It is really important to understand that if we put residential on the ground floor, it creates a cold area and people don’t go there. (Time expired)

Christoph: “We need to move things forward and have dialogue that works.” She said the Planning Commission listens to ideas from the public, but then they shut off the dialogue and go through the list of [recommendations] in a very tedious manner and things go on and on and on.”

Kinsman: “We need to loosen up the requirements for businesses that can come into the downtown.” She also believes that the Chamber of Commerce should get a share of the 1 percent of the bed tax that goes to [Visit Laguna Beach]. “The chamber would help immensely in fixing the downtown,” she said.

Laguna: “I served on the Laguna Beach Beautification Council Board of Directors, and I was personally responsible for helping and serving on the committee for the Park Plaza trial project.” 

She proposes revitalizing downtown by creating more pedestrians spaces. “People need to come downtown, walk downtown and sit downtown and everyone loves to people watch,” she said. 

Question 3: “What is the biggest mistake the Council has made in recent years, and what would you have done differently?” (The audience got a big laugh out of the question.)

Merritt and Laguna: “Both feel the city’s sour relationship with the California Coastal Commission tops the list.”

“There needs to be a change in course, so that we are respected by the Coastal Commission, and we uphold the law preserving Laguna Beach,” said Merritt. 

Laguna said the relationship is probably the most embarrassing black eye that the City has suffered. “We really need to monitor our open spaces and our sea bluffs and look at our environmental concerns in a more studious way.” 

Mathews: “Nothing gets done and everything is stalled. Permits aren’t going through. They [Design Review Board] tell you what kind of color you need for your house. We need a complete overhaul.”

Kinsman: “We need to live within our means. No borrowing. No raising taxes.”

Christoph “Maybe the choice of the Downtown Specific Plan consultant.” 

Iseman: “I would say the biggest mistake was when the city was moving forward with the parking structure that would have sat [nearly empty] 10 months out of the year.” 

Mancuso: “They (council) don’t finish what they start. Many projects are started, and we spend money on them, and the plans sit and get dusty and they don’t ever get completed.” 

Blake: “I think the biggest mistake the Council has made, and we could blame ourselves for it, is allowing the small group called Village Laguna to put a stranglehold on our village for the last two decades.” 

Question 4: “The California Environmental Quality Act requires the city to consider historic resources as part of the environment and in evaluating proposed development. How do you think the City should address this response?”

Blake: “We need an outside source to make [decisions]. Maybe residents who own the property, who have some property rights left in this town, can make that decision for themselves and accept any benefits they may get out of that choice.” 

Mancuso: “There are federal mandates and state mandates, and we have to abide by those.”

Iseman: “All I know is that if a person has a house that is considered historic, then they should not have to pay for the evaluation. If the City thinks it is important, we need to have an expert look at it and not burden the homeowner.” 

Christoph: “We need a clear process that people understand. We need an effective historic preservation program.” She said a lot of ideas have been discussed, but no consensus reached.

Kinsman: “I believe that a historic property [rating] should be up to the property owner.”

Laguna: “I am very concerned that this is a legal debate based on what CEQA said. This still needs to be resolved, but I do think that our city attorney should be able to figure it out along with the other attorneys, because what it comes down to is an interpretation of the legal precedence.”

Mathews: “I believe in keeping historical houses and buildings around.” (Time expired) 

Merritt: “There is a part of our town that is not a historical property: it is nature and it’s the historic trees. This is a historical preservation that we must actively pursue. One of my neighbors is losing, under threat by another neighbor, a perfectly healthy 85-foot star pine. This has to stop.”

Question 5: “The City has struggled for decades to address parking issues. What are your ideas for managing our parking problems?”

Mancuso, Blake and Laguna: All three recommended additional parking at Act V. 

“We can have zero emission vehicles that go back and forth, and that is how we can accommodate closing some of the town for foot traffic,” said Mancuso. 

Laguna said parking meter apps would decrease parking. 

Merritt: He opposes proposed parking meters in South Laguna. “This will create parking issues as well horrific traffic issues around the Thousand Steps area where all the 23-year-olds from Riverside looking for a parking space won’t pay a $4 an hour meter and will start combing through the hills like termites.” 

Mathews: “Has anyone ever looked at underground parking? Walking bridges over by LCAD? And other places. They are beautiful.” (Time expired)

Kinsman: “I would have preferred to see a parking structure at the Village Entrance and bathrooms. I don’t think we should be parking tourists [at ACT V] without bathrooms.”

Christoph: “I think the solution has to be with management rather than more structures. The city management plan organizes public and private lots, including [Mission Hospital], for example. We need to make sure that people know about that.” (Time expired) 

Iseman: “I propose that we shuttle employees to the ACT V parking lot. This would be a critical mass of employees. If you only have five employees, that wouldn’t be it. But a hotel should be parking out there.” (Time expired)

Question 6: “How should the City Council evaluate the City Manager and does each candidate approve of the job being done by the City Manager?”

Iseman: “Those of you who know me know the City Manager and I have a love/hate relationship. We are like brothers and sisters who bicker a lot. I will tell you that he is brilliant, and he has the ability to do a lot of things and keep track of a lot of things, but my value systems and his value systems are not in sync. I wish that he would listen to me more because I object to a lot of things.” 

Christoph and Laguna: Both think loss of staff indicates a problem with the City Manager that must be addressed.

Kinsman: “I can’t evaluate someone’s job performance when I am not in a position to knows what he is doing.”

Mathews: “I think he needs to be out.”

Merritt: “The City Manager needs to remind the City Council that we used to have four traffic enforcement [officers]. Now, we have one. The City has to understand its policy and the Manager needs to enforce it.”

Blake: “It’s hard for me to judge John [City Manager Pietig] when his bosses are the current City Council. I will wait, as Cheryl said, until I get in there and really see where this arrogance at City Hall is coming from. Then I will figure out what to do with John, but at this time I think he seems like a cool guy. I don’t have an issue with him.”

Question 7: “Are you supporting Measure P? Why isn’t the state involved in the canyon undergrounding at least to share the cost? Do you agree with the City promoting and advertising the message of fire and fear for evacuation routes in order to sway voters to approve Measure P? Also sales tax?”

All of the candidates at the forum except Iseman will vote no on Measure P.

Iseman: “In California, we have seen the fires related to utility poles. And these utility companies don’t want to do anything about it. I will be voting for [P] for public safety. I think, more than anything, we need to be able to evacuate this town regardless of whether it is a fire or an earthquake. We have to be able to leave town and those poles have caused traffic to be blocked.” 

 Published answers, including paraphrasing, are limited to those that directly responded to the questions asked.