Public Safety Forum: Nine Council candidates questioned on issues

By ALEXIS AMARADIO and BARBARA DIAMOND 

City Council candidates were questioned about their views on public safety issues at a forum organized by Laguna’s Police and Firefighters Employee Associations, held Sept 14 at Top of the World Elementary School.

About 60 people attended to listen to candidates answer questions posed by Laguna Fire Safe Council founder David Horne, a resident of Emerald Bay, whose Laguna Beach home was destroyed in 1993.

The nine candidates who attended the forum included Allison Mathews, Toni Iseman, Ann Christoph, Sue Kempf, Sue Marie Connolly, Paul Merritt, Judie Mancuso, Cheryl Kinsman, and Peter Blake.

 The temperature was less heated than at some forums, but Horne ran a tight ship, telling the candidates to respond to the question and not stray off the point.

Horne began by asking the candidates for their definition of public safety, asking if it would include cleaning sidewalks or trash pickup, how they would measure progress in achieving their goal, and if public safety would be their top budget priority. 

Kempf: “My definition of public safety probably wouldn’t include sidewalk cleaning, I think that is a city maintenance function. My idea of public safety is to support firefighters in all their efforts, and for police department to monitor the neighborhoods, particularly to walk the downtown. People are asking very often for more beat officers.”

Mancuso: “Public safety means to me that if something is happening to you at your home that the police will be there immediately or if there is a fire, it gets stopped immediately.” 

Blake: “I think we all know what public safety means, which for me is making sure that we do not see another 1993. I am 100 percent behind the police department to aggressively police both in the downtown and the canyon and anywhere where transient criminals are taking advantage of our compassion.

Mathews: “I think that public safety is an issue in every town. You better have an evacuation route. There’s three main arteries going downtown [from Top of the World] and that’s Bluebird Canyon, and Temple Hills [Drives] and Park Ave. I don’t know if that is really enough.” 

Connolly: She too has concerns about the evacuation of Top of the World. “I think there should maybe be another emergency exit.” She also thinks lighting is important. 

Christoph: She said handicapped ramps, repairing cracks in sidewalks, and providing trails so people don’t have to walk in the streets would improve safety. And “Anticipating problems ahead of time is part of public safety.”

Kinsman: “I am an accountant, so I start with the basics, the fire and police stations. Are they up to date? Have we done the things we need to do to fit the equipment needed into those stations or do we need to [make changes]?” She suggested modernizing the stations or perhaps relocating them, near the original location but on a larger parcel, especially Station 4 in South Laguna.

Merritt: He focused on the question of sidewalks, which he considers a public safety issue. “We need to get sidewalks in where they are not.” He said that previous councils just talked about where the sidewalks should be, which he thinks of when skateboarders, elderly, and visitors trip and fall. As a reserved former deputy sheriff, he said response time was important. 

Iseman: “Our first job on the council is public safety. We have to hire the best people, and I am happy to say we have. Last year we developed a plan, which makes us eligible for money, money to take out the vegetation in the wilderness that puts us in harm’s way.” 

Horne politely thanked the candidates before pointing out that [they] answered what they felt like answering, but did not answer the questions. “We put time into these questions, so address the questions, please,” he said. 

Horne: “Laguna Beach has four fire stations. They are all old – built from 1931-1968 – and none of them are earthquake retrofitted, set up for female personal, or augmented [to] emergency staff accommodations along with other obvious shortcomings. Remodels or rebuilding costs will be in the millions per station. What specifically do you intend to do about this in your first year of office, and by the third year in office? How are you going to fix the stations?”

All of the candidates agreed that Laguna’s four stations must be earthquake-proof, and only Station 4 in South Laguna is up to code, courtesy of the county, according to Christoph. 

The first step would be an evaluation of the condition, equipment and needs of the stations agreed Merritt, Christoph, Mancuso, and Kempf. Christoph and Kempf also agreed with Iseman, Mathews, Kinsman, Connolly, and Mancuso that making the other stations earthquake-proof was imperative.

Relocation did not get a unanimous thumbs up. 

Iseman and Kinsman are particularly worried about Station 4 in South Laguna. 

Christoph is not. She said it is the only station that has been retrofitted. 

Mathews and Connolly questioned the wisdom of spending money on the Village Entrance rather than earthquake-proofing and better equipment.

Blake expressed shock that the candidates he described as “ill-informed” were being questioned on safety issues, rather than City Staff, City Manager John Pietig or the City Council. He offered no suggestion on what he would do to rectify the problems. 

“I refer the question back to the Chief of Police, the Fire Department, and the City Manager to answer why we have these stations that are not retrofitted for earthquakes and why a woman can’t change in one of these.”

Kempf: “I think the question was, ‘What would you do in the first year and what would you do by the third year?’”. 

First, she said, she would determine what was needed and prioritize. Next, she would look for grants and at [the city] budget and see where money was available to do the retrofits and then figure out what would have to be done to augment the capital [improvement] budget. 

“In the third year, I would have my project plan in place, and I would have somebody in charge of the oversight, then I’d make sure that work got done.”

Horne: “As a tourist destination, Laguna Beach has more than 10 times the California Alcoholic Control Boards’ usual definition of adequate liquor licenses per our population. This results in high levels of DUIs, and other alcohol-related problems. What would you do to ease the burden of this issue on the four patrol officers on duty at any time?”

Kinsman: “My husband thinks that Laguna has become a homeless resort.”

Kinsman, Blake, Mathews and Connolly said the answer is more patrol officers. 

Christoph: “I would direct the police department to look into how many liquor licenses we have and what should be done to limit them in some way, if that is necessary.”

 Kempf: “I would personally find out where the biggest offenders are and talk to those establishments. If they are violating their conditional use permit we need to cut their hours and we can do that. We can put more patrol officers downtown. 

Iseman: The issue with more bars and more liquor is that we have enough, and we recklessly approve more. I am very concerned with how we approved more. 

Merritt: He stated that the city’s main problem is deployment that should be  focused on the canyon at the Alternative Sleeping Location and at Thousand Steps [Beach], because of the illegal activity.

Mancuso: “You can pass an ordinance saying the bars don’t stay open past 1 a.m. I think you also can cap the number of liquor licenses that are available in the city. You can also put a tax on the booze to pay for more police. More unannounced check points would be good. That way, we can get the word out that Laguna Beach is not tolerant of drunk drivers.” 

 Horne: Fire Chief Garcia is updating the 2000 fire department strategic plan. Many of the recommendations from that 18-year-old document have not been implemented. What will you do to ensure Chief Garcia’s recommendations are implemented and where will the money come from?”

 Iseman: “Doing a strategic plan is not easy, especially in a new town.” She thinks the chief will be provided with help. “Once he knows what we need and what direction we need to go, it is just a question of taking out our pencils and looking for money.” 

Mancuso: “I have lived here for 23 years, and there are too many of these instances where things have not gotten done, and this is a perfect example. All these things that are so old and have plans made that have never been delivered and have been sitting on shelves need to be dusted off, be updated and done.”

 Christoph: “One of the reasons I am not supporting the sales tax [increase] at this time is that I think we need a comprehensive evaluation of all the fire prevention techniques that we can employ to make ourselves safe from wildland fires. That is what I say should be the focus of the new strategic plan. Later we can find out the important things that will make us more safe, how much they are going to cost and how much we are willing to pay for such things.”

 Kempf: “The first thing I would do is have the chief do a refresh on it. Then I would put it in his yearly performance review that he work on some of these conditions, he prioritizes them and puts a dollar sign attached to that. You can’t create a plan and let it sit or it never gets done. You have to have goals, time, and money associated with each [plan].”

 Blake: “I would hope that within 18 months of a new council, we would sit down with the Fire Chief and find out what is wrong with the plan and allocate the necessary funds. What I would like to look at is where the waste is coming from and how much money are the taxpayers being asked for and what are they going to get.”

Kinsman: “What the Fire Chief says needs to be done needs to be done and that’s all there is to it. We need to find out how much it costs, allocate the budget and do it.”

Mathews: “After 18 years, the plan has to be completely redone.” She said the council should be talking about giving the people who go out there every day to save our lives and risk their lives the tools instead of talking about an $11.1 million-dollar [Village] entrance. That’s what he needed 18 years ago. Why wasn’t it done?”

Merritt: “We need to bring the Fire Department new technology ASAP. I would first sit with Chief Garcia and listen. And ask questions. That is how a councilman can turbo charge questions into reality. I’d much rather see the [financial] resources go to public safety, fire, and police than permanent housing for out-of-town people.”

Connolly: “The plan should be revisited ASAP.” 

Horne: “Firefighters have endless duties to maintain readiness, but may have to finish these on their own time to get the job done. For example, unlike most fire departments that cover paramedic training time as time on the job, Laguna Beach only covered 50 percent of class time as hours work[ed], and a firefighter does the other half on their own time. Would you change this, and if so where would the budget allocation come from?”

Blake: “Firefighters have chosen this profession and community to work for. I am simply saying work the hours you need to, come to us and tell us you are working too many hours and that you need to be compensated for those hours. Or let’s hire someone else that can complete the job so we don’t get into overtime and other things.” 

Iseman: “These are the kind of details that are handled during negotiations. So I am not going to say what I am going to do, because that is not a professional thing to do, but I certainly have that as a high value. I do think training is an absolute essential part of preparedness.”

Kinsman: “I am going to agree with Toni that these are part of salary negotiations, done in closed sessions. But certainly people should be adequately paid and trained.”

Mancuso, Kempf, Christoph, Connolly and Mathews said the city should pay for the training. 

Merritt: “It sounds at first brushstroke that 50 percent is inadequate for reimbursement, so I would use the term reasonable. Reimbursement has to be looked at as fair and adequate.”