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SLCA Forum is well attended, candidates balk at “yes or no” questions

By ALEXIS AMARADIO and BARBARA DIAMOND

The South Laguna Civic Association Forum format held Monday night at the Ranch disconcerted some of the candidates, as well as some of the audience.

Questions were provided in advance with the caveat that there were no guarantees on which questions would be asked. Candidates balked at giving “yes” or “no” answers to some lengthy and often complex questions and that they were given three minutes for other questions that were longer than some of the pertinent answers. 

James Henry moderated the forum.

“We mixed up yes and no questions with ones we felt needed more time to answer,” said John Thomas, who was largely responsible for the format. “I feel that if the audience got some insight into the candidates from the format or whatever, it was a success.”

 Candidates Paul Merritt, Allison Mathews, Lorene Laguna, Judie Mancuso, Cheryl Kinsman, Sue Kempf, Sue Marie Connolly, Ann Christoph, Toni Iseman and Jorg Dubin spoke before one of the larger audiences to attend a forum, many of whom were not from South Laguna. 

This was the first forum attended by Dubin, recently qualified as a write-in candidate and going by the name Comrade Dubin. Candidate Peter Blake, a South Laguna resident, did not attend the forum because he was out of town on business. 

“We had a great turnout,” said Thomas. “The Sage Ballroom at The Ranch was set for 100 chairs, and we had to go out and bring more chairs in. I was very relieved that the audience behaved well. I was concerned about that going in.”

The format also did not include opening or closing remarks, but candidates introduced themselves and included areas of special interest in the answers to questions.

 Question 1: (Three minute response time) What would you do to improve city service to South Laguna to mitigate the problems being caused by the increased popularity of our beaches and by [public] parking being pushed onto neighborhood street? 

Kinsman: “We’re never going to have enough parking. I believe we can perhaps limit resident parking permits to people who have the Laguna Beach stickers.” 

Kempf: “We need to evaluate our staffing levels, but I’d like to do that through data. I am sure the parking problems arise from a push from the downtown as much as a push from the people coming to visit the beaches. I would continue to engage the county through the supervisors and the county beaches and parks offices. Pop-up police stations have been effective at Main Beach. We could do those in South Laguna.”

Connolly: “I would vote to make a plan. I think a great parking structure should be built, and I know it sounds a little crazy, but since our fire department here in South Laguna is not even retrofitted for an earthquake or anything, how about we find a new location for that and perhaps make the fire department, as it is, a parking structure. 

Christoph: “In August, we had a meeting with the police and the emergency personal and lifeguards at the South Coast Water District about some of their efforts to subdue the nature of our visitors, especially at Thousand Steps. I would continue to work with that group. 

“The city has a philosophy of having peripheral parking lots, so that we keep cars out of the downtown as much as possible, and the peripheral parking we have is the hospital’s parking lot, which has about 50 spaces in it. I think we need to expand our definition of peripheral. And make some arrangement with the county parking lot at the Ritz. We need to stop the cars sooner.”

Dubin: “I really believe that we are not going to solve our parking and congestion issues until we get with the surrounding communities and develop programs for tram services and lanes and get cars off of our streets and out of your neighborhoods.” 

Iseman: “The first thing we need to do is annex the beach in South Laguna. We need to control the parking at Aliso Creek. We have trolleys that don’t work for South Laguna, and I know they don’t work because we pick up people, kids, cute kids, at the Ritz-Carlton, and by the time that the trolley passes your door, it’s full.” 

Merritt: “The most important problem for your neighborhoods is the proposal that parking meters are going to be put all down Coast Highway. I hate to say it, but I think the Coastal Commission will strike down the pass zones in your neighborhood, they will call it a restriction on tourists visiting, and they will outlaw that.” 

Mathews: “It is clearly a question of getting more police, especially during the tourist season. We need a parking structure somewhere right outside of the city and then make an incentive for [motorists] to take the trolley or even cut a deal with Uber. Let’s start carpooling, let’s try the trolley, maybe making it free during [the summer] just for the tourists.” 

Laguna: “First of all, we need to get the City Manager to do his job and write to the City and the County and request that we have more services brought to our community. It is an enforcement problem. As one of the other council members mentioned, we have pop-ups down at Main Beach, and we need to do pop-ups here in South Laguna.” 

Mancuso: “I would lease every lot. I would have a structure at ACT V with zero emission trolleys. I would take people from there and give them a pass that they could come up and down the coast, so they don’t even have to come into South Laguna. 

Question 2: Where would you go to relieve yourself after a day at the beach in South Laguna? Do you support basic toilet and drinking facilities for Laguna’s six million visitors? How would you provide these services in South Laguna?

To the amusement of the audience, no candidates raised their hands.

Question 3: Have trolleys accomplished their original purpose? Do trolleys make parking in the downtown better at the expense of making South Laguna neighborhood parking problems worse? What would you do to improve the situation for South Laguna residents?

The question amused the audience, and only one candidate responded. 

Mancuso: “If the original purpose was moving people around, then yes. If it was something else, then no. It could be improved” 

Question 4: (Two minute response time) What will you do to correct the economic imbalance between what the residents of South Laguna provide to the city government and the amount of resources allocated by the city government to provide services to South Laguna? What will you do to get the County to step up its funding for County services to South Laguna? Will you improve public safety visibly and availability, as well as response times in South Laguna by providing additional funding to the police budget to allow South Laguna its own police beat?

Laguna: I would consider putting up a satellite police station in South Laguna. We really need to look at the amount of calls that are made for the crime. If you have more money coming in from South Laguna, but you have less calls, then it would kind of be unfair to say, ‘We need more police down here’.”

Mathews: “I think the ultimate solution here is more police officers.” 

Merritt: “I never heard of our council members going out to Santa Ana and sitting down with a supervisor to say this is where we need to go and what we need to have. So that answers our relationship with the County government. 

Iseman: “We have pursued the County of Orange, and Lisa Bartlett has come several times to the City. I sat with her and the City Manager, and I’ve been to her office in Santa Ana. Money meant to take care of mental illness and homeless is sitting in Santa Ana waiting to be distributed. 

“We have 52 authorized police officers, but we currently have 55 employed. We need to be able to use our police officers for the things we need them for, responding to accidents and fights or responding to fearful situations in your home. 911 will get you there.”

Dubin:  “I think a sub-station in South Laguna with some designated officers for this area would be a really good idea.”

Christoph: “Our problems are really minimal compared to the tone of the conversation so far. There are things that we as a community can work on. We can contact our [city] staff people and contact our council members. 

“We’re spending too much money on the downtown. I want to emphasize the neighborhoods. I think the neighborhoods need a share of those funds, whether it is for beautiful improvements or another project that the neighborhoods are interested in.” 

Connolly: “First you have to include the County. So let’s make a plan and present it. There is a lot of money coming in and we’ve got plenty of it. Bathrooms [are] basic human needs. I would love to have a sub-station. If we need more people, get more people. 

“But I think parking is key, and I think a lot of that might be able to come from the county. We can get it.”

Kempf: “I think our resources need to be allocated where they are needed. On any one of the three shifts, there are four police officers and one sergeant, which is pretty thin staffing. I would like to determine what the needs are. I would also like to see community outreach, so we are not sitting at a forum like this and hearing these kinds of things. More outreach would get information in a timely manner.

 “I’ve seen Lisa Bartlett in many functions around Laguna, and it wasn’t just around election time. I think if we pressure her and the County for more support, we could be successful. 

“We, as a community, need to be more aware of what is going on around town. We see in the police blotter and in Stu News what kind of crimes are being committed. But the lower level stuff, the very labor intensive things that police officers and beach patrol are doing, you don’t really see that reflected. So, I think the good thing to do is look at our data then make some adjustments.”

Kinsman: “Clearly we are understaffed as far as for the police. We need more boots on the ground. We need to reallocate our budget so that we get better public safety and look at our infrastructure more carefully. If we want bathrooms at the [Green] park, then maybe people, including me, should come out.”

 Mancuso: “I am going to have to see [what] the data is and the inequity. I think that everybody should be treated equally. What will you do to make the County step up? Talk to them, make a list, send it to them. Tell them this is what we want, and get them to agree to it, and then make a schedule on when they are going to complete it.” 

Question 5: (One minute response time) When was the last time you took a swim in the ocean off of Laguna? What action would you take to protect the ocean and coastal habitat? What will you do to reduce ocean wastewater  discharges in South Laguna by increasing recycled water and its beneficial reuse in all of Laguna Beach to improve ocean water quality and increase wildlife protection with support adding Greenbelt perimeter recycled water system? Will you support modernizing the 50-year-old treatment plant with a state-of-the-art system?

Dubin: “There is no reason not to support those things. I think we absolutely need to be able to tap into the entire City for recycled water for any kind of irrigation in our parks, lawns, flowerbeds or anywhere else. Certainly update the treatment plant.” 

 Christoph: “We have a pilot project where they have been able to do a higher level of water treatment, so we need to expand that to the rest of the plant, and we need to stop sending our waste water out into the ocean. One of the ways to do that is recycle more, and then find a home for it where it can do some good. I do support irrigating the edges, not continuously, but having that water around the edge available in case of an emergency. 

      “South Laguna has access to reclaimed water. The City of Laguna Beach does not. All of the parks in Laguna Beach use regular water, and we could have a system of reclaimed water, making it available to all different locations in town, and then have a reserve for emergencies.”

Connolly: “All of it, jeez. 

Kempf: “I support recycling water if it is reasonably priced. That might change over time with technology, but a little known fact is that the Laguna Beach County Water District already supplies recycled water. We are drinking it. It goes through the OC district groundwater replenishment system, which purifies the waste water and turns it into the groundwater for drinking water. We need to make sure the treatment plan is safe, reliable, and modernized to make sense.” 

Kinsman: “I currently serve on the Laguna Beach County Water District Commission. South Coast Water District is providing the water to South Laguna. We could recycle South Laguna water, but it would require 10 miles of pipeline and $35 million and two or three new pump stations and moving reservoirs. 

“It brings the cost of the water to at least that of the City of Laguna Beach. We are paying $500 an acre foot for our groundwater, and we are paying about twice that much for our Colorado River water. The recycled water has been estimated at $2,400-an-acre foot and really it would probably end up closer to $3,000.”

Mancuso: “I am pro recycled water, and I am anti-dumping in our oceans. That outfall needs to go away.”

Laguna: “We need to encourage and support interagency cooperation. We need to support and guarantee protecting our delicate coastal habitat here in South Laguna. We need to also continue to foster positive open communication with the public and with the agencies. 

“The City Manager has stated that it is going to take $32 million to do recycled water. I am not sure if that is correct. It was stated that if we do that, the savings could be significant. If we separate the biodiesel fuel from the water that is coming down, use it and sell it, that may being us some revenue to help pay for some of these sources. Also, screen catch bases can help to replenish our groundwater.”

Mathews: “One of the things that was part of my home state of Rhode Island was that shower water and hand water from sinks would be stored and used as toilet water that goes onto the tank and voila. We need to do what we need to do to preserve the cleanest possible water for our children and for people who come here.”

Merritt: “It appears the cost of the recycled water is prohibitive; it is excessive. It is hard to think about it in those terms because everyone likes to do recycling. 

“My deep, deep concern is the offshore dumping of any type of discharge, and I react to it very, very quickly. I don’t like brown water.”

Iseman: “We are going to change from the current sewer treatment plant to one that will mirror what happens in Orange County in the north. It is that question of toilet to tap. And what they do, is every drop of water they get they recycle it in a way that makes it healthier than most potable water that we currently have. We have looked at programs to do this. What we don’t want to do is be the first one to try this system. So we are looking at a system that we think could be really healthy and reliable but we are waiting for another place [for it] to happen, because if we make the mistake, the mistake goes into the ocean.” 

Question 6 from the audience: What do you expect your time commitment to be in hours per week to the job as a City Council member and along with that, what are your three top priorities for nearly one-fifth of the population of Laguna Beach who live in South Laguna?”

 Mathews: “Well, after tonight, I plan to be spending about 90 hours per week. 

As for priorities: My number one thing is affordable housing.” 

 Laguna: “I am pretty aware that this will probably be a full-time job in order to get things straightened out.  

“Priorities: We need to get bathrooms down in South Laguna. We need to work with the Coastal Commission to get resident parking permit areas, so that the day-trippers do not come up and invade your neighborhoods and take up neighborhood residential parking. The other thing we need to do is have our satellite police station down here for enforcement.” 

 Mancuso: “As far as how many hours it is going to take, I have no idea. I think a lot, and I will give all that I need to do the job, so there is not a limit.

“What I would focus on for South Laguna is what I call unmanaged tourism. That is everything from the ocean to the trails, because it’s the environmental impact, overall, the overall amenities in South Laguna and evening those out with the rest of Laguna Beach.”

 Kinsman: “South Laguna priorities must [include] sidewalks on Coast Highway. My second priority would be the fire station. We need a modern fire station, moved to a larger and better location. Third is our infrastructure: what is under Coast Highway. We need to work on that. As far as the hours it takes, I can tell you as a [former] Council member, it is a minimum of 30 hours a week, and when you are there for one year, you could double that.”

 Kempf: “Given the agenda items typically on a City Council meeting, I think it is probably 30 hours. 

“In terms of my top three [priorities] for the South Laguna community: I would focus on quality of life. The second is local land use, for example dealing with short-term rentals, sober living facilities and rehab facilities.”

Her third goal would be to reduce the negative effects of tourism; continue the emphasis on citations, enforcing no smoking on the beach and pressuring the County to provide the same level of service as the City, including security.

Connolly: “I would work to fix the trolleys to make sure they are where you need them. Definitely sidewalks. I am going to back to the big elephant in the room, Measure P. “A lot of people don’t like it, but what good is everything else, if we are not safe,” she posited. 

Christoph: “Priorities: The tourist impacts and dealing with that and preserving the community garden park and other landscape projects. 

South Laguna is the only part of Laguna Beach that has planted medians in Coast highway and I would like to see more of that.

“The Aliso Creek cleanup is something that is really important, as well connecting trails from the beach back. We could get a pedestrian bridge there.” 

Dubin: “How about trolleys for South Laguna residents only? Creative ideas are going to solve problems, and I think we need to get that.”

Iseman: “Our first obligation is public safety. Before I go on, it is about 40 hours a week to be on the Council. 

“The issues of safety is if you drive north on the Coast Highway, you have to just pray that somebody doesn’t run in front of your car.”

Her priorities for South Laguna include a combination of parking meters and limited parking in the residential areas.

“I created the quiet zone at Mozambique. I wanted people to have their music, but I wanted neighbors to have their life, too. So I managed to come up with an idea that the Coastal Commission would accept.” 

Merritt: “As a [public] servant, I don’t get to pick my hours. They will be unlimited. I know the burdens and getting woken up in the middle of the night with problems and issues, and I know receiving agenda packets that you have to look at that are hundreds of pages long.

But parking meters, I am firmly against. They will damage the rural atmosphere.

“I want to see trail connections behind the hospital around The Ranch. I’d like to see bathrooms put down by the hospital to relieve some of this public anxiety.”

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