Council candidate shares stance on Promenade, local issues

By SARA HALL

A community meeting last week highlighted a local candidate running for Laguna Beach City Council.

The LB Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee held a meeting via Zoom on Thursday (March 7) with 2024 council candidate Judie Mancuso as the featured speaker. More than 20 people attended online. The committee plans to invite all local candidates to speak at the monthly forum (as the group has done in previous election years) and Mancuso is the first for 2024. The Chamber does not formally endorse any specific candidate; however, they do speak out on issues that are relevant to their members.

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Courtesy of Judie Mancuso For City Council 

2024 Laguna Beach City Council candidate Judie Mancuso

Mancuso talked about her background in information technology, her work with large corporations, and what led her to found the nonprofit Social Compassion in Legislation. Jumping from managing IT systems for companies to advocating for the protection of the environment and animals at the California Capitol was a fairly straightforward transition, she commented.

“You’re not working on computer code, you’re working on policy code,” Mancuso said.

In both situations, she works with the various stakeholders to either create something new to address an issue or fix the existing system.

She first started paying attention to the local council in 2001, after she bought her Mystic Hills home and there was a project in the works on “unbuildable property” just down the street. Mancuso and her neighbors petitioned city hall, but the project plans continued forward.

In 2016, she ran for City Council in an effort to bring the issue forward, Mancuso said. She ran against incumbents who were already embedded in the community and admitted that she didn’t stand a “chance” at winning, but wanted to raise issues she felt weren’t being discussed. Looking back, she felt she had to “make noise,” Mancuso commented, and referenced Al Sharpton’s 2004 presidential campaign as an example.

Mancuso ran again in 2018 and felt the likelihood of her winning was better than the campaign two years prior, until more than a dozen other people joined the campaign and it became a very crowded race. Although she didn’t earn a council seat, it was an educational experience, she noted.

“I learned a lot from that campaign,” Mancuso said.

She went door to door to businesses in Downtown and elsewhere in Laguna Beach and asked about their concerns and key issues. The people she spoke to were excited to talk to a candidate, she recalled.

In 2022, she threw her hat in the ring for the State Assembly race for District 72. Initially, she had no intentions of running, but she was approached by Orange County democrat leadership who wanted a candidate to run against Republican Diane Dixon (R-Newport Beach). Although Dixon got the votes that ultimately earned her a spot in Sacramento, Mancuso said it was a valuable experience.

“Winning looks a lot of different ways and I felt like I won on a lot of levels because I met so many people and it was just such a great experience,” Mancuso said.

Mancuso received 90,730 votes (compared to Dixon’s 116,588), which she called “extraordinary” for a first-time candidate in a historically red district.

She enjoyed it and learned a lot, Mancuso added, and it helped her be a better candidate today.

Answering a question from the audience about the city’s plans to make the Promenade on Forest permanent, Mancuso said she understood the need for the Promenade at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the right thing to do at the time and there was a need for people to be outside. It seemed like a good idea, so the city “threw money at it,” but it has since “morphed and changed” over the last few years, she added.

“When there was discussion to make it permanent or not, I heard both sides of the story,” she said.

Some businesses wanted the parking spaces back and there were disputes over the “corrals,” Mancuso said. She suggested using the space on the weekends, maybe as a farmers’ market.

But “the train has left the station,” she concluded.

When pressed about her specific position on the issue and whether or not she would vote for a permanent plan for the Promenade – which Chamber Board of Directors Chairman Paula Hornbuckle-Arnold highlighted that their public survey has found 88% in favor of – Mancuso said she’s “good with it” as long as that’s what the majority of people want.

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“I certainly appreciate it and if the majority of the people want it, then I think we should keep it,” Mancuso said, “but how we go about the permanency of it – with removing trees, keeping trees, changing this, changing that – I think needs to have all the stakeholders that have skin in the game, which is the business owners, environmentalists, the community that uses it, everybody does need to be at the table.”

At the end of the day, if everyone is satisfied with it, then she would “absolutely” vote for it. After being reminded that it’s highly unlikely that everyone would be satisfied, Mancuso clarified that if a majority of the public wanted it, she would vote for it.

Mancuso also commented that the recent plans presented to City Council removed too many trees and still needs a lot of work.

“It wasn’t ready for primetime,” Mancuso said.

Ultimately, the current City Council unanimously agreed. When presented with only two concept options for the permanent Promenade on Forest, City Council decided to hit the pause button. Instead of picking one of the designs presented, Councilmembers voted 5-0 on January 23 to form an ad hoc committee to study the scope and constraints of the project and then hold a design competition to allow more firms to submit ideas for a more creative, resident-focused pedestrian plaza.

Mancuso was also asked about her support of Measure Q.

“It was about the trust in our existing City Council and that it only takes three votes to drastically change our city,” Mancuso said. “I didn’t trust our local government to do what was right by us with the Downtown area and that’s why I supported it.”

The controversial initiative would have created an overlay zoning district and required voter approval for major development. The LB Chamber of Commerce strongly opposed the measure, which was ultimately defeated in the 2022 election.

After 20 years of fighting something that was not developable that suddenly turned developable, Mancuso said, referencing the project in her neighborhood, “if you could see what it looks like now, you would have been voting for it too.”

“So if you have the trust in your local government that they understand what the will of the people is and if they’re going to go against it and if it’s going to be so controversial – put it on the ballot,” Mancuso said.

During the Q&A portion of the meeting, Mancuso said although she hasn’t thoroughly reviewed the numbers on what it would cost to take over certain roads from Caltrans, the proposals she has seen are “scary.”

“I am wary of taking over Coast Highway or Laguna Canyon Road because of the pure expense and the ongoing liability and emergency services,” Mancuso said. “I don’t know that Laguna Beach can actually financially sustain it and that is my biggest concern.”

It should be put on the ballot for the voters, she added, it shouldn’t be a decision for the City Council to make, which could be split on the issue.

“It’s too big and it puts us in too precarious of a situation forever,” she said.

When asked about decoupling parking as part of the update on the Downtown Specific Plan, Mancuso described the parking and traffic issues she’s experienced. It’s a seasonal problem that could be much worse, she noted.

“I think it could be a disaster. I think that eventually it could work. I think we’re already in a crisis in the summertime,” she said.

Another question from the audience focused on the city struggling with the affordable housing mandates from the state.

There are some efforts currently underway on the issue, Mancuso noted, and she wants to see how those work out before diving into another effort. She suggested dividing it up and looking at what’s feasible in each section of town, if possible.

Mancuso also emphasized her support of “redevelopment versus razing open space.” Turning existing structures into residential units in the areas where mixed-use is allowed could help, she noted.

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.


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