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Steve Dicterow: This Brooklyn native is committed to serving Laguna

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Steve Dicterow came to California after graduating from college when his “whole family” moved west from New York. He attended USC’s Gould School of Law and, upon graduation, took a job in Orange County. He and his wife chose Laguna Beach for their new home because his wife, who is legally blind, found Laguna to be “particularly accessible.” 

Thirty-six years later, they’re still here. However, he hasn’t completely shed his New York City roots. “I still have a lot of Brooklyn in me,” he says nodding.

Wanting to see his values represented

Those Brooklyn roots are undoubtedly helpful in his profession as an attorney, but they also can’t hurt in his role on Laguna’s City Council. Dicterow, the current mayor pro tem, has served a total of 19 years on Laguna’s City Council. 

He became interested in local issues when his wife was pregnant with their daughter. “I didn’t much care about city matters before this. The community ought to reflect what I care about,” he remembers thinking.

Steve Dicterow closeup

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Current Laguna Beach Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow, who has served on the city council for a cumulative 19 years

Dicterow joined different organizations, like the Laguna Beach Taxpayers Association and the North Laguna Business Association, among others. In 1994, he decided to run for city council. “It was more of an ‘I’m involved. I see what’s going on’ and, by 1994, I felt the city council did not reflect the same values I had: public safety and land use issues. Those are essential parts of local government,” he says.

12 years the first time around

Dicterow’s first go around with the city council was 1994-2006. He stepped down after those 12 years because he had a business that required him to be out of the country frequently. He didn’t feel he could successfully run his business and be on the city council. 

However, by 2012 things had changed. He was no longer running that particular business so that impediment had been removed. Additionally, he says, “I felt that the council at that time was a caretaker council.” This prompted him to run again.

Evolving yet remaining true to his core

“You always evolve,” he says of how he has changed in the ensuing years. “My basic core values are the same, but I have acquired more knowledge and I am more skillful.” 

His formative years influence what he cares about

From when he began his city council career to now, there is one thing he has always been committed to: public safety. “I was a true street kid,” he says of his youth in Brooklyn. “We played football in the street, sewer to sewer. When you grow up like that muggings are common. You get very conscious of street crime.” 

The role of government in business

Another issue that Dicterow is passionate about is the government’s role in business. “I don’t think it’s the government’s role to help businesses succeed. It is our role to get out of the way,” he says. That kind of sums up his overall philosophy on government, as well. 

The city government has its limitations

And while there are issues that plague Laguna that Dicterow would obviously love to solve, he is well-versed in the limitations he and his fellow council members operate under. “People often forget that we are not the federal government,” he says. “Things we’d like to do, i.e. crime prevention, are against the constitution.”

Steve Dicterow partner

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Laguna Beach Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow with his law partner William

 Levin outside their downtown office

Even seemingly simple things like parking meters are not under the city’s control. “We have to get Coastal Commission approval,” he says somewhat ruefully. “State and federal rules create these impediments. It looks easy until you know all the rules,” he says.

It’s not as easy as it seems

This may be something to keep in mind should you attend a city council meeting. If something seems obvious and it’s not being done, there’s a good chance it’s much more complicated than it seems. Acknowledging this may help keep the public discourse more civil. Because, while Dicterow says many of the key issues the city council deals with are the same as when he first ran for office, one thing is very different.

A certain lack of civility has emerged

“There is a certain nastiness that didn’t exist in ‘94. Back then we still tried to work things out, compromise. Now, some people are mean-spirited. I used to enjoy city council meetings. I don’t enjoy them much anymore,” he says flatly.

However, he enjoys the work. “I still feel like I have a lot of energy and a lot of ideas but putting up with certain members of the community whose sole purpose is to make your life miserable…” he says trailing off. But there is still some fight left. “I’m a street kid from Brooklyn,” he says. “I’ve never backed away from a fight.”

Working to change what can be changed at the city level

So he will continue to fight for what he thinks is best for the city he calls home, while being realistic as to what he and his fellow council members can achieve.

Steve Dicterow working

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Steve Dicterow is committed to doing the city’s work

Cities are left to contend with issues not of their making

Take the homeless situation in Laguna. As Dicterow sees it, the city is tasked with fixing a problem not of its own making. In the past, he explains, people who were mentally ill or otherwise incapacitated were not left to their own devices. “This person who is no longer competent, they’d be taken care of properly. Now, if they’re not a criminal, but they can’t take care of themselves –the state has failed us. And the state’s failure becomes our problem.”

Social media has created a new set of problems for Laguna

Another obvious issue is the traffic. While Dicterow maintains the traffic isn’t that much worse than it was in the past, he does acknowledge that Instagram has had a tremendous impact on the city’s southern beaches, for example. 

“People’s memories of the past often romanticize it. The statistics don’t always back up their memories,” he says.  “However, the internet and social media have had an impact on this town in ways people haven’t talked about. Like the beaches in South Laguna, they were a secret. Now, the traffic there has gone up exponentially.” The area doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle the crowds, but they keep coming anyway.

Focusing on prevention

And there is no simple fix for that, at least not one the city can enact. So Dicterow focuses on things the city can do, like fire and crime prevention. “Nobody notices great prevention,” he says wryly. As well as the ever-tense issue of property rights (with views being a particularly challenging issue).

View equity vs. the right to a view

“At the city we have a direct investment in maximizing everyone’s views,” says Dicterow. “When property values are higher we get more money.” But it is a tricky balancing act. “The concept is not a right to a view but view equity. You can’t say because you were here first, you get all the views.”

And while such things are more micro than macro, they are the things that directly impact individual citizens’ lives, much more so than most things being discussed in Washington D.C. Hence the passion they engender. 

Steve Dicterow truck

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Steve Dicterow believes strongly in doing what the city can do well, like fire prevention

To run or not to run again?

When asked, Dicterow was neutral on whether or not he will run again. Will the perceived nastiness motivate the former Brooklyn street kid to continue to fight or will it convince him it’s time to hang up his gloves? We shall see. 

In the meantime, Dicterow will continue to do the city’s business. “The pressure from outside Laguna Beach is more than it’s ever been. Things always evolve,” he says. 

One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is his commitment to the residents of Laguna Beach. “I’ve always been concerned for people who play by the rules,” he says. “I want to make sure those people are protected.” 

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

Lana Johnson, Editor - Lana@StuNewsLaguna.com

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