Interim city manager comments on council priorities, CM recruitment, department head changes

By SARA HALL

A community meeting this week focused on some recent city staff changes and highlighted City Council’s priorities.

The Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee held their monthly meeting via Zoom on Thursday (Feb. 1) with Interim City Manager Sean Joyce as the featured speaker. About 20 people attended online.

During his comments, Joyce noted the city manager recruitment effort currently underway, the recent departure of a department head, and highlighted the City Council’s recent planning workshop and the priorities they identified.

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Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

Interim City Manager Sean Joyce

Joyce was appointed to his temporary role in September. He’s really enjoyed his time at Laguna Beach, he said at the morning meeting on Thursday. He recognized that he came into the situation under “pretty challenging circumstances” as former City Manager Shohreh Dupuis left. In his approximately five months on the job, he’s loved the work and found the staff and council to be agreeable to his suggestions and ideas for improvement. The city has been driven by very capable leaders over the years, Joyce said, but he wants to see it transition into a more modern organization and even more customer service driven.

On Thursday, Joyce reported that the council interviewed two finalists on Saturday (Jan. 27), as noticed in a special closed session. They are proceeding with the outcome of that second interview and Joyce expects the council to approve a contract with the ultimately successful candidate later this month. State law allows it to be approved only at regularly scheduled council meetings, which would be February 13 or 27. If that happens, he estimates a new city manager could start around April 1.

Answering a question from an attendee, Joyce briefly addressed the recent departure of Marc Wiener, the former community development director for the city.

“For any of you who are employers present, I would no more speak about the performance of any individual than you would about any employee with whom you work,” he said. “It’s important to him that his departure not be mischaracterized or otherwise characterized and I want to respect that.”

Wiener made a difference at the city and has a number of strengths, Joyce added, he’s a good person who made good relationships with others. Joyce wished Wiener the best and said he supports him in his next endeavor.

“We are now focused on a transition within the department and will very soon start a recruitment for his replacement,” Joyce said.

Joyce also noted that the appointment of Public Works Director Mark McAvoy as an interim replacement was an unusual move considering the secondary in the department would be the recently hired Community Development Assistant Director Matthew Schneider.

“He’s been here such a short time; I just didn’t yet have the confidence to name him acting (CD director) and I readily acknowledge that moving the public works director to temporarily oversee the community development department is unorthodox – I get it. I just have a relationship and a trust with McAvoy that allows me to communicate more efficiently and know that and have confidence in his executive leadership,” Joyce said.

He explained that prior to this switch he had very little interaction with Schneider, since he was so new to the city, but has since been working with him every day. Schneider is good at what he does and has a good track record, Joyce added.

The idea is to get McAvoy back to public works as soon as possible. McAvoy is proud of his work in that department and has no interest as a candidate for the community development position, Joyce confirmed.

Joyce also discussed the City Council’s January 19 planning workshop, which included a discussion of areas for improvement and a report of more than 60 policy initiatives and larger projects.

While that’s too long of a list for staff to treat every single item as a top priority, they can steadily be “grinding away” on each initiative that “the council wants to do to make the community even better than it already is,” Joyce said. Meanwhile, they focus the majority of their efforts on tackling the councilmembers’ key concerns.

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At the workshop, councilmembers mentioned some new ideas and identified seven priorities: Revenue enhancements, solar panels on city facilities, Laguna Canyon Road improvements, Downtown Action Plan, artist live/work housing, exploring community development opportunities to improve customer experience and performance measures (LEAN 6 Sigma, ProcureAmerica).

Revenue enhancements are aimed at how the city is going to secure the funding necessary to undertake high priorities, he explained.

Solar panels on city facilities was labeled a “super priority” by councilmembers at the workshop.

“That’s long been an aspiration,” for council, Joyce noted.

Paraphrasing the councilmembers’ overall comments on the issue, he said they are frustrated with the lack of progress on the issue. A majority of council highlighting it at the workshop was a good outcome of the meeting, he added, as it told staff that councilmembers want this project completed sooner than they had realized.

“It’s important to them and so, therefore, we’ll increase our attention to that,” Joyce said.

Staff will return shortly with an action plan for the project, he added.

Regarding Laguna Canyon Road improvements, Joyce said council wants staff to look into how that can be funded and further explore the feasibility of taking over control of the road from Caltrans, with the aim to ultimately underground utility poles.

Council heard an update on the project on January 9 and unanimously agreed to proceed with public engagement for the project, move forward with submitting applications for various grants and submit a relinquishment initiation letter to Caltrans to enter negotiations for the acquisition of Laguna Canyon Road.

The Downtown Action Plan is another top priority, as identified by council at the January 19 workshop, and within that is the permanent Promenade on Forest project.

When presented with only two concept options for the Promenade on Forest, City Council on January 23 unanimously decided to hit the pause button and formed an ad hoc committee (comprised of Mayor Sue Kempf and Councilmember Mark Orgill) 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. The ad hoc committee is tasked to return to the full council within 90 days, which will be followed by a robust public process.

Joyce met with the committee on Monday (Jan. 29), he reported, and they walked through some of what Kempf and Orgill would like to work on.

There was also a consensus on January 19 to identify artist live/work housing as a top priority, Joyce noted. They knew there was at least one or two councilmembers interested in the idea, but the planning workshop made it clear that the council wants the city to pursue the effort.

“It is clear to me – after even just five months – there’s a real desire to make sure that we protect a core feature of the community, which is the artist colony that everybody wants to preserve,” Joyce said.

They’re already forming some ideas on how to “help nudge that aspiration along,” he added.

Another priority councilmembers noted in January is to continue the effort to improve customer experience in the community development department and make it more efficient and predictable, Joyce said. How they can help do that includes the planned overhaul of the city’s zoning code, which can be a battle for residents, developers and staff as well, he added.

“Part of that is to undertake a complete revamp of our zoning code, which causes frustration for everybody – certainly for staff it’s frustrating (with) ambiguities (and) conflicts,” Joyce said. “Everybody is desperate for some clarity with our zoning code.”

He’s heard similar complaints at other cities, he noted, and it usually boils down to features and provisions layered on top of other features and provisions.

Staff is planning to present in March to the council the scope of what they want to do, Joyce said. After that gets approved, they can announce a request for proposals and get it underway. The entire project will take quite some time, he added.

“It’ll take longer than anybody wants, I promise, I’ve done it – but it’s got to be done,” Joyce said.

He also noted that the city’s municipal code has not been thoroughly evaluated since 1953. It’s “embarrassingly unbelievable” and they need to get that done as well.

There was also agreement by the council in January to develop and use performance measures for staff and city departments, Joyce said. Some measures are useful and some aren’t in evaluating local government and public service, he noted, so they’ll come up with something that works for Laguna Beach.

Also during his comment, Joyce mentioned that the Laguna Beach Unified School District Board of Education approved a 50-meter pool and aquatic center (as part of the district’s 10-year Facilities Master Plan). On the city side of things, in October the council appointed a subcommittee to discuss pool options, including joint-use opportunities with the LBUSD. The action also directed subcommittee to return to council with a list of stakeholders who are engaged in the process, through both informal meetings and public meetings, and report back the results of the discussions and data gathering.

The subcommittee will consider the city’s level of partnership, Joyce explained. Rather than make a specific recommendation, the subcommittee of Kempf and Councilmember Bob Whalen will present the information they’ve gathered, which will set the table for a broader discussion on the issue, Joyce noted. That will likely be presented at a council meeting in March.

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


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