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2020 Council Retreat:

Council reviews key accomplishments, discusses finished and pending projects, and gets a peek at 2020 agendas

By BARBARA DIAMOND

Four items were added by the City Council to the staff’s to-do list of key projects on the agenda for 2020 at the council’s annual retreat, held Saturday at the South Coast Water District headquarters on West Street.

The council’s additions included reconciliation of the differences between the interpretations of the city and the California Coastal Commission of Laguna’s Local Coastal Plan; Downtown Action Plan and projects; a study of parking structure options; and the possible acquisition of the library building. They will be tacked onto the matrix of more than 80 key projects, divided up as done or doing in green, expected to be done in yellow, and don’t hold your breath in red. Mayor Bob Whalen questioned why completed projects were still in the matrix.

“I wanted to show you what has been done,” said City Manager John Pietig. “The matrix will be reset after the retreat.”

Topics discussed included housing needs to meet state requirements; a property maintenance ordinance to deal with shabby facades in business zones; major funding for projects such as the fire stations, particularly Station 4; a parking structure option; and possible new city government facilities.

“We are talking about long-term projects,” said Mayor Bob Whalen, a public finance attorney. “Laguna Beach is one of the few communities that doesn’t fund projects with bonds.

“We have revenue streams and we should look at leveraging that. We are looking at scheduling projects 10 or 15 years out. We have the capacity to find resources on a very conservative basis.”

 To Whalen’s dismay, Laguna voters rejected in the 2018 election a proposal to fund undergrounding in Laguna Canyon with bond revenue.

“If we can build parking and then use parking fees to pay off the loan, that sounds good to me,” said Councilman Peter Blake.

Blake also weighed in on the state’s push for more housing in Laguna, some of it affordable. He doesn’t think housing built downtown as recommended in the draft Downtown Specific Plan will be affordable. 

“It’s gonna go in the canyon,” said Blake, a position opposed by many canyon residents. “The state scares me. We have to stop reacting to pressure from activists in the canyon.”

Pietig and Whalen both said it is likely that at least some of the required building would have to be in the canyon.

“We have to consider the look and feel of Laguna,” said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow.

Whalen opined that some deep lots would be possible to build on without being seen from Laguna Canyon Road.

“We need to be proactive,” said Whalen.

Unlike corporate retreats, the general public is allowed to attend government agency retreats. The agenda included a public comment period on items not on the agenda, but not for comment items presented by Pietig and discussed by the council.

Only Chris Catsimanes spoke. He questioned why Dana Pont employees’ salaries are half as much as Laguna’s and the population is 10,000 higher. He also said Blake was not legally required to make public documents related to the purchase of his gallery building, but he should have made full disclosure in the beginning. Catsimanes did not say why.

Others in the audience included Mike Beanan and John Thomas from South Laguna; Arnold and Bonnie Hano, former planning Commissioner Barbara Metzger, and former City Clerk and Councilwoman Verna Rollinger, all members of Village Laguna.

Beanan complained after the meeting that there was no discussion about the ocean.

“The theme of the serious part of the meeting seemed to be: If we are going to buy the library and pay $10 million for downtown improvements, we can’t afford anything else – and if you insist, we will hire a consultant,” said Rollinger.

“I find it shocking that we are planning to hire a consultant for a parking structure study – I thought we already had a drawer full of them.”

Councilwoman Toni Iseman voiced toward the end of the retreat that people were uncomfortable at council meetings and do not attend.

“I feel their pain,” she said.

Blake, who said his holidays were ruined by a complaint to the Fair Political Practices Commission about him that later was dismissed, said, “You didn’t feel my pain.”

Iseman said each council member was responsible for civil conduct at the meetings.

“This starts with me,” said Blake. “It will stop when people stop attacking me, and I will turn it up this year. No one is afraid – they would walk over glass shards barefoot to testify at the podium.” 

Pietig interceded, saying the conversation was not productive.

Councilwoman Sue Kempf brought an end to the exchange, making a pitch for issue-oriented meetings, personal differences aside.

“We can’t control the residents, but we can control our reactions,” said Kempf.