Laguna Beach City Council candidates Ruben Flores, Mark Orgill, Jerome Pudwill, Alex Rounaghi, Louis Weil and incumbents Peter Blake and Sue Kempf took center stage in the council chambers for the first panel of candidates Monday night . Each challenger is targeting three city council vacancies for a four-year term.
Village Laguna Vice President Merrill Anderson and Board Member Ann Christoph moderated the two-hour forum. After the contestants’ two-minute opening statements, moderators posed a handful of prepared questions ranging from climate change to code enforcement to motivating the arts community. The public had the chance to submit their own questions before the forum.
At first, there was a question about how the contestants would protect and enhance Laguna’s beauty and character.
Louis Weil, realtor and member of the Design Review Board, emphasized coming together as a community to solve “real world problems” across Laguna’s multitude of nonprofits to preserve the character of the village. Rounaghi, a Laguna Beach native and chair of the Housing and Human Services Committee, discussed preserving Laguna’s shoreline, protecting open spaces and caring for older members of the community.
Blake said he would like to keep Laguna small, scenic and cultured. Kempf discussed keeping storefronts open, reducing Laguna’s homeless population, and beautification projects. Orgill wants to see a long term plan for community aesthetics. Flores responded similarly, pointing out the need for trees downtown, and finally, Pudwill said he would like Laguna to go back to how it was 30 years ago.
“We need low-rise buildings, local businesses, moderate tourism, limited parking, and compatible construction and architecture,” Pudwill said. “Like Mark [Orgill] said, I also agree that we need a long-term vision plan, something that we once had, and no longer have.
Climate change was also on the agenda. All candidates agreed that the City could do more to achieve zero emissions and increase sustainability. Blake, however, said the responsibility should lie with the individual to see the actual results.
The issue of employee morale and retention of Laguna Public Safety employees was also addressed. The majority of candidates agreed that turnover was high, particularly in the police department, and that the culture needed an overhaul.
Laguna Village moderators also asked candidates how they would achieve transparency after the Orange County District Attorney’s Office uncovered significant evidence that council members violated Brown’s Law during a discussion at camera of June 2021 on the Laguna hotel.
Blake argued that the council never broke Brown’s Law, while Pudwill, Weil and Orgill said all closed sessions should be recorded and that transparency is of the utmost importance. Flores added that new board members should be made aware of the Brown Law, and Rounaghi said compliance with the law is fundamental. Kempf, who was present at the meeting in question, said the board is educated and constantly reminded of the ethics and laws surrounding its position.
Council candidates were also invited to discuss their ideas for California’s affordable housing mandate. Rounaghi, who is chairman of the housing and social services committee, said they are looking for solutions that work best for Laguna.
“Recently until now we have our housing element that has not been approved by the state where we have to realistically plan 394 units, including 198 for people with low or very low incomes,” Rounaghi said. . “I think we have to be very, very serious about this issue and look at the facts, look at the laws and make sure we meet the housing needs locally so that the state doesn’t step in and take over. .”
Pudwill added that while they work on a plan, he would recommend the city seek private and public partnerships and federal funding for infill housing, new projects and adaptive use of commercial buildings. Flores said the problem came down to city management and Weil and Orgill agreed with Rounaghi, stressing that the solution had to be tailored to the community, but something needed to be done soon.
Kempf said she would like to see the city donate land and work with property developers to build and manage three potential sites the council has in mind, to convert second-floor office space and repurpose some existing commercial buildings or light.
“If we don’t come out in front of this and start putting a shovel in the ground, we’re going to be told to do it in a way that we might not like,” Kempf said.
Blake said activists are the reason an affordable housing plan has not been implemented.
“We really have to stop and accept the fact that the state will tell us what we’re going to do if we don’t decide to do it ourselves,” he said.
Second, the opinion of the candidates on the ballot initiative put forward by Laguna Residents First PAC contrasted with the new municipal law on real estate development. Measure Q would allow Laguna residents to vote for or against major development projects.
Pudwill was the only candidate to openly endorse the Q measure.
“It’s important to me because it gives residents the right to vote,” Pudwill said. “And our developers, we can determine for ourselves what we want the community to look like in the future. We can prevent overdevelopment…the only assurance we have as citizens as people of this city, to control our future, is measure Q. I advise you all to vote for it despite the money that is spent to smear it.
Blake, Rounaghi, Weil and Kempf said the measure was too complicated and would create more problems.
“It creates hurdles for the city because when you do the planning for the ballot boxes, the only way to change it is to get back to the voters,” Rounaghi said.
The final question posed by Village Laguna moderators asked the candidates how they would bring greater fiscal responsibility to city spending.
Kempf and Blake said the city has a sound financial policy and believes it manages its money well. Weil, Orgill and Rounaghi agreed that it would be useful to keep an eye on the service’s expenses and consultant costs.
Flores said he encountered bad spending and the council could do better. Pudwill said he plans to spend civic money like it comes out of his own pocket.
“Unfortunately, a lot of these studies are heavy-handed and directed. They’re not independent studies,” Pudwill said. “They’re not anonymous.
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