Council candidates face off at first forum of the election season

The four candidates vying for two contested seats on the Laguna Beach City Council faced a wide range of questions on various topics in the first such forum of the election season Monday.

The responses were as eclectic as the group itself.

Incumbents Steve Dicterow and Bob Whalen, who are running for reelection, are being challenged by Judie Mancuso and Verna Rollinger. The winners would join Kelly Boyd, Toni Iseman and Robert Zur Schmiede on the five-member council.

Village Laguna, an organization established in 1971 to preserve the character of the city, organized the forum — held at City Hall — and devised the questions. This year's format deviated from last year's, when media members asked the candidates questions.

Moderator John Monahan said the organization changed format this year to allow questions important to the sponsoring group. Village Laguna is interested, for instance, in things like building heights.

Each candidate was offered a different question and had a minute to respond, after which another candidate was given 30 seconds to offer an opinion on the topic.

Two issues that generated significant discussion focused on the hiring of consultants and the $1 million in matching grants to the Laguna Playhouse and Laguna Art Museum and whether the expenditures are the best use of city money.

Some residents have criticized the council for its habit of paying outside consultants to work on development and planning projects, such as in the downtown and Laguna Canyon.

Rollinger, who was Laguna's city clerk for 29 years, said the city would be better off if residents were tapped to tackle problems. She noted a task force centered on flood-control solutions in Laguna Canyon that she spearheaded.

"I've watched this city do some amazing things...." said Rollinger, who previously served on the Laguna council, from 2008 to 2012. "It was a broad-based group of Laguna residents who shared the same concern about a particular subject and got to the job of solving a problem."

Whalen, a public finance attorney, said consultants may be necessary for more technical work.

"It's certainly easy to beat up on consultants," Whalen said. "I'd be the first to say some have not performed to the level of expectation and need to do better.

"Some [projects] require consultants, such as the parking study. There are situations were it is appropriate to have resident input. It requires a balance."

The matching grants to the playhouse and museum, which will celebrate their centennial anniversaries in the next five years help fund structural improvements.

"This council has a commitment to the future of the arts," Dicterow, an estate planning attorney, said before briefly explaining his views on improving neighborhoods.

"We have to define a vision of what we are. We need a strategic approach in protecting neighborhoods. We are increasing our police force and made a decision not to expand the width of Laguna Canyon Road. We continue to put money, as we have been doing, for infrastructure [improvements] for neighborhoods."

Mancuso, founder and current president of a nonprofit that supports legislation promoting animal care and protection, said the money could instead be used to address specific resident needs.

South Laguna residents have for years asked for sidewalk repairs and public restrooms, she said.

"Going through the budget, there is a lot of double-dipping, triple-dipping. There is money all over the place in this fund, that fund," Mancuso said. "Arts seem to get some out of here, some out of there. They are cleaning up. That is cool if that is where you want it to go.

"As far as accommodating residents, talk to the residents in South Laguna. One of the biggest needs is restrooms so people are not using residents' bushes. I think you guys are asleep at the wheel at what residents' needs are."

All candidates acknowledged the benefits of pursuing more peripheral parking options for visitors to alleviate congestion in sections of the city and favored maintaining Laguna's 36-foot building height limit.

Other organizations will hold forums leading up to the election Nov. 8.

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Bryce Alderton, bryce.alderton@latimes.com

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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