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Year's first Laguna Beach council candidates forum plays to lively audience

Year's first Laguna Beach council candidates forum plays to lively audience
Several Laguna Beach residents raise "Stop taxing our property" signs at Thursday's City Council candidates forum while candidates discussed a possible sales tax increase. (Photo by Miranda Andrade)

Sales tax increases, design review and homelessness — Laguna Beach City Council candidates had a chance to address all of those issues (as long as they kept it under a minute) at Thursday’s first candidates forum of the 2018 campaign.

The forum was presented by the Laguna Beach Board of Realtors and the Chamber of Commerce. Of the 12 candidates in the running, 11 participated, with Elizabeth Bates absent.

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Three of the council’s five seats are up for election in November, with Councilwoman Toni Iseman and Mayor Pro Tem Rob Zur Schmiede seeking reelection. Mayor Kelly Boyd is retiring.

More than 50 people attended the forum in the council chamber at City Hall.

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After presenting opening statements limited to one minute, candidates were asked six questions by moderator and Board of Realtors director Frank Hufnagel, with one minute to answer each.

Many people in the crowd were vocal in their disapproval of a November ballot measure which, if approved by local voters, would raise the sales tax in Laguna Beach to 8.75% from 7.75% to help fund placing utility lines underground along Laguna Canyon Road. The project is estimated to cost as much as $135 million.

Supporters of the proposal say burying the overhead lines would eliminate the potential for downed power lines sparking a fire in the rural canyon.

Zur Schmiede said he was planning to vote for the measure, saying he believes increased public safety is worth the increase in sales tax.

Iseman agreed, saying public safety is worth the cost. However, she said she doesn’t think the measure will pass. “My vote will be symbolic,” she said.

Candidate Judie Mancuso, an animal-rights advocate, said she would vote against the measure and suggested city officials should wait to see how state undergrounding plans elsewhere on Laguna Canyon Road pan out before raising the sales tax.

Candidates Allison Matthews and former Laguna Beach mayor Ann Christoph also disagreed with increasing the sales tax. Christoph noted the increase would be in effect up to 25 years, which she said would hurt the younger generation of Lagunans.

When asked about the local construction process and how to simplify it, most candidates said the design review process is too costly.

Gallery owner Peter Blake received applause from the audience for his vehement disapproval of the Design Review Board.

“We want to change the way our house looks and we have to go before a process that is completely arbitrary and based on the discretion of five people who don’t know anything,” Blake said. “I want to change design review, I want term limits — I want our property rights back.”

Candidate Lorene Auger, who goes by Lorene “Laguna,” said the process needs to be heavily reformed.

“The cost of this is outrageous. The length of time it takes needs reformation — the city needs to be spanked and put back in place,” she said to applause.

Iseman said 55% of applicants are approved in design review during their first meeting and 80% by the second meeting. More than the Design Review Board, she said, the city needs to improve the way it communicates to help expedite the process.

On the topic of homelessness in Laguna Beach, candidate Paul Merritt said he doesn’t believe the city should seek additional funds toward homeless aid.

Blake and former council member Cheryl Kinsman felt there needs to be an increased police presence in areas populated by homeless people.

Candidate Sue Marie Connolly suggested “moving them out.”

“I know it might sound cold and mean, but there are other cities — pick them up and take them to Costa Mesa,” Connolly said. She agreed that there needs to be more police presence.

Candidate Sue Kempf, a city planning commissioner, said she’s interested in looking at options for permanent supportive housing on county land outside Laguna Beach.

“Currently, if someone is picked up for a mental illness issue in Laguna Beach, they get sent on what’s called a 51/50 to Laguna Beach hospital,” Kempf said. “They’re there for 72 hours, and if there’s no way to rectify the situation, then they’re released and there’s nowhere to go. … So what are they to do when they get released?”

The next candidates forum will be presented by Village Laguna at 7 p.m. Sept. 17 at the Laguna Beach Community and Susi Q Center, 380 Third St.

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