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Departure of 2 May Reshape Laguna Politics

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two political allies who helped define Laguna Beach as an island of liberalism in conservative Orange County since the 1980s have announced they will not seek reelection to the City Council in November.

Robert F. Gentry, the first openly gay elected official in Orange County, and Lida Lenney, an outspoken environmental activist who served as mayor during the devastating fire in October, said they are bowing out for personal reasons.

Their widely anticipated decisions come at a crucial time for the city, where the liberals who have held power for most of the last 20 years may face a forceful challenge from more conservative candidates with a different political agenda.

Gentry, a three-term councilman who lost two houses in the fire, said Wednesday that he will turn his attention to rebuilding his home and rental property.

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“I have absolutely no regrets, no bad feelings, don’t harbor any personal animosity,” he said. “Part of me says, save me a seat, I may come back.”

Lenney released a five-page handwritten letter Tuesday night listing the city’s accomplishments during her eight years on the council and noting, “My life has progressed from periods of reaching out to the world to periods of withdrawing, re-energizing and moving on to the next challenge.”

She couldn’t be reached for further comment Wednesday.

Three council terms expire this year and many residents are clamoring for change. Mayor Ann Christoph, who along with Gentry and Lenney make up the council majority, is the only incumbent entering the race.

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With what some sense as a conservative backlash sweeping the city, Gentry said the coming election “could change the very fabric of the city.”

Even before the announcements from Lenney and Gentry, the community had been buzzing with talk about how Election Day, 1994, might alter the city that for years has fought development, struggled to preserve open space and pressed for gay rights.

Some observers predict the city’s priorities will soon be reordered and the emphasis shifted from social causes and environmental preservation to public safety, fiscal prudence and property rights.

“I do believe it’s time for a moderate council to be elected who governs with common sense and balances growth and environmental needs with fiscal responsibility,” said Michele L. Oliver, director of United Laguna, a vocal activist group that has often opposed the council.

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Political tensions were heightened by the October firestorm, which destroyed or damaged more than 400 homes and took a heavy emotional toll. Since then, the attention of many residents, and most political groups, has been fastened on public safety.

And as the city’s two most high-profile liberals step aside, more conservative groups are gaining strength. For example, membership in the Laguna Beach Taxpayers Assn. has grown from fewer than 300 to almost 1,300 in the past two years, said Robert R. Mosier, the group’s president.

“I think we’re really looking at what we want this city to be in the year 2000,” chamber of commerce President Joe Orsak said. “We weren’t able to turn out the votes in the past. . . . It’ll be a lot easier this time.”

Such talk makes some residents nervous.

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“I think that Laguna is really at a crossroads,” said longtime resident Ray Unger. “If we get more of a conservative council in again, we will have high-rises and all kinds of things we have been fighting all these years to stop.”

Bivens Hunt said she formed the new political action committee, Protect Laguna 94, “to keep big development out of Laguna Beach.”

“I just think there are other groups in town that are in favor of development, although they keep saying they’re not,” Hunt said.

However, groups and individuals who oppose the current council majority say they too are concerned about the environment and favor the council’s stand on gay rights.

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“We don’t want a revolution, we just want a slight change of priorities,” said Steve Esslinger, whose family owns a mobile home park in Laguna Beach. “It’s absurd to think you could build skyscrapers by controlling city hall. And anyone who votes thinking that is true is going to vote in an extreme way.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, a dozen residents had taken out papers to run for council. Two of them--real estate broker and former city councilman Wayne Baglin and attorney Steve Dicterow--have filed their nomination papers with the city clerk’s office. The deadline for filing is Aug. 17.

Some say privately it has been difficult to find candidates who philosophically resemble the current council majority.

“It’s a very nasty environment in Laguna Beach right now,” said one political activist who asked not to be named. “We have just had one hell of a time finding somebody who wants to run for City Council, and that’s sad.”

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At least two potential candidates declined to run, fearing what one called a “bloody, real bloody,” campaign.

Already, some say, the battle lines are drawn.

“Everyone in town knows who’s on which side of the fence,” said Elizabeth Pearson , chairwoman of The Laguna Coalition, an umbrella political group representing 40 civic groups in Laguna Beach. The coalition has already endorsed Baglin and Dicterow, both members of the Laguna Beach Taxpayers Assn.

City firefighters, who have also opened a political headquarters in town, have endorsed the same two candidates.

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With her closest allies on the council bailing out, Christoph summed up her concerns about the future, saying simply, “I hope I will have some support.”


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