When her mother was dying of pancreatic cancer, Stephanie Ladsous knew just the way to publicly honor her.
For Ladsous — who is admittedly “not a tombstone person” — dedicating a bench in Huntington Beach was the perfect way to memorialize her mother, Gloria Patin, and keep her part of the regular walks they had shared for years.
Ladsous, a 33-year Huntington Beach resident, took her request to the city and was eventually offered a spot on the backside of the library branch on Main Street — a location she considered a fitting tribute to her mother, a “voracious reader.”
What she didn’t know was that the installation would soon touch off a controversy — and that the city would eventually opt to put its memorial bench program on hiatus, pending further study.
Ladsous paid about $2,700 to buy the stone bench and memorial bronze plaque from a vendor, lay the concrete slab at the designated location in Triangle Park and cover a city administrative fee. The bench, which was installed July 3, is considered city property.
For the next few weeks, all was well. Ladsous stopped by often to “visit my mom, either on a walk or driving by.”
But problems began to emerge a month after the installation.
Ladsous said she was contacted by the city Public Works Department and told that a neighbor “was very upset by the bench being there” and “it was a magnet for homeless people.” She said she was asked if she would be open to relocating it, but “chose not to move it because I like where it is.”
On Sept. 13, Ladsous drove to the dry cleaner — a route that took her past the bench. When she passed, though, she saw an empty concrete slab.
Her first thought was, “Where the heck is mom?”
After driving around in a panic, Ladsous reached out to the city and learned that the bench had been removed that morning and was being stored in a city yard.
Upset, Ladsous shared the experience on social media, where she found a number of sympathizers.
In a Facebook post on Sept. 16, then-interim City Manager Dave Kiff addressed the situation, writing that, “While the bench donation program clearly allows the city to move benches ‘as needed for (operations),’ it is always our intent to reach out to and work with families prior to any removal and relocation. I am frustrated to say that we moved too fast and didn’t inform the Patin/Ladsous family this time.”
The city offered Ladsous a new location, and the bench was put in place Sept. 27 near 14th Street and Pacific Coast Highway. A week later, the city refunded her payment — which she then donated to City of Hope.
“I did get what I wanted,” Ladsous said, conceding that the bluff-top spot was her original preference.
Recently obtained communications from inside Huntington Beach City Hall, however, have raised more questions for Ladsous and other residents.
“At first it was about the bench, but now it’s so much more,” Ladsous said.
Emails obtained by resident Vanessa Martinez Hennerty through a public records request show that another resident, Kim Kramer, requested the bench be removed from its original location and suggested it be relocated within the park. Kramer is a well-known resident who serves on the Huntington Beach Public Art Alliance and who previously led the once-influential Huntington Beach Downtown Residents Assn.
In a Sept. 9 email sent after the request, city Maintenance Operations Manager Denny Bacon wrote, “Apparently [Kramer] gets to decide where benches go. We can run the program through him now. The person who bought it will be upset.”
Kramer said this week that he “called the city to ask if the bench would be moved to the front of the library,” as the original location was “attracting a lot of homeless people.”
“I thought it was inappropriate to have that in front of a residential district,” he said.
If the bench had been moved to the front of the library, it would have faced a commercial area, Kramer said.
The library, he added, has full-time security that could have deterred people from using the spot to sleep or use drugs, which he reported seeing.
David De La Torre, a city landscape maintenance supervisor, wrote in another email that neither library staff nor the Police Department had raised any issues regarding the bench.
City Manager Oliver Chi and Assistant City Manager Travis Hopkins said last week that the bench was removed as part of an ongoing effort to address staff-driven concerns regarding facility and park features that could attract homeless people.
“Some benches were removed when they became an attractive nuisance,” Hopkins said, adding that city staff is exploring outdoor seating models that “encourage a different type of use” to keep public spaces “useful to everybody.”
Hopkins said the original location was offered to Ladsous without first consulting staff at the library, who had previously raised concerns about fixtures that encouraged homeless people to sleep or loiter around the branch.
“We do have vocal residents,” Hopkins said, adding: “We need to evaluate how a good decision is made.”
The memorial bench program is now on hiatus while staff evaluates the city’s procedures for identifying potential locations and assesses the model of the benches themselves in light of complaints that peoplesleep on them, Hopkins said.
Chi described the memorial bench program as “informally coordinated.” But because of its popularity with residents, the city is running out of appropriate locations that line up with donors’ requests.
“As a city we do apologize for messing this up so bad,” Chi said. “We do need to be more thoughtful going ahead.”
Kramer said he feels “bad ... for the donor that it happened this way, but it was just a bad location within Triangle Park.”
“If the city had notified the donor first, there would have never been an issue,” he added.
Sclafani writes for Times Community News.