Ongoing rancor on Laguna Beach City Council turns uglier this election season
With the midterm election rapidly approaching, Laguna Beach is seeing an ugly, continuing theme in its local government spill over into the campaigns.
The City Council is struggling to find any level of civility, with meetings often rife with rancor and councilmembers verbally sparring with one another.
Those acrimonious encounters most often feature Councilman Peter Blake on one side and Councilmembers Toni Iseman and George Weiss on the other.
Blake, who is running for reelection, and Weiss have both been censured by the council, for different reasons, since the latter joined the panel in 2020.
The admonishment of Blake resulted from his unwillingness to adhere to the city’s rules of decorum and civility policy, and his communications with some residents, whether in or outside of public meetings, have been known to cross the line.
During an Oct. 4 meeting of the City Council, Blake, who claims property rights as a top issue for his campaign, again pushed the boundaries of civility on the dais when he questioned a resident about the specifics their home‘s size while they were providing testimony during the public hearing of an appeal for a single-family residence in the Three Arch Bay neighborhood.
During the exchange, he told the presenting resident, “You just humiliated yourself,” drawing jeers from those in attendance. The aggressive rant carried on for more than a minute, prompting Mayor Sue Kempf to step in. “We’re talking about 44 La Senda, Peter,” she said. “We’re not talking about anything else — 44 La Senda. Nobody else’s house is up for discussion here.”
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Weiss, who has made pitches for greater transparency within the city, was censured for the disclosure of information discussed in closed session. A first-term councilmember like Blake, Weiss has asked for further enforcement of the rules of decorum and civility.
“In the case of Mr. Blake and the City Council, I think this has been something that has really disturbed the fabric of our council and has diminished its usefulness as an institution in the city,” Weiss said during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “And that’s a shame because it’s driven people away from civic engagement and diminished the council.”
Three seats will be up for grabs on the council on Nov. 8. Kempf and Blake are running for reelection, while Iseman has chosen not to run again after serving six terms.
There are seven candidates hoping to earn a spot on the dais, and a few of the challengers have named community consensus in decision-making among their priorities.
Campaign mailers rile residents
Residents have also taken issue with recent mailers that arrived at their homes, the content appearing to brand candidate Ruben Flores as a partier who does not belong in city government. One depicts Flores’ face photoshopped onto a body in a toga with an alcoholic drink in his hand, and another showed a shirtless photo of the candidate.
“I never imagined that my desire to rejuvenate this town and build for its future in a thoughtful way with input from its own citizens would blow up in such a defamatory way against me personally,” Flores said via text message Tuesday.
Both mailers were paid for by a group calling itself Supporting Blake and Opposing Flores for Laguna Beach City Council 2022.
“I could talk about the fact that they’ve photoshopped my head onto someone else’s toga body, and I could talk about all the other pains they’re taking to discount me in a derogatory way,” Flores added. “But the real story isn’t about me. It’s about wondering why these developers are so adamant that they push their agenda through in Laguna Beach. … Shouldn’t we be using our energy to make Laguna stronger and better, not tear each other down?”
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Blake said he had nothing to do with the distribution of the controversial anti-Flores mailers, but he did not denounce them either. He noted that he and others have been targeted in political cartoons, including one that depicted him in the pocket of developers.
“There’s no reach across the aisle with Village Laguna and Laguna Residents First,” Blake said in a phone interview Tuesday, speaking of two community organizations. “There is no sit down and negotiate. [Mayor Pro Tem] Bob [Whalen] and Sue and all of them tried to negotiate with Laguna Residents First to remove” Measure Q, an initiative that would have Laguna Beach residents vote on the fate of certain development projects, from the ballot.
“They made concessions. Laguna Residents First made zero concessions, so anybody that thinks that there’s going to be civility or reach across the aisle with Village Laguna and Laguna Residents First is nothing but a fool. I’m no fool. I will continue to fight, and if I have to, it’ll get 10 times uglier in my next term.”
Several residents, many of them regular speakers at meetings, addressed the council Tuesday, beginning their comments with references to October as Bullying Prevention Month before sharing their own stories regarding Blake’s behavior as an elected official.
“The town of Laguna Beach has been subjected to a councilperson who has bullied, assaulted and name-called everyone who has dared to disagree with him,” resident Johanna Felder said of Blake. “He has been an embarrassment to the council and to the entire town. He has proven time and time again that most 5-year-olds have more self-control than he has exhibited. ... His childish behavior is exhibited with his inability to allow speakers or fellow councilmembers to finish their comments before interrupting them with insults or name-calling.”
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A couple of residents suggested that some of Blake’s critics had their own agenda to pursue in the election.
Input, whether it’s from a member of the public or from a council colleague seems unwelcome, one member of the council said.
Iseman contended that although the panel is getting through its agenda items, it is doing so without valuing public or council input.
“There used to be negotiation,” Iseman said in a phone interview Tuesday. “That’s a thing of the past. Things come in and they go out, and if they get tweaked, it’s a tiny one, but things don’t really get that kind of discussion you hope [for] in a democracy.
“I don’t think there’s a town that has a better-informed electorate than Laguna. People are interested, they’re smart, they come from positions of leadership in their work, and when they come to the city, they’re ignored, they’re dismissed, they’re treated rudely, and sometimes they’re humiliated, and it’s very painful to watch. Why would people bother to come to the council if their experience ... doesn’t matter anyway?”
Whalen said the panel has been getting a lot done, but the acrimony has made conducting meetings “difficult” and “unpleasant.” He added he wishes collaboration could be restored to the council.
“What I’ve always just tried to do is to stick to the merits of an issue and not get into personalities,” Whalen said before Tuesday’s council meeting. “People are going to have different viewpoints on things, but you just need to stick to the merits of an issue, make your case and hope that people will have an intelligent conversation about things, rather than name-calling. All I can do is model the behavior that I believe in, which I think is something I’ve always done, and hope that others will follow.”
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