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Sue Kempf, Alex Rounaghi and Mark Orgill lead in Laguna Beach City Council race

A voter walks into the Laguna Beach Community and Susi Q Center to cast their ballot on Election Day on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Laguna Beach residents will soon learn who their latest decision-makers will be on the City Council, as the general election came and went on Tuesday.

Voting results are still being tabulated, but after participating in several forums over the past few months, Alex Rounaghi, current Mayor Sue Kempf and Mark Orgill found themselves poised after the early returns were announced to claim the three open seats on the five-person panel.

It was clear from the tallies released that incumbent Peter Blake, a polarizing member of the council, will not be returned to the dais.

Blake indicated he felt a “mountain had been lifted” off his shoulders when he saw the results, and he added that he believed Laguna Beach’s leading candidates were as good as the residents could ask for.

“I had a lot of support, but I think that to some degree, there was this kind of romanticized notion that civility could return back to Laguna, and I became the product of that whole notion — that somehow or another, I was creating all the incivility,” Blake said when reached for comment Wednesday.

“In reality, what happened was the symptom was removed, but the disease is still there. You can take out the person that is visibly ... kind of the perpetrator of incivility, but in reality, I never picked a fight with anyone. I finished every fight that someone started.

“So now, you’ve gotten rid of the symptom, but the disease is still there. Village Laguna is the disease. ... This was by far the dirtiest campaign in history.”

Village Laguna, founded in 1971, is a nonprofit community preservation organization opposed to high-rise buildings within the city that has consistently been at odds with Blake.

A voter casts his ballot in the drop box at the Laguna Beach Public Library on Election Day on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Rounaghi, by far the youngest in the field at age 24, had secured the most votes with 4,507, a narrow 83-vote margin over Kempf, who has served as the city’s mayor over the past year.

A homegrown Laguna Beach candidate, Rounaghi pointed to those roots as something that he felt resonated with the voters, as well as his experience working as chairman of the city’s housing and human services committee.

Seven candidates vying for three open seats on the Laguna Beach City Council answered questionnaires, providing insight into themselves and their priorities should they be elected.

“I think what prepared me for this was my love for Laguna Beach, my deep roots in the community, and then my experience working on public policy issues at the city and county level,” said Rounaghi, who has worked as a policy advisor for Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley for the past year.

Since he announced his candidacy, Rounaghi said he has recused himself from all issues related to Laguna Beach at the county level.

Rounaghi, who said he waited for the election results to come in Tuesday night with a small gathering of family and supporters at the Lumberyard, remarked that the community is tired of the divisiveness in Laguna Beach politics.

“My goal is to be someone on the dais where anyone can come to me with an opinion or an argument, and then they’ll know that I listen to the merits of it and not just being on one side or the other,” Rounaghi said. “… There’s a lot in our town where we all agree. Of course, there’s always going to be disagreements, but we don’t need to let the disagreements sort of paralyze our community.”

Candidate and proposition banners hang on the side of the Hotel Laguna on Election Day.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Kempf, nearing the completion of her first term on the council, said she did not anticipate further election results would change the eventual outcome, due to the margins. Orgill, a developer who had received 3,098 votes as of Wednesday evening’s update from the Orange County Registrar of Voters, had a 626-vote buffer between him and candidates Jerome Pudwill and Ruben Flores for the third seat.

The results released so far showed Blake, a first-term councilman, was in sixth, and Louis Weil, a Realtor and the chairman of the city’s design review board, had received the fewest votes.

Kempf identified the council’s actions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and progress made in fire safety as issues that led voters to support her for a second term.

“I think our response during the pandemic and the fact that we emerged from the pandemic in good financial shape as a city,” Kempf said when asked about the issues that defined her first term. “I think the actions we took during the pandemic — like the Promenade and outdoor dining — helping businesses get money from the various grant funding agencies really helped.

“I think our readiness for fire [was appreciated by voters]. We’ve done all that work on fire mitigation, fire safety, in particular. We have that HeloPod [dip tank] up there on the fire road. We’re going to be adding more of those along the wildland interface for helicopter filling, if we have another fire.”

Orgill did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

According to data from the Orange County Registrar of Voters, Laguna Beach had 20,422 vote-by-mail ballots issued, and residents submitted 9,350 vote-by-mail ballots. Those numbers do not include voters who cast their ballot in person.

The registrar recorded a 34.6% voter turnout countywide.

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