Several candidate forums, nasty social media debates and endless self-promotion didn’t really suit Sue Kempf’s style.
The new Laguna Beach councilwoman’s first words at the dais earlier this month were: “I’m glad the election’s over.”
She’s eager to get down to business on the fun stuff: parking and “process re-engineering.”
“I’m more of an issue person,” she said.
Kempf won one of three open seats on the City Council in November with 4,483 votes, beating seven candidates — two others dropped out — and joining incumbent Toni Iseman and newcomer Peter Blake.
With four years ahead of her, Kempf wants to streamline the building process for homeowners, reduce fire risk and relax regulations for downtown businesses trying to expand.
“We need to change a few of our rules to make it easier for new businesses to come to town,” said the 62-year-old Indiana native. “We’re really tight here on our rules because we don’t have a lot of parking, for one thing.”
Her idea is to build a parking structure at the Act V lot on Laguna Canyon Road, in order to keep visitors from clogging downtown spots.
She also wants to overhaul how residents apply to make changes to their properties.
“From the time someone comes into the city and wants to either remodel or build a home [to] the time you actually start building, that process needs to be looked at,” Kempf said. “It’s expensive, it’s time-consuming and sometimes not very resident-focused.”
She already signed up for at least half a dozen committees, including Mayor Bob Whalen’s new wildfire mitigation subcommittee.
Kempf’s background in city work has always dug into the nitty-gritty. She began by volunteering on the city’s Emergency/Disaster Preparedness Committee in 2010. With her help, the committee organized Laguna’s first CERT training, which reached 350 participants.
In 2013 came the View Equity Committee, which then-Mayor Kelly Boyd formed to craft an ordinance addressing residents’ concerns about trees blocking their views.
In 2014, Kempf applied for and was appointed to the Planning Commission seat that Rob Zur Schmiede vacated when he moved to the City Council. The past four years, she said, gave her “a pretty good grounding” and “a pretty wide lens on the community.”
“You’re never quite prepared when you take over elected office because there’s more that you don’t know than you know,” she said. “But [being on the Planning Commission] does make you feel a lot more comfortable.”
Though her roles in various city committees may look like a natural progression to the council, Kempf said she had never planned to run for office. But last October, Boyd and Whalen took her to breakfast and asked her to run for one of the three open spots.
“I was playing a lot of golf and having a lot of fun. That’s really what I wanted to be doing,” said Kempf, who had retired less than six months earlier. “I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, I’m having so much fun! I have all this unstructured time.’ ”
Kempf spent most of her career in the wireless technology industry, rising through the ranks of AirTouch and Verizon to become managing director at Vodafone in the Bay Area.
In 2006, she bought a lot on Catalina Street and, with spouse Cheryl Skyes, built a house, running her own consulting company from home. She began part-time consulting for the radiation monitoring company Mirion Technologies in 2007, which she then joined full-time in 2014. She retired in March 2017 and was enjoying her time at the El Niguel Country Club when she wasn’t working on Planning Commission issues.
Boyd, who decided not to run for reelection after three terms, tried to draft Kempf because of her “common sense.”
“She’ll tackle any issue,” he said. “Sue does her homework. She studies the issue and makes her decision based on what she’s discovered.”
After about six months of urging from other people in the community, Kempf said yes to running for office. For the next several months, she and her two-person team held fundraisers with local community leaders, such as newly elected Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach), Boyd, Whalen and others.
“It’s an exhausting process because you’re talking to a lot of people,” Kemf said. “You’re doing a lot of self-promotion, which is not appealing and doesn’t come naturally to me.”
Even during her campaign, Kempf focused much of her time on “prep work.” She researched the host of every candidate forum she attended, reading the city’s Cultural Arts Plan before the Arts Commission panel and getting up to speed on business issues before the Chamber of Commerce forum.
She preferred research to the more political aspects of her campaign. After one visit to the Nextdoor app where other candidates were engaging in lively debate, Kempf decided to stay away from social media altogether. When a local political action committee, Liberate Laguna, endorsed her, she wrote a letter in the Laguna Beach Independent in September, saying she wanted to run her campaign without help from a special interest group.
She rolled her eyes at the memory of a negative campaign poster that pictured a bulldozer and claimed Kempf wanted to raze Laguna with new developments.
“I thought to myself, ‘Am I running for student council in high school?’ It was just so absurd to me,” she said. “I’m on the Planning Commission. You can’t take away a parking space around here without an act of Congress.”
While she has no major development plans in the works, she said Laguna could make changes downtown to stay “current.”
“Buildings get old like people get old,” she said. “They need to be refreshed, remodeled. … That doesn’t mean you have bad intentions or you’re a developer.”
Her philosophy for the next few years in office stems from her years in business.
“You have to learn how to get along with people,” she said. “You have to listen.”