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Annual Charm House Tour stirs conflict between dueling Laguna Beach groups

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Village Laguna says anticipation for its Charm House Tour on Sunday has been hampered by ads from Liberate Laguna that contend Village Laguna hides the fact that it uses sales of tour tickets to fund political candidates.
(Courtesy of Village Laguna)

For 46 years, a Laguna Beach organization has taken residents and visitors on a bus ride around town to tour historical homes.

This year, there’s a difference.

The five homes are ready and the shuttle is booked for Sunday’s event. But the presenter, Village Laguna, says a slew of negative ads in local newspapers has hampered the usual anticipation for the Charm House Tour.

“It has a chilling effect on me, on Village Laguna, on the town to have this animosity,” said the group’s president, Johanna Felder.

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Several ads have been printed against Village Laguna, including two full-page ads from Liberate Laguna, a political action committee, or PAC, that has pitted itself against the nonprofit organization.

Liberate Laguna’s ads contend that Village Laguna hides the fact that it uses sales of home tour tickets to fund political candidates.

“What they’re doing is they’re faking out the people on the Charm House Tour,” said Michael Ray, a Liberate Laguna co-founder. “We think Village Laguna ought to obey the law and play by the same set of rules that every other PAC is required to do.”

Felder said her group does not try to hide that it contributes to political causes — and to other community organizations, including the Laguna Food Pantry, and an annual high school student scholarship.

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But she said the conflict surrounding this year’s home tour is clouding what is typically a “happy ... wonderful day.”

Felder said Village Laguna won’t know until Sunday how ticket sales compare with previous years, but she said sales a couple of weeks ago were down by about 30 tickets — enough “to be made up in a weekend.” At the same time, she said, donations have been piling up from people who said they were giving because of the negative publicity.

The animosity between the two organizations grew during last year’s election season and continued afterward as their preferred candidates settled into City Council roles. Liberate Laguna endorsed Sue Kempf and Peter Blake, both of whom won their first council terms. Village Laguna endorsed Toni Iseman, who won her sixth consecutive term on the council, as well as unsuccessful candidate Ann Christoph.

Both groups’ members have been vocal at council meetings in the past six months, expressing differing perspectives on issues such as a revised historic preservation ordinance and proposed improvements to the design review process.

“We don’t have the resources to combat that kind of stuff, and Liberate Laguna has a giant war chest of money,” said Christoph, who is on Village Laguna’s board of directors. “People don’t seem to understand that we’re small potatoes in terms of money and we’re not trying to do anything harmful to anyone. We’re just trying to save our city from overdevelopment.”

According to campaign statements filed with the Laguna Beach city clerk’s office, Liberate Laguna received a total of $152,502 in contributions in 2018 and Village Laguna received $8,978.

Village Laguna’s website says its mission is to preserve and enhance Laguna Beach’s “unique village character and cultural heritage.” Its members have worked on municipal plans and building codes with the city and have been “very successful in keeping Laguna quaint,” Felder said.

That mission is a big reason Liberate Laguna has purchased $800 full-page ads against the organization, Ray said. Liberate Laguna has championed making the design review process easier for homeowners.

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“We envision a city where younger couples can buy a house and afford to live here and fix it up and not have to go through a three-year process that’s totally arbitrary and get frustrated and move,” Ray said.

The feud over the Charm House Tour stems from complaints Liberate Laguna filed in November with the California Fair Political Practices Commission and the city attorney, alleging that Village Laguna failed to properly disclose campaign contributions. The FPPC case is still under investigation, according to commission communications director Jay Wierenga.

In a January letter to Liberate Laguna, City Attorney Phil Kohn closed the city’s inquiry, saying, “My office found insufficient evidence of a violation of the municipal code.”

Liberate Laguna said it also sent complaints to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, California Franchise Tax Board and state attorney general’s office. Felder said Village Laguna was given notice only about the FPPC and city attorney filings. It is unclear whether the IRS, Franchise Tax Board and attorney general’s office received the complaints.

Liberate Laguna alleged Village Laguna illegally shuffled money from activities such as the Charm House Tour to its PAC account, avoiding itemized campaign disclosures.

Village Laguna contends its financial practices are sound, citing a 2003 letter from the FPPC that authorized the organization to move money into its PAC account.

Felder said that for every push from Liberate Laguna, there will be a push back. Still, she said, the fighting has affected the quality of life in the town she moved to 33 years ago.

“I’m kind of upset at what’s happened because it has made it uncomfortable to be here,” she said. “There’s so much disrespect and incivility.”

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