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Top 10 News Stories of 2009: Homeless at forefront

1 City agonized over homelessnessCity agonized over homelessness

Issues surrounding homeless people in Laguna Beach is at the top of the list for 2009.

The issue actually hit the city hard late December 2008, when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit — the day after Christmas — alleging the city’s anti-camping ordinance was unconstitutional. The firestorm that resulted from the lawsuit — and the ACLU’s stinging rebuke of the city for alleged mistreatment of the unhoused — made city officials plea for “public calm” in early January, as settlement talks proceeded. Mayor Kelly Boyd quickly proposed a homeless oversight committee to implement reforms proposed by the earlier homeless task force.

By late February, the City Council had revoked an 81-year-old law against nighttime sleeping on public land, and soon complaints began to pour in from residents about an influx of people living — and carousing at all hours — on the beaches and in the parks. By June, the city had settled the ACLU’s claims, but had a long way to go to address residents’ complaints. As summer wore on, residents, visitors and hoteliers demanded action to remove the unwanted campers from beaches and parks. In September, city officials began to propose an authorized “sleeping zone” somewhere in the city.

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A stabbing incident between two homeless men lit a fire under the proposal to create an Alternative Sleeping Location and reenact the city’s anti-camping ordinance to move people into the sleeping facility. Various sites were proposed, and in October city officials decided upon the ACT V lot, which could only be used for that purpose until the festival season opens in June.

Declaring a “shelter crisis” in Laguna Beach, the council sidestepped threats of appeals to the California Coastal Commission. In late October, homeless advocates held a well-received and well-attended Homelessness Awareness Week, with a slew of activities for housed and homeless. The anti-camping ordinance was approved in early November, setting the stage for the ACT V sleeping facility to open, which it did with great success Nov. 12, to the great relief of city officials and the community. Not only are 40 to 50 homeless people being sheltered and fed at night, the beaches and parks are no longer public campgrounds for the dispossessed. Still to be determined is where the sleeping facility will be located during the summer months.

— Cindy Frazier

2 Sluggish economy took a tollSluggish economy took a toll

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Halfway through the fiscal year, City Manager Ken Frank reported the city was in better financial health than expected, but predicted that was only temporary.

“Right now we are in great shape,” Frank said. “Property taxes were almost $800,000 above the estimate, largely due to interest and penalties associated with late payments. But the highlight of the 2008-09 budget was the $2.2 million in expense savings by city departments.”

However he cautioned, the department savings won’t be repeated because their budgets have already been pared to the bone.

The higher-than-expected fund balances, including the general fund that Frank said was about $4 million above the required 10% reserve, means the city probably can eke out the next two or three years without reducing services.

It won’t last. Drastic cuts were forecasted unless the national, state and local economy dramatically improves.

Even if the economy improves, the city still must cope with the rate increase by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. Laguna is facing increases of $470,000 in fiscal year 2011-12, $790,000 in 2012-13 and $830,000 in 2013-14.

Frank foresees massive city deficits in the coming years: jumping from $1.2 million this fiscal year to $4.1 million in 2013-14.

Frank made recommendations at the last council meeting of the year on ways to reduce or eliminate the interest on the $10 million the city owes CalPERS for retroactive increases in the pension plan.

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Reduced revenue from hotel bed and sales taxes also affected the city’s budget, signifying the difficulties faced by the retail and hospitality industries in a town dependent on tourism. The council created a task force to help struggling businesses and advise new ones. The Chamber of Commerce enticed visitors to town with a pilot program this summer that closed Forest Avenue to vehicle traffic and kept stores open late on one night a month.

Another boost for the merchants came July 1 when the council retired the temporary half-cent sales tax imposed by the voters to help pay the costs of repairing city infrastructure damaged in the 2005 Bluebird Canyon landslide, 2 1/2 years ahead of schedule.

Real estate sales and development also took a hit. Athens Group, which had spent considerable time and money on plans to expand the Aliso Creek Golf Course property, shut down the project. And the state halted work on the former El Morro Trailer Park.

On a happier note: The city’s Recession Smoothing Fund, prudently approved two years ago on Frank’s recommendation, has not yet been tapped.

Even better, the Disaster Fund went untouched in 2009.

— Barbara Diamond

3 Murder shocked cityMurder shocked city

Laguna Beach had its first criminal murder case in seven years in 2009, when a co-worker found Hotel Laguna catering manager Damon Nicholson, 41, bludgeoned to death in his home Oct. 23. Two Lake Forest men, Matthew Thomas Dragna, 19, and Jacob Anthony Quintanilla, 21, were arrested after an intensive investigation by Laguna Beach police. Both are being held without bail and set for arraignment Jan. 8. Police believe Nicholson met Dragna over the Internet and had invited him to his home, where the murder took place during an apparent robbery. Hotel Laguna owner Claes Andersen has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to convictions in the case.

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— Cindy Frazier

4 Marine Reserve split communityMarine Reserve split community

The controversy over an effort to declare Laguna Beach waters a state marine reserve stayed in the background until June, when a 4-1 majority of the City Council voted over the loud objections of the fishing community to support such a declaration, essentially endorsing a state-imposed ban on all fishing or lobster-catching off of Laguna Beach, a key desire of a local group called Laguna Bluebelt working to implement the Marine Life Protection Act. The issue so incensed longtime fisherman and Mayor Kelly Boyd that he flatly refused to sign a letter to the state Fish and Game Commission stating that Laguna was behind the designation.

In July, a public workshop was held outlining three proposals for protecting offshore waters under the MLPA, and tempers flared even further. In November, a Blue Ribbon Committee supported a compromise plan, leaving a 1-mile section of South Laguna out of the “no-take” zone, and in December the issue was taken up by the Fish and Game Commission, which, without voting on it, sent it off for environmental review. The final proposal is not likely to appear before the commission until later in 2010.

— Cindy Frazier

5 Laguna’s hospital gets new operatorLaguna’s hospital gets new operator

South Coast Medical Center got a new owner June 30 and a new name July 1.

Adventist Health, which had operated the hospital for more than a decade, and Mission Hospital, part of the St. Joseph’s Heath System, agreed on the terms of the transfer set by the state attorney general’s office, which approved the sale June 9.

Representatives of the seller, buyer and city officials all expressed satisfaction at the announcement. City officials had feared the loss of the hospital and its highly regarded emergency services.

“We didn’t get everything we were asking for, but the conditions from the attorney general are generally in line with what we wanted,” said Assistant City Manager John Pietig, who participated in discussions with the buyer and the seller.

Approved conditions included a provision that the hospital be maintained through 2012 regardless of the state’s seismic retrofitting requirements, a costly project for the 50-year-old South Laguna facility.

Not everyone is happy with the change of ownership and made their feelings known almost before Mission got its foot in the door.

The loss of some favorite programs and staff members had local participants griping when they were told to truck on over to the Mission Viejo campus.

A group of South Laguna residents filed a $15-million law suit to compensate them for the noisy generators that power the heating and cooling systems, the use of the campus for a city bus stop.

South Laguna residents who have attended meetings conducted by hospital personnel have come away frustrated by the lack of information they wanted. They also were offended by the hospital’s selection of an Advisory Committee behind closed doors — in fact, the names of the committee were withheld until a public demand was made. Even then, only the names of committee members who agreed to make them public were announced.

— Barbara Diamond

6 Water shortage: paying more for lessWater shortage: paying more for less

Laguna Beach County Water District customers began paying more to turn on their taps under a new rate structure that began midyear to combat water shortages.

The increase was prompted by a substantial hike in the cost of water for the district, the decrease in Laguna’s allotment and hefty fees for exceeding the allotment.

“We are challenged by a 19.7% [cost] increase by our supplier, Metropolitan Water,” district General Manager Renae Hinchey said. “It is especially bad for us because 100% of our water is imported from the Colorado River and Northern California.”

Metropolitan added to the district’s woes by cutting the annual allotment by 13.3%.

Officials of the district and the South Coast Water District, which supplies water to customers south of Nyes Place, are assiduously seeking alternative sources — desalinization for one.

Both districts have adopted ordinances designed to increase efficient use of water.

However, customers of South Coast Water District are doing a better job of conserving water than their Laguna Beach neighbors to the north.

South Coast customer participation in conservation efforts had been so successful that a three-day-a-week automated sprinkler system schedule was extended through Jan. 30. Sprinkler use in the district is usually limited to one day a week from November to March during a water shortage alert.

— Barbara Diamond

7 Post office possible closure opposedPost office possible closure opposed

City officials unanimously supported folks who oppose the possible closure of the South Laguna Post Office as a disservice to the entire city.

The U.S. Postal Service is evaluating whether to close the branch, part of a national plan to reduce the number of post offices to help balance its budget. The City Council voted at the Dec. 1 meeting to make it clear that the facility serves all of Laguna residents, not just the ones who live in South Laguna.

“Tom Osborne and two city council members have set up a meeting with the post office,” South Laguna Civic Assn. President Bill Rihn said Tuesday.

Rihn, Osborne and former Mayor Ann Christoph have assumed leadership of efforts to keep the post office open. Tactics have included gathering signatures in opposition to the closure.

City council members are also reaching out to influential people with whom they have previously worked.

“I will approach John Campbell’s people and Toni [Mayor Pro Tem Iseman] might get a chance with Nancy Pelosi,” Mayor Elizatbeth Pearson said.

Iseman sponsored the agenda item, which included her concern about the impact on the Forest Avenue branch.

“The closure will exacerbate traffic congestion and lead to further air pollution,” Iseman wrote. “The [postal service] needs to consider the entire picture and be aware of the importance of the South Laguna Post Office to the entire community.”

— Barbara Diamond

8 Medical marijuana dispensaries stoppedMedical marijuana dispensaries stopped

After grappling for years with the issue of whether — and how — to provide medical marijuana to those who really need it, the City Council finally banned all pot dispensaries within city limits Sept. 19, after hearing concerns from members of the Board of Education over the dispensaries’ giving kids access to the drug. The Planning Commission also determined there was no safe way to allow public dispensaries to be in Laguna.

— Cindy Frazier

9 Senior Center opensSenior Center opens

Hundreds of locals turned out Feb. 2 for the grand opening of the Community and Senior centers on Third Street.

The 19,000-square-foot facility fulfilled the dreams of Laguna’s residents and government to provide everyone from tots in tutus to toe tapping grandparents with life-enhancing programs in a place they would look forward to visiting.

Laguna Beach Seniors Inc. named their wing of the sprawling building the Susi Q, in honor of the late Elizabeth Quilter, whose four sons, Charles, Matthew, Pat and Chris — donated $750,000 toward its construction and whose daughter in law, Ann, co-chaired with Darcy Loveland Bickel the capital campaign that raised the rest of the money. The Community Center, which houses adults and children’s classes and meeting rooms has not been named.

“This touches my heart,” said then-Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson, a supporter of a senior center when the proposal was still in its cradle.

Past Seniors Presidents Pauline Walpin, Louise Buckley, Virginia Schott, Skipper Lynn and Lee Anderson were honored at the grand opening ceremonies.

The three-hour celebration on the grassy plaza in front of the main entrance was organized by city Community Services Director Susan Cannan.

She estimated the crowd at 800.

The seniors continued the celebration with a reception that night to honor major donors to their capital campaign.

The seniors offer numerous classes including tips on filing taxes and health issues and programs such as a bridge club.

The city has transferred many of its recreation department classes to the center and community groups use the meeting rooms.

— Barbara Diamond

10 Obama school speech controversyObama school speech controversy

A decision by the Laguna Beach Unified School District not to air a live back-to-school speech from President Barack Obama on Sept. 8 due to logistical issues and the fact that some parents had threatened to pull their children out of class led to withering criticism of district administrators. The speech was recorded and played to students in their classes about a week later, with parents allowed to “opt out” of the presentation. Few did.

— Cindy Frazier



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