Voters who expected a knock-down, drag-out confrontation at the first City Council candidates' forum were in for a disappointment Wednesday night.
Seven scenarios were posited by the Government Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the televised forum in the City Council Chambers, with one to four questions per scenario. Candidates had two minutes to respond regardless of the number of questions and some were left unanswered.
"The questions were designed to draw out their philosophical differences," said committee member Norm Grossman. "I personally don't like 'gotcha' questions and ours were not designed to make anyone look bad — or good for that matter. They were based on issues important to the business community."
Challenger Emanuel Patrascu, who is on leave of absence from the chamber board, parted company with incumbents Kelly Boyd, Elizabeth Pearson and Toni Iseman on Question 5: the council's handling of the homeless population in Laguna and the establishment of the alternative sleeping site.
The incumbents said they were proud of the solution that gave a safe haven to the homeless and gave the beaches and parks back to residents and visitors.
"I disagree," Patrascu said, "I have spoken with business people and residents and it is still a problem in the day time."
Patrascu, who works for State Sen. Tom Harman, said Laguna is the only city that provides a shelter and the issue should be handled on a more regional basis.
Boyd would also like to see the county get involved, but due to the economy, regional shelters won't even be open until December, he said.
However, he disputed the contention that the daytime use of the parks and beaches by the homeless is still an issue because it is now hard to tell them from the general population — now that they have a place for personal hygiene and to store their belongings.
"I had a guy walk in the bar and ask what happened to the homeless who were all over the beaches last summer," Boyd said. "I said they are all around you, but you can't tell because they are taking showers and changing their clothes."
Boyd is especially proud that 13 chronically homeless moved into Friendship Shelter this past year, taking a step that could put them back into the mainstream.
There was also disagreement on Question 2: the issue of a Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, with Patrascu favoring the immediate formation. He said it would make the residents better informed about the city's finances.
"We should know what is going on in our city," Patrascu said. "I envision citizens applying for it and participating in the evaluation of the budget and reporting on it."
Asked if he would make it an agenda item if elected, Patrascu replied, "Absolutely."
Pearson agreed with Iseman who said the new city manager who replaces Frank will need time to get his feet on the ground and it would not be helpful to start second guessing him right away.
"After a while I might be more receptive," Pearson said.
Boyd dismissed the notion.
"Every person in town can speak on the budget," Boyd said. "They can pick it up and study it and that gives the whole community oversight."
Patrascu did take a swing at the incumbents in response to Question 1: how to reverse the city's declining revenue and reduce employee benefits.
"The City Council has blamed a lot on the national economy, but that is no excuse for the local [condition]," Patrascu said.
"Seventy percent of the [city's] budget is for benefits. The council needs to admit that is a problem. I would speak with the employees and the unions to come with a solution that would be fair to everyone."
Pearson said contrary to statements made publicly, the council cannot raise property taxes to offset the impact of the economic downturn, but it can make living here more attractive.
"It is one of the best managed cities in Orange County," she said. "Two years ago, we created a recession fund anticipating the economic problems. The city bond rating has been upgraded and we reduced debts and operating expenses."
Further, she said, the council was able to sunset the half-cent sales tax approved by the voters to help pay for the restoration of city infrastructure damaged or destroyed in the 1995 Bluebird Canyon landslide.
Pearson as mayor was responsible for bringing Sen. Dianne Feinstein to town, which resulted in the Federal Emergency Management Agency reversing its denial for funds for the repairs. She is credited with working so empathetically with the families displaced by the landslide that no law suits were filed against the city.
Iseman credited retiring City Manager Ken Frank's financial acumen, prudence and negotiating for keeping the city afloat.
Frank is the boss of all the employees under the city's form of government and he does the negotiating.
"We have negotiated with city employees, who put off their agreed-on raise," Iseman said.
Iseman said a two-tier system is likely to be put in place throughout California. Under that system, salaries and benefits for new hires would not match those of employees haired under a previous contract.
"A lot of people are looking at that," Iseman said.
Asked in Question 3 if the candidates favored the creation of a Business Improvement District in Laguna and which areas of town should be involved, Patrascu said he would favor it only if the businesses in the area were willing.
Pearson said a BID is a self-imposed tax and if the restaurants in town, for instance, came to the city and wanted to tax themselves — sure, she'd consider it, but she doubts that will happen.
Laguna Beach has a BID, created years ago in Laguna Beach, Iseman noted. Hotel "bed" taxes were increased with the consent of the hotel owners. The increase is used to help finance art institutions or activities that promote tourism or publicize the city.
Question 4 asked when it would appropriate for the city to acquire property by eminent domain — the payment of fair market value for property acquired for public welfare or safety, whether or not the property owner agreed.
Pretty much never, all four candidates said — maybe if the property owner requested it for tax purposes.
Question 6 dealt with support for eliminating parking requirements for businesses in the Downtown Specific Plan area.
Pearson kept it simple: "Yes," she said.
"I absolutely support getting rid of the parking requirements," he said. "Some [businesses] are grandfathered and that creates an unfair situation."
Grandfathering means the business is not subject to current requirements because it was operating before the requirements were approved and difficult, if not impossible, to rescind, City Manager Ken Frank said.
Parking requirements are embedded in the specific plan. Eliminating them would essentially "grandfather" all downtown businesses.
Iseman calls Laguna a "Tale of Two Cities," one for two months in the summer and the other the rest of the year.
"We will never have enough parking for the two months," Iseman said.
She said she would be unwilling to arbitrarily scratch the specific plan, but it is under review.
Boyd favors eliminating parking requirements. However, he said the free summer shuttle service, referred to as "Toni's baby," and peripheral parking have eased the problem. Locals would like to see it year-round, he said.
He had already spoken about it in his opening statement.
"Is parking so important it can keep people out of business?" he asked.
The final question asked the candidates for their top priorities for supporting businesses and helping them succeed.
Iseman said the businesses need to provide services or goods that locals want to buy and take measures to get locals to shop in town.
"We need to revise the Downtown Specific Plan," Boyd said
He also suggested the chamber should strengthen its presence in city affairs.
"[The chamber] has a Government Affairs Committee and I don't remember a member coming to a council meeting," Boyd said.
Pearson said businesses must appeal to two breeds of spenders: locals and the hotel guests who pay bed taxes, dine out and shop.
She said the Long Term Business Assistance Task Force came up with a lot of recommendations to help local business, including an emphasis on catering to locals. An offshoot of the task force is still meeting with local business people and potential business owners to smooth their way.
"We need to cut the red tape to open a business," Patrascu said. "It takes time and it expensive. People should know ahead how much time it will take and how much it will cost.
"We need to make it easier for businesses to come here and make it easier for them to succeed."
No questions were allowed from the audience of about 20 who were not chamber board or government committee members.
The candidates were given three minutes at the beginning of the forum to introduce themselves and two minutes to sum up their positions and achievements at the end.
"We have to look for stores that fit into Laguna," Boyd said, lamenting the closure of two restaurants in the past six weeks in his opening statement.
Pearson said she has lived in Laguna for 27 years and has been active in the community for 25 years.
"My number one concern after public safety is the economy," she said for openers.
Patrascu said he is running for council because of complaints he has heard from business people.
Iseman listed the free shuttle, completion bonds that guarantee the city won't be left with a hole in ground if speculative developers go belly up, fostering green constructions and outside displays in front of stores this summer.
In conclusion, Boyd reiterated his family's long history in Laguna — he is fourth generation. Streets and a school were named for family members.
"I am the most accessible candidate because of where I work," said Boyd, owner of the Marine Room Tavern. "No one e-mails me because they know where to find me.
I really know the city better than anyone else and really would like to serve again."
Pearson, who was appointed to the Planning Commission before her election to the council, said the best way to get to know the city is by involving oneself in community affairs.
"I have served the city for 14 ½ years and it has been an honor to work with Kelly and Toni, even though we don't always agree."
Their diversity benefits the city, she said.
Patrascu, who has lived in Laguna for four years, said his goals are to revitalize the economy, stabilize the budget and work on public safety.
Iseman said she has seen many changes in the 40 years she has lived in Laguna: some good, some not so and the city is still evolving, with challenges to be overcome.
"We need seasoned leadership," she said.
The forum was moderated by Jim Leach, Cox Communications Public Affairs Director. It will be rebroadcast at 6 p.m., Saturday on Cox Channel 30.
Chamber Executive Director Rose Hancock said the forum will also be posted on the chamber's website.