When someone walks into city hall, raises their fist and says, "I want to talk to the mayor," you know it has to be good.
There likely has been some injustice, some diabolical grievance that needs to be rectified — pronto.
And that's the way it's been in small towns throughout history.
The mayor has always represented power and justice and action. Sworn to uphold all that is right for the town, mayors are the face, form and function of civic diplomacy.
The problem is most cities don't officially operate this way anymore.
Due to the growing complexity of running cities — with constant financial pressures, changing regulatory requirements and ongoing personnel issues — most have a council-manager system where the mayors are ceremonial figureheads.
The mayoral position rotates among council members every year. If they stay long enough, everyone gets to be the ribbon-cutting master.
But that doesn't mean mayors are meaningless. Here's the thing: Citizens still want a mayor. Citizens want to be able to shake a hand at the local coffee shop and feel connected.
They want someone who is "one of them" and not a bureaucrat. Bottom line: They want a professional listener.
Enter our latest mayor, Jane Egly. She took over last week for Toni Iseman. Egly was mayor in 2008, so she is familiar with the role.
"What surprised me last time when I was mayor is how very important it was many times for the mayor to show up," she said. "I'm not sure it mattered who the mayor was. It was having that representative from the city, whether it was a ribbon cutting, a meeting up in Sacramento, and just having the mayor seems to be of value."
So if there is value, then there must be meaning in ceremony.
"I was a council member yesterday and now I'm a mayor, what's the difference?" she asked. "The difference is that you become the symbol of the elected officials for the city. But again, the surprise to me is you talk about it being ceremonial and it is, but that has some real meaning for people."
Maybe in some ways, despite our United States political systems, when it comes to local issues we like having a non-partisan arbiter to level the playing field.
"Everybody has an equal voice," Egly said. "It's not as if the mayor has any stronger power. We are all equal."
That equality will be put to the test next year as the city faces new (and old) issues. Egly believes budget issues will continue to be a challenge, but is confident the city is in a solid position.
There are contract negotiations with city employees. There's the new Marine Life Protection Act that will go into effect Jan. 1. There are the Complete Streets initiatives, homeless issues and business vitality challenges.
"A long list of things," she said. "In Laguna Beach, you never know where the idea comes from. It percolates up and somebody takes hold of it."
People take hold. They buttonhole the mayor, and the mayor listens, nodding and cajoling and making people feel better.
"We do that a lot," she said. "We get involved in little things that require a little crafting, a little nudging, a little this or that. I think it's because we are a small town, and the goal is — even if it's just to tweak — to make it better."
Making things better is why we care; it's why we sometimes shake our fist or show up on Main Beach with a sign.
We have to believe it will make a difference.
We know it will make a difference because the mayor showed up.
That means it's important. It means something. It's real.
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at email@example.com.