Column: Laguna Beach council candidate Sue Kempf calls for ‘progressive, out-of-the-box thinking’

Laguna Beach City Council candidate Sue Kempf wants to address parking, the lack of life downtown in the evening and other issues that she says require progressive, out-of-the-box thinking.
(David Hansen)

Editor’s note: This is second in a series of interviews columnist David Hansen is doing with Laguna Beach City Council candidates who are challenging incumbents in November.

It started with her grandmother’s tan.

Sue Kempf, Laguna Beach City Council candidate, remembered when she first started dreaming of California.

She was just a kid in Fort Wayne, Ind., whose biggest attraction is, well, Fort Wayne, the historic military outpost.

“My grandparents went to California a lot when I was young,” Kempf said. “My grandmother would come back and always tell me how wonderful it was. She always came back with a beautiful tan, so I always wanted to go to California.”

It took Kempf some time, including a year at Indiana University with a volleyball scholarship, but she finally headed west and never returned.

Now, the 12-year Laguna resident is running for one of three council seats in November. She’s already in her third term on the Planning Commission, so she’s no newcomer to the city’s quirky politics.

“I think it’s a consequential election,” she said. “We’re going to have some flame-throwing; there’s no question. But I’m just going to stick to my answers.”

For Kempf, her answers are borne out of research and collaboration.

“It’s one thing to launch bombs. It’s another thing to sit up there and listen to the public,” she said. “You may have one point of view when you sit down in your chair at the dais. But at the end of the day you may hear from the public, or you may hear from staff or your colleagues, and you may change your mind.”

Coming from the high-tech wireless sector, it’s been a learning curve for Kempf to have the patience for government work. She’s done stints at AirTouch Cellular, Vodafone and others.

“Government is much more of a process than business,” she said. “For example, when you’re running a company, you set out your strategic goals, and you make your plans around those. You make out your plans, you map out your timeline, figure out your budget and you get those things done.”

There’s also no real public participation in many private businesses, which eliminates a wildcard.

“In government, it’s heavily process, and there’s public involvement as well, which is most times helpful — sometimes not,” she said. “It’s a lot more difficult to get things done, and in some ways unnecessarily so.”

The engineer in Kempf wants to get things done. She calls herself a “linear thinker,” who wants to help Laguna solves some of its challenges by narrowing the problems.

“I think, in general, governments — and I think this is true of Laguna — their ambition doesn’t match the size of their budget or stomach,” she said. “They get too many things on their plate, so what happens is things don’t get done.”

Kempf hears the complaints from citizens. She knows residents are sometimes frustrated by an apparent lack of action. She gave the example of parking.

“Parking is at the heart of nearly every issue that we have practically,” she said. “Well, we can’t do this because of parking; we can’t do that because of parking. But we never do anything about it. We put the way-finding signs in there, and we have the trolleys, but we don’t do anything significant about it, like we don’t build a parking lot at Act V, for example, and then trolley people in. We don’t try to build discrete structures in north and central Laguna and get people parking in there.”

Fundamentally, Kempf believes Laguna needs to address the elephant that sleeps downtown.

“When I get out of Planning Commission meetings it’s always dark, maybe 9 or 10 at night,” she said. “I get in my car and drive down Ocean — it’s dead. Then I make a left on Beach — dead. Right on Forest — dead. There’s nothing happening downtown because there’s no one living down there.”

So for her, it’s a simple solution.

“I want to see more people in the downtown. I want to see more students. I want to see more artists. I want vibrancy,” she said. “People tell me all the time, it’s not cool in town anymore. These are 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds. It’s not cool here. It’s an old people’s town. I hear that all the time.”

Chris Quilter, emeritus council member of Laguna Beach Seniors, is endorsing Kempf.

“I’ve seen Sue in action on the Planning Commission, and she’s fair-minded, does her homework and has a track record,” Quilter said. “Sue impresses me as sane and prepared.”

In person, Kempf is soft-spoken but articulate. She credits her background.

“When you grow up in the Midwest you’re pretty direct, pretty straightforward,” she said. “I would say most people have their feet on the ground there. You may not agree with their politics but as people they’re pretty solid.”

In Laguna, the City Council holds most of the power for significant change.

“We’re quite myopic here,” she said. “You need to look up at the world around you and see what’s happening. I like a little more progressive, out-of-the-box thinking.”

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at