Hansen: Power of one local voice

For Sue Kempf, it started with a hedge.

The Bluebird Canyon resident was not satisfied with the city's hedge ordinance and eventually got it changed.

"I just thought it could be better," Kempf said. "I don't like to complain about things without proposing some ideas or solutions to problems."

National and international politics get the most airtime, but local issues are where regular citizens can wield the most power.

The problem is that too few people take the time to make a difference.

"A lot of times we tend to just gripe about what's going on and not get involved in the process," said Linda Dietrich, a Laguna Beach planning commissioner. "And if we get involved in the process, eventually some of the gripes can be addressed."

Anne Johnson, an 11-year veteran of the Planning Commission, agrees that more citizen involvement would be better for all.

"The commitment of citizens to engage in the process and put the time in can have a tremendous impact," Johnson said. "Governing takes place in the area of compromise most of the time."

Compromise, gripes, ordinances, committees, procedures, rules, regulations — all of it adds up to frustration and intimidation for most residents.

But democracy is not convenient.

"Most people are working, and they don't have time to do it. They don't have time to get involved," said Kempf, who is now retired and can give back her time.

Kempf was recently selected to the city's Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee, largely because of the leadership she showed during her hedge issue.

"You need to present a cogent argument," she said. "Even if you feel emotional about an issue, you need to take the emotion out of it.

"The council likes helpful suggestions. People going up and ranting and being aggressive or unreasonable is not helpful to the council, and it's not helpful to you. You need to be willing to compromise."

Spend enough time in a city council chamber, and you will hear all the stories. Neighbor against neighbor; business against business; city against county against state. Everyone has issues.

The beauty is all you have to do is show up.

Years ago, in another city, there was a man who made dentures in his garage. He supplied custom false teeth to area dental offices. During the day, he liked to keep his garage door open and entertain the neighborhood kids.

The local housing committee didn't like it. They said the open garage — with its variety of mysterious gadgets — made the pastel-colored, cookie-cutter neighborhood look too cluttered.

The dental technician got up in front of the city leaders, made an impassioned plea about what makes an "ideal" neighborhood and impacted the vote. He got to keep his denture business — with an open garage door.

One man, one vote, one quality of life.

"Sometimes the public testimony will influence us a great deal," Johnson said. "Once in awhile someone from the public will bring up a point of view or information that will enable us to interpret things a little bit differently."

But it's not easy.

"It's very intimidating for people who haven't gotten involved," said Kempf, the relative newcomer. "A lot of people just live here — they enjoy the beaches, they like the lifestyle here — and they don't really get involved with what's going on in the city. They don't really want to be bothered with it, particularly if they are comfortable and they are not having any issues living in Laguna."

Indeed, there are many comforts to Laguna. We eat, enjoy sunsets, run on the beach, gaze at art, hike beautiful hills.

But wait until something happens.

Will you know who to call? Do you know the name of the mayor? Will you stand up in front of a committee? Will you volunteer to make a difference?

Unlike armchair politics, you won't be able to quote some national party sound bite. You won't be able to blithely reference international law.

You will have to rely on your homegrown wits and make a clear, compelling case that changes your little part of the world — the only real world that you can control.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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