Hansen: Play rage against the Laguna machine

In any small community that cares, you have crazy people. In Laguna Beach, however, we are blessed with a majority of crazy people.

I'm kidding.

Sort of.

If you have ever been to a City Council or school board meeting, invariably during the open mic session there will be some colorful person who shuffles up with a piece of paper and an attitude.

The elected officials try hard not to roll their eyes because it happens every time: The Angry Speech. It is three minutes of diatribe, exacerbation, finger pointing and threats. The sky is falling and it's all their fault.

Here's the thing: Sometimes the person is right.

If you get past the prejudice, the history and the smell, there could very well be a story.

Now since there is no way to make an elegant segue, I'll just come out with it: Meet Michael Hoag.

The esteemed Mr. Hoag is by no means one of "those people." Since 1973, he has been a respected resident and former traffic committee member who still attends meetings, offers ideas and genuinely cares about the city.

But he definitely marches to a different drummer, which is a good thing. At 73, he's not trying to impress anyone. Like a bemused muckraker, he prefers reading urban theory and attending raw food meet-ups.

An inveterate letter writer, he doesn't think twice about calling up an official to bend their ear.

Last week, for example, he was thinking about the inefficiency of school buses, so he called up the district to tell them what they should do.

"If the school district charged money to students and teachers to park in their parking lot, more people would walk, bike, bus and car pool, meaning potentially less auto congestion, less fuel, less smog, less noise," he said.

Imagine for a second exactly what Hoag suggested: Charging students to park at school, not as a revenue tactic but as a way to get them out of cars.

"I know," he said, realizing how far-fetched it sounds to most people. "There would be murder."

These types of ideas, however, often foster other interesting ideas.

Scott Drapkin is a senior planner with the city who is managing one of the most important, complex new projects currently underway, the General Plan Mobility Element Update. Expected to take more than two years, the update is mandated by the state's Complete Streets Act, which basically says we need to have a better transportation network that accommodates all needs, not just cars.

In its first overflow meeting Aug. 6, Drapkin was inundated with suggestions from eager residents such as Hoag.

"Some of the ideas that were coming out were just amazing," Drapkin said. "It's helpful when the public gets involved. This is a big deal."

The importance here is multifaceted. Over the next few years, Laguna Beach will be faced with several significant public decisions about infrastructure, traffic and quality of life.

In addition to the mobility plan, we will have a new Downtown Specific Plan update, which means there could be changes to how businesses operate downtown.

There will also be a new evaluation of the Laguna Canyon Parking Management Plan, which brings us back to the people with "crazy" ideas.

Imagine a plan to stop tourists outside of Laguna, somewhere in the canyon, and bus them in, not unlike Zermatt, Switzerland, which is a car-free resort.

Google "car-free places" by the way, and see the list. Worldwide, it's impressive. In the U.S., not so much.

Our places are almost always streets converted to outside pedestrians malls. We love our malls.

"There is this belief, this cultural value, that we hate auto congestion, so the way we want to fix auto congestion is to lay more asphalt," Hoag said. "My areas of interest — and people's eyes glaze over when I say this — but it comes under the realm of urban theory or urban ecology.

"To me the silver bullet is education. When we make decisions we have to inform people because obviously good decisions come out of good information, and good information in land planning and transportation is generally called best practices."

The best practices in Laguna Beach are hit and miss. We have many opportunities to improve, starting with the long process of committee work.

It's not glamorous; it doesn't pay and the results are often delayed for years and years.

The only reward is maybe someday being able to point your finger at something and say, "I helped with that."

In the meantime, you can wag your finger at the City Council. They are used to it.

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

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