Village Laguna and Laguna Community Summit Candidate’s Forum
Moderators:  David Raber and Ann Christoph

List of Questions Presented to the City Council Candidates

INDEX to the Questions:

1.       Preserving Village Character

2.       Future of our Village

3.       Involving Voters In Future Plans

4.       Budget Priorities

5.       Parking

6.       Village Enterance

7.       Lack of Civility

8.       City Council – Subcommittees and Transparency

9.       Protecting our Watercourses and Water Quality

Ø  Return to Village Laguna Home Page

Ø  View the FULL VIDEO of the Laguna City Candidate Forum

2020 City Council Candidates

Ø  Steve Dicterow

Ø  Ruben Flores

Ø  Larry Nokes

Ø  George Weiss

Ø  Bob Whalen

All five candidates were invited to submit responses to the questions in writing for inclusion here.  We will update this document with all of the responses that we receive.

1.       Preserving Village Character


Many of us feel very discouraged about the way the city has been going the last few years and this question strikes at the heart of that.  Even though most candidates say they are dedicated to keeping the character of Laguna Beach intact, it seems to us that either they don’t see the same character we do, or they forget about this concept once they get into office.   Do you value protecting Laguna’s special qualities? and what will you do or not do as a council member to accomplish that?


Ruben Flores: Protecting the legacy of the Laguna’s character is a very high priority to me.  Laguna is special not because of two or three modern buildings or a shopping mall. People hold Laguna Beach special because it has charm.

Laguna has always represented a Bohemian lifestyle that was a break away from the norms of traditional life. Laguna was and is an artists’ colony founded by artists and expanded into an artists’ town.


From that beginning almost 100 years ago, architecture, studios, and trees and areas of the town sprouted with names like Woods Cove and Bluebird Canyon.  Places like the Lumberyard, and Dizz’s As Is… and areas like Canyon Acres and Big Bend. Each has its own flavor and identity. These are things to cherish and revere. I want to see these characteristics of Laguna not only maintained, but polished as the gems that they are.


The pandemic has taught us we need to actively work with the County to bring all beaches and coastal elements within the city limits under the purview of the city, so we can unify the maintenance, operation and oversight of these resources.


I will vote to protect our heritage architecture, our village charm, our trees and parks. I will vote against massing of block long developments that overshadow the urban mosaic that took 100 years to create.


When properties or parcels are combined, I will advocate zoning reduction adjustments to protect against the mansionization of residences, and monolithic structures built to the maximum  envelope of parcels.


2.       Future of Our Village

For generations, Laguna has attracted artists to paint its dramatic coastline, quaint homes, and bucolic green spaces. Having seen the projects proposed for some areas of town, many are worried that development will turn our town into a bland, anonymous shell of its former self, driving away visitors and residents. Council’s decisions dismantling ordinances, reducing parking requirements and approving large projects seem to confirm these fears. 

What is your perspective on the redevelopment of Laguna and how can you allay our concerns of taking away the unique Village that attracted us all here? 

Ruben Flores:   I look forward to the development of Laguna Beach.  In the right hands, our town can only get better. With a strong lead, we can help to define the exact characteristics of Laguna Beach we want to carry forward. I propose that the city adopt 5 -10 predominate Laguna  Architecture styles be identified as the Laguna standard for any new construction. In this manner we might waste less time in review of a non-contender. In other southern California cities, this has already happened to much success.


Different standards would be established for standalone buildings as opposed to larger developments where stricter overall style standards must be maintained. Look at the Santa Barbara, Carmel, La Jolla, Ojai – each of these arts communities has managed to retain a visual signature style.


Homes would have more latitude as they are personal expressions, while business must reflect a city sentiment. Development must respect our heritage while demonstrating a progression toward improving the vitality of Laguna.


City regulations need to be adjusted to accommodate and promote the viability of our restaurants and retail for our residents. We should encourage the village feel with more permanent alfresco dining opportunities.


A vitality tax should be implemented, incentivizing landlords to keep vacant properties leased and full, instead of allowing those properties to negatively impact the community by remaining vacant for months and years with no penalty. This policy has been utilized in other California communities to great effect.


3.       Involving Voters in future plans

Laguna Residents First promises to bringing forward a ballot initiative that is designed to preserve the look and feel of Laguna’s commercial districts by requiring that very large-scale projects be submitted for voter approval.

Take, for example, the Museum Hotel Project that is proposing to bring a large block-long hotel and entertainment complex to North Laguna across from the Art Museum.   Would you support the concept of letting the residents of Laguna vote on large commercial projects of this magnitude before they could be built? 

Ruben Flores: I believe in giving every resident the opportunity to be heard regarding all development. Keeping Laguna Beach a charming gem will require strong ideas regarding the allowable architectural styles desired.  Not allowing our charm to be diluted with average development is crucial. When parcels are combined and large development proposed, building codes should adjust to require setbacks, façade undulation and interruptions, style variety, and a reduced window to surface ratio, and requires new development to contribute to our urban mosaic. If we make our codes stronger and more precise, this better protects the character of our Village while promoting development.

4.       Budget Priorities

City budget priorities seem to favor visitors—in 2017 visitor-serving took 61% of the city’s expenditures while income from visitors was only 31% of our revenue.  This gap was $23 million or around $2000 for each Laguna household.  Projects in the downtown and festival area consume Council’s attention and millions in spending.  Yet our residential neighborhoods and other commercial areas lack attention and amenities.  The last time new parks were created was 8 years ago—Ken Frank Park at Top of the World and a mini park near Woodland Drive.  South Laguna has been working hard for the South Laguna Community Garden Park, but it has been a struggle to keep funding in place for a future purchase.  Coast Highway could be beautified with medians and more street planting, for example.  

We know that we are facing falling revenues due to the Covid impact, but we have a general fund reserve of $13.2 million and a disaster contingency reserve of $6.4 million.  How would you adjust city funding priorities, especially as the economy improves?

Ruben Flores: Budgeting for priorities will be the biggest challenge for the council for the coming year or two as a result of the enormous (approx. $11 million) reduction in revenue during the Pandemic.  Taking stock of

                  1. What is emergency

                  2. What is needed

                  3. What is wanted

                  4. What can wait


·         Always take care of what you have before you get more.

·         Buckle down and clean up systems. Beautify what you have.

·         Plan on how to spend and make sure it’s first for the residents

·         Visitors will come. Let’s take care of our own.

At this time, we need to reassess how and where we are spending our limited revenue.

Arts are a fundamental core element of our town. I love and respect every Arts Organization in Laguna. I support and have served many of these groups. Our city dollars at this time should be delegated to recovery and vitality. The city must uphold its obligation to any and all arts organizations, However, new public art procurement might be put on hold until the city’s financial footing has stabilized.

5.       Parking

Recently, by a 4-1 decision, the Council decided to significantly reduce the number of parking spaces that new, more intense businesses like bars and restaurants would have to provide in the Downtown.  This was based on a City consultant’s study that says the downtown has plenty of parking.  Just a few weeks later a different consultant was hired to study building a parking structure behind City Hall because it was said that there was not enough parking downtown.  

Which is it?  Too much or too little?  What is your strategy for parking?  Since repeated City studies  show that parking fees cannot repay the cost of building parking structures in Laguna, will residents’ taxes be paying for them?  How much of your overall parking strategy depends of further infiltration of parking into the neighborhoods?

Ruben Flores:  We have a parking shortage, and yes, we need more. We must identify pockets throughout town where we can create 100 spaces. We need to create, incentivize, and promote parking away from the city core.

·         Combine the city Parking App with a Parking structure at the Act 5 parking lot, and create a dedicated lane for rapid, regularly scheduled trolley service to shuttle from parking structure to downtown drop-off locations.

·         Work with LCAD to use the parking structure for students during winter when city demand is lower and the college is in session.

·         Residents-only lots could be created in town that work w a magnetic sticker or card. We must make our shopping districts workable for residents throughout the year.


6.       Village Entrance

Since the 1980s, the city has spent millions designing and planning the Village Entrance.  This year the city completed a $11.3 million project there-- new bridges, fencing, landscaping, paths and parking areas.  Yet the council seriously considered spending $1 million to rework a major section of the Village Entrance to install the “mushroom” art structure.  Now there is talk of spending more millions to build a parking garage on some of the parking areas that have just been finished..  

The completed project has received good reviews.  Can we restore the Digester, say the Village Entrance is completed and move on to other issues?  Or do you support redoing whole areas to install the “Mushroom” art structure, or a new parking garage?

Ruben Flores:  I believe the newly built village entrance parking park will prove itself in 5 years as it grows into its beauty.  I believe the Digester should be 100% refurbished and be used as a venue for art exhibits or a cafe, add public restrooms, and a large deck built over a retention pond for outdoor events and use.  Then let’s call it finished. 

7.       Lack of Civility

The most popular single topic for questions submitted was in the category of lack of civility at City Council meetings.  It is clear that many residents no longer feel comfortable participating in discussing major issues due to direct intimidation against them, calling their taste, intelligence, qualifications to address the City Council, and their honesty into question.  Most often these attacks are leveled at the residents after their time to speak is up, so they have to listen to it in silence while the attack is leveled at them from the dais.   The councilperson in question appears to be gleeful that he is silencing what he perceives to be his critics, and apparently without any regard for a democratic process at the local level. Passing of the Civility Code seemed like a positive step, but it appears that no meaningful change has taken place.  

Ruben Flores:  The lack of civility that has been on display at city council meetings is completely absurd. The talk around town is that it’s out of control.  The chilling effect this has on public comment and involvement in city meetings is unacceptable.

We need a renewed commitment to squash that conduct immediately and need the Mayor to step in on every occasion and control the meetings, as well as direct Phil, the city attorney to assess a fine for each infraction.


The following backup question would have been asked if the forum had been schedule for a longer timeslot:

8.       City Council Subcommittees and Transparency

In the past, the City Council has convened task forces to study and report on significant issues facing the city.  These include Village Entrance, Laguna Canyon Road, and Historic Preservation.  Members on these committees were typically appointed in a public hearing and selected to represent a broad range of Laguna’s voters.   The task forces’ meetings were open to the public.  

Now instead of public task forces, the council appoints or allows the city manager to appoint subcommittees consisting of two City Council members, staff and perhaps a very narrow group of stakeholders, meeting and negotiating in private, such as the subcommittee to negotiate with The Laguna Beach Company on major development projects.  Since two council members meet and negotiate a proposal from the developer, only one more vote is needed to enact the desired outcome.  While this may be legal, this process keeps the public out of key decisions. 

Steve Dicterow: I agree that the practice of appointing a Council subcommittee of two raises serious questions about limiting the degree of public participation. I would favor either having only one Council Member in a task force or, if there are two Members, that all meeting be open to the public. In either case, I strongly support the concept of having a broad range of public representative included in any task force.

At this time, I do not favor deferring items since we have no idea on how long the restrictions on public attendance at Council meetings will be in effect. Note that I have consistently supported the concept of allowing limited public attendance at Council meetings but have been opposed by a majority of the Council.


Ruben Flores:  The present method of two council members, some staff, and slim support group is causing a lack of transparency, and is a way of sidestepping the public.

I appreciate the concept of streamlining the process, but perhaps before any decision by a subcommittee is permitted to move forward, it can be vetted by the public for one final round of scrutiny. 

During the pandemic, the city needs to provide every opportunity for community involvement. When large swaths of our community has spotty internet service, meetings via the web are actually not providing transparency. Outdoor socially distanced meeting areas for viewing and participation should be provided.

We were promised no major decisions would be taken up by the Council during the Pandemic and remote meetings. That has not been borne out by the actions of the Council. The Council has seemingly seized the opportunity to advance agendas during this period of restricted community access to meetings, that the community perhaps would not prefer

Do you see any need for the open, public subcommittees as in the past, or continuing the practice of small, closed Council subcommittee meetings?

How will you increase opportunities for public participation, particularly given the constraints related to Covid 19?  Do you think the Council should be deferring controversial items until Council meetings can again be held in person?

Do you see any need for the open, public subcommittees as in the past, or continuing the practice of small, closed Council subcommittee meetings?

How will you increase opportunities for public participation, particularly given the constraints related to Covid 19?  Do you think the Council should be deferring controversial items until Council meetings can again be held in person?


9.        Protecting our watercourses and water quality  

The official Watersheds and Drainage map that the city uses to determine Blue Line streams was done in 1981.  In 1993 the Council adopted a new watercourse map that included the newly annexed areas of Laguna Canyon and South Laguna.  This map has never been adopted by the Coastal Commission because the City that were never made the revisions required by the Commission.  This leaves whole areas of the city without official watercourse designations and protection, including long stretches of Laguna Canyon Creek. 

There are also issues with Aliso Canyon.  The city’s sewage flows to the Coastal Treatment plant in Aliso Canyon.  Some of the sewage effluent is reclaimed and used for irrigation in the area of the South Coast Water District but most of the daily 1.87 million gallons flows to the ocean from a pipe 1.5 miles off Aliso Beach. The City’s Laguna Beach Water District area—most of the city--has no reclaimed water system.  What will you do to complete the watercourse planning documents, protect watercourses, and increase use of reclaimed water to reduce the flow of sewer effluent into the ocean at Aliso Beach? Is Laguna Canyon Creek a blue-line stream that should be so designated on city maps? Will you require building setbacks to be from the edge of the Creek?

Steve Dicterow: We must increase the City’s efforts to work with state agencies, particularly the California Coastal Commission, to resolve our differences. This effort is mandatory since the state is aggressively moving to limit cities in their zoning authority and their ability to control density. The current situation with the Coastal Commission on a multitude of issues, including defining bluff tops, short term lodging rules, and watercourse definitions, must be solved. As for building setbacks, I will apply the standard set in our ordinances and General Plan.

I am anxious to work with the South Coast Water District to explore all options on reducing the flow of sewer effluent.

Ruben Flores:  As stated earlier, now is time to button up unfinished city business. We must get the coastal commission back on this and get it adopted.   

I will investigate how many open issues there are, and see what is needed to finalize/finish them.

Water courses are a source of energy metaphysically and physically.

I want to see our city invest in itself, and continue the purple pipe to all oceanfront parks.

I want to investigate and promote how we can be better stewards of our precious piece of the earth and minimize any contaminated run off or accidental waste.

The Canyon of Laguna Beach is such a precious horticultural and geographical gem. We need to preserve its rural appeal.  We must require building setbacks to be from the edge, just as the coastal commission requires setbacks from the bluff edge.

Expanding this goal is taking care of the Canyon’s terminus at Main Beach.

We express concern about water returning to the ocean, and yet the city’s main watershed is flanked by gas stations. Not only does this define our town at its core intersection, but it stands in sharp contrast to our window to the sea and what is essentially the heart of Laguna. I would encourage the city to begin to explore how these parcels could be redeveloped as outdoor cafes and public use areas. Not only would we finally remove gas stations from our major watershed to the ocean, but would also visibly anchor main beach to the canyon, add vitality to downtown, and provide more alfresco dining opportunities.

Is Laguna Canyon Creek a blue-line stream that should be so designated on city maps? Will you require building setbacks to be from the edge of the Creek?