Guest Opinion: John Thomas

John Thomas is a long-time Laguna Beach resident, business owner, former chair of the Laguna Beach Audit Review & Measure LL Oversight Committee, board member of the South Laguna Civic Association, and member of the South Laguna Water/Sewer Advisory Committee.

 

It’s Time To Act! according to resident John Thomas.

Read what John had to say to our City Council about our City financial challenges related to tourism and spending, and the question he poses directly to them – ”How are we going to pay for all the stuff we want to do?”

Considering the Strategic Planning the city is currently doing, the question arises: Is this the year that Laguna Beach confronts and addresses its biggest financial challenge?

A large share of the taxes paid by residents is not used to pay for services or capital improvements that directly benefit residents, but is instead diverted to cover the substantial costs the city incurs due to the high number of visitors to Laguna.

A 2017 study showed that, at that time, revenue the city received that was attributable to tourists was $23 million less than the added costs the city incurred due those visitors. Since that time the city budget and number of visitors have grown, so it is likely that the shortage is much greater today.

City leaders and staff have acknowledged this problem, and despite some early efforts, there has been little progress made in reducing this large subsidy by residents of visitors. Now is the time to act. The City Council could put on the November 2024 ballot a measure that will narrow the gap between revenue and costs associated with visitors. The number of ambitious and costly items currently under discussion by the City Council makes it even more important to reduce the visitor subsidy. The aggregate cost of some of these items could exceed
hundreds of millions of dollars. Without correcting the drain on city revenue due to visitor costs, it will be financially challenging for the city to proceed with even the most important projects. Three of the best possibilities for generating meaningful amounts of revenue for the city are 1) an adjustment in the business license fee structure that increases city revenue from the most tourist-focused businesses; 2) revising the current hotel tax to be on par with one-third of Orange County hotels, and 3) expanding pay parking for nonresidents to areas that are within walking distance of the beaches while allowing residents to continue to park for free in residential neighborhoods.

Alternatives would be to either raise taxes on residents, lower the level of city services provided by the city government, or borrow a lot of money.

The solution with the biggest potential revenue impact could come from a revised business license fee focused on tourist-focused businesses. Though only a small percentage of visitors stay in Laguna hotels and pay hotel tax, approximately 70% of visitors to Laguna spend on food and beverages in town. This means that Laguna’s tourist-focused restaurants are a key point of contact with visitors and these businesses are an opportunity to create a collection mechanism for visitor revenue to cover visitor costs. These bars and restaurants could be the stars in this effort, Laguna’s toll booth. A business license fee based on 1% of the gross revenue of these restaurants could currently generate over $4 million per year for the city government and a very high proportion of this revenue would come from the visitors patronizing these restaurants. With time, a visitor-targeted business license fee could slowly increase from 1% to a maximum of 5% over the course of 5 years and could eventually cover perhaps 60% of the current imbalance.

The revised fees could be designed to have little or no change for businesses that are primarily resident serving. And fees for smaller businesses could be much lower than for the larger tourist focused businesses. As is, our business license fees are among the lowest in California so there is substantial room to adjust this fee without being out of line.

A second way to generate revenue from visitors is to expand pay parking for nonresidents to areas throughout the city that are within walking distance of the beaches while allowing residents to continue to park for free in residential neighborhoods. And the third way could be to update Laguna’s current 12% hotel tax to match the third of the hotel rooms in Orange County that charge 15%. As a top Orange County visitor destination, it seems only fair that Laguna’s total hotel tax should be in line with other top Orange County tourist destinations.

Combining the redesigned business license fee with an increased hotel tax and expanded paid parking areas could, in time, cover more than 75% of the overall shortage, thereby reducing the subsidy of residents to visitors, leaving more city revenue available to serve residents, and freeing up funds for the many projects on the city council priority list.

This is an election year. Now is the time for the City Council to act to close this huge financial gap and reduce the subsidy of visitors by residents. A solution will likely require a ballot measure. And a plan and ballot measure will take time to develop. Now is the time to get started, and it is the City Council that needs to take the action to do that.

Supporting Documents below:

1. Full letter to City Council
2. Original Guest Column at the Laguna Beach Indy
3. Balancing the Costs and Revenue Study
4. Coastal City Comparisons
5. City’s Visitors Inpact Report

Do you agree with John? Do you have other ideas on how to address our City tourism
financial challenges?

Guest Opinion: Michèle Monda

Michèle Monda is a resident with a passion for government transparency, fiscal responsibility and accountability.

With an MBA from Wharton Business School and a career in advertising and marketing for major agencies and companies she uses her talents to build community arts; first resurrecting the Laguna Art Museum store and currently developing ArtStart for our landmark Hotel Laguna. She is married with three grown sons, two grandchildren and a feisty cat.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way; it’s called the California Public Record Act (CPRA)

Currently our Laguna Beach City government is anything but transparent. They provide the least amount of information publicly preferring to have you ask for information rather than just have it available. So how do you get it? Happily, there is a process and it’s called a California Public Record Act request (CPRA). It is an extension of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), passed in 1967, has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government. Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.

The California Public Records Act (CPRA) was enacted in 1968 to (1) safeguard the accountability of government to the public; (2) promote maximum disclosure of the conduct of governmental operations; and (3) explicitly acknowledge the principle that secrecy is antithetical to a democratic system of “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. The CPRA was the culmination of a 15-year effort by the Legislature to create a comprehensive general public records law.

The California Public Records Act defines “public records” as “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.” This includes emails and phone records.

So, let’s say you want to find out how much Laguna Beach has spent on consultants’ studies in the past year. You are entitled to know that information as a member of the public and they have to provide it to you. How do you do that?

Filing a CPRA with the City of Laguna Beach is an arduous multistep process but
actually not complicated. Here’s how it works:
Go on the City website at Lagunabeachcity.net and click on Government and City Clerk.
Click on Public Records request and search.
Then click on Public records request portal. Agree to go to the external URL.
Click on Public records request which will take you to the form to fill out for your CPRA. When you’ve filled in the form click on submit.

I never said they would make it easy for you. If you’re like me, I get suspicious that they really don’t want you to file a CPRA and give them more work.

The city has 10 days to determine whether the records requested are subject to disclosure under the CPRA. By law they could take another 14 days to determine this but they must inform you of that if they do. Once they inform you if they have records that conform to your request, they will give you an estimate of how long it will take to fulfill that request. And that’s where they can slow walk this all they want. I have found that periodic reminders are a good idea to let them know you are paying attention. I have also found that they take as much time as they can so you have to be patient . . . to an extent.

My personal experience with this process was tortuous. My first CPRA requesting the footage from the City Manager’s traffic stop in November 2022 and attendant records was dismissed outright – they said there was nothing there to produce.

Then I got a First Amendment lawyer involved and used legal verbiage. Magically, while they very much slow walked the release, they decided that there were things that they could publicly release, although not the video. It took many letters to their lawyers, many appearances at City Council meetings and many emails to City Council members to finally get information 3 months later. They finally released a contextualized version of the body cam footage 5 months after my first request. This resulted in the City Manager “retiring” in September 2023, 9 months after my first request. Was it worth it? You bet. Would I do it all over again? Absolutely.

It’s your right to question the government. It’s their obligation to answer you. Use this CPRA process to get the information that you need to determine if they are serving you properly…or serving themselves.

Contact Michele Monda @ michelemonda3@gmail.com

Laguna Beach City Council: A Classic Case Of Tyranny Of The Majority?

The Promenade, Term Limits, Mayors, City Managers, Needless Parking Structures: Will Council Stifle Any Opposition To Its Orwellian Vision?

Courtesy of the Laguna Beach Patch – view article here
By Roger Bütow

Tyranny Of The Majority: Laguna Beach City Council Is A Classic Case
“The tyranny of the majority (or tyranny of the masses) is an inherent weakness to majority rule in which the majority of an electorate pursues exclusively its own objectives at the expense of those of the minority factions. This results in oppression of minority groups comparable to that of a tyrant or despot.” John Stuart Mill (ON LIBERTY—1859).

Although the phrase “tyranny of the majority” is commonly attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville as he pondered the emerging democracy in America in the mid-1800s, Founding Father John Adams had expressed a similar concern nearly 75 years earlier.

In fact, many of the arguments opposing “uni-cameral sovereignty” (singular body rule) led to our 3 Branches of governance, an attempt at ensuring that type of oppression and suppression of dissenting, minority voices did not ever evolve.

Check and balances that lasted until the general election in 2000. As the OC Grand Jury has no dispositive power, barring OC DA or California AG investigations or indictments, locally we’re pretty much stuck with Laguna voter’s bad choices.

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Perhaps Edmund Burke, a contemporary of our Founding Fathers, stated it more succinctly: “The tyranny of a multitude is a multiplied tyranny.”

In Laguna, many angry community watchdogs are outraged because they feel themselves to be a unique resistance movement, previously inured to the centralized excesses of power and corruption rampant elsewhere. Which we weren’t, we aren’t, and we won’t ever be.

Like typical cities having only 1 body, there’s nothing to moderate or buffer council dictatorship eras and regimes. Outcomes are inevitable, so yes, tyranny has, is and will happen here.

De Tocqueville rang the alarm bell, the core of this tyranny making decisions for an entire population bases its claim to rule upon majority numbers, not upon ethical correctness or democratic, rational excellence.

One need not go far to find this form of entitled mob rule in City Council Chambers. Personified by the dominance of gavel-hoarders BobySue Whalen and SueyBob Kempf, everything from committee, board and commission citizen appointments, to temporary committees on through delegated City Council member liaisons to said entities reflects despotism.

Which creates, actually guarantees a systemically compromised future.

By themselves, both Whalen and Kempf are pretty much gruel or grits—–bland, colorless and lack any pizzazz unless dosed with a condiment. Which is why they’re not the problem in and of themselves, they’re the pimply symptoms of a festering municipal malaise.

Orgill never did get beyond his developer-friendly mindset, i.e., his real estate roots self. Severing his Mo Money Honarkar relationship was in fact only a superficial not substantial sacrifice, didn’t change or alter him genetically. Look for Orgill to launch his own branded foundation or trust.

He fooled a lot of people who now distance themselves or keep praying that he can be lobbied into being a different guy due to electoral buyer’s remorse. He can’t and won’t.

Rounaghi was a glyph or cipherous gamble, intentionally unreadable, elected on some kind of vague hope for youthful invigorating change and had little scrutiny. You know, a child shall lead them. Instead, he’s the same old bossy personality type who concealed himself, cloaked in younger skin, that got us here via older candidates.

He’s neither new or phresh. He looks more like a lost kid who should be asking if you want to supersize that Mac with fries or produce his CDL to buy booze. His Ivy League schooling plus apprenticeships taught him to be manipulative, superficially appear reasonably neutral. Which he’s not.

The Promenade ad hoc is a prime example: Having appointed the Planning Commissioners who’d preside over possibilities or variations, i.e., a foregone conclusion, a pre-disposed bias has been in place these past 4 years. Who cares if the need is not there, if our dictatorial Council says it is?

Those hundreds of millions of dollars for multi-level parking structures? Ditto, first Planning Commission stops, then bogus, flaccid deliberation masquerading as oversight, then Council majority affirmation. Keep interviewing advisors (and spending OUR money) until the subsequent messenger brings back THE pre-ordained message.

The George Weiss transition of power scuffle and flawed passing of the mayoral gavel fiasco is another. Our Mayor Whalen and Mayor Pro Tem Kempf insulted us, refused to let go of the wheel. They gathered support from the other 2 willing accomplices (Orgill and Rounaghi), both with an eye to THEIR future, not ours, and made sure that Weiss’ path was blocked.

Which not only defied traditionally benign gavel-sharing but ignored the thousands who voted him into office to begin with—he was openly viewed and socialized as a long-awaited, ethical reformer. Which meant silencing or at minimum suppressing any empowerment—–possibly burying the audacious, grass roots, barbarians-at-the-gate rebellion indefinitely.

Being in such a 4-1 minority after Toni Iseman left, he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of even becoming Pro Tem. They held the perfunctory hearing with a pre-determined endgame—but insult to injury, all used that venue, couldn’t resist denigrating Weiss as unfit/inappropriate to hold either office, thus nullifying thousands of voters support.

Piling on was pro forma that night, as if any of them was more worthy. Face it, the current council cabal of 4 are “least or lowest common denominator” career politico types and not very bright either. Cunning people get that far gone, not really smart, morally purposed people.

Also arrogant and narcissistic (apparently required traits for politicians), they seem unable to believe that we’re not more accepting and pacifistic.

It might irritate many, but Weiss DOES represent something, he got 5,665 votes…..and that threatening something unnerves and jeopardizes, is a clear and present danger. They let Peter Blake openly excoriate anyone and everyone he chose, but in Weiss’ case they chose to punish him via unworthiness, open denigration and diminishment.

The eventual consequences if Weiss decides to run in 2024? He’ll be portrayed as such a blatant malcontent, a counter-productive extremist and leader of a small vocal group of saboteurs, that he’d be lucky to get re-seated.

The agenda is clear: Regardless if Whalen finally sits down, the fiscal puppeteers behind the rest will try to rotate in more malleable candidates. Kempf, Rounaghi and Orgill will still be tyrants.

Then too, not many first term council people hit the ground running for their first year or so as they observe, orient, decide and then act up, trying to fulfill empty campaign promises they knew were only manipulative tools to get in the door. A newbie will be a marginally not majorly effective agent of change.

“No one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of power is power.” ― George Orwell, 1984

That the Big 4 forced us to witness their heavy handedness barely disguised as democratic, reasonable deliberation was just a sleight-of-hand ruse, for show. Fact is, many of us already knew the outcome: SueyBob as Mayor, replacing BobySue, with waiting-in-the-wings Alex The Man Child as Pro Tem.

A forgone conclusion foolishness which only an imbecile or supremely naive local media would swallow. Which the lazy media not only ingested but promulgated by repeating inflammatory insinuations without even cursory criticism or questions.

Allowing City Hall propagandists preferred, free column space to spew the kool-aid is injury hidden as community, public square dialogue and local outlets are guilty guilty guilty.

The OC Register and Daily Pilot reporters just mail it in, so they barely count. Excepting Voice of OC, investigative journalism has been dead for quite some time in SOC.

Things like those big ticket parking structures, along with term limits, reflect high levels of serious concern by residents. Who cares about these impertinent “Inner Circle Interlopers” as long as they’re in the political will short end?

The point is that like The Promendade, for those taking the WE, THE PEOPLE position, they should be allowed the dignity of some self-determination: By refusing to place these things on City ballots, power is sustained and extended.

Keeping these kinds topics off of Council agendas in the first place is preemptively working for the same power mongers. The majority turn these things into zero sum, winner-take-all scams, disenfranchising the thousands who would resist if they understood the insidious nature of the game.

Ex.: The August 2, 2022 Resolution No. 22.066 repealed Resolution No. 68.88 (passed in 1968) is revealing. Though this too was on the late February 2024 docket to be amended, it gives little with the left hand and takes lots from the right: Two (2) LBCC members needed to get a topic on the agenda but unless a 3 member majority supports that, there’ll be no staff report.

We went 54 years and this never came up, once Shohreh Dupuis & her tyrannical masters and flunkies seized power, something that was never broken suddenly needed fixing?

Without that critical element, by refusing to fund staff or 3rd party, independent consultant research, those 2 minority members are handcuffed and hobbled, hindered right out of the gate.

It’s all being hidden behind smoke and mirrors, false allegations that topics would unjustly require funding the City can’t afford. Public stakeholders expressing frustration at microphones won’t supersede or veto the Tyranny of the Majority.

Several million $$$ in surplus each year and the present tyrants claim lack of funds for deep dives and independent peer reviews of critical projects, policies, protocols, procedures or strategies?

These same tyrants are also trying to manipulate the council meeting consent calendar dynamics. A long standing tradition at all levels of governance here in California, of only placing “non-controversial” on that portion of the hearing was important. In the report from the City Manager at the February 27th hearing he describes these as “routine items.”

16 items (WOW!) were on that consent calendar docket. And about 1/2 were pulled, lending credence to the sense that the calendar is another realm subject to mischief. SueyBob and the CM decided to stack the consent calendar deck, clear the field and limit discussion, an anomaly that obviously for once failed.

The tyranny will continue for at least 2 more years: In December Rounaghi will move into the Mayor slot, Orgill into Pro Tem (classic “positioning”) and regardless of the 2024 election, with SueyBob, a majority will remain intact as a voting bloc.

Wunderkind Rounaghi obviously feels particularly entitled, and will probably be a “one off,” i.e., move on, run for higher office. Typical entitled Laguna-bred brat, his narcissism and sense of self importance is there for all to see.

I’ve sat with him casually, he’s a legend in his own mind already, I didn’t find him especially bright, but then let’s face facts: We’re just the first, the lowest rung on his political career ladder. Writing blank checks, supporting bonds or gross expenditures doesn’t faze him because he’ll be gone.

By 2026 some other pro-acquisition, pro-development, pro-commerce candidate will take his place. By then the majority Council tyrants will have buried us in even more irreversible debt: Purchasing the 133 (Laguna Canyon Road) and Pacific Coast Highway should pretty much drown us.

OTOH, we will have our own “Red Sea” of debt, the majority won’t let those pesky operation and maintenance costs, the additional burdens on our community service departments (more personnel, more $$$), or the insurance premiums for such monolithic, greatly expanded elements hinder or deter.

Oh, and of course the inevitable expenditures for litigation: Between the 133 and PCH, we’ll have not only our city attorney’s busy busy busy but probably outsourced firms to defend against ambulance-chasing personal injury/negligent death lawsuits.

Once the “table is set,” it’s not unreasonable to see several million $$$/year spent on that front.

By December of 2026 the building blocks of our house-of-cards, Ponzi Scheme demise will be in place: Now owning everything within our city limits, our LBPD will be “encouraged” to issue more traffic violation citations, parking enforcement more tickets, and of course those greedy little bastards, our parking meter’s rates will go up.

I’m sure there’s more I’m unaware of, all to pay for the additional encumbrances many of us never wanted.

The tyrants will choose the next City Manager very soon, look for that to close any vulnerability loopholes, any challenges proactively. He/she will be made to understand in advance who holds the whip hand, after all, they only need to be able to count to 3.

With assists come liabilities like the acquisition of South Laguna’s beaches and parks, but the tyrants never consider that it’s our future signing those IOUs. They like large dramatic gestures to ensure their immortality, hold some more ribbon-cuttings featuring their faces, place a few more plaques bearing their imperious names.

The biggest surprise of all? That the reformation-minded locals believe themselves capable of literally blocking the existing regime’s agenda, that they are shocked at the past 12 years of increasing majority oppression….It’ll be 2026 before the window of that counter-insurgency can possibly open again.

Seeing oneself as a martyr, a revolutionary or righteous mutineer, effectively triggering a general population uprising to overthrow despots seems ennobling. Any game plan by locals that isn’t a 3 year commitment will stand little chance of succeeding.

Harsh, highly publicized litigation could have effected this outcome, including here, but no one seems to be able to find the gumption or money for attorneys though the city has been constantly vulnerable via OC Superior Court.

Educating through public comments portions of hearings, via columns, emails, SM or whatnot have obviously been ineffectual as nothing has changed City Council’s mindset, their goals and objectives as “big money meat puppets” dominant.

Podiums and media instruments are now the equivalent of psychotherapy, for venting but not change. The revolutionaries can’t even agree upon a common, coherent agenda among themselves, lacking keen focus hence guerrilla, asymmetrical warfare efficiency. Movements need both clearly delineated planks and strong vibrant leadership, I don’t see either in place at present.

The Tyranny of the Majority has always been here in Laguna like everywhere else, expecting benign or benevolent dictatorships always a highly unlikely scenario. Like the movie “Network,” unless the insurrectionists can overcome both ignorance and apathy, stir up widespread righteous anger with folks manning the barricades at Council, then it’s game-set-match.

If the Council isn’t flipped by November 2026’s election, including tapping the brakes on development (slow growth) and the cessation of traitorous perks plus special benefits for commerce (both highly unlikely due to inertia), then residents will have become full-fledged train wreck spectators.

A crossed-fingers, frustration-laden attitude, praying through the graveyard of broken dreams, wishing for “deus ex-machina” criminal indictments of Council and staff (present & former) over the Mo Money Honarkar dispute is unlikely to occur.

And has everyone considered that we might have to pay to defend those corrupt officials? All so that we could become our worst selves: Homogenized, just like Huntington Beach or Dana Point.

Council hearings will go on featuring the tyranny of “Let’s Pimp Laguna,” and their enabler sycophants as they glamorize upscale bar and restaurant businesses, more wealthy visitors, quickening the demise and death of a once-upon-a-time special place.

Res ipsa loquitur and RIP.