Everything about Tuesday’s city council candidate forum was going smoothly.
Lots of carefully-worded answers to probing questions asked by a panel of local media repping the Coastline Pilot, Stu News, the Independent and the Register (Patch wasn’t invited—no biggie, as this snub merely preserves our scrappy outsider street cred). Lots of candidates mostly agreeing with each other’s positions. Lots of predictable talk about what a great place Laguna Beach is and how to keep it that way, while acknowledging the city’s problems—chiefly parking and traffic—that never seem to get resolved.
And then candidate Robert Ross starting talking about “the Jews.”
And, just like that, the two-hour debate became much more … interesting.
You can thank the Register’s Claudia Koerner for helping to liven things up. Ross, a local gadfly who rails about topics during the public comment periods of city council meetings, apparently said something some meetings back, and Koerner wanted clarification.
“I remember one night that you brought up that the city attorney was Jewish in relation to his job performance,” asked Koerner, referencing city attorney Philip Kohn. “Did you think that remark was anti-semitic?”
Ross didn’t remember making the comment, but he also didn’t consider it anti-semitic. Still, he apologized.
But then, he kept talking about it …
“I’m assuming the city attorney is Jewish, with a last name like Kohn,” said Ross.
Koerner quoted Ross back to his face.
“I believe you said, ‘Then there’s the Jewish question—’ when you were talking about the city attorney …”
Ross explained that he may have been confused … and that’s when he really, really should have clammed up. But he continued …
“… because there certainly seems to be quite a bit of Jewish influence in that whole ACLU homeless lawsuit,” said Ross, referring to the legal squabble the city was involved in a few years ago. “I’m sorry, I’m not anti-semitic, I’m just pointing out a fact.”
If Ross—a retired film editor, who, if you strike up a chat with him, might just hand you a frameable photo of scandalized silent movie star Fatty Arbuckle (at least that’s what he did when Patch ran into him at City Hall on candidate filing deadline day)—wasn’t already destined to finish fifth in a field of five candidates, he probably is now.
That field, by the way, includes incumbents Jane Egly and Verna Rollinger (or, as Stu Saffer of Stu News called them, “the girls”), as well as challengers Bob Whalen, a longtime planning commissioner, and Steve Dicterow, gunning for a seat he previously held from 1994 till 2006.
It was Dicterow who seized the evening’s Ross-induced awkward moment, much to the delight of the former council member’s audience entourage.
“With all due respect, Mr. Ross,” said Dicterow, “When you bring up someone’s religion in a context where someone’s religion is irrelevant, that is anti-semitic.”
That was about as lively as the debate got, although Ross went on to suggest that the old sewage treatment building across from the Festival of Arts grounds be turned into a disco—yes, really!—and that the city could use a good equestrian trail. Bring on the dancing horses?
Maybe horses could help solve the city’s eternal traffic problems, though none of the other four candidates seemed to think so. But here’s what everyone did have to say about a variety of topics Tuesday:
Steve Dicterow said his two priorities are public safety and fiscal responsibility. He also said he wants to add more police officers, reinvigorate the DARE program (although several studies have indicated that the well-known drug abuse prevention program doesn’t work), wants to see foot patrols and bike patrols as part of a “constant presence” in downtown, and , and create a public safety commission. He said he won’t be supporting the Open Space Initiative that will be on the November ballot primarily because of tax reasons.
Dicterow also supported construction of the decades-in-the-making village entrance, but wants it to look more like the and less like Heisler Park, and he wouldn’t support a surcharge on art festival tickets to help pay for it. Perennially polluted , he said, is “a monitoring and enforcement issue, since it’s obviously against the law.” Parking in the city is really only a seasonal problem, according to Dicterow. “Most of the time you can find parking, except for two months of the year,” the candidate said. “The real problem in Laguna Beach is traffic. How do we keep Laguna attractive to people and get them to park on the periphery and shuttle them in?”
Jane Egly, , said she wants to keep a balanced budget, take care of the city infrastructure, support the Open Space Initiative (but wished more money for it was allocated towards maintenance), and wants the village entrance to look pretty and accommodate parking. “We have this beautiful city, and that’s not the best part of it,” she said. Regarding Aliso Creek, “the pollution is coming from everywhere. It’s like a sieve … crap is coming into the ocean. I hope we can continue to push for that (cleanup) to happen.”
As for the planned housing development in Irvine’s Great Park region that would most certainly increase traffic congestion on the 133 and in Laguna Beach, Egly said “the city has gotten into gear to put our concerns before Irvine to try and get some control or mitigation on what they’re proposing to do, and we’re really mad at them because they left us off the list in the first place. So were trying to address that as strongly as possible.” As for traffic in general, she said “the trolleys have been progress, but this is a problem we’ve been struggling with for 28 years,” and added that she thinks there are ways to handle it.”
Verna Rollinger said she wants to develop a local water source, one that would include capturing and recycling storm water. She also backed the idea of a police foot patrol in the downtown village, was “100 percent” in favor of November’s Open Space Initiative, and blamed empty storefronts in the city not only on the economy, but also on “unrealistic expectations of property owners and the rents they charge.”
Rollinger also said she was “very frustrated” that the village entrance plan hasn’t been talked about in the nearly four years since she was elected to the council, but she reiterated that she still supports it, and that “we need to have an inviting entrance to the city.” On Aliso Creek, she said that “it’s almost impossible to clean up,” but out of what can be done, “one suggestion is small, and it’s legislation that we no longer use copper in (automobile) brake shoes.” She also said “we need to complete the sidewalks on Coast Highway from one end to the other, and also create a path from the ocean to El Toro Road for bikes and pedestrians.” Oh—she’d also like to be able to take her dog on the bus.
Robert Ross said that parking has gone from “being difficult to being more difficult, especially in the summer. I don’t know if there’s any more room to expand parking. A lot of the (city) employees park in metered spaces, and I think that should come to a halt, but employees shouldn’t have to worry about parking tickets.” He also said that the city should look into buying some of the shuttles instead of leasing them, because some could be used all year.
Elsewhere, Ross called for the abolishment of the California Coastal Commission, decried “bogus lawsuits,” thinks business rents should be reduced by 25 percent, and said that the state and the Environmental Protection Agency will ultimately have to clean up Aliso Creek. He’d also like to see more film production in the city.
Bob Whalen said that although he supports open space, like Dicterow, he won’t be supporting the Open Space Initiative because he doesn’t think it’s the right time for a parcel tax, which is “a lot of money, for some people.” He’d also like to move ahead with the village entrance project, and said Laguna’s parking situation contributes to business failures.
“Traffic circulation is a profound problem,” said Whalen. “We need to find more peripheral parking, and bike lanes as well. I disagree a little bit with Steve—whenever I come into town, I’m always looking for parking. The trolleys have to be continued, and expanded if we can. If we underground some of those utilities out there (in Laguna Canyon), you would find that you have a nice right-of-way to put a bike and pedestrian path.”
All five candidates said they would continue to support the city’s 36-foot height requirement on new buildings, which has been in effect for 40 years. No surprise, there ... anyone who might want to see that law changed probably couldn't get elected to anything in Laguna Beach.
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