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Council officially opposes all three local measures on November ballot

By SARA HALL

A majority of the Laguna Beach City Council voted this week to officially oppose three local measures on the November ballot aimed at curbing large development and increasing hotel worker wage.

At the meeting on Tuesday (July 19), most councilmembers agreed the initiatives were confusing, over-reaching, or unnecessary.

The action also designated authors for direct arguments and approved staff’s recommended changes to section four for each ballot measure. Assistant City Manager Ken Domer explained that the section previously asked for the authorization of five individuals to file rebuttal arguments, however, under current elections code, that’s already provided to a majority of the authors of the direct arguments.

The proponents of each of the measures will select who is authorized on their behalf to author the arguments in support, as well as rebuttal, City Attorney Phil Kohn explained. 

A majority of councilmembers previously voted to oppose all three of the initiatives on July 12, which directed staff to prepare the official resolutions council voted on this week. Although during both meetings, the lineup for each vote was different.

In a separate vote on July 12, the council was split 3-2 on the motion to oppose the Laguna Residents First PAC proposed initiative. Councilmembers Toni Iseman and George Weiss dissented. 

The LRF initiative, titled “An ordinance creating an overlay zoning district and requiring voter approval of major development projects,” seeks to create an overlay zone that covers all property in the city located within 750 feet of the centerline of either Coast Highway or Laguna Canyon, which effectively encompasses 51% of all parcels in the city.

This week, the council voted 3-0 with Iseman and Weiss abstaining to approve the official opposition to the LRF measure.

Council officially opposes hotels and beach

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Council voted to oppose a ballot initiative that would require voter approval for major development projects

During public comment on the item, resident Michael Morris said the resolution is trying to be a political weapon and has now stepped over into the area of omissions, inaccuracies and hyperbole. A number of the “whereas” clauses should be revised or omitted, he suggested. 

In particular, the cumulative effect clause, which reads that “the cumulative effect provision can take effect based on developments submitted for review in the last eight years whether or not those projects are every approved by the city or ever constructed,” whereas “because of this expansive definition of cumulative effect, if the initiative were in effect today, the cumulative effect provision would be applicable to all projects in the downtown and along Coast Highway from Fairview Street north of Downtown to Legion Street south of Downtown, thereby creating great uncertainty in the overall ability of improvements to be made within this area of the city.”

But there are provisions in place to exclude an existing project from adding to the numbers of another project’s cumulative effect totals, Morris explained, there’s also a provision that excludes minor modifications. The cumulative effect was put in as a protection for residents who have to endure sequential endless construction in their neighborhood.

“I think the ballot initiative does a good and fair job of including the cumulative effect provision,” Morris said. 

The whereas clause in the resolution misrepresents what it actually does, he added. 

The resolution needs to be cleaned up, Morris said. 

Domer wrote all the resolutions based on the direction provided by council at the last meeting, explained City Manager Shohreh Dupuis. The “whereas” clauses were based on staff reports that the council reviewed at previous meetings. 

In general, the text is fine, but there are a few edits that could be made, noted Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen. 

There are complexities with the initiative, he said, particularly with the cumulative effect provision which does drop down significantly. A little project could “thread the needle,” but essentially it could impact smaller projects. 

Whalen suggested edits on some of the whereas clauses on page four of the resolution.

He recommended noting that the report is “based on certain assumptions” and that the revenue loss “could be” (rather than “would be”) $1.5 to $2 million per year within the first five years. 

Whalen also suggested editing the whereas that refers to the cumulative effect provision “could apply” to smaller projects (again, rather than “would” apply).

He also noted that the spirit of the language that states “whether or not those projects are ever approved by the city” is correct, but it might be a bit confusing. He suggested striking it or clarifying that section. It’s also applicable to “certain” projects in Downtown, not “all.”

Whalen made a few other recommendations cleaning up the language and changing words that clarify certain impacts of the measure as potential instead of absolute.

Also at the July 12 meeting, council unanimously agreed to postpone action on a staff recommended ordinance pertaining to the regulation of building height, mass, and bulk in the commercial districts and development of a parking master plan. 

Mayor Sue Kempf suggested holding a special meeting to discuss the issue on July 26. 

This week, she said she hopes they can work on a compromise at the special meeting with the staff proposed ordinance. They need something better than the LRF measure, she said. 

“This is a very convoluted ballot measure,” Kempf said. “I don’t know how any resident could possibly understand it.”

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Council also voted to designate the five individuals authorized to file a direct argument opposing the LRF ballot measures and to change such arguments until and including the deadline fixed for the filing of arguments with the city clerk are: Kempf, Whalen, Fire Captain Tom Padden, Police Chief Jeff Calvert and longtime resident Chris Quilter.

During public comment, Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce Events and Marketing Manager Erin Slattery asked the council to oppose the LRF measure and the two “anti-hospitality” measures. They are not in the best interest of the community, she said. 

“Our Laguna Beach businesses should not be burdened by these restrictive ballot measures,” Slattery said. “Protecting and keeping Laguna local is a common theme that everyone can support. What we all have in common is our love of Laguna Beach and these ballot measures are not good for the welfare of our community and should be opposed by all Laguna voters.”

They need to work toward a compromise regarding major development projects in a way that does not cause more problems than it solves, she said. 

On July 12, the second motion to oppose the hotel worker wage and workplace conditions was nearly undivided, with Councilmember George Weiss abstaining in a 4-0-1 vote. 

UNITE HERE Local 11 union, which represents Southern California hospitality workers, sponsored the initiative titled “An Ordinance Amending the Laguna Beach Municipal Code to Create a Minimum Wage and Workplace Standards and Protections for Hotel Employees.”

The measure would, among other things, require hotel owners and operators to provide hotel employees a minimum wage of $18 per hour beginning 60 days after the effective date of the ordinance and increasing by $1 per hour each year beginning Jan. 1, 2023, until 2026.

Again at the meeting this week, Weiss abstained and the council voted 4-0 to oppose the worker wage and workplace standards initiative. 

“I’m very much torn,” on the worker wage initiative, Weiss said. 

Workers should have a livable wage with benefits, he noted. There is a concern that wages won’t keep up with inflation. 

“People are suffering from high costs of food,” and other necessities, Weiss said. 

Also at the July 12 meeting, council unanimously agreed to oppose the hotel development overlay initiative regarding land use. Also backed by the UNITE HERE Local 11 union, the initiative is titled: “An Ordinance Creating a Hotel Development Overlay Zoning District and Requiring Voter Approval of Hotel Development Projects.”

The measure would, among other things, require every hotel development within 1,000 feet of the centerline of Coast Highway or State Route 133, to comply with specified development standards and, if not in compliance, seek a variance from the council and obtain approval from the voters at a special or regular election.

This week, council again voted 5-0 to officially oppose the hotel development overlay district initiative. 

“I don’t really see the need for that, (and) I’m opposed to the LRF initiative as well,” Whalen said. “I don’t want to see our land use decisions made at the ballot box.”

The current approval process for hotels has worked well thus far, Whalen said. 

The working wage measure is a bit different, he noted. 

“I’ve got real mixed emotions on this one,” he said. 

He’s supportive of hotels paying a living wage and it’s been established that the local hotels are meeting the minimum of $18 an hour. Although he’s a bit concerned whether the hotels will keep up with the cost of inflation. 

“I’m going to keep an eye on that,” Whalen said. “I want to see our hotels be leaders on this.”

But there are aspects of the initiative that appear to have been taken from other measures and brought to Laguna Beach without addressing an actual issue.

“It just sort of assumes there’s a problem here, which I don’t think there is,” Whalen said. 

Ultimately, on the basis of how the local hotel industry is running itself, it’s already at or above what the measure is requesting. 

It was “dropped” into town without much community dialogue, Whalen noted. It appeared with the signatures and placed on the ballot, but there wasn’t much discussion before it was finalized. 

On both hotel-related measures, Whalen suggested, and the rest of council agreed, to delete the last whereas clause: “the cost of gathering signatures on initiative petition was paid for by Citizens for a Sustainable Laguna Beach, sponsored by UNITE HERE Local 11, a Los Angeles-based union which does not currently represent hotel workers in Laguna Beach.”

 “UNITE HERE 11 has every right to gather signatures on petitions and just having it in here sort of suggests there’s something wrong with that, so that should just be deleted,” Whalen said. 

Council officially opposes Pacific Edge Hotel

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Hotel workers, including some from Pacific Edge Hotel in Laguna Beach, spoke out this week in support of two hotel-related initiatives

They have a vision of hotels that are good for the workers and the residents, said Jonah Breslau, an organizer for UNITE HERE Local 11.

Members of the union do work in Laguna Beach, Breslau noted, including at Pacific Edge Hotel. Both resolutions mention that there aren’t any members in town, but that’s inaccurate, he noted. 

“I urge the council to reverse course and support these two hotel ordinances,” Breslau said. “At a minimum, get out of the path of the voters and let the voters decide.”

It would be tied to inflation, which is essential for workers, Breslau noted. They deserve fair pay, he added. The hotel industry is attempting to misconstrue these issues, Breslau said, instead of supporting workers and the community. 

The council mentioned at the last meeting that they didn’t hear the need from local workers and on Tuesday many employees, including a few from Laguna Beach hotels, spoke during public comment. 

Graciela, a housekeeper at Pacific Edge for 14 years, supports both hotel initiatives. She cleans more than a dozen rooms a day, which is very strenuous. The protections for workers in the initiative guarantees a fair wage, she explained. 

Answering a council question, a few local workers noted that they make $18 an hour. 

That’s not guaranteed, Breslau noted, but this initiative guarantees that all workers start at $18 and increases a dollar per year with inflation. 

Councilmember Peter Blake questioned that if the housekeepers who spoke already make $18 an hour, then they’d take home less if they have to pay union dues.

“How does this help her?” he asked Breslau after he translated for an employee. 

“We don’t have to answer that question and we’re not going to,” Breslau responded, noting that there were many other workers who spoke in support of the measure. 

They have no other benefits, another speaker replied, that’s why they organized. 

Although local resort managers said that’s not the case for most properties in Laguna Beach. 

Several hotel officials noted during public comment that room attendants’ wages ranged between $18 and $19.50 per hour.

The Ranch at Laguna Beach General Manager Kurt Bjorkman said workers start at $19 an hour at the resort. Workers in the housekeeping division are all full-time and have benefits, he noted, answering a council question. They will follow the guidelines as the cost of living increases and needs to be addressed, he confirmed. 

Since the 1990s, Bjorkman has worked at more than a dozen hotel properties in three different states, including several jobs at the non-management level.

“So I have first-person perspective of what it’s like to work as an hourly employee,” he said. 

His parents and his in-laws were members of unions, Bjorkman noted, and he has worked at both union and non-union hotels. 

“I’m not anti-union and, more importantly – as these two ballot initiatives would lead people to believe – I am not anti-worker,” Bjorkman said. “In my 30-plus year career, I have never worked in a town that cares more for the amazing people who work hard to make our inns, hotels and resorts the sought-after destinations that we are.”

After re-opening after the pandemic, the vast majority – more than 90% – of The Ranch’s hourly and salaried team members returned to work at the hotel. 

“Hospitality, as you know and represented in this room, is hard. Everyone in this room works hard, we all do,” Bjorkman said. “We know our teams personally and deeply.”

The core hourly team members at The Ranch “stayed the course,” he noted. It’s because they care and they treat their employees fairly, including compensation, which exceeds what the ballot initiative lists.

They provide safe work places, including panic buttons, benefits and paths for those who want to make hospitality their career.

He thanked the council for opposing the two initiatives. 

“They are not needed here in our incredibly special village,” Bjorkman said. 

The five individuals authorized to file a direct argument opposing both the hotel development overlay district and the hotel employee wage and workplace standards ballot measures and to change such arguments until and including the deadline fixed for the filing of arguments with the city clerk are: Kempf, Whalen, Montage General Manager Mary Rogers, and local real estate agents JJ Ballesteros and Mark Christy.

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

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