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Michael Miller: Dedicated to the success of FOA, the arts and the community of Laguna

By DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Peel an onion and what do you get? Director of Safety and Security at the Festival of Arts of Laguna Beach, home to the Festival of Arts (FOA) and Pageant of the Masters (POM), Michael Miller, compares the process of discovering what he brings to his role – to that of peeling an onion. In this case, each layer reveals an unexpected aspect of his experience in the world of law enforcement, business acumen and emergency management.

There’s no doubt Miller brings a wealth of knowledge to his title, which he assumed in the spring of 2022. He held several management positions within a Southern California Tier 1 Law Enforcement Agency. Miller managed a budget of more than $15 million. He served as Bureau Commander for a category X airport, and co-managed one of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces. In fact, one of the four teams he oversaw was responsible for placing a terrorist on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.

He earned a bachelor of arts degree from Cal State University, Fullerton (Criminal Justice), a master’s degree from Cal State University, Dominguez Hills (Negotiation & Conflict Management) and has done graduate work at both Harvard and USC.

michael miller closeup

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FOA Director of Safety and Security, Michael Miller

Miller was born in Newport Beach and raised in South Orange County, along with his sister, Mary Blanton, who is a popular teacher at El Morro Elementary School.

“I’ve lived here my whole life” he said. “I always knew I wanted to go into law enforcement. I started my career as a Military Police Officer and then Investigator with the U.S. Army stationed in Europe. It was a natural transition to work in civilian law enforcement.”

Prior to coming to FOA, Miller was a successful business executive and the Director of Security at a large performing arts center. He admits the move involved a learning curve. “Because of my background, I’ve been responsible for large event management, strategic planning, fiscal governance, complex investigations, etc., but not within the art world. The biggest learning curve was educating myself about the artists and Pageant volunteers, and their way of life – learning ‘who is who’ in these ecosystems. You have volunteer cast members for Pageant of the Masters, accomplished artists who have been juried into Festival of Arts, patrons who have been coming for years, and yet others who are here for the first time.”

Miller liaisons with each of these groups and others.

This common thread runs through Miller’s entire career – his ability (and passion for) developing relationships.

“It’s all about relationships,” Miller said. “In the very beginning, in the Army, and on patrol, I had to establish relationships to act as my eyes and ears. Going forward, in every assignment I’ve had during my career, I’ve always made sure that I have great relationships with the people I encounter.”

michael miller in front of FOA

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Miller wants visitors to FOA to have the best possible experience

Certainly, Miller translated that skill to this assignment. “My mantra is that an emergency event is the wrong time to meet somebody for the first time and exchange business cards,” he said. “When I assumed the new role at FOA, I met with Police Chief Jeff Calvert, Fire Chief Niko King, Director of Transit and Community Services Michael Litschi, (then) City Manager Shohreh Dupuis and many of the City Councilmembers. I introduced myself to them. If a problem arises, I know who to call and they know me. I have also made it a priority to meet with our art neighbors at the Sawdust Festival, Laguna Playhouse and others.”

Protecting the patrons

Miller and his staff’s top priority is maintaining a safe environment in which visitors can enjoy the Festival and Pageant. Even though thousands of people visit each year, Miller said, “We are fortunate to have very few incidents.”

In addition to the fine art show and Pageant, other elements that draw visitors to FOA are the great music, dancing, and the fact that they can bring their own food and drinks. In another venue, this might present a problem, however, Miller has procedures in place for possible scenarios.

As for over-beveraging, Miller said, “If a person can’t care for themselves, I have empowered my staff to intervene. We will assess the situation and ensure they are not disrupting the experience for others. If needed, they will be asked to leave the property.”

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michael miller irvine bowl

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Bowl vacant for the time being

“We have had the privilege of hosting various VIPs to the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters. Most notably were high level state and federal officials who attended the Pageant on separate nights. During one of the visits, the power went out,” Miller said. “I said to my staff, ‘it’s either a power outage or something really bad.’ We quickly ensured everyone in the Irvine Bowl was safe. We escorted the VIP out. We then proceeded to calmly direct 2,500 people out of the bowl. It was the first time the POM was canceled due to a power outage.”

Teamwork

“I’m very thankful to be part of the Executive Team, working with a great board of directors,” he said. “There are nine executives who report to the board collectively and individually. My board liaison is Jeff Rovner. Jeff and the entire board are supportive of my team’s work.

“I can’t say enough about my staff. It is because of their hard work and dedication, that we are so successful,” Miller continued. “Specifically, my Security Coordinator, Elizabeth Paskerian, brings a keen historical perspective to the team. She works tirelessly on our schedules and security badge protocols. Her knowledge of the Pageant is appreciated when changes are being considered.

“I am fortunate to have hired a new Theater Services Manager Dolly Boliver, for our 2023 season. She has an intuitive sense of crowd management and managing large performances. Prior to working for us here, she had a successful career at Disney. She is responsible for all of our ushers and the activity inside the Irvine Bowl. These two individuals are at the center of any success we have.”

The FOA has 85 event staff members working during the summer season. “We had an 85% retention rate from last year. We supplement the team with new hires. We will start recruiting in April, start hiring in May and they begin in June when the artists start building their booths,” said Miller.

“One of our overarching themes is: Create an atmosphere where individuals can enjoy all the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters have to offer without infringing on the enjoyment of others.”

Festival of Arts

Offseason vs. on-season is a completely different world, explained Miller. “Offseason we are still busy with facility rentals for nonprofit galas and events such as the Coast Film Festival, Glennwood House’s gala, Taste of Laguna and others.”

During Festival season, it should not come as a surprise to residents that Miller’s biggest challenge is parking. “We contract with the city and some private entities each year. This contributes to our success in providing parking for our volunteers.”

michael miller FOA grounds

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Offseason grounds on a rainy day

Miller has been able to implement some other beneficial changes. “When I was first hired in the spring of 2022, I completed an assessment on our CCTV system. With the board of directors’ support, we upgraded both our hardware and software. We now have a very robust system that is an integral part of our security posture.”

Changes were also made in crowd management. “We purchased metal barriers that are about waist high,” he said. “Before that, we were using cloth ropes, which were not as effective.”

Requested by Miller, as of last year, the FOA has a licensed Emergency Medical Technician onsite to handle medical incidents.

Plans for the 2024 season include implementing magnetometers with new technology. This will allow most patrons to walk through without emptying their pockets and bags. “My goal is to improve a customer’s experience,” he said.

Reflections

Aside from his responsibilities at the Festival, Miller believes in giving back and has a long list of community service: No Kid Hungry, Habitat for Humanity, Special Olympics’ Law Enforcement Torch Run, Sunshine Foundation – and the list goes on.

What readers might be surprised to learn is that Miller, while on patrol, saved someone’s life who was going to commit suicide. “There was a car stopped in the middle of a busy intersection. The woman inside held a box cutter to her throat. For the next 45 minutes, I talked to her. She eventually put the box cutter down and exited her car.”

Miller recounts the most difficult case he ever handled. “While on patrol, I was sent to an infant’s death. During my investigation, the male caretaker confessed to me. My two sons were toddlers at the time. That night, I went home and just watched them sleep. It was comforting to see them safe after seeing such tragedy. After the trial was over and he was sentenced to prison, the wife/mother recognized my wife at a Bible Study and said, ‘Your husband was the only one who treated us with dignity and respect.’

“Most people see one or two tragedies in their lifetime. I’ve seen several hundred and that’s when faith comes in – believing in good and evil. You must have somewhere to place it [the incident] or it will stay with you – you’ll harden.”

At this point in his life, he appears particularly grateful. Married 30 years, Miller has two sons, two daughters-in-law and several grandchildren; all who live locally. “I am so thankful that my family is healthy. I have seen just how precious life is,” he said.

Regardless of how many layers one must peel from the onion to fully know Miller – in the process, there are certain to be more surprises.

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

Lana Johnson, Editor - Lana@StuNewsLaguna.com

Tom Johnson, Publisher - Tom@StuNewsLaguna.com

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