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By Shawn Raymundo
The city’s permitting process for buildings needs to be reformed, as it’s become a hindrance for local businesses to get up and running in San Clemente, several candidates running for city council told the business community last week.
“San Clemente has been famously difficult to do business in, and we need to change that culture,” said Bill Hart, responding to the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce’s opening question during its second and final candidate Q&A on Thursday, Oct. 8.
“I’m now convinced that the problem is not in the way we do permitting, but the culture of the permits, basically the building department itself, and we need to change that with good city leadership,” added Hart, one of the city council candidates for the four-year term, who earned the Chamber’s endorsement this week.
The Chamber on Monday, Oct. 12, announced that its Businesses for a Better San Clemente Political Action Committee (PAC) has endorsed Hart, incumbent Councilmember Gene James and Charlie Smith for the General Election.
In the Special Election race for the two-year term, the Chamber’s PAC endorsed Tyler Boden, Jim Dahl and Steven Knoblock.
“This year, more qualified candidates aligned with Chamber of Commerce priorities than in any other election in recent memory,” the Chamber said in a press release. “After hours of meetings and deliberations, the BBSC-PAC and the Board of Directors were in agreement that” those six “candidates were deserving of the Chamber’s endorsement.”
The Chamber’s endorsement comes after holding a pair of candidate forums over the past couple of weeks—one for the Special Election candidates and one for those running in the General Election.
During the forums, the candidates were asked to discuss their positions on several business community-related concerns, including the toll road, homelessness and city lawsuits, to name a few.
Nine of the 10 General Election candidates participated in the forum last Thursday, when they were asked: “What specific actions will you take to improve business and industry in San Clemente for the long run?”
Nearly all of the candidates—Hart, James, Aaron Washington, Jeff Provance Jr., Patrick Minnehan, Thor Johnson, Jeff Wellman and Chris Duncan—touched on their concerns with delays in the permitting process, advocating for reforms to streamline the system and improve efficiencies.
While Smith didn’t explicitly speak about the permitting issues in his response, he stated that the city needs to have business-friendly policies and would support initiatives to make retail areas more “experienced-based.”
He also spoke about the need for city manager—another primary talking point among the candidates. Smith said the prospective chief executive should be someone who “understands a good portion of our revenue is derived from sales tax and that we need to have an environment whereby businesses are attracted to our area” or “attracted to staying in our area.”
Joseph Kenney was the only General Election candidate absent from last week’s forum.
Washington said the city should look at the permitting process deployed in neighboring cities to see what can be learned and implemented locally.
“We want to standardize the process; we want to minimize the fees and the costs, make it user-friendly for the business owners and make them feel that we want them to succeed and their success is our success,” Washington said.
While highlighting his efforts for the city to further utilize its TrakIt program—an online portal on the city’s website to search for permit, project and license information—James said the city needs to streamline its permitting and planning process.
“TrakIt existed as a database project management for the city but not in the permitting and planning process,” he said. “This will make our permit and planning processes paperless and will streamline” it.
Provance said he wants to speed up the “tedious permit process,” so it “could be a great help to small business.”
Though Minnehan agreed that the permitting process should be evaluated, he said another issue the council needs to review is its policies related to zoning.
“We have to look at this for all businesses. Personally, we all look at the restaurants, the gyms, the hair salons, the things that we use all the time, but there’s more businesses in this town,” Minnehan said. “We got a hospital that’s been sitting vacant for four and a half years because of zoning issues from the owner or the operator running the organization. So, again, we need to look at these zoning issues for the entire city so that we can actually move forward.”
For Johnson, he said he would improve business and industry in town by not supporting new taxes, strengthening the city’s relationship with the Chamber and providing regulatory relief by reducing barriers in the permitting process.
Echoing James’ previous thoughts, Wellman said San Clemente’s municipal code and regulations have been a barrier for entrepreneurs starting a business in town, but that streamlining the building permit process would make it easier for businesses to open.
Wellman also proposed, while crediting Johnson with the idea, to have a city liaison who would connect with business owners looking to open a store in San Clemente.
“We can actually go out and have a liaison, as Thor Johnson was saying, and connect with people who want to bring business to San Clemente instead of waiting for them to show up here, and hitting them with local codes and regulations,” Wellman said.
Duncan last Thursday proposed a complete overhaul of the city’s building and engineering divisions, because “they are notoriously slow in responding to permit requests.”
“We have to cut red tape,” Duncan said. “That means automating processes, adding staff and contractors, and this will expedite processing and permits, and provide needed transparency, flexibility and predictability for our business community.”
The candidates were also asked what they would do, if elected, to make sure business owners have a seat at the table when it comes to policy discussions.
Most of the candidates proposed similar ideas related to establishing a local committee or coalition of business owners who could weigh in on potential policy.
Smith said his idea would be either a formal or an informal council of business owners who could provide input to elected officials so they could be “well-informed as we’re making decisions and voting on various issues.”
“Just making sure we have a pulse on what the business owners are thinking and what they would like to see happen,” Smith said of his proposal.
James’ proposal, while similar to Smith’s idea, is for the city to create another commission comprising stakeholders from the business community. The proposed business commission, he said, would include the city’s economic development officer, one councilmember, and representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Business Association (DBA) and the Rancho San Clemente and Talega Business Parks.
“I’m a believer in servant leadership,” James said. “That means ideas bubble up, and I think this is a group that could bubble up ideas to the city council that we never would think of without their input.”
Provance said he agreed with both ideas from Smith and James, believing that while the Chamber and the DBA represent businesses, often, he felt, shops that aren’t within the downtown and Pier Bowl districts are forgotten.
“It would be nice to form some sort of a council where we can bounce ideas and work together and just make sure the businesses are getting what they need, what we need to make sure we’re paying our employees and helping each other out,” said Provance, who operates Bloom’s Irish Pub.
Johnson said his proposal for a business commission would comprise a board of directors, “formed from different sectors” and “local leaders.”
“That way, they’ll be able to represent different sectors, and their voices get heard,” Johnson said.
Wellman’s idea differed slightly from the others, as his proposal would instead be, what he called, a San Clemente Business Coalition (SCBC). The coalition would include one delegate from each of the various business groups in town such as the Chamber, DBA and business parks.
“We form the SCBC committee without too much extra, I would say, heavy-weighted organization structure, making them interact with the council, maybe set aside one night a month to interact with them,” Wellman said.
He added that the group would “bring their ideas and issues to the forefront of the city council and also talk with the mayor and hopefully soon-to-be city manager and really get deep into what they’re facing, so we can respond to what they need.”
Washington said he would simply like to have a person from the Chamber or another business-associated group attend city council meetings to provide the elected officials with feedback and brief them on concerns of the business owners.
Noting that the Chamber of Commerce has a designated seat for a councilmember, Duncan said he would like to take on that assignment from the council if elected to office, and attend all Chamber events.
“At DHS, we learned that all the best ideas came from the stakeholders that were involved, the people who are affected by contemplated policy, so I would hold town halls and actively engage with other stakeholders to ensure they support potential measures before they’re presented to council,” said Duncan, touting his previous experience as an attorney with the Department of Homeland Security.
Hart disagreed completely with the need for another committee or commission. He explained that about 20 years ago, the city previously had an economic development officer who was tasked with reaching out to the “various parts of the business community.”
“I’m not convinced that putting together a council is a good idea. I tend to go with a bottom-up thinking,” Hart said. “I would like to get that outreach going again where we have planners or (the) economic development director going out in the business community and meeting with neighborhood business groups and trying to get information on the ground instead of trying to centralize it in a committee.”
The Chamber’s recording of the General Election forum can be found at First Amendment Voice’s YouTube channel, where you can view all the candidates’ full responses to these questions and several more.
Voting in San Clemente’s elections, as well as state, county and national races, is now open in Orange County, as vote-by-mail ballots have gone out; they can be delivered to county drop boxes or mailed back to the Registrar of Voters.
The county’s vote centers, where constituents can vote in person or drop off their completed ballots, are slated to open on Friday, Oct. 30. The drop boxes and vote centers will close at 8 p.m. on Election Day—Tuesday, Nov. 3.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.