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By Shawn Raymundo
In the spring of 2020, a city-initiated voter survey found that the most important issue residents wanted the council to address was the city’s homelessness. More than 76% of the 300 polled said it should be the council’s top priority.
So, it came as a shock for members of the city’s Joint Homeless Subcommittee when a council majority voted this month to proceed with plans of disbanding the four-person group tasked with identifying solutions.
“This is really, really concerning. If homelessness is really an issue in this city and a concern, why is this being looked at and dismissed when you have citizens trying to get involved and trying to do something?” subcommittee member Rick Loeffler, not mincing words, said during the group’s scheduled meeting last week.
“I don’t know what to say; I’m at a total loss of words,” Loeffler continued. “And city staff should be embarrassed. City council should be embarrassed that they let this happen. And if this was up to citizens and put to a vote, it would be resoundingly rejected.”
The council, in a 4-1 decision on June 1, voted to eliminate the subcommittee, which comprises two members from the city’s Human Affairs Committee and two more from the Public Safety committee.
As part of that June 1 vote, the council also introduced a resolution to fold the subcommittee’s duties into the seven-member Human Affairs Committee, with the caveat that two appointees be experts on homelessness.
“This Homeless Subcommittee, I just don’t think is effective in its current form,” said Councilmember Chris Duncan, adding that Human Affairs has “great members on there and that we could get a lot more accomplished in being part of that larger committee.”
The elimination of the subcommittee, which will officially dissolve in August, comes as the terms of all sitting members on the city’s committees and commissions get set to expire, giving the council an opportunity to make a host of new appointments.
In the same resolution, which the council is slated to formally approve on Tuesday, June 15, the longstanding Coastal Advisory Committee will merge into the Beaches, Parks and Recreation Commission, and require that two members be experts on ocean water quality.
Much like her counterparts on the Homeless Subcommittee, Coastal Advisory Chair Susan Ambrose was also blindsided by the proposal, as she and her fellow members didn’t know about it until just days before the early June council meeting.
Speaking on the resolution as a private citizen because her committee didn’t have a chance to meet and discuss it before the council’s consideration, she implored the elected officials not to support the merger.
“We are basically a typical science committee. We’re not a recreation committee,” Ambrose said, adding that they’re “charged with monitoring water quality in our ocean. We actually see ourselves as the eyes and ears of water quality in terms of testing.”
Emphasizing her point, she went on to note that merging the responsibilities of the two committees would likely mean less time spent on water quality and environmental issues impacting the city.
“We have to remember the ocean; clean beaches are an economic driver,” she said. “If you lose the skills that we bring to the table … we would lose the time that we had that we devote totally to these subjects, which is quite a lot of time.”
Councilmember Laura Ferguson, the sole no vote, agreed with Ambrose that Coastal Advisory should remain a stand-alone committee.
“They do so many important tasks, a lot for a small committee, and I just think they wouldn’t have the manpower to get everything done,” Ferguson said, highlighting some of the group’s projects, including sand replenishment and getting water bottle refill stations installed.
“It’s incredible, the amount of work that they get done,” she continued. “It is science-oriented, and I think a lot of that will fall by the wayside if we merge them with another committee.”
Though Ferguson voted against the resolution because of the Coastal and BP&R merger, she did express support for the portion relating to Human Affairs addressing the homelessness issue.
Noting the Beaches aspect of BP&R, Mayor Kathy Ward explained that staff presentations on water quality and on coastal and environmental issues are regularly given to the Coastal Advisory members, while those on the recreation commission have been left out of the loop.
“What I heard today is (Coastal Advisory members) get some great presentations from staff and from experts on the beach, which is our biggest park,” Ward said. “Who’s not getting those presentations is anyone on BP&R Commission.”
According to Ward, the BP&R Commission has also been working on sand replenishment and the bottle refill station projects, so consolidating the two groups, she said, would streamline their work.
“I think the synergy of both of them will actually make them both work better,” Ward said. “And we’ve heard for many years where BP&R has wanted to get involved in the beach, and they’re just not getting the presentations. We can’t have staff do so much work on one and at the same time go to the other one and give the same presentation.”
According to the city, consolidating the work of the two committees is expected to save about $4,620 of Clean Ocean funds annually—money, the city noted in its meeting agenda report, that pays for meeting stipends.
City Manager Erik Sund further explained to the council that the funds specifically pay for supplies and other meeting expenses, including beverages.
The majority of the council noted that the consolidation would also significantly reduce staff time when it comes to working with the committees. Ward also noted that “if it doesn’t work, then we can go back to before. I don’t see a loss here.”
On the subject of staff time, Gary Walsh, a member of the Public Safety Committee and the chairperson for the Homeless Subcommittee, stressed that while he and his fellow appointees aren’t paid, they’ve spent “literally hundreds of hours” conducting research for the committee.
“I really did put in hundreds of hours, researching things, finding out things—this is all stuff your staff is going to have to do,” Walsh told Adam Atamian, the city’s Code Compliance manager.
“This is all stuff your staff is going to have to do, and you had four people here who did it for free,” Walsh added, still talking to Atamian—the city staffer assigned to the Public Safety Committee. “I’m not the accountant, but it seems to me that free is less expensive than what you’re paying your staff people.”
Atamian last week stressed that he wasn’t involved in the discussions on whether to disband the group and reorganize the other committees.
“I enjoy working with the subcommittee; I think our time has been fruitful,” he said. “We’ve got a work plan that still needs to be carried out if the subcommittee would like to do that; I think that would be a good idea with the time that we have.”
Tyler Boden, a subcommittee appointee from Human Affairs, said it was his intention to use the next couple of months to complete the work plan—an annual overview of goals for the committee to accomplish.
“I think all we can do is what we can do in front of us right now, which is complete our work plan,” Boden said, adding that the group can “continue to do what we can to add value and memorialize what we have gathered so far and pass it on to whoever can benefit.”
The council will meet at the San Clemente Community Center on Tuesday night at 6 p.m., when they’re scheduled to vote on whether to approve the resolution. The meeting will be livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel.
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.