After two new councilmembers joined the dais in December 2022 following the departure of San Clemente Councilmembers Laura Ferguson and Kathy Ward, Chris Duncan was tapped as the city’s next mayor.
Duncan—a lawyer, husband and father of three children now in his third year on the council—spoke with San Clemente Times about what he expects to address and accomplish in 2023.
Duncan said he was happy and humbled to be appointed mayor, but he affirmed that there are challenges to tackle such as coastal erosion, homelessness and public safety, as well as the remaining waste at the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).
“If we don’t have the beaches, we’re not a beach town,” he said. “It’s an existential issue for San Clemente to make sure we save our sand (and) keep our beaches, so that’s going to be priority No. 1 for me.”
Duncan emphasized that the city must work with Orange County and state officials to find solutions to replenishing and retaining the sand at San Clemente beaches and halting the movement in the slope near the Cyprus Shore community in south San Clemente.
Duncan added that city staff has orchestrated an ongoing study to investigate sand retention.
Regarding other quality-of-life topics, Duncan expressed a desire to find shelter for homeless individuals and stop them from sleeping on sidewalks or in public view in places including North Beach and on Avenida Del Mar. Residents deserve and pay for their city to look clean, he said.
The city’s two community outreach workers will play a substantial role in the initiative, according to Duncan, who also said he wanted to ensure Police Services has all the support necessary to best serve.
“I want to make sure that (in) this next year, we make a real impact on limiting homelessness in San Clemente,” said Duncan.
He called the proximity of SONGS a danger to the city because of the potential for natural disasters such as earthquakes, saying he would work to ensure the spent nuclear fuel was kept safe and far from residents.
Duncan intends to work with Katrina Foley, Orange County’s new Fifth District Board Supervisor, and call on State Assemblywoman Laurie Davies, State Sen. Janet Nguyen and other connections to lobby at the state and national level on the city’s behalf.
“We deserve resources here in San Clemente, and we haven’t gotten them,” he said. “We have not gotten the attention we deserve. Coastal erosion is a perfect example.”
In terms of maximizing the council’s efficiency during meetings, the additions of Victor Cabral and Mark Enmeier present the opportunity to distance the council from the “consternation” of past meetings, according to Duncan.
He added that residents deserved a body of decisionmakers focused on city issues and not political matters, and he mentioned the quickness with which the new council has conducted its first two meetings.
Duncan cited his concerns for his children’s safety and proper education in relation to the effects of COVID-19 and virtual learning as a part of the unique perspective that he brings.
“I think these are things that are on the minds of many San Clementeans, and we haven’t had as many councilmembers like me, with a family,” he said, referring to raising young children. “Now, we do. I’m looking forward to a council that’s very professional, that focuses on the issues, that’s very efficient.”
Addressing what he believed his role to be within a council-manager form of government, Duncan said he wanted to be direct and lead by example with how to interact with fellow councilmembers without attacking them or questioning their integrity.
He also expressed his excitement to be in the public eye as the mayor, to represent the city well and to display how the council is receptive to residents’ feedback and questions.
Regarding development, Duncan said the city’s top priority should be maintaining its historical heritage while engaging in smart development that retains San Clemente’s essence. Duncan added that balancing those two ideals will be difficult but fun, and that challenge is what all councilmembers sign up for when they run for election.
“We have to also take into account (that) if we don’t develop at all, we’ll get left behind,” he said. “(We’ll be) unable to take care of ourselves, because we don’t have the revenue coming in.”
The city must be able to take part in projects that allow for compliance with state laws and help San Clemente avoid litigation with the state or other interested third parties.
Duncan also spoke to the exodus of talent from City Hall that has occurred in recent months, including the departures of former City Manager Erik Sund and Jennifer Savage, former assistant to the city manager. Such turnover is one of the biggest challenges in the new year, he said.
At all positions, the city can’t properly serve residents without stability and leadership at the top, which the council is tackling with its ongoing search for a new city manager.
“We’re going to look for that city manager to have a reputation of fostering staff to develop on their own, to reach their full potential, and stay at the city,” Duncan said. “We need that bench where people are coming up through the city, they want to stay here, they know they can develop and get to that next step here, (so) they don’t have to go anywhere else.”
He called city staff San Clemente’s “heart and soul” and the reason for clean beaches and parks and proper maintenance. Duncan emphasized the need to have employees in place so that they can adjust to dynamic situations.
The council’s role in the matter can come in the form of directing the city manager to provide proper compensation and benefits, as well as the career path that staff “haven’t always had.”
“We’ll get that with our new city manager,” Duncan said. “I’m confident about that.”
Speaking to an increasingly polarizing topic in pickleball, Duncan recognized the competing interests of residents who love to play the sport rapidly growing in popularity and others at their wit’s end from the noise the sport creates at San Gorgonio Park.
Duncan said he wanted the city to continue to foster a sport that is accessible for all ages, and addressed the “heartbreaking” situation with the park’s neighbors.
“I’ve heard the noise; it’s not something that I would want to hear,” he said. “But at the same time, we can’t just shut the whole thing down with no plan of action moving forward.”
Past council direction to staff has requested an expedited process of constructing courts at Richard T. Steed Park, and Duncan said they are working as fast as possible to address the matter.
“I hope for a resolution within the next year that starts to alleviate the anxiety and the adverse effects, frankly, on the quality of life of folks in that San G area,” he said.
Given that the council directed staff to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) in October to look beyond Best Best & Krieger’s legal services, with which the City of San Clemente has contracted since 2015, Duncan gave his opinion on what the city should look for in a law firm.
To start, he wanted a firm to be fully prepared to research and give unbiased legal opinions that provide clear guidance and allow for the council to make an informed decision.
“If we’re going the wrong way, that city attorney needs to step up and say, ‘You’re entering difficult waters here, you’re putting the city in jeopardy,’ ” he said.
That input is a part of what Duncan said should factor into all decisions for the city, in terms of putting the residents’ best long-term interests first. Avoiding costly litigation is especially important to that end.
The city’s attorney should not be afraid to be blunt or disagree with the council, according to Duncan, and should also be able to accept the council’s choice and execute direction.
He commended BB&K’s service and said the council will exit the RFP process with consensus in its next steps.
“I’m really confident that we’re going to be able to come to consensus on many of these issues; we already have,” said Duncan. “I think on the legal issue, we’ll continue to have that.”
He also noted that since past periods of increased legal costs related to council-directed litigation, the city has stepped back and found more resolutions away from the court system with the advice of current City Attorney Scott Smith.
Regarding San Clemente’s efforts to improve the permitting process for residents and businesses, Duncan said streamlining was critical.
He added that the “excellent” staff in permitting and the Community Development Department are working to overhaul the process, but that it couldn’t be done overnight despite their best intent. The issue can be connected to past council direction that stacked an untenable number of priorities to address on staff’s desks, according to Duncan.
“We’ve got to make sure we bring in the best and brightest, and we fully staff,” he said. “That will allow us to do projects like the streamlining more quickly.”
The conversation with SC Times moved on to health care options in town, which Duncan first tried to address as part of the council’s Hospital Subcommittee along with Councilmember Gene James.
The two investigated whether hospital systems would be interested in coming to San Clemente and whether the city could afford to build a new one. Both questions were met with negative answers.
“It seems that the community hospital model is not something that hospital groups are focusing on,” Duncan said. “They’re focusing on community-based health care centers, like Providence is putting in (at the Outlets), like Hoag would like to put in, and frankly, like MemorialCare proposed a few years ago.”
With the trend of outpatient care growing in popularity, he said the city should encourage providers to establish a footing in San Clemente that enables access for everyone. Going into hospital rooms for non-emergencies is close to being of a bygone era, said Duncan.
“Now, even with serious conditions, they have monitors and they want you to be at home,” he said. “It’s more cost-effective for everyone.”
He added that “wellness centers” focused on preventative services are a good fit for a town as smitten with outdoor activities as San Clemente.
To close, Duncan said he was hopeful and excited for the council to work together in 2023 and attend to the numerous challenges he has heard about through resident feedback and other avenues.
Additionally, residents’ concerns and desires to improve their city inspire him, he said, as their involvement is a sign of a city worth fighting for.
Duncan circled back to the topics of coastal erosion and homelessness as matters he is confident the city will make significant progress in addressing.
“I want the residents to feel it and see it,” he said. “No more talk. I want action, and I know in talking to my fellow councilmembers that they want the same thing.”
The varying backgrounds of himself, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Knoblock, and Councilmembers James, Cabral and Enmeier are an asset, according to Duncan.
He also expressed their availability to residents, as he can be reached through his council email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’s going to be a great year for San Clemente,” he said. “We’re past the pandemic now, largely, and so we’ll be able to really get back to addressing the pressing needs that are before us.”