Staking out stances on everything from term limits to marijuana dispensaries, seven candidates vying for two Lake Forest City Council seats sought to sway a crowd of 100 people at a candidate’s forum hosted by the Lake Forest I Community Association Wednesday.
In colorful and sometimes heated exchanges, the candidates often disagreed on how the city should move forward on major issues. The city is caught in an expensive tug-of-war between the state and federal government over the legality of medical marijuana dispensaries, and the new council will have to decide whether to continue spending money to fight the shops or allow them to operate in town. Additionally, huge housing developments and traffic challenges loom before Lake Forest, and the next council will play a pivotal role in managing the city’s growth spurt.
Among the evening’s notable moments, candidate Kathy Zechmeister announced that her husband, Planning Commissioner Jerry Zechmeister, will step down if she is elected. Five of the candidates would allow medical marijuana dispensaries to operate in Lake Forest. And one candidate would halt the Portola Center housing development, pending a traffic plan addressing congestion.
None of the candidates were supplied questions prior to the event, which was moderated by Lake Forest Patch editor Sarah de Crescenzo. The seven candidates included incumbent Marcia Rudolph and challengers Jim Gardner, Adam Nick, Ken Carrell, Kathy Zechmeister, Planning Commissioner Terry Anderson, and Dwight Robinson.
It was the first such forum hosted by the homeowners association at the Beach and Tennis Club.
Early on in the forum, challengers Gardner and Nick positioned themselves as chief critics of the current council’s decisions and were often at odds with Rudolph, the panel’s sole incumbent.
Gardner concluded the forum on a theatric note, removing his suit jacket to demonstrate that he has no strings attached.
“There’s no strings on me. Vote for Terry or Kathy, and decisions about Lake Forest will be made in the living room of (Councilman) Peter Herzog. Vote for Dwight or Adam, decisions about our city will be made in the Living Room of (Councilman) Scott Voigts,” he said. “The only endorsement I care about is your endorsement. The only puppet I’ll be is your puppet. You give me four years and I will give you the most productive time this city has ever seen.”
Zechmeister was quick to respond.
“Game on,” she stood up and told Gardner. “I’m a grassroots girl…I don’t have ties to Peter Herzog or anyone like that.”
A 25-year-resident of the city, Zechmeister emphasized her volunteerism and efforts to help Lake Forest incorporate into cityhood.
Similarly, Rudolph, a founding councilwoman who has served all but two years since 1991, noted her track record of service and involvement in almost every major project and decision in the City Council’s history.
Conversely, Carrell, the owner of a local architectural firm, and Nick, an accountant and owner of a Lake Forest Drive gas station, both emphasized their involvement in the city’s business community. Anderson and Robinson, on the other hand, both emphasized their roles as youth sports coaches in town.
Each of the candidates agreed that traffic is a significant issue that the council must monitor carefully. However, that was the only issue they all agreed upon.
Lake Forest spent two years and more than $900,000 to close 38 medical marijuana dispensaries. Federal officials assisted the city at its request in closing down the last few operating in late 2011. One last holdout was raided thrice before closing its doors for good earlier this year.
Zechmeister and Anderson both sided with the federal government and endorsed efforts to close down the dispensaries.
“We have no business getting involved in this mess, and we should keep it out of our community,” Anderson said.
Without directly endorsing the dispensaries, Rudolph said she supports the property owners’ right to operate their business.
The remaining candidates argued that dispensaries are inevitable and several questioned the wisdom in spending money to fight them rather than taxing and regulating them.
Robinson suggested a zone change to corral the dispensaries into a single section of Lake Forest, where the city could locate a police substation to discourage anyone tempted to use the drug for recreational purposes.
Each of the candidates said they would consider some type of term limit except for Rudolph, who has served five terms on the council.
“As far as term limits are concerned, I have been against them since day one,” said Rudolph. “We have term limits ― they are called elections.”
“I think we should have term limits,” countered Carrell. “I think if you can’t do what you intend to in eight years, you are doing something wrong."
El Toro High School Stadium
The Saddleback Valley Unified School District proposes to revamp El Toro High School’s football stadium by adding bleachers to seat thousands and lights that would allow teams to play nighttime home games and El Toro to host graduations.
The project has raised the ire of neighboring residents worried about the traffic and noise and light pollution from games.
“I am not for it,” Nick said. “I believe it will negatively impact the neighborhood.”
Noting that the city doesn’t have final say over the project, both Zechmeister and Anderson said the council’s role will be to carefully review the project’s traffic and environmental report to make sure negative impacts are mitigated for the surrounding neighborhood.
Portola Hills Development
Residents, developer Baldwin and Sons and city officials are in talks to find a way to minimize the impact of the Portola Center development—which will add up to 930 homes to the city—in the Portola Hills community. New residents will jam up traffic and further impact Lake Forest schools, opponents argue.
Robinson said he worries the project will crowd the city’s roadways and Portola Elementary. The city will have to make sure the project addresses the infrastructure improvements and classroom additions needed to accommodate the new families, he said.
Nick, on the other hand, said he completely opposes the project.
Gardner criticized the city for not adequately addressing the project’s traffic impact as well as preexisting traffic problems. He argued for putting the project on hold until a better plan is developed.
“It’s going to impact us all very, very badly,” he said.
Is Lake Forest Business Friendly?
The candidates were divided on whether the city does enough to attract businesses and help them thrive in the community.
Robinson* had harsh words for the city’s track record with businesses. He cited the anecdote of a restaurant owner who hired 150 employees in preparation for a grand opening only to be forced to wait six weeks because of a hold-up at the city.
Nick, who is fighting the city to reverse approval given to a 7-Eleven near his gas station to get an alcohol license, criticized the city for playing favorites within the business community.
Rudolph, Anderson, Zechmeister and Carrell all gave the city passing grades for supporting businesses in a myriad of ways such as recruiting big retailers, not requiring business licenses, and partnering with the Chamber of Commerce.
“We bend over backwards for the businesses to come to this city,” said Carrell.
* Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the speaker who gave the anecdote about a restaurant owner's experience with the city.