Power lines and poles are the single biggest threat to our public safety.

These are the comments I made at the October 24 City Council meeting regarding citywide undergrounding of utilities:

We sit here tonight in the week that marks 24 years from the 1993 fire that ravaged our community and destroyed 440 homes.  We sit here tonight less than three weeks after the deadliest fires in California history in the Wine Country claimed 42 lives, burned more than 246,000 acres and destroyed at least 8400 structures.   While the official cause of the fires has not yet been announced, there have been numerous reports that downed power lines were involved in starting or spreading several of the fires.   As reported in this LA Times article, which staff will reference in the presentation, power lines are a leading wildfire cause.     

Most of us know and agree that fire is the greatest public safety risk that we face as a city.  And I know, and have spoken to many in our community who agree, that above ground utility lines are an imminent threat to our public safety every day.  As documented in tonight’s agenda item, in the last 10 years we have had 5 fires sparked by utility lines and on Laguna Canyon Road alone 58 vehicles crashing into polls, often closing the road for extended periods.  So far we have avoided a catastrophic fire but how long will our luck hold?

As difficult as it may be to think about the consequences of another major fire in Laguna, imagine with me for a moment how utility poles and lines could create devastation in our community.  The Santa Ana winds are blowing and lines go down sparking fires in one or more neighborhoods.  Or a major earthquake hits and downed power lines spark fires or ruptured gas lines spark fires which then spread to the power poles and transformers begin to explode as they did in 1993.  Residents are trapped in their homes or trapped in their vehicles as they try to escape a firestorm.  But they can’t evacuate because downed poles and wires on Bluebird Canyon Road block the escape from Bluebird Canyon neighborhoods, downed poles and wires obstruct the escape route on Park Ave, Top of the World and Temple Hills neighbors likewise are trapped by downed poles and wires on Thalia, Woods Cove and Diamond Crestview residents are stuck behind downed poles on Glenneyre and South PCH, North Laguna residents are trapped by downed poles on Monterey and downed poles and wires block Laguna Canyon Road trapping Laguna Canyon residents and preventing others from using the inland escape route.  And these blocked escape routes mean something else—our fire and police personnel can’t get to the fires.  The risk of one of these tragic scenarios playing out is all too real.    

We sit here tonight two years into a concentrated effort to gain the cooperation of the utility companies to expedite undergrounding in the city.  That effort began the night of the July 3, 2015 fire in Laguna Canyon sparked by downed utility lines when I wrote a letter to the President of SCE asking him to meet and begin a cooperative effort to underground utilities throughout the City.  We met and had similar meetings with SDG&E. Neither utility was willing to think outside the box to find creative solutions to undergrounding the City.  

The unwillingness of the utility companies to partner with us, their aggressive attack on our undergrounding ordinance and opposition to our efforts at the California Public Utilities Commission leave us with only one alternative—to shoulder the burden ourselves and develop a locally funded plan to underground the entire City.Councilmember Zur Schmiede and I have been working with staff to develop a plan for undergrounding that is multi-faceted as you will see from tonight’s agenda item and I want to commend staff for the work that they have done so far on this critical issue.  

This is a watershed moment for our City and I believe that we need to be bold in our proposals to address this number one threat to public safety.  It is my view, and I am joined in this by Councilmember Zur Schmiede, that we must present the voters in 2018 with ballot measures to underground the entire city.    As a subcommittee we will be working on the details of these measures in the coming weeks to present back to Council.   An important component of this plan will be to commit City dollars on an annual basis to significantly reduce the cost for residents.  My goal is to develop a plan that will reduce costs to residents by 25% to 35% from what they have paid in previous assessment districts.

This plan will be expensive in terms of absolute dollars, probably $150 to  $200 million, but in a relative sense I submit that this is actually a modest investment given what is at stake.  Of course you can never put a price on human life so if these improvements ultimately save the life one of our family members or neighbors I say it is worth it.  But this type of expenditure also makes sense given the value of our homes and businesses.  Real property and improvements in Laguna are assessed at $13 billion under Prop 13 but the market value easily exceeds $20 billion.  So an investment of $200 million, or 1% of the value of the property at risk, is a small price to pay to eliminate a major public safety risk permanently and protect our families and our homes from a major catastrophe. 

I know that Councilmember Zur Schmiede has some comments and thoughts that he wants to share and I really appreciate the effort that he has put into this issue as a Subcommittee member and look forward to continuing to work with him towards a viable plan for the city.    

Put Residents First. Vote YES on Measure LL!

The Council placed Measure LL on the ballot by unanimous vote.  It will increase the hotel bed tax by 2% and raise $2 million a year for important public safety programs.  We spend lots of money every year to provide services to visitors.  With Measure LL, visitors, not residents will pay to fund the cost of these services.  

Click here to read the article Kelly Boyd and I wrote for the Laguna Beach Independent explaining why we are urging a YES vote on Measure LL.

Help us maintain and improve the quality of live for residents.  Please join my fellow Councilmembers, our Police Chief, Fire Chief and Police and Fire Employee Associations in supporting Measure LL!

Vote YES on Measure LL

Tackled on the one yard line!

On Saturday, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed SB 1463 which had passed the Legislature on unanimous votes of 75-0 in the Assembly and 39-0 in the Senate.  Hard to believe really given the unanimous support in the Legislature!  The veto is a major disappointment to me, to the City and to the other cities and counties that had stepped forward to endorse the bill.  It is a very common sense piece of fire safety legislation and deserved the Governor’s signature. SB 1463 would have provided important direction to the California Public Utilities Commission in its current regulatory process concerning fire safety and overhead utility lines.

In vetoing the bill the Governor said that we need to raise the issues that SB 1463 seeks to address in the fire safety regulatory process ongoing at the CPUC.  But in punting the matter over to the CPUC without the protections afforded by SB 1463, the Governor ensures that the utilities will have the upper hand on what is essentially their home turf—the CPUC.   Local governments like Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Malibu and the 35 counties that endorsed SB 1463 have been cast into the lion’s den without a sword.  Even though the battle will be severely uphill, we will continue to press the CPUC to hold utilities accountable for fire safety in Laguna Beach. 

But the veto will not derail the push to underground utilities in Laguna Beach.  I remain committed to finding ways to expedite the undergrounding process.  These utility wires present an imminent threat to the safety of all residents and millions of visitors to our city.  I am confident that our residents and our City Council will come up with solutions to reduce fire risk by undergrounding utilities in the highest risk areas despite the complete unwillingness of the utility companies to help.   To implement a complete solution, it will likely require us to go to the voters to approve a bond.  But Laguna has risen to that challenge before when asked and I believe will do it again for one of the most fundamental public safety issues facing us everyday— the risk of a catastrophic fire.


If you Love Laguna, Vote Yes on Measure LL.

I need your help to pass Measure LL.  Measure LL puts Laguna Beach residents first by asking visitors to pay a fair share of the services the City must provide to serve them.  The City spends millions of dollars each year providing police, fire, paramedic, marine safety and other services to accommodate visitors.  By raising the hotel bed tax by 2%, Measure LL will raise over $2 million per year from visitors—not residents-- to pay for critical public safety services, cleaner beaches and fire safety measures like utility undergrounding.  Measure LL  was placed on the ballot by a unanimous vote of the City Council. To help ensure the passage of Measure LL we need to get the word out.  If you are willing to help the Yes on Measure LL effort, please send a check to Yes on Measure LL for a Safer Laguna Beach,” P.O. Box 515, Laguna Beach, CA 92652.  


SB 1463 on its way to the Governor's Desk

I am very excited to report that on Thursday August 25, the legislation that I have been working hard on since February cleared the Legislature and is on its way to the Governor’s desk!  I testified twice in favor of the bill in Sacramento and spent many hours meeting with Legislative staff and our consultants to shepherd the bill through six committees.  

SB 1463 will be a big help to us as we present our case to the California Public Utilities Commission that Laguna is a high risk fire zone where utility companies must provide enhanced mitigation measures to prevent catastrophic fires.

We will be meeting with the Governor’s office in September to ensure his signature.   Stay tuned and I will provide you with some details so that you can e-mail or mail the Governor urging his signature.  

There is much more to be done as we move forward to expedite undergrounding in Laguna but this is an important first step and building block in our effort.  Bob

SB 1463 Clears the Assembly's Utilities and Commerce Committee

For several months now I have been testifying before the State Legislature in support of SB 1463 which Laguna Beach had introduced in February to promote greater fire safety mitigation measures by utility companies in high risk fire areas like Laguna.  My most recent testimony in support of the bill can be viewed at the attached link. http://calchannel.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=7&clip_id=3845&meta_id=148452  Click on SB 1463.

The bill has been approved by the State Senate and today we received a unanimous vote at our first committee in the Assembly.  Next week we have a big test in the Assembly Natural Resources Committee where we are introducing amendments to strengthen the bill.

Undergrounding Utilties in Laguna Beach

As I said at my campaign kick off a week ago, the biggest public safety threat to Laguna Beach is wildfires, in particular, wildfires caused by electric power lines.  Just days after the July 3, 2015 fire in the Canyon sparked by a downed SCE power line, I contacted  the President of SCE urging him to partner with us to underground all electric utilities in Laguna Beach on expedited basis. The 2015 fire was the fourth one in the last 9 years sparked by SCE power lines.  With this history, it is clear that above ground electric utilities pose an imminent threat to our lives and property that could strike at any time.  After several meetings, SCE rejected all of our proposals to expedite the undergrounding process in Laguna Beach.

Unwilling to let this issue go, we took the matter to the California Legislature.  In February 2016, our State Senator John Moorlach agreed to introduce a bill to address the need for electric utilities to provide enhanced fire mitigation measures in very high fire hazard severity zones like Laguna Beach.  I have been in Sacramento several times this spring to testify in favor of the bill and to meet with legislators and staff to promote the bill.

I am very pleased to report that on May 31, on a unanimous 35 - 0 vote, the California State Senate passed our legislation which now goes to the Assembly.  In the Assembly  we will seek certain amendments  to allow for local governments in very high fire severity hazard zones to select undergrounding as the preferred fire mitigation measure.

We still have a way to go to get this legislation passed but we have momentum at this point and will continue to push hard for this bill which only seeks to give cities with very high fire risk what they deserve—a safe underground electric utility system.