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San Clemente City Council members voted unanimously to take down controversial fencing along the beach and reopen parking lots at 50% capacity in an unscheduled vote last night.
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The reversal comes after a protest that saw eight people arrested on the beach last week, and a threat by Sheriff Don Barnes to cancel the city’s contract with the Sheriff’s Department.
“Unfortunately, after years of continued conflict among the City Councilmembers, I can no longer say that our interests in serving San Clemente’s residents are mutually aligned,” Barnes said in a letter to Interim City Manager Robert Dunek.
In a statement to Voice of OC this morning, OC Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said that the contract issues were about more than just the protests last week.
“(Barnes’) concerns with the city are not predicated on one instance or issue. We are hopeful the city will continue to work with us in a manner that allows the Department to continue to provide exceptional law enforcement services,” the statement said.
The meeting was agendized as a budget workshop to discuss changes in the upcoming fiscal year’s budget due to COVID-19, but the first half hour of the meeting was spent discussing potential beach reopenings.
The decision was made without notifying the public of the discussion before the meeting, as multiple councilmembers scrambled to place emergency action items in the first minutes of the workshop.
City Attorney Scott Smith said that the council could agendize the item with a supermajority vote, but that they had to provide a reason why the discussion could not wait until the following meeting.
“It will be subject to a finding that the need to take action rose after the posting of the agenda, and that it can’t wait until your next meeting,” Smith said. “I think (those findings) can be easily made, and by majority added to the agenda.”
Under the Brown Act, agendas must be finalized 72 hours before council meetings. The letter from Barnes arrived last Thursday.
City staff were originally set to present on the parking lots at their upcoming June 2 meeting.
Ultimately, the council decided to vote on a motion put forward by Councilman Chris Hamm, which called for parking lots along the beach to reopen at 50% capacity and allowed staff to fully reopen the parking lots once the county and state had made the same motion.
Parking lots will be reopened in different sections, but will not be spaced out between different cars. According to staff, it was far simpler to reopen one section of the lot than to institute barriers at every other parking spot.
City staff stated that they would be taking down all fencing today after the council approved the contract, and that the fencing would potentially be replaced by “a different flavor of barricade.”
There was some debate amongst the council over how to open up parking, with some asking for the lots to completely reopen.
Councilwoman Laura Ferguson voted to approve the motion, but said she thought that staff should simply reopen all the parking lots at full capacity now, saying she visited Dana Point’s beaches over the weekend and that parking lots at other locations across the city were all open.
“The county and other cities didn’t seem to have any problem reopening their parking lots, having to follow any standards at all.” Ferguson said. “Parking lots are packed…I don’t know anyone who said they got COVID-19 from a car.”
“I’m comfortable making the decision at 100%, but I’m fine waiting for the next five days to see what others do just so we can get these lots open.”
Hamm responded that the county’s parking lots had not reopened at full capacity yet, and that his motion would allow city staff to move in that direction without another vote from the council.
“The fact that you didn’t research what adjacent communities are doing is pretty concerning to me,” Hamm said. “We’re trying to provide for the safety of our residents, our staff, and our visitors.”
“I encourage you to continue to go to Dana Point’s beach.”
According to the city staff’s report, Orange County is expected to reopen all beaches under county control at 100% capacity this weekend, and the cities of Newport and Laguna Beach are following that guidance.
Huntington Beach is currently keeping anywhere between 50-75% of their lots capacity available.
Councilman Gene James called for a discussion specifically on Barnes’ letter that was seconded by Ferguson, but the council never discussed the issue.
The council’s next meeting is scheduled for June 2, and no agenda has been posted indicating whether discussion on the letter will be continued.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.