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The seaside city of San Clemente faces a crisis around its coastline on a number of fronts: 

Beach sand loss threatens recreational areas and facilities; bacteria around the pier put the city on environmental group Heal the Bay’s  “Beach Bummer” list last year; and, stormwater runoff from city streets poses ocean pollution hazards. 

Yet the City Council next week could disband its longstanding Coastal Advisory Committee, the very panel of experts and concerned residents tasked with studying and advising on all these issues for council members to ensure the health of the city’s dozen or so beaches. 

Council members are set to vote Tuesday on whether to do away with the panel and merge its purpose and scope with the broader Beaches, Parks and Recreation Commission. 

Critics say that would dilute the original panel’s expertise and efforts to address some of the city’s most pressing coastal matters, while also playing into a pattern of what some call flat-out disinterest by city officials in the Coastal Advisory Committee’s work. 

Supporters of the potential move, like City Council member Gene James, say it’s an opportunity for “synergy” that could save staff time. 

“I think we can accomplish a lot. And quite honestly, the council needs to monitor it and certainly, if we find out we’ve gone the wrong direction on this, we can study this next year and reverse our course of action,” James said.

He dismissed notions that the council overall is disinterested in the work of the original committee.

One former Coastal Advisory Committee member, however, made these very complaints when he resigned nearly a year ago:

“There are numerous reasons for selecting this course of action, including the ongoing inaction of the City Council … as well as what use the council finds in our activities,” read the emailed resignation letter last year from former coastal committee member John McGuigan.

He added: “That lack of interest is telling about how most council members view the work of these important committees and the outreach effort they encourage to ‘regular’ citizens. Current circumstances make clear that this activity is not valued by anyone at City Hall.”

Homes in San Clemente on Aug. 18, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

At least one member of the council thinks the committee is working fine as it currently exists.

“That group has been very instrumental. They’ve really served as an extended arm in educating the city and their everyday actions that contribute to water quality in our town and taking on so many projects,” City Council member Laura Ferguson said in an interview on Friday. 

She said she has concerns with disbanding the committee, and that she didn’t even see it coming when staff first brought the idea forward at a June 1 City Council meeting. 

The official argument by City Hall is that dissolving the committee and merging it into the Beaches, Parks and Recreation Committee would cut costs by around $4,600, according to the meeting agenda’s staff report.

“Instead of staff being dedicated to two different committees that overlap, we would only have staff dedicated to one committee,” James said.

Ferguson said it’s not a lot of money, nor is it “even relevant to look at this from a cost impact perspective.”

“I was surprised by it,” she said. “To eliminate the Coastal Advisory Committee came as a surprise to me and the chairwoman. They didn’t see that coming.”

Days before the June 1 meeting, the panel’s vice chair, Jorine Campopiano, wrote in a letter to council members her concern “that this proposal will be a net detriment to our city’s important coastal water resources and will result in reduced transparency for the average San Clemente citizen that loves our beaches.”

“The city continues to face difficult and complex on-going coastal issues that can be advanced by the (committee),” she wrote, later adding “our coastal issues are too important to fold into a separate committee that currently runs at full capacity.”

In her letter, Campopiano listed off key initiatives the committee had undertaken, such as beach sand replenishment efforts, water bottle refill stations to reduce plastic pollution on beaches and trails, and small grants for nonprofits to pursue environmental projects.

The panel’s chair, Susan Ambrose, when reached for comment pointed to the committee’s mission statement.

In summary, it tasks the committee with ensuring coastal water resources and proper use of beaches, raising public awareness of coastal issues, and offering solutions to issues like air and water quality, pollution, solid waste reduction, recycling, and sustainability, among other things.

She also said her panel ensures that beaches continue to be a vital economic engine for the city: 

“If we did not provide this serious oversight … those tourists and visitors and community members would choose other beach cities that do,” she said. 

Ambrose added: “Our clean beaches and ocean provide the increased economic vitality so needed by the City and our businesses and community members as we have struggled through this pandemic.”

Sun bathers and swimmers enjoying the warm weather in San Clemente on May 17, 2020. Credit: JOSE HERNANDEZ, Voice of OC

On top of stewarding the coast, the advisory panel can also help to ensure the city doesn’t run afoul of ocean regulations with overhead regulatory agencies — such as the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board — and rack up fines. 

For example, the Times of San Diego reported a sewage spill in Laguna Beach last year just resulted in a $1.5 million penalty against the city by that agency.

San Clemente’s advisory panel also supported efforts to educate residents on the Clean Ocean Program, which essentially put a tax on San Clemente households with the revenue going toward city efforts to prevent stormwater runoff into the ocean. 

The program expired in June of last year, according to city records, with City Hall hiring a consulting firm to study a possible renewal — the ultimate approval of which will have to go before voters in a citywide ballot measure.

When, exactly, that will happen has yet to be worked out.

The program has sparked debate, with the San Clemente Times reporting that one city-initiated poll conducted in spring 2020 purported a split among residents over whether the program should be renewed.

Some council members, like James, believe the new iteration of the advisory panel, even if it’s dissolved and merged with the other committee, can be just as effective: 

“If we put the right people on it? Absolutely,” he said.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord

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