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Despite facing dramatic beach sand loss and water quality issues, San Clemente City Council members abolished an expert panel that studies and advises on these problems, plus the health of the city’s dozen or so beaches. 

San Clemente’s Coastal Advisory Committee is no more.

Now the focus of that panel’s efforts has been merged into a broader commission for beaches, parks and recreation. 

City Council members 4-0 on Tuesday, with officials previously arguing this will save the city time and money. Councilwoman Laura Ferguson was absent, who voted against disbanding the committee at a meeting earlier this month.

The council had already been limiting the Coastal Advisory Committee leading up to its disbanding.

Council members began reducing the panel last year from seven members to five, as well as restricting frequency and duration of meetings to two hours.

Months later, a panel member resigned saying the city was inactive and had gotten to the point of silence around important panel discussions.

“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,” read the emailed resignation letter from former coastal committee member John McGuigan.

City Councilman Gene James dismissed notions of the city’s disinterest in the original committee’s work during a conversation with Voice of OC before the meeting. 

Yet, Sarah Spinuzzi, staff attorney for the nonprofit environmental group, Orange County Coastkeeper, said the committee was rendered ineffective long before Tuesday’s vote.

“If the city council doesn’t listen to their special committees and heed their advice, then it doesn’t matter if your committee’s operating or not,” she said.

When it came time to vote that day, council members had little to say in public during the meeting about their decision, approving the restructuring with sparse discussion.

Council members also got rid of their Homeless Committee, merging it with a Human Affairs Committee, but kept a committee specifically devoted to golf courses — with a change in meeting frequency. 

The staff report says these moves will make the city operations more efficient. 

With the coastal committee now gone and merged, some residents and environmentalists fear beach conservation issues won’t be addressed properly. 

The committee “served as the eyes and ears of clean beaches and clean ocean oversight,” said San Clemente resident and chair of the old panel, Susan Ambrose, in public comment before the council’s vote. 

The panel also studies issues of stormwater runoff from the city’s streets into the ocean, as well as ocean water bacteria which has accumulated around the iconic pier.

The parks commission and advisory panel have distinctly different missions and the parks commission lacks the means to address coastal issues with a scientific approach, Ambrose said at the meeting. 

“While there’s some overlap and a desire to have sand replenishment under BP&R, it is really an activity for technical science-oriented committees like the Coastal Advisory Committee, and so is water quality,” said Ambrose. 

The parks commission will keep its same number of members, but is now required that two members have expertise in ocean water quality or beach environmental stewardship, according to the agenda report.

Councilmember Gene James, speaking with Voice of OC before the meeting, said combining the two groups would provide “synergy” and cost less money. City staff estimate the move will save around $4,600 annually. 

Some Orange County cities like Newport Beach and Dana Point have similar coastal advisory groups, but it is not a requirement for coastal cities. 

Heal the Bay has listed the San Clemente pier as one of the worst polluted beaches in California for two consecutive years. In 2019, it ranked number one most polluted beach in the state

San Clemente’s Coastal Advisory Committee has since been working with environmental organizations and the city to reduce ocean water bacteria, and recently saw promising signs in the fact that the number of unsafe water advisories has plummeted in the last year, said Staff Attorney for Orange County Coastkeeper Sarah Spinuzzi.

As for sand loss, a reclamation project currently in the works is set to cost the city millions of dollars.

The coastal advisory panel ensured coastal resources were being taken care of, raised community awareness on issues like the Clean Ocean Program and made sure the city followed ocean regulations, according to supporters. 

The panel’s management of these resources helped draw visitors and business to San Clemente, Ambrose said.

“Our clean beaches and ocean provides the increased economic vitality so needed by our city and our businesses and community members as we have struggled through this pandemic,” she said in public comment. 

Spinuzzi also worried about a negative impact on the economy if coastal issues are not addressed.

“What does it look like to the businesses that operate in the Pier Bowl or to people who get off the train when they come to San Clemente and they see these signs that say that there’s a health hazard associated with going in the water?” she said. “How is the City Council going to respond to that without any expertise from a special committee?” 

This oversight will be transferred to the beaches, parks and recreation commission which already manages 324 acres of recreational space, facilities, and programs, according to the city website. 

“I don’t think the city council understands the difference between what Beaches, Parks and Recreation does and what the Coastal Advisory Committee does, because frankly they’re not very good at listening to their advisory committees,” Spinuzzi said. 

A previous of this story said the council voted unanimously, instead of 4-0, with Councilwoman Laura Ferguson absent.

Jillie Herrold is a reporting fellow at Voice of OC and can be reached at jherrold@voiceofoc.org.

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