The City of San Juan Capistrano may be famous for its Swallows Day Parade every March and its historical Mission, but there’s a lot more to the city than meets the eye, according to Councilwoman Laura Freese.
Freese, who was elected to the San Juan Capistrano City Council in November and sworn in on Dec. 2, believes her main responsibility on the council is … “to the people of SJC; safety, health and welfare are of foremost importance.”
Some of her main stances while running for the San Juan Capistrano City Council included the economic development of the historic downtown area, specifically, and the City of San Juan Capistrano as a whole. Tackling crime, overcrowding, traffic and taxes were also on her ‘to-do’ list.
“My major focus is the revitalization of downtown. I started a Chamber/City Economic Development Steering Committee a few years ago to work on this issue. It is moving forward; we hope to achieve some implementation by the time the economy begins to turn around. I am co-chair of the Community Redevelopment Agency, which has the monies to help implement revitalization. When I ran for office, I said I was a fiscal conservative who would not raise taxes. By working to bring about more diverse revenue to the city, through smart planning, that objective should be achieved.”
Currently, she says, the City of San Juan Capistrano is, “chipping away at crime.”
“Working to relieve overcrowding in our city helps, but there is still plenty to be done.”
In between her full time job as the owner of a direct mail marketing business, the 58-year-old Freese is knee-deep in these San Juan Capistrano issues but she likes it that way.
To date, she says the best part about serving on the San Juan Capistrano City Council has been making good decisions and getting things started that residents have been requesting for quite a while.
Of course, it hasn’t been easy and she’s had to stay patient, she shares.
“Being used to the fast pace of the private sector, where things can progress from decision to implementation within months, the slower movement of government is something to get used to,” she says. “I know we are making progress with issues but the residents won’t see the progress for a long while.”
Many people know Freese as someone who was slammed for the comment that she made last year in the local media: “… political party labels don’t truly reflect a person’s ideology…” which received quite a bit of slack … but she still doesn’t see what the big deal was.
“The SJC City Council seat is non-partisan. In the highly inflamed election year of 2008, I did not believe ‘labeling’ me or any of the other candidates with the stamp of any particular political party was appropriate. I wanted to be judged on my philosophy, my achievements and the issues. The people of San Juan Capistrano must have felt the same because I won my seat as top vote-getter.”
She says that the major problem still facing San Juan Capistrano today is economic development.
“It was the issue that impelled me to run for city government and has been an issue for San Juan Capistrano prior to the current economic downturn. The good news is that we are moving forward and hopefully, will be ready when the economy begins to recover,” she stresses.
Speaking of the economy, Freese says that the City of San Juan Capistrano is surviving the recession by being proactive and diligent.
“We have cut the budget severely and will be doing so again in May. At the same time, we are looking for more ways to bring in sales tax revenue, not just for the short term but for the long term future of San Juan Capistrano. Praise should be given to the San Juan Capistrano city staff for doing such a great job with our reserve funds and for working to ‘tighten the belt.’ ”
Some of the other examples of how the topsy turvey economy has affected San Juan Capistrano she says include cutting back on community programs.
“Since having to cut back on many of the fun community programs that the people of San Juan Capistrano love, we hope to institute a ‘Volunteer Citizens Committee’ to help pick up the slack,” she shares.
Also, to help cut the budget, the city staff agreed to take a 2-week unpaid furlough at the end of last year. That move reduced the staff’s take home pay by 2 percent but saved the city $140,000 and “they should be highly commended,” Freese says.
And further out, Freese says projects that the council had hoped to have to fruition within the next few years, such as new parks, will be deferred until the economy begins to move upward.
A San Juan Capistrano resident for 12 years, Freese relocated elsewhere for another 12, but returned to the city in 2002 to many changes, and many for the better.
“I was so impressed to see that the characteristics that the folks of San Juan Capistrano hold dear, like protected ridgelines and open space, were still here and flourishing. There were also some wonderful improvements, especially in the downtown, like the Mission Promenade, across from the Mission San Juan Capistrano,” she says.
In terms of furthering her political aspirations, nothing is set in stone. She explains that in San Juan Capistrano, the position of mayor is voted on by the other city council members each December.
“I haven’t given any thought to higher political aspirations at this time,” she shares.
Married for 36 years, Freese has three daughters, all in their 20s. When she is not at her day job or in council chambers, she likes to hike in the open space trails of San Juan Capistrano, read, cook and spend time with her friends and family.
Debbie L. Sklar is a Southern California resident, columnist and editor for publications around the country. For story ideas/comments, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.