Lake Forest may be a relatively new city, but it’s continues to hold a small town appeal.

Incorporated in 1991, City Manager Robert C. Dunek says the city continues to grow, but it will always have that hometown flair. And he should know since he has been the city manager for the past 14 years.

“The challenge has been in matching community needs and wants with city resources within desired timeframes while developing the organization and its abilities to respond to changing conditions,” he shares. “We are poised to see additional residential growth that is dependent on the housing market recovery – when it recovers and new homes are being built, we will absorb the new units over several years.”

A Lot to Offer

Lake Forest is city that has attracted people from near and far to its diverse community. There are two lakes, beautiful homes, good schools and lots of other amenities that have made it a popular Orange County city.

“Lake Forest, as well as Orange County as a whole, is changing demographically for various reasons. Since change itself is difficult for many, concerns by various residents can be anticipated and is likely a natural outcome. Despite issues related to change, I would not overly characterize them as a problem, but rather as issues that help shape the needs of the community.

While parts of the community have existed for decades, Lake Forest only officially incorporated as a city in 1991. 

“As the city manager for 14 of the city’s 18-year history, I have had the opportunity to guide the growth of both the community and the organization.  For example, the city’s population at incorporation was about 59,000 people.  In 1997, we launched an effort to annex two adjoining communities that were left out of the original city boundaries.  In leading this project, I realized that a phased approach to annexation was the best course for success.  After a few years, the series of annexations was complete without a single formal protest.  This project increased the city’s population to about 78,000 people and added 6.35 square miles to the city’s incorporated area.”

“Another project was the revitalization of the city’s older commercial corridor.  The project included a longer term plan that started with the negotiated transfer of jurisdiction of a county redevelopment project that included area outside of the city’s boundaries.  After transfer of jurisdiction, the city’s redevelopment agency started significant community workshops to devise a revitalization plan to improve traffic and the visual aspects of the corridor and to motivate private property owners to reinvest in their shopping centers.  The redevelopment agency invested more than $30 million in traffic and landscape improvements along the corridor and several property owners significantly rehabilitated their centers while a few completely scraped the properties and built new centers.  Transformed into The Arbor on El Toro, the City’s older commercial corridor is now vibrant and a source of pride as the gateway into the community.”


Dunek says Lake Forest receives the majority of its revenue from property tax, which represents about 38 percent of total General Fund revenues. Sales tax accounts for about 27 percent. Total revenue from all funds is projected at $44.2 million with the General Fund being $32.2 million of that amount for FY 2009-10.

The two man-made lakes are both privately owned by homeowners associations; therefore, the city derives no revenue from them and has no related expenses.

Lake Forest may have lakes, and lots of shopping, but like a lot of growing cities, there has been an increase in traffic, Dunek says.

“The city licenses an independent community-wide poll of residents and businesses every two years to help guide its Five-Year Business Plan. The last several polls have consistently ranked traffic congestion as the number one concern. Given the urban nature of the county, this concern is shared by most communities in the area and likely reflects felt conditions accurately,” he says.

“The city is proud, however, that city services and the quality of life in the community consistently receive a satisfaction rating of 91 percent-plus by residents and businesses in poll results.”

More specifically, in the 2008 Survey, the number one response when asked to identify the top issue was “no problem perceived” at 25 percent; concern about traffic was number two at 17 percent.  When asked what they want most from the city in the next two years, the top answer (12.6 percent) was “cannot think of anything else;” the second top response was improved traffic conditions at 12.4 percent. 

What Makes It Work

Dunek says that he has been successful in his role as city manager thanks to his working closely with the Lake Forest City Council.

“Remember that the city council and city manager are a ‘team’ that collectively provides policy direction and administrative operations for the city.  In that regard, each needs to be sensitive and mutually supportive of the roles they play collectively and individually in the governance of the community,” he says. 

He also adds that the present Lake Forest City Council has an average tenure of 13.5 years with one member continuously serving since incorporation. This stability of leadership has provided the opportunity to engage in longer term planning for the benefit of the community.

And while he may work side-by-side the city council, Lake Forest has been hit with some issues as of late that it has had to contend with.

“As with all cities in the County of Orange, Lake Forest has been affected by the poor economy.  Our revenues are down for the first time in the city’s history.  Fortunately, the city built significant reserve funds over the years to withstand poor economic times,” he explains.  “However, we were able to balance the FY 2009-10 Budget without the use of reserves by making some minor adjustments in expenditures.  Lake Forest essentially is a contract city; as such, our labor costs are only about 20 percent of expenses.  We do not anticipate the need, therefore, to reduce employee positions or salaries.” 

Can It Be Better?

When asked if Lake Forest could be an even better place for its residents and all concerned, Dunek says, every organization has the capacity to become even better no matter how well it presently functions. 

“Communities and city organizations are constantly evolving – hopefully for the better, but it can be for the worse if not monitored well.  In that light, Lake Forest can become better.  The trick is to guide its evolution so that it is constantly becoming better by whatever measurement one employs.  Monitoring takes various measurement tools, and we have adopted several in Lake Forest.  One significant way to monitor progress to ensure it’s in alignment with community desires is to poll residents and businesses regularly,” he continues.

“In our mind, the quality of the city organization ultimately is judged by the community we serve.  To gauge our progress, the city contracts with an independent firm to conduct community-wide polls every two years to determine how well services are being delivered, what issues are emerging as important, and to test new program ideas.  We use the results to build a Five Year Business Plan which is reviewed and updated every two years.  This timeframe also coincides with our Two-Year Capital Budget process to provide an integrated way to match plans with real projects.  We also use a 24/7, Web-based tool to solicit citizen service requests and complaints so that we can monitor trends as they emerge and improve services.”  

More Growth To Come

Lake Forest continues to attract new businesses and at the same time, it has also completed a number of revitalization projects that have helped the city’s bottom-line.

“The community has embraced the revitalization of the city’s older commercial areas.  The process we employed to transform those areas included continuous, significant community input and interaction.  In that respect, the changes reflect what the community and property owners desired,” Dunek says. 

But as it continues to grow and spread its wings, Dunek says Lake Forest will not lose its hometown appeal.

“While being part of a highly urbanized county, Lake Forest has retained much of its ‘small town’ feel.  From the Fourth of July Parade that involves a vast majority of residents in some fashion to neighborhood centers that serve as gathering places, Lake Forest offers a variety of amenities that satisfy a desire to identify with a ‘hometown,’ ” he says.

Forward to the Future

As for what lies ahead, Lake Forest is set to grow over the next few years with the build-out of the last remaining planned development, Dunek says. In fact, the population could eventually reach 100,000 residents in the long term. 

“Existing residents have supported the planned development for the most part and helped guide its character,” he says. “While growing, the city values and plans to maintain the sense of ‘hometown place’ characteristic of the community today,” he says.

The writer, Debbie L. Sklar is a 20-plus year journalism veteran residing in Southern California, where she is a writer, columnist and editor for many local, regional and national publications. She is a regular contributor to and may be reached via e-mail at