Typically known as a senior community, Laguna Hills is changing its image and, as of late, has had much bigger fish to fry.

In fact, City Manager Bruce E. Channing said, “The most significant changes in Laguna Hills over the past 10 years have been the improved capital infrastructure and the reinvestment in private property and the revitalization of aging neighborhood commercial centers.”

He added, “For the most part, these changes have all led to the betterment of the City.  Interestingly, the most strongly held opinion of the residents we polled (in the course of updating our General Plan this past year) about what they would like to see changed in the future was that they did not want anything to change. They really like the community the way it is and do not desire to see any substantial changes.”

Channing is the City’s first and only City Manager; beginning his employment a few months prior to the City’s official date of incorporation in December 1991.  

“Probably the biggest challenge was setting up the new City’s organizational structure and hiring all of the employees in the short window of time prior to taking over the provision of municipal services from the County of Orange,” he explained. “Creating a new organization and putting all the systems in place to operate efficiently and effectively without any historical information or real clear understanding of the new City’s financial condition during a period of time when the State was working through a major recession, was a daunting task.”

Here’s a closer look.

Q: What is the biggest misperception about Laguna Hills?

A: There are two misperceptions about Laguna Hills that I routinely hear: The first is that many people outside of the South Orange County area think that the retirement community formerly known as Leisure World is within our city boundaries. Now that they have incorporated as a City unto themselves (Laguna Woods), that misperception is less frequent. The other general misperception is that Laguna Hills is largely comprised of very wealthy people. While there are definitely many successful and wealthy people living in Laguna Hills, the overall composition of the City includes a diverse mix of people and a wide range of incomes with the median household income being only slightly above the County average.

Q: What’s your secret for co-existing with the City Council?

A: Determining how best to work successfully with one’s City Council is unquestionably the single-most important duty that all City Managers must figure out in order to develop a high-functioning and productive organization. There are a number of basic practices that generally apply to everyone’s situation and for the most part, they tend to center around the City Council’s individual and collective need for information and effective communication with the City Manager and City Staff. Crucial to that process is the development of trusting relationships. So many of the things we do in this business are built on trust and if we try to operate in a low-trust environment, every decision or action is decidedly more difficult to advance. Consequently, the City Manager cannot play politics.  That is best left to the elected officials. 

Q: And how should a City Manager be viewed by the City Council in your opinion?

A: A City Manager must be viewed by all members of the Council as honest and trustworthy, highly principled and ethical, committed to fairness, the free expression of ideas and the acceptance of dissenting opinions in the deliberative decision-making process.  Ideally, the City Council and staff should function like a team, realizing that everyone has an important role to play and that the overall success of the team is dependent on having a shared vision, a well-conceived and supported plan of action and a high level of confidence in and commitment to one another to fulfill their respective roles and accomplish their mutually agreed on objectives. Moreover, it is important that everyone support the basics of the democratic process and acknowledge that decisions are made by majority vote and no matter how controversial, once they are made they should be honored by all.

Q: That doesn’t always happen though, right?

A: Unfortunately, not all City Councils function as such. In those circumstances, the City Manager often finds the decision-making process much more challenging. Therefore, it is even more important to ensure that all members of the Council have access to the same information and that each of them believes that the City Manager and staff are faithfully and impartially carrying out the directives of the City Council majority. In addition, the Council must have confidence that the staff is providing each of them with the same amount of attention and respect as everyone one else.

Q: How do you get along with the LH City Council?

A: I have had the good fortune of working with all five members of the current City Council for a very long time. In fact, three of them have been on the City Council since the City’s incorporation and all of them were first elected to the inaugural City Council in 1991. I have tremendous respect and admiration for each of them and truly appreciate their long-standing and sincere commitment to the betterment of the entire city.  They have each viewed their public service as a personal calling and willingly made great sacrifices to represent the interests of their community in making Laguna Hills a great place to live.

Q: You have been able to make great strides as CM in changing a few things in Laguna Hills …

A: When I first started in Laguna Hills, there were no Little League fields, soccer fields, softball fields or basketball courts available for public use except for the limited local school facilities. Most all of the organized sports leagues were compelled to play their games in adjacent cities. Therefore, one of our earliest charges was to build recreational facilities that would meet the needs of our citizens. We have accomplished our objective, building three new Little League fields and refurbishing three school district baseball fields, constructing five soccer fields (two of which include lights for nighttime use), three outdoor basketball courts, two indoor basketball courts (as part of a multi-use gymnasium) two lighted softball fields and refurbishing every city-owned neighborhood park, including the replacement of the play equipment and inclusion of picnic tables and park benches.  We have also built an outdoor skateboard park and roller-hockey facility as part of the 18-acre Laguna Hills Community Center and Sports Complex.

Q: Roads have always been a big issue in the city that tends to be congested…

A: Yes, a second pressing need in the community was the improvement of the roads, particularly the widening of our arterial highways and intersections to allow for more efficient traffic circulation, including the installation of new traffic signals and synchronization of signals. We have spent tens of millions of dollars building out our street master-plan and including with it the installation of landscaped median islands and parkways that have greatly improved the aesthetic appearance of the city as well.

Lastly, there was a concern about improving public safety in the community. Through the successful partnership we have developed with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, the City of Laguna Hills enjoys an extremely low-crime rate placing us among the safest cities in America.

Q: Has the City and/or staff taken any budget cuts due to the economy? Any programs cut?

A: The City began making adjustments to the weakening economy nearly 2 years ago, implementing reductions in personnel through attrition and reorganization. Consequently, none of the permanent staff have had to be laid-off or furloughed in order to meet our financial targets for adopting the 2009-2011 Biennial Budget. We did need to make some cutbacks in our Sheriff’s contract, but we do not anticipate those cuts having any negative impact on day-to-day patrol activity.

Q: What is the biggest concern residents have about Laguna Hills and how is the City addressing this concern?

A: Every 2 years, we hire an independent pollster to conduct a scientifically-based opinion poll of our residents to find out how they feel about the city and the services they receive for the taxes they pay. The results of that survey have consistently shown that citizens in Laguna Hills feel very positively about living here and strongly support the direction the city has been moving toward. They believe they receive good value for the taxes they pay. In the most recent survey, residents said they would like more multi-use trails and enhancement of open spaces and slopes with landscaping. Consequently, the City Council has placed a large sum of money toward such improvements in the Capital Improvement Plan.

Q: Where does the City get most of its revenue? Local businesses? Have small Mom an Pop businesses disappeared and been replaced by large conglomerates?

A: The City of Laguna Hills receives most of its revenue from three sources: Property Taxes, Sales and Use Taxes, Transient Occupancy Taxes. We have a great many small businesses spread through out the City. We also have a number of large retailers in our Laguna Hills Mall.

Q: How do you think Laguna Hills can become an even better city?

A: Laguna Hills is a great City today. It has been since the time of incorporation, it can become better by remaining committed to maintaining the infrastructure improvements that have been made more than the past 15 years and preserving the qualities that residents cherish most about living here.

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 PublicCEO.com and may be reached via e-mail at