Around the time Melissa Caldwell began serving as the president of the PTA of her daughter’s elementary school, she was told the school was closing because there weren’t enough students.
Caldwell, who is running for a seat on the Laguna Niguel City Council in the upcoming Nov. 8 election, said after talking to Capistrano Unified School District officials, she realized special needs students were not being counted by the district toward enrollment. Out of 400 students at her daughter’s school, only half are counted, she said.
“When I realized [these] kids didn’t have a voice, it really opened my eyes,” she said. “It just tore me up inside and broke my heart.”
She said she fought the district to have the students counted, but ultimately, the school closed.
The students, she said, were transferred to other schools and for some of them, it was the sixth or even seventh such relocation.
She said that this experience urged her to seek more engagement in the community—one reason, she said, she decided to run for local office.
“I realized the more engagement you have within the community, the issues that arise you will have more potential opportunities to make a difference for future generations,” she said.
Being the mother of a now teenager, she said, also inspired her to pay attention to children’s well-being and safety, especially after she gave her daughter an e-bike for her 13th birthday and then learned how frequently they are cited in accidents.
“I didn’t realize I was giving her the keys to a car basically,” she said. “There are so many responsibilities that go into this. There is so much that people don’t understand or know [about e-bikes].”
Consequently, she partnered with Laguna Niguel Police, local hospitals, and a trauma prevention center to push forward what she called an e-bike action plan to educate the public—especially students and parents—about e-bike rules of roads, violations, and consequences of getting a citation before the age of 16.
“I definitely think what sets me apart from several other candidates is my relationship with law enforcement,” she said.
Her background and connections with the PTA have given her more access to the community as well, she said.
Besides the e-bike action plan, the potential sale of the Ziggurat Building, which was built by the federal government in the 1960s for military use, would be another focus, she said, if elected.
The city is considering working with the federal government to repurpose the building, though there have not been any decisions yet.
According to Caldwell, the building was the epicenter of growth for Laguna Niguel.
“They started building homes for military families that worked in the facility. That is how Laguna Niguel came about,” she said.
She said garnering community outreach is important when repurposing the Ziggurat. Some residents, she said, she’s talked with have suggested either an ice or roller skating rink.
“If we engage the community,” she said. “We will have residents that are potentially happy rather than upset that, one, they didn’t know, or two, something has been done that they absolutely didn’t want,” she said.
She also said she’s focused on the impending demolition of a library in the city’s town center, which the city is considering rebuilding along with developing apartments and retail stores.
“It’s going to end up being our own downtown,” she said.
Such new development, she said, will encourage younger families to move to the city.
We will have future generations to carry on,” she said.
Caldwell has over 20 years of experience in the legal field and served as the Chief Operating Officer for a local law firm.
She said her experience will help to ensure Laguna Niguel remains financially stable.
She praised city officials for establishing a strong financial foundation for the city.
“We are debt free, which I think is amazing,” she said.
Caldwell also said working with current elected officials has also prepared her to serve on the council.
She said doing fieldwork for Sen. Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) has helped her understand the legislative process and that she has welcomed over 30 new businesses to the city on behalf of the senator.
She said at a recent ribbon-cutting event, the owner of a new nail salon told her she couldn’t wait to give back to the community.
“It is so great to see businesses thrive,” she said. “I think if we have more businesses with that same mindset, we can continue to be successful in the future.”
In her free time, Caldwell said she enjoys gardening and spending time with her daughter on thrift shopping trips.
She said that running for city council is not a stepping stone for her and she is just a resident that wants to serve.
“I’ve been so involved in the community that I don’t want there to ever be a disconnect between our local government and our community members,” she said. “I love my community, I love my city, and I want to call it home forever.”
Campaign finance disclosure documents show she has raised over $8,000 from Jan. 1, 2021, through the end of June 2022, and has made a $1,000 personal loan to her campaign.