Irvine’s Municipal Elections Could Decide Future of City

Times Staff Writer

Irvine, Orange County’s master-planned hamlet, likes to think of itself in lofty terms. Its official slogan is “another day in paradise,” and here the phrase “quality of life” is as common as “what’s for breakfast?”

However, fear of losing its suburban serenity to pollution, traffic and crowding has set the stage for a fight next month over control of the five-member City Council and the issue of Irvine’s direction.

The results of the June 3 race, in which 10 candidates are vying for two council seats, could mean the difference between a City Council that favors further development of the 42-square-mile city or one seeking limits on new construction, traffic and freeways.


“It is a critical election for the City of Irvine because we are at a crossroads,” Mayor Dave Baker said. It could, he said, affect “what the city looks like in the year 2000.”

Well-Known Community

Since it became a city in 1971, Irvine, which now has a population of 88,711, has become one of America’s best-known planned communities.

Spawned by the Irvine Co., the city has grown according to a meticulous blueprint, divided into several villages of orderly tract houses, each with its own theme, focal point, schools and parks.

Now, the specter of change, of rush-hour traffic jams and freeways slicing through suburbia, has raised concern that trouble is looming in paradise.

Among the candidates is two-term Councilman Larry Agran, the council’s most vocal advocate for restraining development and a frequent opponent of the powerful Irvine Co. and other large developers.

Along with his own candidacy, Agran, 41, is actively backing council hopeful and city Planning Commissioner Edward Dornan. Should Dornan and Agran win, they could form a three-man council majority on key development issues with incumbent Ray Catalano.

While Catalano is seen as an independent, the nationally renowned urban planner and UC Irvine professor is part of the “slower growth” faction. Moreover, he has endorsed both Agran’s and Dornan’s candidacies. On the other side of the political tug of war are Baker and Councilwoman Sally Anne Miller, a local Realtor. Both maintain that the city needs more freeways and housing to accommodate the growth they say is inevitable. Baker and Miller also hope to cement a three-vote majority on the council. Toward that end they are pushing the candidacies of Tom Jones, president of the Irvine Chamber of Commerce, and City Finance Commissioner Hal Maloney.

Agran, who was the top vote-getter in the 1982 election and has about $35,000 in his campaign war chest, is not considered vulnerable in the election.

Therefore, as Baker and others see it, “the controlling balance of our city’s direction in many respects is that third seat,” the swing vote on a divided council.

That seat unexpectedly opened when City Councilwoman Barbara Wiener , a Baker and Miller ally, announced in January that she would not seek reelection.

Other Candidates

Among the other candidates are Jean Hobart, a 42-year-old trial attorney who helped spearhead a grass-roots effort of more than 10,000 people to block construction of new freeways and who is running on a no-growth platform; attorney Scott Wellman, 32, who cites traffic as the city’s No. 1 problem, and Mary Aileen Matheis, a real estate attorney who has said the freeways “in some form” are needed to keep traffic congestion from destroying the city.

Also, political newcomers Clarence Becwar, 43, owner of an electronics firm who says city hall red tape hampers small businesses and thinks Irvine should do more for its handicapped and elderly residents; Gary Steven Bennett, 34, a former Costa Mesa policeman and owner of a publishing firm who would like to see the council be more attentive to residents’ concerns, and Anthony Korba, 42, a publisher and TV producer who has been active in Irvine sports and homeowner groups.

All the candidates agree, with the possible exception of Hobart, that the city should and will grow, but they disagree sharply about how much and what form it should take.

The June election is being played out against the friction created by the increasing political activity of residents and Irvine’s business community, most notably the Irvine Co., the landlord of 68,000 of the city’s 75,000 acres.

“For the first time in a long time, we have the opportunity to gain a pro-resident council majority with a demonstrated willingness to say ‘no’ to the Irvine Co. and other major developers,” Agran said.

Slower Growth Rate

“The rate of growth in the community will be very different with a council majority that is more in keeping with the will of the residents,” Agran said. “It will be much slower.”

It also would come as a blow to the Irvine Co., which is building nearly 5,000 new residential units annually and adding 1 million square feet of new office space each year.

Now Orange County’s largest home builder, the Irvine Co. is also about to become its biggest retail developer. It has plans to build 15 shopping centers in and around Irvine. New retail construction would total 2.8 million square feet, more than 1 million square feet larger than Orange County’s biggest mall, South Coast Plaza.

Apart from questions about future construction, there is emotional debate over plans for three new freeways that would skirt the city.

Developers vs. Residents

Again, the Irvine Co. and a large coalition of builders are pitted against residents who fear that the new roads would bring unwanted and unbridled development to south Orange County.

The company’s ambitious plans to develop its land within the City of Irvine and in adjacent cities, for example, depend in large part on the billion-dollar construction of the San Joaquin Hills, Foothill and Eastern freeways.

Last year, Irvine was one of 10 cities that entered the Joint Powers Agreement, a cooperative venture in which developers would be assessed a fee to help pay for the 60 miles of additional roadways.

More than 10,000 Irvine residents banded together to stop the city’s participation. The group, known as C.O.S.T., has argued that the decision to impose these fees and thus build the freeways rests with the Irvine voters, not the City Council.

High Court to Hear Case

The group has succeeded in getting the state Supreme Court to hear its case later this year.

What has the Irvine Co. and other builders concerned, moreover, is Agran’s not-so-secret desire to have the council pull out of the funding agreement.

Agran, who was the only councilman to oppose the developer fee program, has said that if Dornan is elected, withdrawing from the agreement is one of the first things he will ask the newly constituted council to do.

“What is of tremendous concern to us is the ability to build the (freeway) corridors,” said Jack Flanigan, the Irvine Co.'s vice president for corporate affairs. “We think that is a critical issue for Irvine as well as for Orange County broadly, and I think that in this election, transportation issues are going to be the issue in the campaign.”

Backing by Business

Referring to Agran’s opposition to the Joint Powers Agreement, Flanigan added, “The council’s willingness to be part of the JPA is critical to funding and developing the corridor.”

The Irvine Co. and the business community are banking on the successful candidacy of either Jones or Maloney.

Both men support additional roadways and development. Both have been endorsed by the Irvine Chamber of Commerce and will probably receive money from its political action committee. And both are recipients of the Irvine Co’s. political largess.

Although the Irvine Co.'s official policy is “hands off” when it comes to making company contributions or endorsements in City Council elections, its employees are schooled on the issues and candidates, and asked to participate in the election.

‘Encouraged to Get Involved’

“We are encouraged to get involved,” said one company executive, “and get involved we do.”

Irvine executives were present at a recent $250-a-person fund-raiser at the Irvine Marriott Hotel for Jones, for example, and many company employees have been soliciting campaign contributions for Jones and Maloney during the workday.

Joe Troxell, project director for home builder Irvine Pacific Development Co, one of the Irvine Co.'s six wholly owned subsidiaries, declined to say how much money he had raised to date for Jones and Maloney, but noted, “It’s going pretty good.”

Jones, a 44-year-old attorney and former assistant to then-Governor Ronald Reagan, chafes at any suggestion that he is the hand-picked favorite of the Irvine Co. Still, he has taken positions that generally support the company’s future plans and that distinguish him from Agran and Dornan.

‘Can’t Put Up Walls’

On the issue of growth, for example, Jones said: “Some council candidates have suggested that we place an absolute moratorium on growth, but that isn’t the answer. We can’t put up walls and ignore what’s going on around us. A better answer is a more carefully planned growth.”

On the issue of transportation, he said: “Some candidates have also suggested we stop making transportation improvements as a way to stop growth. I believe that’s putting your head in the sand.”

Maloney, who supports the corridor “in some form,” has emphasized his three years on the city’s finance commission and cites his role in helping to cut $1.8 million in city spending and establishing a fund to repair city streets and parks.

“I think we see signs of what we don’t want to happen in Irvine,” said Maloney, 36, who is an administrative analyst for the county health care agency and Baker’s appointee to the finance commission. “We are importing 50,000 people a day and forcing them to drive through our residential streets to get to work.”

Holding Down Development

In contrast is Dornan, the 46-year-old English professor at Orange Coast College who ran in 1982 but lost with 5,567 votes. He talks about preserving the city’s open space and echoes Agran’s theme of “having the courage to restrain excessive development.”

“Residents have to decide whether they wish to . . . turn the city over to the developers,” Dornan said.

Although other issues are of concern to Irvine residents, such as adequate child care and quality schools, all political discussions seem to lead back to the one issue.

“So much of the election talk and what happens revolves around the politics of growth,” Mayor Baker said. “In many respects it has become an issue of power.”

In addition to electing two members to the City Council, Irvine voters will be asked to decide whether the mayor, who is now appointed by fellow council members, should be directly elected by the people, and whether council members should be limited to serving two consecutive four-year terms.