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Irvine Mayor Raked for His Dealings

Times Staff Writer

Larry Agran, a home-grown politician credited for promoting Irvine’s image as a prototype suburban Orange County city, is under fire for allegedly trying to use his mayoral post to enrich friends and political cohorts.

Agran, an attorney, is the target of critics who say that a major political supporter may benefit by the creation of a city utility and that other associates may profit from a huge park project the mayor initiated. They also note that he urged the city to use an ambulance company that donated to his chief political ally.

While the criticisms fall short of criminal accusations, a legal investigation has been requested. And the controversy suggests that the trappings of an old boys’ network have moved into tidy Irvine, where neat, beige homes and manicured lawns surround tennis courts, parks and artificial lakes.

If the emerging brouhaha seems unlikely for Irvine, the source of the criticisms strikes City Hall insiders as even more surprising.

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Leading the attack is City Councilman Chris Mears, an attorney and longtime Agran supporter. Two other council members, Christina Shea and Mike Ward, agree with Mears that Agran’s connections and dealings look like conflicts of interest, and they have joined Mears in asking the city attorney to begin the process of a possible investigation.

The Mears-Agran alliance evaporated in February. Mears said he told Agran and Agran’s longtime political associate, Ed Dornan, that he would no longer support the creation of an electric utility because Dornan had boasted to Mears that he would make money from the deal. Dornan denies it.

“This is the disintegration of a personal and political friendship that goes back 20 years, and I take no joy in it,” Mears said in an interview.

Agran has called the criticisms baseless and politically motivated. He suggested during a contentious council meeting last month that Mears was lashing out because Agran threatened to withhold support for Mears’ reelection. Mears called Agran a liar.

The accusations are expected to play prominently as the Nov. 2 election nears. Agran, on the council for 18 years and having served the maximum four years as mayor, is running again for a council seat. Mears, a four-year member of the council, announced in July that he would not seek reelection, saying he was fed up with Agran’s political cronyism.

Much is at stake for Agran, who has spent most of his adult life in government or working for nonprofit organizations he created to promote civic activism. He spends long hours at his part-time council job, a commitment that has made him the closest thing the 33-year-old city has to a political patriarch.

The election will influence the degree of Agran’s continued sway over Irvine’s ambitious $411-million redevelopment of the former El Toro Marine base as a Great Park. Agran introduced the park idea as an alternative to the county’s plans for a commercial airport at El Toro and regards the park as his political legacy.

The 20-year history shared by the two men began when Mears was a public-interest attorney and Agran had launched his political career.

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For Agran’s reelection campaigns in the ‘80s, Mears’ wife, Peggy, served as campaign treasurer. Mears gave money to Agran and his political causes. When political opponents attacked Agran, Mears was the attorney who sued on Agran’s behalf.

Now it is Mears making the accusations, and they’ve taken root because of the men’s shared history.

Mears said Agran and the mayor’s associates boasted about their ability to make money from city enterprises.

One of those friends is Dornan, who for years has put out the Hometown Voter Guide, a mailer published in election seasons backing Agran and his slate of candidates.

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In the past six years, Dornan, a former college English instructor, has distributed $1 million worth of mailers exhorting Irvine voters to support Agran and his slates. Companies doing or hoping to do business with the city have largely funded the political fliers. The mailers have been invaluable for Agran, who is barred by city ordinance from accepting more than $340 per donor.

In July, Mears accused Agran of pushing for the city utility at the behest of Dornan, who suggested the idea on behalf of Anaheim-based Enco Utility Services. Mears and City Manager Allison Hart said during the same contentious council meeting last month that Dornan had told them of his financial stake in the deal; Dornan has denied saying that. The city is still studying the utility proposal.

Last month, Mears protested Agran’s support for a six-year ambulance contract with Medix Ambulance Co., awarded through the Orange County Fire Authority. Medix had given $10,000 to Dornan’s 2002 Hometown Voter Guide. Mears, who sits on the Fire Authority board, steered the city’s ambulance service to another company, calling the political contribution link improper.

Most recently, Mears has proposed an independent investigation of the Enco utility proposal and the formation of at least three businesses created by another longtime Agran associate to sell trees to the Great Park. He said Agran and Dornan mused in 2001 about the profit-making potential of selling trees and landscaping for El Toro, which closed in July 1999. Agran and Dornan also deny making those statements.

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Two companies -- Great Park Tree Farm and El Toro Landscaping Holding -- were formed by Raphael “Ray” Chaikin, a longtime Agran friend, according to documents filed with the secretary of state and Chaikin business partner Tom Larson.

Chaikin could not be reached for comment.

“In my opinion, all of this is improper,” Mears said of the creation of the Great Park companies. The park board, which consists of the five council members and four at-large members, hasn’t decided how the property will be developed and by whom.

Mears said he was also troubled after an inventory of park trees was proposed by a nonprofit group, the Great Park Conservancy, which Agran and Dornan co-founded and which Dornan heads as an unpaid director.

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City officials rejected the conservancy’s proposal after learning that it was going to pay $36,000 to the arborist conducting the survey, then charge the park board $56,000. A contract to complete the tree survey later was awarded to a different company for $40,000.

Agran declined a request to discuss his connections with the tree companies. But he has defended, on the merits, his support for the city utility deal, for Medix Ambulance Co. and for paying the conservancy $56,000 for the tree inventory. He said his actions have been in the best interests of the city.


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