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Irvine group protests removal of anti-Agran signs

A citizens group calling itself the Committee That Cares is accusing Irvine of denying its right to free speech by removing signs promoting the website Agranaudit.com., which seems to disparage former Mayor Larry Agran by linking him to alleged missteps in the construction of the Orange County Great Park.

In a cease-and-desist letter to Mayor Steven Choi, Steve Baric, the attorney representing the group, said the campaign-style signs were removed by city staff members Monday morning within 24-hours of their placement.

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Irvine City Manager Sean Joyce said their removal was justified.

"Upon seeing signs being posted last weekend that appeared in similar form, if not substance, to that which has recently been illegally posted, I confirmed with the city attorney that the signs were illegal and I asked that they be removed immediately," Joyce said.

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The website's homepage features a faded image of Agran with the subtitle: "Documenting corruption, scandal, cronyism and financial mismanagement." In addition, there are links to more than two-dozen news articles about the ongoing audit of the Great Park.

The audit of more than $200 million in Great Park expenditures since 2005 was instigated in January 2013.

The site also offers links to all the depositions on record in connection to the audit, including Agran's, which was released Wednesday.

During his deposition March 13, Agran told the attorney representing the city that cost projections compared to revenue went "sideways" in the economic downturn beginning in 2007, but he does not regret decisions to move forward with design and construction.

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Baric contends the city's sign-removal action is in "serious violation of the First Amendment." The group anticipated that Joyce would justify the sign removal by relying on an Irvine zoning ordinance that Baric said is only selectively enforced. Baric maintains that removing the signs and the city manager's interpretation of the code is unconstitutional.

A release from the city states: "The zoning code is detailed and specific in its terms and does not provide discretion to city officials. The code does allow temporary political signs related to upcoming political campaigns. Hence, temporary signs were allowed for the recent state Senate campaign. Likewise, these same AgranAudit signs were previously allowed prior to the last City Council election on Nov. 4, because they arguably pertained to an issue in that City Council campaign."

The group said it wants the city to immediately refrain from enforcing "the unconstitutional restrictions" and amend the zoning ordinance to comply with the U.S. Constitution. The letter also requests that the signs be returned immediately and the city issue an apology.

According to Baric, the Committee That Cares is an incorporated nonprofit organization in Irvine that has been operating for three to four years. The committee operates the website Irvinecares.org, and former state Sen. Dick Ackerman is listed as chairman.

"I simply saw those signs as further evidence of the entirely political nature of the so-called audit," Agran said.

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