Opinion: It’s Time to Increase The Number of City Councilmembers
Irvine has grown from a small suburban town to a big city since incorporation causing City Council races to become increasingly expensive and thus vulnerable to special interest influence.
Irvine was incorporated in 1971 when it had a population of just over 10,000 residents. A five-member City Council was established consisting of four City Councilmembers and a Mayor. Irvine currently has a population of around 280,000 residents and is still rapidly growing yet still has only five Councilmembers. Most cities the size of Irvine have at least 9 City Councilmembers.
As Irvine’s population grows the duties and responsibilities of City Councilmembers also grow in number and complexity.
With the tremendous growth of our city, the role of City Councilmembers has become increasingly more demanding. City Councilmembers have to make decisions on numerous complex issues which require consultation with city staff, city attorneys, representatives of businesses that have relationships with the city, and residents.
City Councilmember duties include sitting on an ever increasing number of boards and committees and appearing at an increasing number of city and nonprofit sponsored events. Consequently, they have less time to devote to meeting and communicating with Irvine residents. With an annual salary of less than $11,000 (not including insurance and auto allowance) many have outside jobs to make ends meet. Family and personal time should be prioritized over and above their official civic duties — they should have ample time to devote to their personal lives.
Special Interest Influence Creates Conflict Of Interest In Decision Making Process.
Irvine has an “at-large” election system whereby every voter votes for all five City Councilmembers. Reaching out to all 280,000+ residents is a daunting, expensive, and time consuming process for candidates for City Council. Campaign costs are high and by necessity, rapidly growing. To be competitive candidates need to raise an exorbitant amount of money to pay for campaign fees, consultants, a treasurer, signs, and literature to reach voters. Some candidates, out of necessity and ease, have come to depend on influential donors, many of whom also contribute through large Political Action Committees (PACs). However, once elected, these candidates feel pressured to represent the interests of their donors.
City Councilmembers who plan on running as an incumbent for another term want to retain a relationship with their principal donors. When their donors are Irvine developers, Irvine businesses, or have contractual relationships with the city, Councilmembers want to retain their support. Though elected to represent the interests of Irvine residents, they find themselves in the position of having divided loyalties between the interests of their constituents and that of their donors.
Irvine City Charter and Municipal Code Changes Can Create A More Representative Form Of Government
There are changes that can be made to Irvine’s City Charter and Municipal Code which would create a more representative system of government. Changes could reduce campaign costs, special interest influence, and reduce disruptive negative campaigning. Changes would give elected representatives time to communicate with their constituents and allow voters to vote for their true candidate of choice rather than the candidate most likely to win. Voter turnout will improve and fewer voters will avoid voting “down ballot” for Irvine’s city elections.
Increasing the number of City Council Members will increase public participation in the City’s decision making process.
Irvine’s General Plan calls for “robust” public participation in the City’s decision making process. City Councilmembers having more time to spend meeting with Irvine residents, would increase resident participation in the city’s decision making process. Increased public participation would serve to increase voter turnout and increase the number of voters that are willing to vote down ballot for city elections.