Opinion: District Elections and Council Expansion Back on the Agenda. Will The Council Let the Voters Decide?

A motion to expand the size of the City Council and adopt District Elections will be voted on at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. If the motion passes, Irvine voters will see these issues on the November ballot. While a majority of the Councilmembers stated support for expanding the size of the City Council in 2020, the matter of District Elections is up for debate.

Council Expansion

Irvine is the largest city in California represented by only five city council members – the minimum allowed by law. Irvine is home to 310,000 people, is the fastest-growing city in the state, yet has had only five council representatives since adopting the city charter in 1971. Other midsize cities in California have as many as 10 councilmembers.

On average, residents in other OC cities have nearly four times as much city council representation as Irvine residents, with one council member per 16,466 residents, while Irvine has only one representative for every 62,050 residents.

Much smaller neighboring cities, such as Newport Beach (84,000 residents) and Costa Mesa (111,000 residents), have expanded their councils to seven members to increase democratic representation.

[Read: Irvine Residents Are Last in Representation – Far Behind All OC and Midsize California Cities]

In 2020, then-candidates Farrah Khan and Tammy Kim were in favor of expanding the size of the City Council from 5 members to 7 or 9 members. During their September 28, 2020 KUCI interview with Claudia Shambaugh, Farrah Khan stated,

“I do want to push for adding two more seats on the council. I think as a city as large as ours, five people on the council are not enough. Our neighboring cities with much less population have seven seats. We should have seven seats as well.”

Tammy Kim stated,

“What I do support wholeheartedly, is ensuring that we have more representation. We are nearly approaching 300,000, we have the same amount of city council seats as we did in 1971 with only 10,000 residents. So I am firmly supportive of the addition.”

At the  2020 Irvine Watchdog Candidate Forum, Mike Carroll raised both a red and green card in response to the same question, leaving his position unclear.

Larry Agran raised a red flag at the 2020 Watchdog Forum because he was in support of district elections only if the size of the Council was concurrently increased.

From the 2020 Irvine Watchdog Candidate Forum:

[Watch: 2020 Irvine Mayor & Council Candidate Forum – Irvine Watchdog]

At the July 12, 2022 City Council meeting, Anthony Kuo brought a motion to move the discussion on district elections to closed session, which Khan seconded. However, Agran agendized this issue, bringing it back to an open public forum this Tuesday.

Based on their prior positions, there are at least 3 out of the 5 Councilmembers in support of expanding the size of the City Council, presumably allowing this issue to go before the Irvine voters on the November 2022 ballot.

District Elections

Among the 18 largest cities in California, Irvine is the only one still using at-large elections. The current at-large system has left members of the public feeling unheard on key public health and development issues including the All American Asphalt plant and the Great Park special tax.

[Read: Why Property Taxes Are Significantly Higher in the Great Park Neighborhoods: CFD 2013-3. And It Doesn’t Sunset]

[Read: Taxation Without Representation: Great Park Residents Want a Seat At The Table]

Resident activists have expressed the difficulty in lobbying all five Councilmembers on their issues — discussions which often yield little fruit.

Some have argued District Elections would ensure that at least one Councilmember represents the needs of each and every neighborhood. For example, none of the Councilmembers currently live in the Great Park, and resident requests for representation and clarity on how their Special CFD Tax is being used have gone largely unanswered. District Elections would ensure those Great Park residents have a specific representative responsible for their requests. A councilmember who fails to satisfy the requests of the constituents in a particular District would be easier to hold accountable.

In opposition to District Elections, Councilmember Tammy Kim stated,

“Our city has excelled under the current at large electoral system because we are all equally emboldened to each and every one of you, every single one of you.”

At its core, the at-large system makes running a viable campaign cost-prohibitive for people who lack major funding sources such as corporate donors, political action committees (PAC), or labor unions.

With over 310k residents in Irvine, it is impossible for candidates to knock on every door and meet all the voters. But some have argued the best way to tackle the expensive hit mailers funded by PACs is through direct voter contact.

While independent expenditures funded by the major developers have totaled over $1 million in Irvine elections, the average Irvine City Council candidate fundraised less than $40k, according to the City of Irvine campaign finance disclosure portal. One citywide mailer could cost a candidate their entire fundraising budget. Targeted mailers — not sent citywide — cost approximately $40k each in Irvine, more than most are able to fundraise throughout their entire campaign.

Leveling the Economic Playing Field for Candidates 

Irvine resident Marlene Gillespie spoke at the July 12th City Council meeting on how district elections would level the economic playing field for Irvine City Council candidates. Below is an excerpt of her public comment and audio:

“I’m in favor of moving to district elections because it would level the economic playing field for the candidates, thus lessening the influence of outside money on the elections, thus giving council members much more time to work on the issues of their constituents, much more time to increase the level of communication between them and their constituents, thus giving greater involvement of the constituents in meeting their own needs…We’re the third largest city in the county and we definitely need to move to that.”

However, Councilmember Tammy Kim, who had the most to say on the subject, stated the economic playing field could be solved by increasing campaign contribution limits.

“Districting will not be the solution for special interest. Special interest will be able to go into each and every district and pour money and canvas in a very methodical, calculating way. Right now, when they want to hit you, they have to hit at large. But when your districted, they can go after each person in a very methodical way. So we have to look at things sort of on both ends.”

“So it will be less expensive for the candidates, but we can solve that through increasing the campaign contribution limits that we currently have, which is the lowest in the entire county of only $550. And so districting is not a solution for campaign finance. Campaign finance is a solution for campaign finance. So we cannot confuse the two.”

Here is the entirely of Kim’s opening remarks:

The developers and special interests with deep pockets will continue their usual methods for influencing Irvine voters through polls, social media influencers, and expensive mailers, regardless. Districting would allow candidates, especially grassroots candidates, to reach everybody in their district to better combat the developer influence. Raising contribution limits would also help, but regardless of how high the limit is raised, the playing field could never be leveled through raising campaign contributions enough to take on the deep pockets of the special interests and major developers in Irvine — the Irvine Company and FivePoint.

Councilmember Tammy Kim continued her opposition to district elections, stating:

“It will serve no real benefit in Irvine because of the fact that we do not lack representation of the council. And I do feel that the idea of districting within the city of Irvine is really more of a political ploy, under the guise of better representation, as opposed to actual better representation.”

“We currently have three out of the five city council members here on this dais from a protected class in accordance to the California Voting Rights Act. And you know, this is really due in part, because Irvine is a newer city, we did not have redlining that had occurred in most parts of the country. And as a result, we are not only diverse, but were thoroughly integrated as this nation’s in the top 100 largest cities in this nation. And there is no way for us to even carve out a CVRA district that would achieve equity. You know, for districting. And so, you know, we look at it from a CVRA perspective, which is the only perspective that we should be looking at districting on, because even if we go into districts, let’s just let’s say we’re going to do that, we have to prove that each district has fair representation across the board for all communities.”

However, in the last 5 elections over a span of 10 years, 20 different POC candidates have run for office in Irvine and only four won, including the three we currently have on the City Council. Just four years ago, we had an all white council. 

Fiduciary Responsibility

Councilmember Kim then stated her opposition to placing District Elections on the ballot for Irvine voters to decide with the following:

“I will tell you why we should not put it on the ballot. It is because we all have a fiduciary responsibility in making sure that we protect our city and our residents for the federal and California Voting Rights Act. So we should not be putting something that we know we would be jeopardizing. So moving away from the California Voting Rights Act, then we have the other issues at hand. And that of what I’m hearing is representation.”

In terms of “fiduciary responsibility”, attorney Kevin Shenkman estimated the cost of litigation to exceed $15 million in Santa Monica. Santa Monica is currently in litigation with Shenkman regarding the same issue of districting. The City of Irvine also chose to take its chances in litigation against Shenkman in hopes Santa Monica wins in litigation. Santa Monica has a population of only 91,600 residents, less than a third the size of Irvine.

The total amount in attorneys fees incurred by the City of Irvine thus far is unknown.

Despite the legal fees, Councilmember Tammy Kim clumsily brought a motion to “kill” district elections and not place this issue on the November 2022 ballot, which did not receive a second. Watch how it transpired:

During the September 28, 2020 KUCI interview with Claudia Shambaugh, prior to the 2020 election, the “Team Irvine” candidates, all registered Democrats, shared their position on District Elections:

Farrah Khan: “I’ve been going back and forth on this one. I was in support of it but not too supportive of it right now because I don’t think it’ll accomplish the goal that we’re setting for.”

Larry Agran: “We are the largest city in the state not to have District Elections… I support District Elections. I think it will make for a better representation on the Council and the city…”

Tammy Kim:  “As a woman of color, I absolutely am in disagreement right now of District Elections because it will not accomplish the disenfranchisement of minority voters here within the City of Irvine. I think it will actually make it worse because the city of Irvine is very unique in the fact that we do not have we are not a segregated community, we’re very well integrated. And we don’t have any cultural I’m or ethnic enclaves here within the city of Irvine. And so districting could actually disenfranchise us more.”

At the 2020 Irvine Watchdog Candidate Forum, Mike Carroll again raised a red and green card in ambiguity at the 2020 Irvine Watchdog candidate forum.

Anthony Kuo has not made his position public, much like his Finance Commissioner, John Park.

Former Mayor Christina Shea was against districting in 2020. However, recently Shea has been a vocal supporter of District Elections stating it would result in better representation and would give those not-backed by the developers a better chance at taking on the special interests. Kuo, Park and Shea are all registered Republicans and have filed papers to run for a seat on the Irvine City Council this November.