After more than two hours of closed-door debate, Irvine’s City Council Thursday decided to terminate the city attorney contract, ending a services partnership with a well-known contract law firm that council members say goes back decades.

The vote was 3-2 along the usual council-split fault line, with Democrats Larry Agran and Beth Krom voting against a Republican majority that ended the previous Democratic majority’s 12-year reign by gaining a third seat in last November’s council election.

The Republicans have for years promised to bring fiscal accountability to the 1,300-acre Orange County Great Park, which they argue has been mismanaged under the Democrats’ stewardship. They have already restructured the Great Park board of directors to be limited to city council members and have signed off on fees for the park’s balloon and carousel rides.

Terminating the services contract with Rutan & Tucker — a major law firm that has existed for more than 100 years — is also a move by the Republican majority to bring new officials into the city bureaucracy who don’t have longstanding relationships with Agran and Krom.

When the Democrats held the majority, the law firm took positions against the council’s Republicans. For example, Mayor Steven Choi and Councilwoman Christina Shea were barred access to resumes submitted by candidates for the Great Park CEO position, so they sued the city in 2008 for the right to review the documents.

“The City Council has direct authority for two positions, the city manager and the city attorney. We need to feel comfortable with the people in those positions, and I think the vote tonight was reflective of those feelings,” said Republican Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway.

Yet Agran said the decision was hasty and ill-planned, calling it an example of “ready, fire, aim.”

And he said the council majority chose a particularly bad time to oust a law firm that has decades of experience with the city, pointing to a lawsuit against the state over $2.2 billion in redevelopment funds that would be crucial to building the 1,300-acre Orange County Great Park.

“Rutan & Tucker has served effectively as the city attorney for the city of Irvine for as long as I can remember,” Agran said.

Agran also questioned how the city can operate without a city attorney until an interim replacement is found. He said the interim city attorney would likely be appointed under a no-bid contract — an irony, Agran noted, given the amount of criticism leveled at the Democrats for dolling out no-bid contracts to political supporters

After the interim city attorney is appointed, a request for proposals for a new city attorney could take months to finish, Agran said.

“Jeff Lalloway seems to have the idea that they’re going to happily keep on working” until an interim city attorney is appointed, Agran said. “Maybe they’ll keep working, but it won’t be happily.”

Lalloway says the city’s legal representation will be adequate until an interim city attorney is appointed.

“I’ve been assured that the city has other city attorneys that we work with, and they can help us out before we bring in this interim city attorney,” Lalloway said.

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