Irvine City Council Tuesday night appointed two Republican council members to the committee tasked with identifying sites for a potential veterans cemetery at the Great Park, which sits on a shuttered air base that for decades was a transit point for soldiers going to war.
The decision was accompanied by political bickering as the council's Democrats, with the support of some veterans, complained of being railroaded out of the process.
Dozens of veterans showed up to the meeting, many wearing garrison caps and military uniforms, and demanded that the council move quickly to make the cemetery, which would be the first in Orange County, a reality.
Several of the veterans spoke, recounting memories of being stationed at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Some choked back tears.
“I don’t have a flag to fly over me in Orange County when it happens,” said Billy C. Hall, a combat veteran of three wars who was shipped overseas from the base. “We owe the veterans of Orange County a place to settle in, … and since I’m approaching 90 years old, I beseech you to do it right away.”
In January, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva proposed legislation to have a veterans cemetery built with federal funds, and Irvine officials have showed a willingness to provide 100 acres at the park.
But FivePoint Communities, the developer of thousands of homes around the park, is concerned about the impact on home sales. They are planning to sell most of their units to buyers from Asia, and a cemetery near the neighborhood is considered bad feng shui.
Tackling issues raised by the developer will be the committee’s other responsibility.
The council voted 3-2 to appoint Mayor Steven Choi and Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway to the committee, along with ex officio nonvoting seats for representatives from the offices of Assemblyman Don Wager, state Sen. Mimi Walters and a county supervisor, potentially Todd Spitzer.
The committee will also include an ex officio seat for Quirk-Silva’s office and seats for veterans advocates Bill Cook and Isabelle Krasney, FivePoint Communities Senior Vice President Brian Myers and Stephen Jorgensen of the California Department of Veterans Affairs.
The vote tally broke down along partisan lines, with Republicans Choi, Lalloway and Christina Shea voting for the appointments of Choi and Lalloway to the committee and Democrats Larry Agran and Beth Krom voting against them.
Krom, who was shaking her head as Lalloway suggested that he and Choi serve on the committee, railed against the Republican appointments and inclusion of other elected officials on the committee as a “political hijacking.” She also said it was offensive not to include Agran on the committee as she had suggested, since he had recently proposed the cemetery.
Veterans in the crowd also reacted with dismay when the Republican council majority didn’t appoint Agran.
“You recommended this be turned into the political grandstanding committee instead of the veterans cemetery committee,” Krom said.
Lalloway defended the appointments, saying they were necessary to obtain support from Sacramento and to ensure that the political process goes smoothly.
“All I’m trying to do is get broad support from our friends in Sacramento. And if that’s a problem, so be it,” Lalloway said.
Agran said FivePoint Communities will manage to “run out the clock” on a veterans cemetery by endlessly negotiating with “friendly” council members on the committee.
“Instead of this being a committee of implementation — I can almost bet on it — it’s going to be a committee of negotiation,” Agran said.
After the meeting, Myers said FivePoint has no control over the clock for a veterans cemetery. He said the developer just wants to be part of the process.
“That’s why we’re on the committee,” Myers said. “We’ve been really clear about what our points are.”