Irvine Voters to Decide Whether to Keep Right to Vote on City Development Projects

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

The Irvine City Council discusses plans for the Irvine veterans cemetery.

Irvine voters will decide June 5 if they want to keep the ability to vote on city development projects after Mayor Don Wagner proposed two ballot questions, including one that would exempt developments approved by the City Council from voter approval.

“What we’re saying here is that if the council has approved a development agreement … that that is not something that can come back and be undone through a ballot measure,” Wagner said in a phone interview.

But some residents said voters should keep the right to approve or reject developments.

“We stand here in complete dismay at the second item on tonight’s agenda, which proposes a city charter amendment which completely removes any voice from the Irvine voters in the development process,” resident Karen Jaffe said at the Feb. 27 City Council meeting.

Jaffe is spearheading an effort to land a voter initiative on November’s ballot that would require a vote by city residents on developments that have more than 40 housing units, a commercial/industrial development bigger than 10,000 square feet, or converting public land to private use.

“We elected a mayor, not a king,” resident Norma Hargrove told the City Council. “The people should have a right to a voice.”

Wagner said Jaffe and her supporters don’t want any more growth to the city, which is detrimental to revenue.

“I don’t think what they’re doing and talking about is the least bit responsible — they’re no growth,” Wagner said. “I find them absolutely irresponsible.”

But Jaffe said Wagner is wrong.

“That’s the false narrative. They’re (the City Council) so afraid of the voter voice because they screwed up for so long. There’s nothing in my initiative that blocks growth,” Jaffe said in a phone interview.

Two city charter-amending proposals, including one that would increase the threshold to a two-thirds majority council vote before placing a tax increase proposal on ballots, were brought to Wagner by the Orange County Taxpayer Association and the newly formed Irvine Taxpayer Association. Representatives from both organizations spoke in favor of the proposals and said they will help protect important revenues for taxpayers.

The council voted 3-2 to put each proposal on the June ballot. Councilwoman Melissa Fox and Councilman Jeff Lalloway voted no.

Meanwhile, Wagner, a former assemblyman for six years, said the uncertainty of development projects could scare business away and jeopardize city revenues.

“What I learned from years in Sacramento and my time in the legislature, is the thing that bothers business more than anything is uncertainty,” Wagner said. “It’s the uncertainty and I’m trying to take uncertainty out of the way Irvine does business.”

Jaffe said Wagner’s move is retaliation against her ballot initiative efforts.

“That ‘up yours’ he put on the agenda last week is ridiculous. He’s taking away our right to vote. You’re kidding me,” Jaffe said. “I think it’s absolutely an abomination of democracy to take away our right to vote or suppress it.”

The June ballot questions come after Jaffe kicked off petition signing efforts for her “responsible growth” plan which would require a vote by city residents on developments that have more than 40 housing units, a commercial/industrial development bigger than 10,000 square feet, or converting public land to private use. The measure hasn’t gained enough signatures to land on the ballot yet, but Jaffe said she’s past the halfway point of the 12,000 required signatures. Nearly every development proposal brings out residents who remind the council of Irvine’s increasing traffic woes.

Mayor Pro Tem Christina Shea voiced her support for Wagner’s ballot proposal to block voters from overturning development projects approved by the City Council. She said it’s essential to secure revenue since the city is facing declining sales tax income due to online shopping. The 2017-2018 budget forecasts a $1.3 million drop in sales tax revenues for the city.

“If you see an avalanche coming down the hill, you have to protect yourself. Our job is to protect the interest of the public and their finances,” Shea said, also mentioning Jaffe’s initiative. “To shut everything down that affects our revenues, is a very big problem for me.”

Wagner said special interests could hijack development agreements through the ballot box.

“What it does is provide, in essence, that if this council has approved a project that provides … certain benefits, mostly those will be fiscal benefits, to you the residents, to you the taxpayers, that that effort cannot be trumped by folks at a ballot box, perhaps at a lightly attended election, who are capable of bending the system to their will,” Wagner said at the meeting.

Fox said the city is fine the way it’s being run and that both proposals infringe on residents’ rights.

“While there is a lot of criticism to be had and work to be done, I think we have been operating just fine under the current status that we have. I do view these proposals as abridging the rights of the residents of our city to weigh in,” Fox said.

Lalloway said the council could be tipping the scales on the ballot, especially on Jaffe’s “responsible growth” initiative.

“My concern is, this council should not be using our power to tip the scales one way or the other, with regard to a … proposed ballot measure.”

Councilwoman Lynn Schott called the ballot initiative process one of the “sacred rights” in this country.

“We do have, in process, an initiative by the people … it is one of our more sacred rights in this country, particularly in the state of California, is to petition and to have that initiative ability in the state of California.”

Wagner said referendum initiatives aren’t defined in the U.S. Constitution.

“First of all, the right to petition is not the right to vote. Those are completely different votes and to say the right to petition is some way threatened by either of these initiatives is to fundamentally misunderstand what the first amendment truly says,” Wagner said.

“The right to vote, the initiative process, is something completely different. And something, by the way, not provided for in the United States Constitution. There is no initiative process in the federal government,” Wagner said.

He said residents should trust the City Council on development agreements because council members will have to answer to voters during their reelections.

“There’s a reason we live in a representative democracy. You have entrusted us and if you no longer trust us, every one of us has to stand for election. We are the ones who should be at risk of voter disapproval of projects,” Wagner said.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.