Irvine Mayor Christina Shea told residents at a private townhall meeting that the golf course site was a “diversion” to avoid the state legislature potentially telling Irvine where Orange County’s first veterans cemetery will be built.
“I think that was our point is that we need to create and approve another site because if we don’t do that, we are going to get the state coming in and that [original] site is going to be a cemetery. You’ll have no choice,” Shea told residents at a July 18 townhall-style meeting. “So this was a diversion and the right tactic. I don’t want to sound too sinister, but that’s the reason we’ve done this.”
“I can’t believe that they’re espousing the support of a cemetery and at the same time saying it’s a tactic, a diversion,” Councilwoman Melissa Fox told Voice of OC Wednesday “That’s not even cloaked any more. It’s right out there.”
But Shea said in a Wednesday phone interview the context that’s being used by opponents of the golf course site, including Fox, is wrong. She said she was trying to redirect the residents’ efforts to focus on the golf course site, instead of potential lawsuits and referendum petitions.
“Folks were actually so angry, they didn’t want to support any site,” said Shea in the Voice of OC interview. “And I said it’s basically better to redirect, the word diversion, which is basically the same meaning, let’s redirect and get the golf course site done.”
During the private townhall meeting, residents were calling for voter referendums and lawsuits in an effort to prevent the veterans cemetery from being built near their neighborhoods.
“They were so mad because they didn’t want the [original] site shoved down and get it in their backyard and in a point of diversion to get away from their thinking of that, we needed to get the golf course site done. That was the context I was referring to,” Shea said.
Video of the meeting and screenshots from a private Facebook group show Shea met with the residents near the Great Park July 18 — five days before the Council voted to build a cemetery at the planned golf course within the park. City staff was also there to present studies of the sites.
Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) has been spearheading efforts to name the original site as the future home of the state-run Southern California Veterans Cemetery. She also led the 2014 state legislative efforts to get a state-run cemetery in Irvine at the original site.
The original site, near the heart of the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station still has hangars, taxiways, runways and jet engine-testing buildings on it. It’s also across the street from neighborhoods and schools built by developer FivePoint Holdings.
The golf course site was also part of the air station and, according to city staff reports, has had its soil tested and most of the concrete removed.
When Quirk-Silva’s bill got to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Shea and FivePoint CEO Emile Haddad sent a letter June 20 committing $28 million from the developer to build the cemetery on the golf course site — $18 million was slated for the golf course and the developer will chip in an additional $10 million. The letter was sent to state Sen. Bob Archuleta (D-Pico Rivera), chairman of the committee.
Staff estimated the golf course site costs roughly $58 million to build and the hangar site is estimated at $95 million.
Quirk-Silva reviewed some of the video and said she was concerned about what Shea was saying.
“It’s just my hope that isn’t actually the truth, because that has been a concern of mine. As you know, there has been so many twists and turns and it’s hard to continue to feel optimistic. Every time you feel like you’re moving to a consensus or a pathway forward, something switches,” said Quirk-Silva in a Wednesday phone interview.
Councilman Anthony Kuo was also at the townhall meeting.
According to the video, after disputes among residents of where the cemetery should go, including the possibility of using a portion of both sites, Kuo said the state would force a location on them.
“You’re not giving us an idea. What you’re telling us is that you don’t want either. So when we go back to the legislature and tell them neither they’re going to force [the hangar site] on us.That is a fact,” Kuo said. “If you want me to say ‘no’ to either, [the hangar site] will be forced down your throat, period.”
Earlier in the video, Shea echoed what Kuo said.
“We really have no choice (against the state) if we don’t do something to create a diversion, we are going to get the [hangar] site. If that’s what you want, that’s what you’re going to have,” Shea said to the residents
On Wednesday, Shea said supporters of the hangar site showed up to the townhall meeting and began distributing flyers against the golf course site.
“It was so slanderous. So I made them leave, it was a private home owners association building,” said Shea in the phone interview.
Fox took an issue with holding the meeting there.
“That’s why it was a private location. We hold a public meeting in a private location, you’re trying to coordinate a response … even that backfired,” Fox said.
The meeting was hosted by private Facebook group Keep Irvine, Irvine. Although the full-length video was originally posted on its counterpart, a public group, Keep Irvine, Irvine — State and Federal Issues. But the video was taken down at an unknown date.
Resident Kev Abazajian provided screenshots of the group event and links to the video that was pulled from Facebook and uploaded to Youtube. He spoke against the golf course site during public comment at Tuesday’s council meeting.
Shea said Wednesday “I don’t think the residents around the [hangar] site should be completely ignored.”
But Fox said city staff shouldn’t have been used for a meeting that was essentially private.
“Tax money is being used on a private meeting to promote a point of view that hasn’t been voted on by the council, hasn’t been talked about,” Fox said. “The goal of the Council was to get in the way of the legislature supporting the [hangar site].”
Shea said if Fox was truly concerned about having a cemetery at the hangar site, she would’ve voted for Councilwoman Farrah Khan’s proposal to use 100 of the 125 acres of the original site, while creating a 25-acre buffer around the nearby schools and neighborhoods. But Khan’s proposal failed to make it to a vote.
“That’s why I didn’t want to have the [hangar site] considered last night. It would prevent me from being able to bring the site back for consideration in the future if it had been voted on,” Fox said.
State Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana), who is a co-author on Quirk-Silva’s bill, said he believes what Shea said at the townhall.
“I think that the bill will continue to progress. I agree with Christina (Shea), I think she was telling the truth when she said this was a diversion and tactic,” said Umberg in a Wednesday phone interview. “My goal is to create a cemetery here in Orange County at the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro as soon as we can.”
Umberg, a retired U.S. Army colonel, was almost thrown out of Tuesday’s Irvine Council meeting.
After going over the three-minute public comment time limit, Shea interrupted him and called for a break when he didn’t stop. She called for a 10-minute recess to restore order after people began shouting from the audience at the Council and Umberg turned around and immediately started to speak to the people sitting in the stadium seating in the Council chamber.
“That’s what I was trying to read to the crowd was a portion of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, when he describes what a veterans cemetery is,” Umberg said.
Quirk-Silva’s bill has been placed on hold by the state Senate Appropriations Committee and she said she’ll be working with Gov. Gavin Newsom on the bill as well as potentially considering adding language that also names the golf course site to it.
“Overall, it will be up for getting out of Appropriations, which is Aug. 29 and at that point it can be released as it is or it can be released with amendments,” Quirk-Silva Said. “The governor’s office could weigh in and say, ‘Hey if I’m going to support this, this is what I need’ … it will now be much more of a joint effort between the governor’s office and my office.”