Dozens of protestors from competing activist groups in Irvine came out together Tuesday, calling out their council members for what they say is a lack of transparency and a failure to address a host of issues.
The protest also saw people, who have historically been at odds with each other, come together in an effort to force council members to publicly debate issues like the veterans cemetery or district elections.
Mark Newgent, a former city council candidate and prominent Republican in Irvine politics who attended the protest, had a simple explanation for why everyone came out together.
“People are pissed off,” Newgent said. “Voters don’t normally turn on the people they voted for this fast. This should scare them.”
Leaders from both sides of the aisle showed up to city hall, including Kev Abazajian, chair of the Greater Irvine Democrats, and former mayor Christina Shea, founder of the Irvine Republican Assembly.
“We have a council turning city hall into their own personal playground,” Shea said to Voice of OC reporters at the protest. “I may not agree with the (veterans cemetery) protestors … but we all need access to city hall.”
Abazajian, who has disagreed with Shea on various issues over the years, also said council members aren’t listening to residents.
“That lack of representation and that voice they don’t have is why people are here,” Abazajian said. “They should listen to what voters want.”
Some veterans cemetery advocates have repeatedly clashed with Shea for years over her endorsement of a different site, and Great Park homeowners have strongly opposed any efforts to put the cemetery near an elementary school and homes.
Despite the various divisions, every protestor had one thing in common: they want the council to start publicly talking about the issues.
“We’re consolidating because they won’t discuss the issues,” said Don Geller, an Irvine resident who came out to protest the city’s decision not to move forward with the veterans cemetery at the hangar site.
Geller, who’s also demanding a district election discussion from council members, said “It seems that over and over this council just won’t listen.”
The protest was organized by the activist group Stop Toxic Asphalt Pollutants, a group of north Irvine residents protesting various government agencies’ responses to the asphalt factory under a mile away from homes they say is poisoning their air and ruining their quality of life.
“People are passionate about all these issues,” said Kim Konte, one of the asphalt protest leaders. “Maybe now our leaders will develop a backbone on the issues they led in the election.”
In interviews on Monday, some council members said they felt most of the issues the protestors were fighting about had already been addressed.
Councilman Anthony Kuo said many of those issues either were already discussed or the city couldn’t discuss them due to ongoing and potential lawsuits.
“I think each of those issues has a different set of challenges,” Kuo said. “The public wants to have all this discussion in public, which is their right to request that, but the Brown Act also provides for these discussions to be held in closed session.”
Councilwoman Tammy Kim agreed with Kuo, pointing to other work the council has done this year.
“What’s really confusing is it’s a combination of Larry Agran supporters combined with Christina Shea. It’s a little head scratching for me,” Kim said. “I think we’re doing a lot of really good things, despite the noise.”
Residents protested on a variety of other issues, including calls for district elections, the reopening of city hall and more representation for Great Park residents on how their special tax dollars are spent.
There were also complaints about the council’s two member requirement to agendize any item and a veterans group demanding the council move forward on one of the two proposed sites for a state veterans cemetery on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
Councilman Larry Agran was the only council member to agree with the protestors, which included several of his longtime supporters and some of his oldest political enemies, such as Shea.
“I’m always interested in and respectful of any people who assemble in peaceful protest of whatever, even if I don’t agree with them,” Agran said. “Here, obviously, I do agree with them. The city council has let them down in a big way, the most fundamental responsibility we have as city council members is to represent the interests of our citizens, particularly when they have righteous grievances they want addressed.”
Agran says he has submitted memos to his fellow council members asking for a discussion on the asphalt factory, district voting, a Great Park resident’s advisory committee and a reopening of city hall, but has not received a second on any of those.
Mayor Farrah Khan and Councilman Mike Carroll did not return requests for comment.
Currently, the city has not had an open discussion on district elections, a Great Park resident’s committee or the asphalt factory, although council members were present for multiple forums hosted by the Southern California Air Quality Management District on that issue.
The council is set to discuss the veterans cemetery next month, when a long-awaited study from the state looking at the costs of both sites is expected to come out.
Regardless of which site they choose, the city could face a lawsuit.
Currently, city hall is set to open up in June according to a Facebook post by Mayor Farrah Khan earlier this week, where she spoke about how excited she was to host meetings in her office for the first time since winning the mayor’s seat.
However, the council has had no public discussion on the issue, and has yet to release the agenda for their next meeting on June 8, leaving an open question on when the public can return.