Residents are asking tough questions of Irvine City Council members this week in a cease and desist letter criticizing them for not doing enough to inform the public on what they’re doing.
The letter was written by members of Irvine Watchdog, a volunteer organization that closely monitors city politics and advocates for increased transparency.
They say the city violated the Brown Act, California’s chief public meetings law, multiple times by not properly notifying residents of upcoming agenda items and by halting public commenters.
Branda Lin, one of Watchdog’s founders, said the current council have been pushing back on open government rules since they came into office.
“We’ve been seeing a pattern and at some point you have to speak up. Enough was enough,” Lin said. “With this new city council, there have been multiple Brown Act violations without any consequence and at some point you ask yourself where is the accountability?”
Councilman Larry Agran agreed with Lin’s analysis, saying some of the council’s recent actions “really do get over the line.”
“I don’t know if I agree with all the particular cases they raised, but I would say, generally speaking, this council more than any other I’ve served on is conducting business in a way that does not include the public,” Agran said in a phone call with Voice of OC.
Agran’s main complaint and one of the letter’s focuses was the council’s policy requiring two members to support an item before it could be brought for a vote.
While the policy has been in place since 2019, in recent months the council has gone beyond the required two members, in some cases listing the entire council as co-sponsors on at least four different resolutions.
Agran has frequently questioned the policy, saying it has precluded him from getting any of his ideas on the agenda and raised concerns about council members discussing issues behind closed doors.
City attorney Jeff Melching has argued the councilmember’s support is just to agendize a discussion, not on the actual content of the proposed items, making it legal to discuss as long as council members didn’t discuss the specific content of the resolutions.
“Have there been violations? In my judgement I’m guessing probably, but I wouldn’t point to any specific case,” Agran said. “I’ve signed on to a number of these things, but are you signing just to get it on the agenda or are you signing on indicating your support for it?”
Councilman Anthony Kuo disagreed with Agran, and said while he thinks the issues in the letter have already been discussed, he wants city attorney Jeff Melching to address them again.
“There’s a disagreement on what the Brown Act says we need to do. In terms of the letter of the law, I think we’re following it,” Kuo said in a phone call with Voice of OC Friday afternoon. “I would certainly like our city attorney whether privately or publicly to address these issues again, but I don’t think that’s going to satisfy these residents.”
Councilwoman Tammy Kim said the city was not in violation of the Brown Act, but declined to comment further.
Mayor Farrah Khan and Councilman Mike Carroll did not return requests for comment.
Questions are also being raised on the city’s public comments policy.
In January, after nearly a year of no live comments, the city started using Zoom to let residents speak to the council from home.
But the council has frequently stopped commenters from speaking when they tune in on the wrong item or if they speak in general public comments about another item on the agenda.
At the council’s last meeting, a speaker tried to play a recording of Councilwoman Tammy Kim from a public forum discussing All American Asphalt during her election campaign.
The speaker’s line was quickly cut, and Melching explained public commenters were unable to play recordings during their time without prior approval from the city according to their multimedia policy.
But Voice of OC found the city is not accepting presentations or audio recordings of any kind right now, citing the Covid-19 pandemic as the reason for the policy’s suspension. The policy is not currently posted on the city’s website or the council’s agenda, according to city clerk Carl Petersen.
The letter asked for the city to release the multimedia policy and for a date when it was enacted.
The final complaint in the letter was over the city’s decision to give nonprofit Team Kids $20,000.
On the agenda, Team Kids was only set to provide an update on their activities to the city, with no mention of a donation, which some saw as a violation of the Brown Act.
That item was the only one Kuo did not object to, stating he “neither agreed nor disagreed,” with the claim and that they had “a good point.”
The city has 30 days to issue an official response to the letter, with no discussion currently scheduled for the council’s May 11 meeting.