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An outlier. For many in Irvine, this concept may come to mind when thinking about the city. In terms of crime. In terms of finances. In terms of quality of life. But there is another area where Irvine could be described as an outlier but not in a good way, and it has to do with its council size.
The outlier comes from a question. Should Irvine’s city council size be increased?
To answer this question, we can compare Irvine with the other cities in Orange County in terms of the number of people per Councilmember. This measurement is useful because a councilmember needs to be someone accessible to the people they represent, and a Councilmember should be able to get to know the people they represent.
To do this comparison, I looked at the resident population estimates of each city using Census Data for July 2019. For the number of Councilmembers, I looked at the city council website for each city. Due to data availability, only places with a population of 5,000 or more were considered. Also, unless the city has a strong mayor system as in Los Angeles, the mayors are considered part of the city council and counted as such.
When it comes to Orange County, there are over 30 different cities. So, how does Irvine compare?
It is indeed an outlier. Due to its rapid growth in population over the years, Irvine now has the highest number of people per councilmember in the county. And it is not even close. On average, there are about 15,000 people for each Councilmember. Irvine has over 57,000 people per Councilmember with Anaheim far behind in second with about 50,000 people per Councilmember.
We can then expand the comparison to Southern California as a whole. This region includes nine counties: Orange County, Los Angeles County, San Diego, Kern, San Bernardino County, Imperial, Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Riverside. The region consists of over 200 cities. So, how does Irvine compare?
Irvine is third only behind Los Angeles and San Diego. If we look at cities that are medium sized (defined by the OECD as a population between 200,000 and 500,000) or smaller, it has the highest number.
Even among city councils in Orange County with 7 members, the average number of people per Councilmember is a little under 28,500 – or about half of Irvine’s. If we expand the sample of city councils with 7 members to all of Southern California, we see the average number of people per Councilmember is 25,000 – or less than half of Irvine’s.
But there are other reasons to expand the city council’s size. A second reason is the number of Councilmembers in Irvine has not changed at least since the city’s charter was adopted back in 1975. In that year, the population was only 31,750. It has since increased by over 750%. In fact, using data from 2010 to 2018, Irvine was found to rank 11th on the list of fastest growing American cities. Looking from 2010 to 2019, while Orange County grew in population by about 5.5%, Irvine’s population has grown by about 35%.
Third, consider the cities in Orange County that have increased their size to 7. What was their population size when they did it? The city of Orange increased their size in 2019 when their population was only 140,000. Garden Grove made the change in 2016 when their population was below 180,000.
The only city in Orange County to increase their council size to 7 at a much higher population than Irvine’s was Anaheim which did not do so until they reached 340,000 residents. But Irvine is likely to get to that point soon. According to an OC Register article from a few years ago, the city is projected to reach 328,000 and at previous growth rates the city will probably get there in less than a decade. Already, Irvine’s population is almost the size of Anchorage and Lincoln, Nebraska.
Fourth, it could help the council further reflect the city’s diversity. According to the city’s website, the city’s ethnic percentages are about 49% white, 41% Asian and 10% Hispanic. But the diversity of Irvine’s demographics is much deeper. For example, the Asian population is constituted of significant numbers of people whose heritage goes back to different countries such as India, South Korea and China. According to an article highlighting Irvine’s Asian diversity in the OC Register, people of Chinese descent made up 17% of Irvine’s population back in 2015.
Of course, diversity is a major reason to move to district elections which may at some point happen in Irvine. But even if it does, raising the city council size is not a substitute but a complement to district voting. In fact, the city of Garden Grove did both back in early 2016. And in the following election in 2016, the city elected its first councilmember of Latino descent.
Fifth, Irvine has the financial resources to do so. In fact, it is the most fiscally strong city in the country. As noted on the city’s website and for the fourth straight year, the city ranked number 1 among the country’s 75 largest cities. If all the bills were paid, Irvine’s budget would have enough money for over $4,000 per taxpayer.
How much does it cost to expand the city council from 5 to 7? A study would have to be undertaken. But as an example, consider Fort Worth Texas where a recent study stated that such an expansion would cost about $300,000. Given the benefits, an expansion would be worth the cost.
Of course, a person could argue that such a change is not necessary. After all, Irvine is not only fine but indeed an outlier in so many good ways as stated above. As another example, consider how people are very satisfied with Irvine with 341 out of 496 reviewers (close to 70%) on Niche.com rating Irvine very good or excellent.
But a city does not remain an outlier in so many good ways by being complacent. There are many issues Irvine faces such as The Great Park, All American Asphalt and of course traffic. Irvine would be better off facing them with a larger city council of at least 7 and sooner rather than later.
Wesley Oliphant teaches at a community college in Southern California and lived in Irvine for 15 years before moving out in 2019. He remains a member of the Irvine Watchdog citizens group (irvinewatchdog.org).
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