Irvine voters could end up having the choice to increase the number of seats on the city council and implement voting districts if council members decide to send the questions to the November ballot on Tuesday night.
Despite being one of the largest cities in Orange County, Irvine has held off on implementing a seven-person council or creating voting districts, something most of their surrounding cities have done.
Irvine is one of the only cities in Orange County to have successfully rebuffed Kevin Shenkman, a lawyer who has successfully pushed cities throughout Orange County, including Anaheim, Fullerton and others, to move to district voting by arguing it eliminates racially polarized voting.
While Shenkman sent a letter informing Irvine he intended to sue if they did not begin pursuing district elections in April of last year, city attorney Jeff Melching pointed out he didn’t have much of a case when three sitting council members are people of color, arguing the shift would “achieve no purpose.”
Shenkman has yet to follow up on the letter, and told Voice of OC reporters he doesn’t have enough lawyers to go after Irvine yet.
“I don’t have 100 attorneys working for me, we have to work within our capacity,” Shenkman said in a Thursday phone interview. “I have no doubt Irvine will adopt district-based elections at some point in the very near future. It’s just a question of when and how.”
Cypress and Brea have been facing their own issues with converting to district voting, with Cypress sued by Shenkman for failing to implement districts, while Brea’s leaders are being sued by their own constituents for making the change.
Councilman Larry Agran has been a proponent of district elections in Irvine, saying that while the city is thoroughly racially integrated, the change could help represent areas of the city that haven’t had a council member before.
“To this day, whole villages have never had a representative on the council,” Agran said at the council’s July 12 meeting. “These areas are clearly underrepresented at this time.”
Irvine generally has a crowded election season, with at least eight candidates having already thrown their hat in the ring for the 2022 election just two days after candidate registration opened July 18.
In 2020, just under 60% of the votes ended up going to losing candidates, with three of the 14 candidates winning a seat on the dais.
Councilwoman Tammy Kim, who set a new record in the city with over 40,000 votes, received just under 15% of the total vote according to data from the Orange County Registrar.
In addition to implementing districts, Agran also asked to expand the council from five to seven seats to increase voter representation.
Irvine is the largest city in Orange County with only five council members, with each council member representing around 62,000 people according to US Census data.
By comparison, Anaheim’s seven city council members each represent around 49,000 constituents despite being a larger city.
In Santa Ana, which has a nearly identical population size to Irvine, each council member represents around 44,000 people.
Other Orange County cities with seven member councils include Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Garden Grove and Costa Mesa.
Councilwoman Tammy Kim seconded Agran bringing the issue forward for discussion, but was against putting district voting on the ballot, saying it would rob residents of the power to elect the whole council, calling it a “political ploy under the guise of better representation.”
“Right now, each of us sitting here, is beholden to every single resident within the city of Irvine,” Kim said. “How is having only one representative better? It’s not.”
Kim called for a vote to say the city wouldn’t consider implementing district elections in Irvine, but did not receive a second.
Councilman Anthony Kuo called for the council to discuss the issue behind closed doors at their next meeting, which the council approved by a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Mike Carroll voting against it.
Agran also placed a public discussion on both issues on the agenda for the public portion of the meeting, meaning the council would have a second vote in public about the issue that same night.
The final decision will be made at the council’s July 26 meeting, which starts at 4 p.m.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and a corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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