Six candidates are vying for two City Council seats in Irvine, including current council members, a UCI scientist, a community college student, a tech attorney and a local business owner.
Incumbent Anthony Kuo was a newcomer when he was elected in 2018 and longtime local politician Larry Agran, who has been a fixture in Irvine since 1978 (including holding the title of mayor), are hoping residents continue to vote for their leadership.
Looking to snag one of their seats is a handful of new faces and one repeat candidate. They are tech attorney and transportation commission vice president Scott Hansen; advertising agency president and founder John Park, who ran for City Council in 2018; Navid Sadigh, an Irvine Valley College student who teaches kids coding; and Dr. Kathleen Treseder, a professor of biology at UC Irvine and climate activist.
City Council members are elected to four-year terms in Irvine, while the mayor holds the title for two years. Agran, who won the City Council seat left open by Farrah Khan in 2020 when she became mayor, has been serving the remaining two years of that term.
Irvine conducts its elections at-large, meaning the candidates run to represent the entire city and the top vote-getters win the open seats. Irvine is one of only a handful of major Orange County cities that hasn’t moved by-district elections, a system where cities are split into voting districts and candidates run to represent the geographic areas.
Many municipalities and special districts in California have made the switch, some in response to legal challenges over their voting methods.
While the current City Council decided against putting to voters the questions of district voting this year, candidates said during a recent forum they were either supportive of district elections in Irvine or open to exploring it.
Irvine has landed on solid financial footing emerging from the pandemic, with a roughly $30 million budget surplus this year, said Mark Alvarado, Irvine’s director of financial management and strategic planning. That’s mainly due to two factors, he said: An unexpected bounceback of sales tax revenue (totaling nearly $14 million more than what was budgeted) and a lot of savings due to vacancies among city employees.
In responses to an Orange County Register questionnaire, the council candidates had mixed suggestions on how the city should continue balancing its expenses with building reserves and meeting residents’ needs.
With the budget “well under control,” Agran said city leaders don’t need to look at new revenue streams or taxes.
“The city has already paid its outstanding pension liabilities and created a large reserve fund while fully funding public safety, community services and otherwise meeting our responsibilities to residents,” he said.
Kuo noted the $30 million surplus leaves the city in a position to potentially pay back ratepayers for a Utility Users Tax, which charges businesses 1.5% for utilizing phones, electrical and gas services in the city. (Kuo spoke about the rebate idea before the council ended up approving such a program earlier this month, their vote sets up a reimbursement program for businesses to get back the money paid in fiscal years 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22)
“For years, Irvine has been fiscally responsible in putting away dollars toward rainy day funds, our Asset Management Plan, and an aggressive pension pay down plan,” Kuo said, adding that city leaders should ” continue with this sort of common-sense restraint” when spending.
Hansen and Park agreed that with Irvine’s growth, expenses will have to increase to keep up with demands such as staffing City Hall and public safety. To prepare, Park said he’d like to see city leader put even more in reserves.
As a council member, Treseder said she would help draw more businesses to Irvine “to diversify our tax base,” taking pressure off property taxes “that put a burden on our teachers, first responders and working class families.”
Sadigh suggested as a new revenue stream putting a tax on air polluters in Irvine, including the All American Asphalt plant. Emissions from the plant have spurred complaints by nearby residents over the years, though air quality officials have said the facility’s outputs don’t exceed thresholds for health risks to nearby neighborhoods.
As city leaders face a state mandate to plan for tens of thousands of additional housing units over the next several years, candidates had varying ideas of how housing growth should move forward in Irvine while maintaining quality of life for its residents.
Park said he is supportive of the city’s current requirement that 15% of units in many new developments be reserved for lower-income families. In future building locations, Park said city leaders should “do everything we can to maintain our villages concept.”
Hansen suggested keeping new housing development mainly to the Irvine Spectrum Center, Irvine Business District and the Irvine train station, as those locations “are apart from existing neighborhoods.”
“The city should use its Planning Commission power to negotiate with developers for more housing units our workforce can afford,” Hansen said.
But Agran said new units shouldn’t be held to one area of the city, and the city’s current housing plan “incorporates low- and moderate-income housing in all projects.”
“This contributes to the integrated, diverse and vital city that we are,” he said. “The city’s planning envisions an increase from 5,000 to 10,000 low- and moderate-income units by 2030. If anything, I’d like to see that happen sooner.”
To facilitate building, Sadigh said city leaders should relax zoning laws, and the increased supply would bring down the cost to rent. He suggested building apartment neighborhoods, with “a few houses in between,” and developing them to “the same design standards as new houses being built in other neighborhoods, so the people living in the apartments won’t have to worry about missing out on the full ‘Irvine experience,’” he said.
Treseder, on the other hand, said she would be “a check on out-of-control development.”
She is advocating for “comprehensive smart growth solutions that ensure people can live close to work,” she said.
Treseder is running on a campaign that is focused on “facts and data. Not political spin,” her website says. She co-founded climate nonprofit OC Clean Power, and said as a council member she would “look at the facts, listen to every perspective and work to bring people together to address our big challenges.”
Park, who immigrated from Korea at age 8, said his professional experience as a business owner and as chairman of Irvine’s Finance Commission has given him the skills for the council job, such as the ability to manage budgets, work collaboratively and execute plans.
“Ultimately, my run is just about serving the community we consider to be our forever home,” he said. “When you love something, you want to protect it and keep it thriving.”
Kuo said he feels pride being “the first elected official in Irvine to have grown up here,” and wants to build on his first term, which was spent “listening to youth sports parents, nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs, and everyone else in between.”
“Taking their feedback to build consensus among my council colleagues to solve every day challenges is one of the more rewarding things I get to be a part of.”
For Sadigh, his leadership would be marked by being accessible to the community and putting residents’ needs before his own, he said. As a council member, he said he would host events in various communities within Irvine, “as a way of getting a feel of the current state of affairs in that specific community.”
Agran said representing Irvine’s diverse communities would mean continuing to lead the same way he has done consistently over his many decades in Irvine: “By listening to the public and always keeping the welfare of the city and its residents above the big money interests or my personal benefit.”
Hansen also talked about listening to people and data to benefit Irvine, saying “I believe in forward principles, meaning our focus is on data-driven decision-making. I will work with anyone,” he added, “who put aside partisanship to execute a positive vision for our city. I will push for a multicultural arts master plan, support our schools and business community, keep Irvine safe, and plan for a prosperous future.”
Election Day in Nov. 8. Ballots have been sent out to all registered voters, and may be mailed in or returned in one of the many official ballot drop boxes around the city. The first polling places open Oct. 29. A list of voting centers can be found at ocvote.com.
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