Agrans Filibuster

Marathon council meeting could mark the end of the Irvine mayor

By the time the bomb went off at City Hall, it was 12:44 a.m. on Wednesday. Almost eight hours had gone by—eight hours of tedium, sanctimony, passive-aggression, backstabbing, grandstanding, petty sniping, psychoanalysis and self-aggrandizement punctuated by moments of unprecedented candor, courage and even levity—and, finally, only the barest mention of the issue everyone had come to see or stayed up late to watch on local-access TV: evidence that Irvine Mayor Larry Agran has tried to direct a lucrative city contract to ENCO, an energy company with previously unpublicized ties to Edward Dornan, Agran's longtime friend, top political adviser and campaign fund-raiser.

As mayor, Agran controls the flow of events each Tuesday night, and he did everything on Aug. 24 to delay public discussion of the ENCO deal. The meeting opened ironically, with a woman singing "Let's Keep Irvine Clean." Agran clapped arhythmically and closed the song by asking hopefully, "Did we get our money's worth?" He honored winners of a photo contest, spent 15 minutes lauding the artist and themes behind art depicting World War II-era Japanese internment camps (now hanging in City Hall), and spoke gravely about civil rights in the years after Sept. 11. He talked about the city's upcoming Sunday Concert Series and thanked a retiring city employee.

When he turned to real work, he began not with the main feature, but with the B-movies—the comparatively noncontroversial Culver Drive widening, low-income housing and city ambulance service. Each of these, it became clear, was a platform from which the mayor attacked Chris Mears, until recently his most reliable ally on the council, and Mike Ward, now the man leading the council's anti-Agran majority.

Mears broke with Agran in an Aug. 4 Weekly story documenting the ENCO deal. In it, he claimed that city documents showing Dornan intervened for ENCO on two or three occasions didn't tell the whole story: Dornan, Mears and others said, had bragged the ENCO deal could make him rich. Agran and Dornan refused to speak to the Weekly, but Agran told the Los Angeles Times that while Dornan has a "business relationship" with ENCO, he is nothing more than a "private citizen."

For Agran, it's been a painful week since that story came out. During the meeting, he sat like a man afraid of a virus, leaning uncomfortably away from Mears, his friend and political supporter of two decades. Throughout the night, he paid Mears back with personal accusations. Mears, he said, lacks the "courage" to tell the truth or to run for mayor. He called Mears a sucker for the Irvine Co. on the issue of low-income housing. When ambulance service came up, Agran said Mears' actions were "unconscionable" and accused him of spinning conspiracy theories "that would rival anything Oliver Stone has done on movie screens."

When Agran invited activists to make a lengthy presentation about freedom of expression outside city retailers, you figured he'd begin reading next from the city's articles of incorporation.

When he finally broached the ENCO deal at 10:36, five and half hours after the start of the meeting, Agran insisted he provide the context—and then read in slow motion from a prepared document the entire history of Irvine's municipal-utility interest. He delayed—as spectators noted, until the local newscasts began at 11 p.m.—by discussing previous city successes in cell-tower location, Great Park funding, the evolution of the Irvine Spectrum as a business and commercial center and the city's one black eye, its bungled investment in the county investment pool that collapsed in 1994. He put himself on the side of lower utility rates and more police, schools and parks.

"For me, the mayor, there is only one question to ask: What is in the best interests of the city of Irvine and its residents?" Agran said. "I am guided by this standard alone."

The crowd had thinned from overflow; ENCO executives never showed up. Perhaps just a fifth of the audience remained. Agran, a man famous for packing City Hall with his supporters, had apparently lost his touch.

At 11:25, Agran asked Judy Vonada, the city's top official on the ENCO deal, to provide just a little more context, directing her to read from a prepared history. Over the objections of other council members that he was "wasting time," Agran ordered Vonada, now shifting anxiously in her chair, to read. As she did, even Agran appeared to have mentally checked out. Seven painful minutes later, she concluded, "And that's where we are tonight."

Where we were was filibuster city.

"Are we allowed to speak now?" asked Councilwoman Christina Shea.

Not quite.

At 11:56 p.m., Agran opened the floor to public comment. Though city policy allows each public speaker three minutes, Agran allowed the first three speakers—Agran supporters all—to speak for a total of nearly 30 minutes. The red light signaling an end to the three minutes blinked hopelessly while the speakers rambled, the mayor helpfully prodded them down obscure rhetorical byways where time, it seemed, was mugged.

At 12:24 a.m., Ed Dornan approached the public speaker's table, adjusted the mic and began reading plaintively. He is a former Orange Coast College English instructor, he said, a soccer coach, textbook author, ex-council member and planning commissioner, anti-El Toro activist.

There was nothing in that recitation that would explain why ENCO executives asked him to represent them at City Hall.

"Now I want to say the following very, very clearly, so there'll be no mistake made by reporters or by council members," Dornan read. "Contrary to what has been assumed and asserted, I do not hold a financial interest in ENCO or any other utility service provider. I have not received any compensation as a representative for any utility service provider. And I do not have any contractual agreement with any utility service provider for future compensation."

It was either a perfectly or badly constructed denial for the 30-year English prof, carefully or clumsily limiting as it did the possibility of a financial relationship to the utility company. What, for instance, of the possibility that Dornan's "business," as Agran calls it, was representing ENCO at City Hall for a separate lobbying firm?

Dornan pushed away from the table and headed up the plush carpeted steps of City Hall, heading toward his seat. Shea hurled questions at his back. Dornan sat and then returned for a brief exchange that revealed more than almost anything else might:

"Why would they choose you?" Shea asked.

"You'll have to ask ENCO," Dornan replied calmly.

"Because you're the mayor's right-hand man?"

"No, I'm not," Dornan said, a slight edge on his voice. "There's nothing there."

At 12:41, you could practically hear the ticking.

"Why were you even going to all these meetings with ENCO?" Shea asked.

"Because I was asked."

Shea turned to City Manager Allison Hart. "Has Ed Dornan ever represented that he worked for ENCO?" Shea asked her.

Hart paused. Ticking. She began slowly, recalling a trip to an ENCO facility in Arizona with Agran, Mears and Dornan. "At one point, following the trip to Phoenix, he indicated to me that he had a financial interest in the ENCO organization," she said.

By that time, Ward had already asked for "an independent investigation" of the ENCO deal and of Dornan's role in raising cash for Agran's political campaigns.

Agran did the only thing he could in the face of such challenges: he blamed the Weekly and Mears. "It's nasty out there," he said.

The meeting ended at 1:50 a.m.

rscottmoxley@ocweekly.com
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