Agranistas Fire Ordinance

Proposed law takes aim at political consultants, advisers and the media

When we last visited Larry Agran's crusade to quash the First Amendment, Irvine's lapsed progressive politician had proposed a so-called "Ethics Ordinance" that might have sent to jail any City Council colleague who criticized him or delved too closely into his alleged cronyism.

But after the scheme was exposed by the Weekly and labeled "Orwellian" by The Orange County Register, Agran has devised a new tactic—discrimination against an entire worker class—which could be passed by his council majority on Tuesday Dec. 13.

Titled "Incompatible Employment or Service," the new paragraph states: "Because of their uniquely important, visible, and elevated status and responsibilities as elected officials, the mayor and members of the City Council, and by extension their executive assistants, shall not engage in compensated employment or service for the purpose of lobbying for any private person or organization before any government agency."

This new provision is aimed squarely at Councilwoman Christina Shea, who runs a part-time government relations business assisting members of the public in their dealings with public sector bureaucracy. Shea, a Republican, has evolved into the de facto leader of a growing group of Irvine citizens speaking out against Agran's shenanigans.

Many of those critics were one-time allies of Agran, the former champion of protecting constitutional rights and freedoms. Some ran on City Council slates with him. But as Agran's ethics lapses have become known over recent years, one by one they've publicly allied with the conservative Shea. Some are known as Irvine's most prominent liberal voices.

Here's how it would work: Let's say Jane Doe, who lives in Irvine, is employed by the local chapter of the American Cancer Society. Jane lobbies government agencies to pass strict anti-smoking laws and fund cancer research. If Jane runs for the Irvine City Council and is elected, she must quit her job to comply with the Agran ordinance.

Not only would the ordinance effect Shea but also her 23-year-old executive assistant Anthony Kuo, an Irvine resident who just began his career in government relations.

Agran's new tact is a sinister twist on the Jim Crow laws that created a racial and cultural caste system in the Old South. This time, instead of disenfranchising voters on the basis of race, Agran would do it on the basis of chosen profession.

If passed—and the Agran slate holds a 3-2 majority on the Irvine City Council—Shea and Kuo might have to choose between quitting their day jobs or quitting government service. Some say the proposed ordinance is illegal, and it has reportedly drawn the scrutiny of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Although California law permits local agencies to adopt "statements of incompatible activities" restricting outside employment, it also states what activities may be prohibited. Agran's ordinance appears to go far beyond what the law permits.

Agran has been looking for a way to silence Shea since an Aug. 24, 2004, City Council meeting in which she joined former Agran ally Christopher Mears in exposing a link between Agran fundraiser Ed Dornan and ENCO, an energy company seeking a contract with the City of Irvine.

A year passed. More scandals were exposed by Shea and newly elected Councilman Steven Choi. But Agran once again has control of the City Council majority, and so it was that on Sept. 13, his political bedfellow Mayor Beth Krom introduced an "ethics ordinance" ostensibly to civilize council meetings but in reality to stop further revelations by Shea and Choi of Agran mischief.

Agran's hyperbole that night was so bizarre that the Register's Steven Greenhut was moved to write in the Oct. 2 edition: "I suddenly feel sorry for Irvine Councilman Larry Agran, the Boss Hogg of Irvine's political establishment. Despite his power, he has become Nixonian in his paranoia, even going so far as to promote what amounts to a speech code against fellow council members to stop them from criticizing him, his allies, his policies and his favored consultants."

But Agran wants the opposite of protection for his foe's (or potential foe's) favored consultants. In addition to the discriminatory paragraph, another new provision will take away Shea's right to supervise her own employee like Kuo. Final supervision of executive assistants will be transferred to the city manager, who serves at the pleasure of the City Council majority. To save his own job, the city manager could be forced to terminate Kuo.

While Shea might have to leave the City Council because of her job, another proposed change would make it perfectly okay for bidders seeking city business to hire relatives of council members. Stricken from the current Rules of Ethical and Open Governance is this passage:

"Elected officials are prohibited from participating in any municipal decision where a party to the decision has given or promised to give the elected official, or his or her family member, an opportunity for compensation."

It would be replaced by a new paragraph which states that a city official shall not attempt to influence the awarding of a city contract to an immediate family member.

The proposal also includes a new, bloated lobbying ordinance that in certain scenarios could require media outlets to register with the city of Irvine as "lobbyists" for expressing an opinion about Irvine politics. This rule would apply to a media outlet if it has a "direct or indirect economic interest" in "any municipal question" about which it makes "any oral or written communication," directly or indirectly to a city official. The law would grant exceptions, but there are exceptions to the exceptions, and then there are exceptions to the exceptions to the exceptions.

The ordinance fails to define what is a "direct or indirect economic interest." Freedom Communications, the company that owns the Register, is headquartered in Irvine. Its newspapers are sold in Irvine. Irvine World News, founded by the Irvine Co. but now published by Freedom, is distributed freely throughout the community on Thursdays. It would be open to interpretation whether the Register or World News opining about Irvine politics would therefore constitute an "indirect economic interest."

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