Criticize Larry Agran, Go to Jail

Photo by Davis BarberLarry Agran likes to acknowledge that he participated in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in the 1960s—can even recite key passages from Mario Savio's famous 1964 speech outside Sproul Hall in which Savio called on students "to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus" of "the machine" "to make it stop."

Now Agran is a part of the odious machine. The man who once went to jail in New York City for protesting the denial of his right to speak has now proposed a series of amendments to Irvine's Rules of Ethical and Open Governance that could send to jail any City Council member who criticizes him.

Here's how it would work:

* Claiming there has been "a lot of thoroughly unjustified criticism and outright attacks on our staff," it would be illegal for a council member to say anything perceived as negative about city workers.

* It would be "an ethical breach" to make "knowingly false claims against others."

* Irvine would create a lobbyist registration and disclosure program, but only for "paid" lobbyists.

The motions are Councilman Agran's latest attempt to escape charges of cronyism and unethical behavior leveled in recent years at him and his political ally, Mayor Beth Krom, by other Council members and the media.

It was Krom who agendized what she calls an "Ethics Ordinance" for discussion. She cited "defamatory and politically motivated accusations at the dais" made by a "kangaroo court" council meeting on August 24, 2004 that exposed a link between Ed Dornan, who raises campaign money and produces slate mailers for Agran and Krom, and an energy company called ENCO trying to get a contract with Irvine to run a city utility.

Ironically, if Agran's proposals were law last year, he and Krom might be the most frequent violators.

Agran explained away the "wild political charges" about Dornan as simply "obfuscation associated with election-year politics and grudges emanating from" then-Councilman Chris Mears. He alleged that Mears was motivated by Agran's supposed refusal to support him in the pending election due to "certain conduct and behavior that have compromised his ability to properly and objectively discharge his public responsibilities."

That meeting was also infamous for Agran, then the Mayor, dismissing investigative reports by the Weekly as stories "in between tummy-tuck advertisements, and breast and penis enlargement advertisements."

Krom ran her own potty mouth in observing, "Some of us are better at pissing matches than the other." She accused the questioning Council members of "spending public dollars to carry out a vendetta" and implied that Councilwoman Christina Shea had financial links to Southern California Edison.

Newspaper stories in July 2005 reported evidence that Forde & Mollrich, a political consulting firm with ties to Agran and Dornan, may have overcharged Irvine for propaganda services related to the Great Park.

In a July 28 Great Park board meeting, Councilman Steven Choi asked why line-items on F&M invoices had been whited out. Agran said Choi's question was "a vicious smear" of the consultant and of city staff. Krom accused Shea and Choi of "misleading the press" by using their council aides to leak city documents to the media. Krom speculated it was "a continuation of the hollow stream of vitriolic and unfounded accusations that punctuated our City Council meetings."

Agran's proposals would amend the Adopted Standards for Ethical Behavior, various guidelines adopted in past years by the City. Under current rules, a violation of these standards is not criminal.

But Krom and Agran want to convert these standards into an ordinance. The difference between a "standard" and an "ordinance" is that an ordinance has the force of law.

What's the penalty for violating an ordinance?

It depends.

An ordinance can specify a penalty, which can be an infraction (similar to a parking ticket) or a misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in the county jail.

Many ordinances, though, specify no penalty, so there really are no remedies for a person who violates one. But it is a law, and the violator can be branded a "law breaker," perhaps even a "criminal."

Agran said he wants his proposals to become ordinances so they have "enforcement mechanisms and teeth" with penalties. While he may not particularly care if his critics go to jail, criminalizing criticism of him can come in very handy during an election year.

It's clear his proposal banning "attacks" on City staff is aimed at stifling Councilman Steven Choi's investigation of the F&M invoice.

The exemption for unpaid lobbyists seems carved out to protect Dornan, who claimed his lobbying work for ENCO was unpaid. Dornan's name came up again recently when a Cox Communications official alleged he was told he should hire Dornan to negotiate a stalled franchise renewal with Irvine's representatives, who are--guess who--Agran and Krom.

But the proposed ordinance regulating "false claims" seems aimed directly at Shea, who is up for re-election in November 2006, and could run for mayor against Krom.

The rules say it's up to the mayor to decide what's a violation, and the mayor happens to be Krom. The intent of this "Ethics Ordinance" may be to find Shea in violation any time she asks probing questions, in council meetings or anywhere else. Although the consequence could be imprisonment, more likely it would be used in Dornan-produced slate mailers next year to brand Shea as "unethical," a "law breaker," and perhaps even a "criminal."

McCarthyism is alive and well in Irvine.

* * * * *

Legend has it that Agran carries a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his pocket.

He was the Mayor of the City Council in 1990 that passed a Free Speech Rights Ordinance which protected the right of citizens to speak, circulate petitions for signature, and distribute literature in public places so long as they don't obstruct access or threaten public safety.

During his quixotic campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1991 and 1992, Agran was systematically excluded from candidate forums and debates. He bravely stood up in the crowd at a debate in Nashua, New Hampshire, and demanded inclusion; two local cops were leading him out of the room when the outraged citizenry embarrassed the other candidates into inviting him onto the dais.

But that paled in comparison with what happened in the Bronx, when the same stunt resulted in a thumping by the NYPD, who busted him on charges of disorderly conduct, criminal trespass and resisting arrest.

Years ago, in discussing his motivation for standing up at those events, Agran told me, "I had become so frustrated that I concluded that this was not a legitimate process . . . I was reminded of Martin Luther King when he said that these laws [sanctioning racial segregation] do not deserve respect, these are not rules to be respected."

Years later, for reasons only a psychiatrist might be able to explain, the man who defended free speech at Berkeley, who went to jail to protest laws that do not deserve respect is now proposing them himself. One wonders what happened to the man who for the sake of principle was dragged out and beaten that night in the Bronx.

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