On Tuesday, July 12, the Irvine City Council discussed the aspect of allowing voters to choose between district elections and at-large elections on the November ballot. While the council ultimately voted 4-1 to discuss the issue in a future closed session, the issue prompted the attention of the public, as dozens of residents chose to address the topic during public comment. 

The aspect of district elections was added to the agenda by Irvine Councilmember Larry Agran, who presented a motion in favor of district elections that would also include the expansion of the City Council from five to seven members. 

In his motion, Agran suggested that the choice of district elections or direct elections should be placed on the ballot in November, and implemented in 2024. 

Despite the removal of the rule of two, the item was seconded by Irvine Councilmember Tammy Kim. While Kim did not support the idea of district elections in Irvine, she admitted that Agran presented some good points and that the topic was of interest to the council to discuss. 

“I’ve been pretty vocal in my opposition to districting within the city of Irvine. I do support districting overall – as a remedy to the California Voting Rights Act,” she said. “It has helped many communities achieve fair representation, however, it will serve no real benefit in Irvine because of the fact that we do not lack representation on the council.”

Kim added that she viewed district elections or “districting” as a “political ploy” under the guise of better representation. Kim also pointed out that there is no data to signify district elections would be necessary for Irvine. 

From Agran’s perspective, Irvine has grown to a city of more than 300,000 residents and he emphasized that portions of the city have lacked representation since the city’s creation. Agran also pointed out that most cities within Orange County follow a district election model. 

“The matter of governance is big and complicated, and of course, we are all invested in its future. Different geographic areas should be properly represented on a council. I was reminded by a number of old timers in the city, that to this day, whole villages have never had a representative on the council from that village,” Agran said. “Westpark, IVC – the university itself – that community has never elected somebody.”

In implementing district elections, Agran said he hopes to help distribute representation throughout Irvine. 

“There are basically, in a configuration of a mayor, and six district elected council members, there would be roughly two council members coming from above the 5 [Freeway], two council members between the 5 and the 405 [freeways], and two council members below the 405 — about 100,000 people in those areas,” Agran explained. “Mindful of that, I think we would have much better representation on the council.” 

Agran said he wanted Irvine to switch from direct elections to district elections “independently” and not be “forced” to do so. 

In 2021, the city of Irvine received a letter from Attorney Kevin Shenkman, who represents the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a non-partisan Latino voter participation organization. In his letter, Shenkman threatened to bring a lawsuit against the city if the city did not change to district elections. 

Irvine City Attorney Jeff Melching responded to Shenkman’s letter, stating that the city would be prepared to defend its district elections in court. Melching also emphasized that the demands pushed by Shenkman are framed similarly to previous attempts to bait cities into costly legal battles.

Since then, Shenkman’s office has not responded.  

Speaking of representation in district elections, Kim said she had received emails from residents opposing districting.

“I think we’ve all received numerous [messages from] residents not wanting to lose having all five of us as representatives. They do want to reduce having five votes to one vote that could potentially happen,” she said. “Right now, every one of us sitting here is beholden to every single resident here within the city of Irvine. How is having only one representative better for our residents? Our city has excelled under the current at-large election system because we are equally emboldened.” 

Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan, who said she agreed with points from both Kim and Agran, presented a motion that the council develop a subcommittee to look into the issue of districting further. 

“Not rush into putting something on the ballot, but dive in and make sure what we’re putting forward is something that is amicable to not only the council members here, but to the public and actually works for this city,” she said.

Adding to Khan’s proposal, Kim suggested that the city start with groups of professional demographers to assist the two members of the City Council to join the subcommittee. 

“I think having those conversations can go in that direction, but I don’t think I’m starting off a subcommittee with groups of organizations,” Khan said. 

Khan rejected the idea of being on the committee herself. 

Irvine City Councilmember Anthony Kuo said he has also received numerous letters from people requesting Irvine switch to district elections and those that opposed. However, Kuo said he was “perplexed” as to why people outside of Irvine had so much concern regarding Irvine’s election processes.

“This is fundamentally changing the way the government of Irvine is constituted and works, and to make that decision with no backup information, no analysis — whether it’s from a non-profit or a demographer — you’re asking us to take a very big change very quickly,” Kuo said. “I would have trouble supporting that tonight.”  

Prior to closing, Kim offered a motion that would not include districting on the November ballot, however, the motion did not receive a second. 

Instead, Kuo offered a motion that would continue the discussion in a closed session. Kuo’s motion passed 4-1, with Irvine City Councilmember Mike Carroll voting against. Carroll is the only member who did not address the topic. 

This is a developing story. 

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