Months out from November’s general election, the race for Irvine mayor between two sitting councilmembers has begun to affect city business, a third councilmember said during a contentious meeting Tuesday, July 9.

The drama at the dais of the Irvine City Council stemmed from a discussion about how to manage the city’s reserve funds. While councilmembers agreed in principle that the city should support the school district with busing and nonprofits with child care, they disagreed on whether they should draw down reserves to do that and more.

Irvine approved its fiscal year budget weeks ago. Councilmembers and City Manager Oliver Chi say the city is in excellent fiscal health, especially compared to other Orange County cities facing deficits and potential tax hikes.

On Tuesday, Councilmember Larry Agran suggested the city might even have “excess” reserve funds, and he doubled down on his previous calls to use some of that money for what he says are needed community services, mostly related to youth services, but also equity and anti-hate programs.

Irvine maintains reserves of at least 25% of its general fund expenditures, which are slated to be around $277 million this year. Agran has suggested city leaders lower reserves by $6 million to around 21%, closer to where the city’s reserves were required to be several years ago.

“There is such a thing as having too much in your savings or reserve accounts,” Agran said. “Why? Because this community has ongoing needs of all kinds.”

Agran, who first joined the Irvine City Council in 1978 and previously served multiple stints as mayor, is once again running for that top position this November.

So is Councilmember Tammy Kim, who joined the dais in 2020.

The period to file as an official candidate opens Monday, July 15.

In June, Kim asked her fellow City Councilmembers — and they agreed — to have Agran’s requests to spend reserves considered by the city finance commission before any funding was disbursed. Other councilmembers said that if the city lowered its reserves, then they might also have requests for how to spend that money.

But, Kim said upon further reflection she took issue with Agran’s specific requests and the notion of drawing down reserves.

She asked to revisit the topic at Tuesday’s council meeting in a memo to the city manager in which she alleged that Agran was asking to move money “from the city’s savings accounts to distribute to a variety of his selected political interests.”

“While there are numerous commendable causes that merit funding — including some causes suggested by Vice Mayor Agran — we should not be tapping into our reserve savings account to finance a politically motivated list of pet projects,” she added.

Agran defended his list of funding proposals Tuesday, saying helping the Irvine Unified School District fund campus police, bus transportation and nurses are not “pet projects.”

“These are ongoing programs of proven effectiveness, and we need to buttress those programs as best we can and move the city forward,” he said.

Councilmember Mike Carroll posited that Kim’s proposal to renew the discussion Tuesday was a political stunt given the council would later have this same discussion over again once it receives the finance committee’s report on reserve funding that she requested.

“With all due respect, we’re litigating a mayor’s race up here,” Carroll said from the dais. “But we’re a public body and we’re supposed to legislate and promulgate laws, and I don’t really have the time to legislate the Irvine mayor’s race. That’ll be done by voters.”

He called the discussion “superfluous” and “a complete burn of an hour and a half of my life.”

Several residents also gave public comments on the matter Tuesday. Some supported Kim’s motion to keep the general fund reserves at 25%, while several accused her of using her position on the council to campaign for mayor. They said her calls for agenda items on the reserve policy and also a brief presentation on affordable housing Tuesday unattached to a vote or other action items were expressions of her platform.

“Your memos are unclear with their direction,” Khan told Kim.

Councilmember Kathleen Treseder, who has endorsed Kim for mayor, backed her up on both fronts.

The long discussion Tuesday included numerous interludes from the city attorney about what Kim’s memo permitted the council to discuss Tuesday and what it did not.

“Everyone seems to be rambling on,” Khan said at one point after being interrupted when multiple councilmembers had already exhausted rounds of speaking time and Kim and Agran had traded points of order and substitute motions that affected whose position the council would vote on first.

Ultimately, Khan, Agran and Carroll voted against Kim’s motion to maintain reserves for now. They voted yes on an alternate motion to direct city staff to use reserve funds to help the school district continue to fund a popular school bus route between Quail Hill and University High. The city will also use reserves to help fund childcare programming from the Irvine Children’s Fund, a nonprofit.

Kim and Treseder voted no, citing their reluctance to draw down reserves when the city could search for sustainable funding for these matters and others.

But city staff pointed out the school year starts next month and Agran said the council can effectively make funding for busing and child care recurring by adding those items to next year’s budget.

This September the council is expected to revisit the remainder of suggestions for how — or if at all — to spend reserve funds.

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