Citizens Reacting to Unpopular Council and IUSD Decisions

Unpopular Policy. Mayor Steven Choi and Citycouncilmembers Christina Shea (top), Jeff Lalloway and Lynn Schott banded together together to repeal Irvine’s Living Wage Ordinance, cutting the City’s minimum wage from $10.82 per hour to just $9 per hour (the State minimum). Choi and Shea argued that by paying more than the State minimum wage, Irvine taxpayers were “subsidizing” low-wage workers. Lalloway indicated he was against all minimum wages, and he dismissed Irvine’s Living Wage as a “feel-good wage.” Schott said her Christian faith tells her to be generous voluntarily but not to impose the requirement of a City Living Wage.

Unpopular Policy. Mayor Steven Choi and Citycouncilmembers Christina Shea (top), Jeff Lalloway and Lynn Schott banded together together to repeal Irvine’s Living Wage Ordinance, cutting the City’s minimum wage from $10.82 per hour to just $9 per hour (the State minimum). Choi and Shea argued that by paying more than the State minimum wage, Irvine taxpayers were “subsidizing” low-wage workers. Lalloway indicated he was against all minimum wages, and he dismissed Irvine’s Living Wage as a “feel-good wage.” Schott said her Christian faith tells her to be generous voluntarily but not to impose the requirement of a City Living Wage.

Shortly after his election in 2012, Mayor Steven Choi and his new City Council majority — including Councilmembers Christina Shea and Jeff Lalloway — proclaimed to Irvine citizens that they were committed to taking the City in a “different direction.”  The nature of that “different direction” soon became clear.

In early 2013, the new City Council majority adopted policies to downgrade and dismantle citizen committees and citizen participation in the planning process.  This was followed by mid-year attempts to defund City support for the arts, including the Irvine Barclay Theater, and to eliminate funding for legal services and other programs involving children’s services.

But most consequential were the Council’s radical revisions to the City General Plan — approving thousands of new housing units that are bringing tens of thousands of additional people and cars to the City — in violation of the General Plan’s established limits on development.

With each of these unpopular actions, citizen protests have been growing.  Ironically, it’s not the “giveaways” to wealthy developers that are prompting civic action; it’s the Council “takeaways” from Irvine’s lowest-paid workers that have angered citizens the most and has inspired a citizen-based, citywide initiative effort to restore Irvine’s “living wage” policies.

Irvine’s Living Wage Ordinance

While a number of states and scores of U.S. cities, including nearby cities — Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego — have been adopting ordinances incrementally raising their minimum wage toward $15 per hour, Irvine is apparently America’s only major city now headed in the opposite direction, actually cutting its minimum wage by about 20 percent.

Despite citizen protests and emotional public testimony, on June 9, 2015 Mayor Steven Choi, along with Councilmembers Christina Shea, Jeff Lalloway and Lynn Schott, voted to repeal Irvine’s “Living Wage” law — which had set the City’s minimum wage at $10.82 per hour.  The practical effect of the repeal will be to allow the hourly wage paid to hundreds of low-income Irvine workers to fall to the State minimum wage of $9 per hour.

The elimination of the Irvine Living Wage requirement will hit lowest-paid workers the hardest — mostly the hundreds of landscape workers, janitors and maintenance workers who are employed by large private companies under “outsourced” contracts with the City.

Beth Krom, the lone Councilmember voting against the repeal, reflected widespread public sentiment when she said, “This is just plain mean.  This City Council is not acting in a manner consistent with the spirit of our community.  Irvine is a City with nice people who don’t want to hurt the people who work very hard for us.  Irvine is a prosperous City with ample resources that enable us to recruit and maintain an outstanding workforce.”

Krom added, “I don’t know of any residents or businesses that want us to do this.”

In fact, over the course of two public hearings, no residents or businesses testified in support of the Council’s repeal of the Living Wage Ordinance. Angry at the injustice and unpopularity of the Council repeal of the Living Wage Ordinance, a number of Irvine residents began meeting to consider what might be done to reinstate the law.  Their conclusion: It’s time to invoke “people power,” using the power of the initiative and the ballot box to override the Council’s bad policies.

Long-time Irvine Planning Commissioner and former City Councilmember Mary Ann Gaido and Luis Alemán, a UCI honors student, writer and community activist, took the lead and agreed to become official proponents of a popular initiative to reinstate Irvine’s Living Wage Ordinance, word-for-word.

In a letter, Gaido said, “It is up to Irvine citizens to restore and reinstate our living wage policies.  Civic decency demands it.”

Gaido and Alemán are filing the required papers to launch the initiative in September, beginning the daunting five-month process of gathering more than 10,000 signatures of registered Irvine voters in order to qualify the measure for the November, 2016 City election ballot.

School Board Stonewalls on Testing For Toxics at School Site

Another source of simmering resident anger is the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) controversial decision-at the behest of and with support from the Irvine City Council- to locate Irvine’s next high school on a highly problematic site. The $300 million Portola High School, now under construction, is on remote 40 –acre site on Irvine Boulevard, only 250 yards from a capped, toxic waste dump formerly used by the military, and at the end of an abandoned runaway where direct dumping of toxic materials was commonplace when the area was part of the El Toro Marine Corp Airbase.

The recent discovery of apparently extensive toxic contamination of the Portola High School site has put thousands of Irvine parents, grandparents, and their families on edge. In November of 2014,while trenching for a huge storm drain on the north edge of the site, jet fuel residues, and the toxic chemicals—carcinogenic (cancer-causing) naphthalene—were discovered in large amounts, requiring 78 truckloads of dirt to be removed from the site.

Earlier in 2014, soil-testing wells at the at the perimeter of the high school site revealed significant toxic contamination with dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) detected in most of the perimeter wells.  One of the wells tested positive for benzene—a known, potent carcinogen –at twice the concentration, considered “unsafe” for human exposure.

It was Dr. Harvey Liss, whose investigative reporting broke open the Portola High School toxic contamination story in a 5-part series in Irvine Community News & Views. Dr. Liss recently observed, The big, unanswered question is this: To what extent is the site contaminated and how large are the health and safety risks to students?” Dr. Liss added, “That question can be answered by doing  proper, comprehensive soil-testing right now –before the school is built and occupied.”

Sounding a note of frustration, Dr. Liss added, “The plain truth is that nearly the entire interior of the 40-acre high school site remains untested for the VOC’s that may pose a clear and present danger to the health and safety of thousands of the Portola High School teachers, staff, and future students.”

Jean Anne Turner, retired Irvine teacher and two-time recipient of the “Irvine Teacher of the Year” award, delivered the “Safe Schools Petition” to IUSD Board members — signed by more than 1,100 Irvine citizens. The petition calls for comprehensive soil-testing at the new Portola High School construction site, where toxic contamination has been discovered at multiple locations along the school site perimeter. Turner pleaded for more testing to make sure the entire site, including all so-far untested areas, are determined to be safe for teachers, staff and students.
Jean Anne Turner, retired Irvine teacher and two-time recipient of the “Irvine Teacher of the Year” award, delivered the “Safe Schools Petition” to IUSD Board members — signed by more than 1,100 Irvine citizens. The petition calls for comprehensive soil-testing at the new Portola High School construction site, where toxic contamination has been discovered at multiple locations along the school site perimeter. Turner pleaded for more testing to make sure the entire site, including all so-far untested areas, are determined to be safe for teachers, staff and students.

Amid the mounting evidence of a serious toxic contamination problem at Portola High School, more 1,200 concerned Irvine citizens have signed a petition calling for independent, comprehensive soil testing for toxics. A delegation of retired teachers and community leaders presented the petition at the July 21st  IUSD Board meeting, and asked the School Board to order the testing, or at least hold a special public hearing on the matter right away.

The request was met with stony silence, leading retired teacher Ed Pope to later decry the Board’s reaction in one word: “Stonewalling.” Pope added, “If these Board members don’t do the right thing…and fast…Irvine residents ought to launch a recall to remove them from office.”

ICNV Staff

ICNV Staff

ICNV staff writers are local Irvine journalists who are personally familiar with the events and issues about which they write.
ICNV Staff