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Orange County

Ex-Comrade Questions Agran Ethics

Irvine Councilman Mears says business was steered to a political supporter. Mayor says it will help the city and denies it's corruption.

August 08, 2004|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Irvine Mayor Larry Agran faces criticism from a former ally as voters prepare to elect a new mayor and council members in November.

Councilman Chris Mears, elected in 2000 from a slate of Agran-backed candidates, announced last week that he wouldn't seek reelection and accused his former friend and mentor of steering city business to a political supporter.

Mears said he had warned Agran and campaign consultant Ed Dornan earlier this year that he would oppose a contract with an Anaheim company that has offered to run a city-owned electric utility for Irvine. Mears said Dornan boasted to him and Agran that he stood to earn as much as $1 million if the deal were signed.

Mears contends that though the arrangement isn't illegal, it's unethical. His allegations were first reported by the alternative newspaper OC Weekly.

"I said I'm not going along with this," said Mears, an attorney. "What's the mayor doing participating in a contract that will net his closest friend and political advisor a million dollars? If he thinks that's proper, this election should be a referendum on his ability to recognize what propriety is."

Agran said he was stunned by the allegations. He said neither he nor Dornan had done anything wrong. He insisted that his only basis for supporting the utility deal was whether it would benefit the city, although he acknowledged that Dornan would benefit from a contract. Dornan could not be reached for comment.

"What's corrupt about a private individual having a business relationship with a private firm that may or may not do business with the city?" Agran asked.

Irvine is one of several cities that moved to create its own municipal electric company after the 2000-01 energy crisis. The city created the utility in 2002 but has yet to begin full-fledged operations.

The debate before the City Council centers on whether the utility should be launched in earnest to serve soon-to-be developed areas in Irvine. Among the costs: Irvine would have to pay $10 million in fees to end service by Southern California Edison, whose transmission lines and facilities the city would take over.

ENCO Utility Services of Anaheim has offered to operate and manage the utility for the city; if such a deal is signed, Dornan would receive a fee from ENCO for arranging it, Mears said.

Though a Democrat, Agran has become one of the most powerful city officials in largely Republican Orange County. Agran spearheaded the countywide campaign that in 2002 killed the county's plans for an airport at the former El Toro Marine base.

He first served on the council from 1978 to 1990, when he was defeated as mayor. He was reelected to the council in 1998, winning election for mayor two years later.

While termed out for mayor, Agran is running in November for one of two council seats -- vacancies created by Mears and Councilman Mike Ward, who is running for mayor against Councilwoman Beth Krom, an ally of Agran.

Allegations of corruption from an insider "has the potential to hurt" in the campaign, said John J. Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. Though voters might not understand the minutiae of city contracts, "the word 'corruption' has a way of sticking," he said.

Ward said he intended to remind voters why Mears broke with Agran. "I think people want fair and open government, and this isn't it," he said.

Ward will ask his council colleagues this month to reconsider the proposed electric utility deal with ENCO Utility Services.

Agran has won campaigns by attacking the ethics of others, said Republican pollster Adam Probolsky, who said he would probably be involved in an independent campaign against Agran.

The friendship between Agran and Dornan covers decades.

Dornan runs a slate mailer supporting Agran and his candidates called Hometown Voter Guide. Dornan has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the mailers from businesses doing work in the city.

Dornan also has been creative in leveraging money for Agran and his campaigns. In the 2002 elections, for example, Hometown Voter Guide got $115,000 from two committees supporting a statewide measure backed by Agran that raised money from companies with development interests in Irvine.

In the 2000 elections, Dornan spent about $200,000 on 13 mailers supporting Agran and his slate, including Mears.

Agran and Mears also shared a long political friendship. Mears' wife was Agran's campaign treasurer in the 1980s, and Mears, a successful trial attorney, raised money for him.

Through his alliance with Agran, Mears became chairman of the Great Park Corp., created by the city to manage redevelopment of El Toro.

He said he hopes to remain involved with the corporation to ensure the park is developed "in an open and aboveboard way." But he'll do so as a private citizen.

"Agran is the reason I got into politics," Mears said, "and he's the reason I'm getting out."

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