An Irvine planning commissioner and a retired police officer sued the city this week, challenging a closed-door "settlement agreement" with a high-rise developer as questions have arisen about the builder's support of City Council members who approved it.
The Irvine City Council in January approved the agreement to resolve a dispute with Maguire Properties, a Los Angeles real estate developer known for the 72-story US Bank Tower downtown. Two of the five council members walked out because they were concerned that the meeting, held in private, was illegal.
Maguire, while in negotiations with the city, contributed to a political committee that funded a campaign mailer endorsing two of the council members who approved the settlement.
In the 29-page settlement, Maguire agreed to pay the city as much as $9.8 million in extra building permit and transportation fees instead of providing low-cost housing in a complex of condominium towers going up near John Wayne Airport.
The suit, filed by Greg Smith, planning commissioner and former councilman, and former police officer Pat Rodgers, alleges that the city violated state open meeting laws.
"They're cutting deals without any public input," said Phil Greer, their attorney. "If it's such a great deal, then why wasn't it discussed publicly?"
The suit also alleges that the settlement limited public review by allowing future proposals from the developer to be handled administratively instead of through public hearings.
City planning officials and Maguire disputed that, saying the settlement did not change how future projects would be approved.
The City Council met in private three times to discuss the settlement, starting in October 2007. Maguire did not sue the city, but the council met out of the public eye because Maguire's attorneys suggested they would take legal action, according to a city report.
"This actually benefited the city to the tune of $10 million, and not one iota of our planning process has been modified in the process," said Mayor Beth Krom, who defended holding the meetings in private.
Council members Steven Choi and Christina Shea walked out of the last two meetings, in November and January, calling them illegal and improper. After the city received a letter from Greer asking that the agreement be rescinded, Krom, Councilmen Sukhee Kang and Larry Agran instead publicly ratified it on April 8. Shea and Choi abstained.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, an open government nonprofit organization, said that meeting in closed session in the absence of a lawsuit could be a violation of the open meetings law, although it was a gray area.
"Residents have to be vigilant to see that their elected representatives are not abusing limited authority they have to decide issues behind closed doors," he said. "Even for honest people trying to do the job right, the natural impulse, whenever you're having to decide a difficult issue that is sensitive, is to want to do that quietly."
The dispute over the settlement has played out along political lines in a year in which all five members of the Irvine council are running for office. The council has been intensely divided, with its two factions lining up on opposite sides of the Maguire agreement.
Maguire's political contributions, which indirectly funded campaign mailings, have also drawn scrutiny.
In the two months before Maguire's attorneys first submitted a proposed settlement in December 2006, the firm made four contributions totaling $120,000 to Planning 2020 Inc., a political committee based in Monterey, Calif. That group, since dissolved, funded Hometown Voter Guide, a glossy campaign mailer that in 2006 promoted three council candidates along with a pitch for the county transportation initiative Measure M, which passed.
The mailers supported Krom, Kang and Mary Ann Gaido, who was defeated in the election.
Krom and Kang said that they had purchased space on the slate mailer and that they were not aware of Maguire's donations when they cast their votes on the project.
"I thought it was a good deal, and I was proud to vote for it," Kang said. "As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't have any connection to any donations."
But the two council members who opposed the Maguire settlement have questioned the motives of the donations.
"Did [Maguire] know that their money would end up supporting a candidate in Irvine? Or did they give it entirely without knowing?" Choi asked.
Mark Lammas, Maguire's executive vice president of development, said the company's contributions were "purely coincidental." He said they were made after consultants suggested that the firm, like many other developers, contribute to Planning 2020 in support of the transportation measure. "We committed to those donations well before any dispute arose," he said.
But the dispute with Maguire began in May 2005, according to a city report prepared before the settlement was ratified.
Krom called the suit a political maneuver by her opponents. Smith, appointed to the planning commission by Shea, and Rodgers, a former Irvine Police Assn. president, have been critical of city policies.
"They're taking legitimate city business and compromising it for their own political objectives," she said.