As Stephen Smith Leaves Town, Irvine's "Tattler" Calls on Others to Step Up

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Stephen C. Smith calls on others to keep tabs on Irvine City Hall.
CORRECTED!

Lost in Santa Ana a few months ago, half paying attention to the street signs and half to Larry Mantle's KPCC interview show blaring out of the car speakers, I heard the host steer his Orange County "roundtable" guests--Orange County Register senior editorial writer Steven Greenhut; former LA Times religion writer William Lobdell and the Weekly's irrepressible Gustavo Arellano--into the topic of local bloggers. The three amigos had just been talking with Mantle about the demise of daily print journalism in Orange County, and among the first bloggers they agreed was admirably filling the local news-gathering void was Stephen C. Smith, who'd kept tabs on Irvine City Hall through his website, the since-shuttered "Irvine Tattler."

This filled me with pride because Smith and I had many running email exchanges going about Irvine city politics, Islamic radicals, the Orange County Great Park, UC Riverside's former Bull & Mouth pub and players within the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim's minor league system, which Smith tracks through his other website (and passion), "FutureAngels.com."

Smith could comfortably comment on the local goings on in Irvine because he previously worked at City Hall and was once part of the so-called "Larry Agran machine." Insiders agree that Agran--the town's former mayor and onetime U.S. presidential candidate and current city councilman and Great Park Board of Directors chairman--pulls the political levers in Irvine, which leans to the right in every elected office above a City Council that is controlled by the left-leaning Agran bloc. But what made Smith an indispensible blogger was that he eventually became so disenchanted with Agran that he turned on his former master--joining an ever-growing roster that most notably includes Mark Petracca, the UC Irvine political science professor, Orange County politics commentator and former Weekly columnist; Chris Mears, the attorney and former Irvine city councilman; and Will Swaim, the Weekly's former editor and publisher who'd previously been picked by Agran to serve on the city Planning Commission who worked for three years as Agran's council assistant and an employee in his outside urban affairs think tank. (It was Agran's longtime ally on the council, Paula Werner, who actually appointed Swaim to the Planning Commission.) 

That has also made Smith a target of critics, especially at the LiberalOC, who claim he's in the pocket of Agran's council and philosophical foe, Christina Shea. However one views Smith, if we are to pick up Mantle's theme and wonder about news bloggers filling the vacuum created by the demise of daily print journalism, what is to happen when the news bloggers disappear? That is happening sooner rather than later with Smith, who departs within days for his new home and life in Florida. Before the big move comes, I asked for an exit interview . . .
Please tell me about where you are moving to--and why.
 
My wife Carol and I are moving to what's known as the Space Coast region of Florida. It got that nickname because of the Cape Canaveral Air Force base where the Mercury missions were launched, and later the manned flights from Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island. What most people don't know is that Merritt Island is also the largest wildlife refuge in the continental U.S. It has an incredibly rich and diverse ecosystem. You can go kayaking in the creeks and lagoons, where you'll encounter manatees and dolphins. It's not that crowded. It's a company town. The company happens to be the space program.
 
I've always wanted to work in the space program, but at the same time I want to take time off to write some books I have in mind. It's much cheaper to live in Space Coast. Housing prices are about one-third what they are in Irvine, so we're going to cash out our equity, pay cash for a house in Space Coast so we don't have any mortgage payments, bank about $100,000 and live the good life for a while.
 
Florida has this reputation for being so dysfunctional politically. Are you not worried it might be a giant version of Irvine?
 
Is there any place in the U.S. where the political system functions without a glitch? Any time you involve humans, you're going to have human flaws. But you also have human strengths. Talking to friends who live out there, I get the impression that the political corruption is more of the traditional "good ol' boy" variety than what goes on in Irvine, where money is laundered through so-called "independent" expenditure committees to avoid city campaign finance limits.
 
We were out there last year during a primary election. Our real estate agent was driving us down the road and we saw about a dozen people standing in the street madly waving campaign signs, waving for us to pull in a driveway. I asked him, "What's that about?"  He said, "Oh, that's a polling place." There were campaign signs along both sides of the driveway all the way up to the polling place. Their laws about campaigning near polling places must be much more lax, but at the same time I can't imagine people in Irvine taking the time to wave signs in front of polling places even if it were legal. I was impressed that those sign wavers took the time to participate in their political process.
 
How long did you live in Irvine, how did you arrive there?
 
I came to Irvine in December 1978, a few months after graduating from UC Riverside with a political science degree. I took a job in the police department as a dispatcher. In 1985, I got a masters degree in public administration and was hired for a job in the city's budget office. Three years later, I was itching to be my own boss and get involved in politics. Someone suggested I talk to Larry Agran, who gave me an opportunity to get involved in local politics once I left city employment.
 
I really couldn't afford to live in Irvine until 1996, when I bought a home in Woodbridge. That's where I've been ever since.
 
How do you feel about leaving?

Mixed emotions, of course. I've invested 30 years of my life in Irvine. The population here was about 40,000 when I joined the police department in 1978. I'm leaving behind family and friends, moving 2,500 miles to a place where I have a couple friends but my future is a big unknown. I view that as an opportunity; to quote the Star Trek adage, it's to boldly go where we've never gone before. I could stay here and be secure in my declining years, but what's the challenge in that? There are new frontiers to be explored.
 
The Space Shuttle program is scheduled to terminate at the end of 2010. It'll be replaced by a new program called Constellation, which is roughly similar to the Apollo program. I'll be in Cape Canaveral to see the end of one program, and the beginning of another. With luck, I might play some small role in all that.
 
Beats the heck out of playing slap 'n tickle with the Agran machine.
 
Like you, some prominent people have broken away from, and exposed the evil deeds of, the Agran machine. But at times it had to feel like you were screaming in the middle of a remote desert. Do you worry at all that there will be no one left behind to monitor that bunch?
 
It's not my job to monitor "that bunch." That same guilt trip has been laid on Christina Shea for years by people who don't want to take personal responsibility for stepping forward and publicly challenging Agran. I'm a firm believer that the electorate has to take responsibility for the people they vote into office. It wasn't Scott Moxley's responsibility that Mike Carona got elected sheriff. That's the fault of an uninformed or apathetic electorate. The same goes with Steve Rocco in the Orange Unified School District. But dedicated public guardians like Moxley stepped forward when no one else would. A Carona, a Rocco, an Agran wouldn't happen if more people paid attention to their local government.
 
Agran finished third in the 2008 City Council election, and would have been booted off if Sukhee Kang hadn't been elected mayor, opening his vacant seat. So the message is starting to get through to the voters. But these same voters elected Beth Krom again, and all she really does is parrot what Agran wants. She never votes against Agran's wishes. Neither does Kang. She can fuss and proclaim outrage at the suggestion that she's a puppet, but if she's not a puppet then why has she never voted against Agran's wishes? Steven Choi and Christina Shea conflict in their votes from time to time. It's honest disagreement. But there appears to be no debate at all amongst the Agran Three. They do what Agran wants. He makes sure that "independent" money helps keep them in office. If the electorate keeps voting into office Agran and his puppets, then the electorate has to be responsible for the consequences, just as the voters of Orange County are responsible for Mike Carona, just as the voters of the Orange school district are responsible for Steve Rocco. The voters get the government they deserve, in my opinion.

If you could say any final words to Larry Agran, what would you say?

My first impulse would be to say, "So long, and thanks for all the fish." But I don't think he'd get the reference. In any case, I'm sure he knows what I think of him. I've made that clear many times over the years through my political website and opinion columns in the local papers. I do wonder how he explains to new recruits why it is that nearly all of his original circle of Democratic/progressive supporters have publicly renounced him, with most of them throwing their support to Republican/conservative Christina Shea. Whatever he tells them, the truth is that we'd rather support someone who's honest, even though we may have philosophical disagreements, than someone who abandoned his principles long ago to keep absolute power at all costs. Deep down, I think he knows he let us down. Deep down, I think he's ashamed of that. But I don't think he's willing to face that, which is why he spends so much time and money trying to silence us. That's just my opinion, of course, I can't read his mind. In any case, I don't think he'd listen to anything I had to say. He'll be glad I'm gone because that's one less betrayed friend he'll have to look in the eye.
 
Eventually Agran and Shea will move on, and a new generation will arise in Irvine politics. I hope they learn from the history of Irvine politics. We've had some glorious moments, and some embarrassing moments. The defeat of the El Toro Airport is at the top of the list, but I think our relatively stable fiscal foundation is noteworthy, too. Future leaders should know that Irvine government went sideways when elected officials either got too full of themselves, or when they surrendered their independence to partisan political philosophies or fat-cat campaign finance backers.

It's not a popular thing to say, but the truth is that most civil servants are hard-working, diligent, and take pride in serving the community. Council members need to listen to the expert advice given them by staff. At the same time, the council is responsible for reflecting the will of the electorate, and when they think staff might be out of step with public will then it's their responsibility to be sure staff remains accountable to both the council and the public. I'm a huge believer in open government. Larry Agran once was. I remember him telling me years ago that he believed the City Council should never go into closed session, that even labor negotiations should be negotiated in public. But that was before he turned to the Dark Side. Now he looks for any excuse to drag the decision-making process behind closed doors, beyond public scrutiny. But if the public isn't paying attention, secretive council majorities get away with their schemes. As I said, voters get the government they deserve.
 
What do you think you'll miss most about Irvine?
 
I think I'll miss the sense that I'm part of a special community. You don't have to watch your back when you go out in public. You know you'll get quality service. Irvine is an incredibly diverse community, with many brilliant and talented people from around the world. I'm very proud that Irvine's population is one-third Asian, that we have people who are from Muslim countries where political freedom is repressed.
 
When I worked in the budget office back in the late 1980s, at the direction of the City Council we developed the foundation for strong fiscal disciplinary policies and prudent investment of tax dollars. I'm proud of that, too. Those policies, unfortunately, have been ignored from time to time by council majorities--some conservative, some liberal. But our municipal financial problems are nowhere near what other cities are facing, and that can be tracked back to policies we wrote in the late 1980s.
 
How about those Angels minor leaguers? Will you still be running FutureAngels.com from afar?
 
I'm a lifelong Angels fan. I saw a game in Anaheim Stadium in 1966, its first year. If truth be told, after graduating from college, I looked for a job in Orange County so I would be closer to the Angels. In the mid-1990s, I started going to the Angels' minor league team in Lake Elsinore.  (We switched to Rancho Cucamonga in 2001.) I found it was a far more intimate baseball experience than a major league game. It was far more informal, you could befriend the players and their families, and if you were willing to volunteer your time without your hand out you would be welcomed into the family. I got to watch John Lackey, Scot Shields, Francisco Rodriguez and many others as they worked their way to the big leagues. When they arrive, you feel like your son made it to the majors. That's a feeling unique not to me, but to all those people in the minors who volunteered to house these players, to advance them meal money on the road, to drive them to work at the ballpark. You never hear about them, but the players remember them and usually stay in contact years after.
 
FutureAngels.com started in 1998. I contacted all the Angels' minor league affiliates and offered to be their unofficial web site, since most of them didn't have one at the time. I'd go out to visit once or twice a year to shoot photos. Over time, I started recording audio interviews with players for permanent archival on the site. And as broadband became more common, I started shooting video highlight clips which are also archived on the site.
 
There's no reason I can't keep doing that in Florida. The main difference is I won't be able to drive to Rancho Cucamonga any more. But I'll have more time for a book project idea. I want to do a book about the history of the Angels' minor leagues. The Angels' first year was 1961. It's a manageable project. I've been tracking down players from that first year, and quite a few are still alive. It's been fun to reunite them with their teammates. They just light up talking to friends from 45 years ago. You can see and hear them become 20-year olds again in their minds. It's amazing how much they remember. We're hoping to stage a reunion later this year. I've always wanted to do an Angels minor league history section on FutureAngels.com, so I'll be able to give that a lot more time, too.
 
What do you think about the big-league club? They aren't out of the hunt, but folks seem kinda nervous.

I don't think everyone is "nervous." I'm not. I don't think you can paint all fans with the same brush. There's a lot of griping on the Internet, even when the team was winning 100 games last year. I think that's more a reflection of the Internet than Angels fandom in general. The Internet's anonymity gives courage to people who want to rant and throw temper tantrums, to engage in behavior that would get them a punch in the nose if they tried it in public. Most fans have better things to do with their lives than trash boards looking for reasons to complain.
 
I think the parent club is going to be fine. They're the class of the division. Let's face it, they've gone through a stress test that I doubt many other organizations could survive. They began the season with three All-Star caliber pitchers--Lackey, [Ervin] Santana, [Kelvim] Escobar--on the disabled list. Yet they had Nick Adenhart and Dustin Moseley available to step up. Moseley got hurt, and then the worst tragedy of all, Nick was killed by a drunk driver. Then Vlad Guerrero goes down with a season-threatening injury. And despite all this, as we talk, the team is playing .500 ball for the season. How many other major league organizations could do that? I think that's a testimony not only to what Bill Stoneman, Mike Scioscia and Tony Reagins have accomplished in this decade, but it says so much about the character of the players in the Angels dugout. If we get everyone healthy, and the law of averages catches up with us so we suffer no more critical injuries, I see the Angels running away from the division again in the second half. After the Angels lost to Boston in the playoffs last fall, some blamed it on their easy divisional title. Well, they can't say that this year. This team has gone to hell and back. If they survive this, they can survive anything.
 
Please tell us you won't be switching to the Marlins or Devil Rays.

True fandom is an affair of the heart. It doesn't change just because you move. I may go see the Rays or Marlins out of curiosity. Former Angels coach and minor league manager Joe Maddon is running the Rays, and former catcher Todd Greene is in the front office, so they have some Angels ties. A lot of Angels players and other personnel are from Florida. Chone Figgins' brother Demetrius is a scout and covers Space Coast. Tom Kotchman, Casey's dad, covers north Florida. Bobby Lucas, an original "future Angel" minor leaguer from 1961, is the baseball coach at Florida A&M. The parents I know of some Angels players live in Florida. So there are plenty of Angels roots in Florida.
 
There is a minor league baseball team nearby, the Brevard County Manatees down the road in Melbourne. It's a Milwaukee Brewers affiliate. I may go volunteer my time over there to help out, because in the minors there's a tradition that we all help each other regardless of parent club affiliation.
 
Do you think you'll still be keeping tabs on Irvine politics from Florida?
 
Broadband access to the Internet is a top priority, so it'll be easy to stay on top of things. Irvine City Council meetings are webcast and archived through the city's website, so I can watch the show from afar.
 
The introduction into these questions and your answers was built around the demise of daily print journalism and the role bloggers like yourself play in filling the news-gathering vacuum. What do you make of that?
 
I'm really bothered by the decline and approaching fall of print journalism. Newspapers have dwindling resources to cover local government. Without the media to act as watchdog, people like Agran will act with impunity because there's no other easy way to inform the electorate about what's happening at City Hall. That's why I started the Irvine Tattler website in 2008, to document what the Agran machine was doing. Eventually it led to the media paying attention again, so its purpose was served.

I've had a lot of people ask if I'll resurrect the Tattler once I get to Florida. Never say never, but my feeling is that it's time for others to step forward. What does it say about a city with a population of 200,000 highly educated people if it takes a guy living 3,000 miles away to shine the spotlight on City Hall shenanigans? The people of Irvine need to step up if they want clean and honest government. There should be a dozen Tattlers, in the grand tradition of American free speech. The question is, will the people of Irvine step up, or will they continue to let their government be compromised by politicians who launder hundreds of thousands of dollars from developers and no-bid City Hall contractors through independent committees?
 
With the decline of print journalism, it's up to the voters to police City Hall. That's what I'll be watching from afar.
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