An OC Veteran’s Cemetery is Within Our Grasp! Irvine Council Votes TODAY!!!

This year, the State Legislature may approve AB 1453, which if all goes as planned would go forward with plans to build a Veteran’s Cemetery in Irvine’s Great Park — finally fulfilling some of the promise of that word “Great.”  Tomorrow night, March 11, the Irvine City Council takes a vote that will either push this project far forward — or possibly derail it.

You are invited to come and watch the meeting and even speak to the issue — and if you are a veteran or a loved one of veterans, your presence is even more appropriate.  This is a big deal — not only for veterans themselves, but for their loved ones in Orange County and Los Angeles County who want to be able to visit and honor their military deceased.

We need as many veterans and families of vets as possible to come there and show their support!

The plan is mostly non-controversial — it should end up costing the City and the County little or no money to create, and even the State’s contribution would be mostly reimbursed by the federal government, which sets aside a special fund for such cemeteries.  But there is talk of opposition — some respectable, some not so much — which makes people coming out to the Irvine City Council meeting that much more important!

OCVMP meeting 620px

Six veterans discuss the issues at last week’s Orange County Veterans Memorial Park committee meeting in Loretta Sanchez’s Garden Grove district office. From left: Robert Brower, Gil Flores, Dr. Richard Ramirez, Chaplain Bill Cook, Zeke Hermandez, and Louis Quezada. (This was my best shot of the table, so my apologies to those left out!)

Credit for pushing this plan traces all the way back to Chaplain Bill Cook, who offered this dream in 1999 as the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station (which now includes area including the formal bounds of the Great Park) was closing.  He has promoted the idea consistently since then.  For the past few years it has been pursued both by veterans in Cook’s circle such as Jerry Berry and Peter Katz, and a group including Dr. Richard Ramirez, Zeke Hernandez, Amin David, and Louis Quezada associated with Los Amigos.  These groups, along with more recent arrivals like Alex Diaz and Irvine’s Robert Brower — and I apologize to those whose names I have forgotten — have formed the nucleus of an informal (for now) committee known as the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park, which had been meeting monthly — and these days is meeting weekly — in space provided in the district office of Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

Full disclosure, and I’ve rarely been happier to disclose of conflict of interest than this one: I’ve been working with OCVMP this year, trying to help navigate the legal and political waters towards getting approval.  While I’m not a veteran, I was summoned to attend meetings at the urging of my friend Brian Chuchua — who is also not a veteran but, likes me, thinks that this is simply right for OC’s veterans and right for the residents of the Southland.  For me, my daughter’s joining the Naval Reserve last October — she just returned a week ago from Basic Training in Illinois and “A-School” (where she was trained for her Navy job) in Mississippi — gave me the extra push needed to clear my schedule to attend weekly meetings.  (And, to address the inevitable “politicization” question, I became involved with this group more than a month before I even considered running for District Attorney and never expected to be writing such a piece as this in the wake of filing for office.  To even things out: I hope and expect that my opponent, Tony Rackauckas, who is himself a veteran, will also support this proposal and use his considerable influence within the party to make it happen.  I’d happily appear on a podium with him, both supporting this cause — and I promise that I would clap heartily for him!)

While Bill Cook has had this dream since 1999, the “stars have aligned” to make it a realistic possibility this year.  The rancor in Irvine regarding changes to the Great Park’s “Master Plan” has fostered a greater need to find something in the Great Park area that is special — something truly great — and that can bring people together.  Then, in mid-December, Sharon Quirk-Silva was appointed Chair of the Assembly Veterans’ Committee.  She was aware (or soon made aware, I forget which) of the efforts of the group of Los Amigos veterans, began talking (personally and through her staff) to interested people in Irvine and elsewhere in OC, are suddenly a bill called AB 1453 appeared — meaning that she was going to try to get this done this legislative session, earlier than the OCVMP vets had even imagined was possible.

AB 1453 was quickly assembled from models of the two bills that established the state’s other two veterans cemeteries — a Northern California one located up near Redding/Chico and a Central California one that is just opening in Monterey.  All it had to be at this point was a “placeholder” — and the Veterans Committee staffer in Sacramento, along with others, agreed that the Northern California model was the one to follow.  (This led, among other things, to staff forgetting to update “Northern California” to “Southern California” in the draft bill — something that sent quite a panic through local vets, but that has now been resolved!  The wording, of course, will be changed in committee.)

Quirk-Silva has been adamant from the start that this initiative was too important to let it become a political football — so she’s trying to spread potential credit around broadly.  She has sought and received co-sponsorship for the bill from Democrat Tom Daly and Republican Don Wagner, in whose district it would be built.  I’m informed that the state Republican Party (goosed along by Chuchua) will be considering a resolution to support AB 1453 next week; it was too late to get that done in time for the convention, but the OCGOP will presumably want to do the same and I’ll be introducing a resolution of support to the DPOC that I hope will be approved this month or next.  Various private and public civic groups have already begun passing resolutions in support of AB 1453.

It is truly GREAT to have so many people from all camps on the same side!

There are a couple of obstacles that we’ll have to jump before this becomes a reality, though.

First, veterans cemeteries are supposed to be somewhat spread out — and the proximity between the Great Park and the next-closest veterans cemetery, the federal one in Riverside, is a challenge to overcome.  On paper, they’re close; in real life — especially for anyone who has ever sat in traffic trying to squeeze through past the pass at Green River on the way Riverside — to visit the one.  Yes, doing so is possible — but we have records of how much the OC population uses that cemetery — and it’s clear that people just don’t.  Veterans from OC and LA generally don’t get buried there; those that do tend not to receive visitors from this part of the region.  A cemetery in the coastal basin will attract countless visitors to Irvine and become a focal point for public memorials.  It will be an outstanding contribution to the civic life of the county, the City of Irvine, and the Great Park in particular.

Second, there’s the question of whether this land could be put to more productive economic use.  I don’t dismiss this out of hand — but come on!  Economic productivity is not the only important thing in public policy — and both honoring veterans and facilitating their family’s ability to honor them have got to be among the things that we as a county value most highly!  At least we say that we do — now is a chance to, in a very substantive way, show that we do.  I expect that both major parties and most independent voters would agree.  (Even those generally opposed to wars are not generally opposed to veterans themselves — and are in fact some of the strongest voices for protecting and increasing benefits for veterans.  A veterans cemetery in Irvine isn’t mostly a material benefit — although being able to be buried there certainly is — but it is a major psychological and morale benefit.

Finally, there is a problem with feng shui.  If you don’t know the term, here’s a link.

As readers will remember, the developer Five Points was granted the right to build a large number of houses in the area on the condition that they it provide money towards building in Great Park.  (I forget what exactly will be built there besides a golf course.  I’ll update this as I recover more details of it.)  These homes are apparently largely being purchased by mainland Chinese residents who want to get their money out of the country as possible to hedge against problems with China’s economy.  As told to me, the concern is that proximity to a cemetery suggests bad feng shui — and may thus limit the value of those homes.

(By the way: if you want to make fun of feng shui, you are essentially attacking someone’s religion.  You can say that it can’t be an overriding concern, but saying that it’s wrong for East Asians to care about this concept generally is going to come off very poorly.  Expect such comments to be treated accordingly.  At OCVMP meetings, members have been strongly outspoken that racial animus must play no part in their campaign.  And you do not want to mess with these guys!)

I would like to think that Five Points has the wisdom and civic-mindedness not to even make this an issue.  They are already making plenty of money — and it’s not clear that the presence of a veterans cemetery would diminish it at all.  But even if it did — the notion of subordinating the moral, psychological, and spiritual interests of Orange County veterans to the economic interests of non-citizen (and even perhaps non-resident) wealthy Chinese property speculators is — is — well, I’m suppressing several obscenities here, so I’ll just call it “obscene.”

Dear Five Points:  you and I may not be each others’ favorites, but I implore you: do not stand in the way of this, out of pure self-preservation even if not out of civic-mindedness.  You do not want to be on the side of making sure that Chinese nationals speculating in Southern California property make $500,000 on a property rather than $400,000.  You know that this will dog you and everyone associated with you until the end of time if you stand in the way — and you have so much good will to gain if you are gracious.

Larry Agran‘s agenda item 4.3 for the Council meeting reads as follows:


WHEREAS, California is home to more veterans than any other state; and

WHEREAS, the majority of California’s veterans live in Southern California; and

WHEREAS, the nearest currently open federal veterans cemetery to Orange
County is the National Cemetery in Riverside, California; and,

WHEREAS, although the National Cemetery in Riverside is a beautiful resting place for veterans, due to various factors — distance from Orange County, regional geography, limited driving routes, and the population density of the region — the Orange County veterans, veterans from other Southern California coastal areas, and veterans’ families find access to available National Veterans Cemeteries challenging; and,

WHEREAS, the two State Veterans Cemeteries are also distant from Orange County — the Northern California State Veterans Cemetery is located near Redding in Igo, California, and the Central Coast State Veterans Cemetery will be located in Monterey; and,

WHEREAS, Assembly Bill 1453 is pending in the California State Legislature, directing the California Department of Veterans Affairs to develop a master plan for a State-owned and operated Southern California Veterans Cemetery to be located in Orange County;

NOW, THEREFORE, the City Council of the City of Irvine DOES HEREBY RESOLVE as follows:

SECTION 1. That the City of Irvine supports the passage of Assembly Bill 1453 and the establishment of a Southern California Veterans Cemetery in Orange County.

SECTION 2. That the City of Irvine expresses its strong interest in providing at least 100 acres of land at the Orange County Great Park (formerly the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro), for purposes of creating a Southern California Veterans Memorial and Cemetery.

PASSED AND ADOPTED by the City Council of the City of Irvine at a regular meeting held on the 1 1 th day of March, 2014.

MAYOR OF THE CITY OF IRVINE     ___________________

CITY CLERK OF THE CITY OF IRVINE   ___________________

The first “Resolved Clause” is essentially the same resolution of support of AB 1453 that City Councils, school boards, and other organizations in the area have already begun to pass — I think that it should be obvious to all five members of the Irvine City Council that they should support it.

The second part is a little more dicey.  This talks about setting such a cemetery not merely somewhere in Orange County, but in Irvine specifically.  This is the vote that matters most.

Agran, obviously, will support his own resolution.  Beth Krom will presumably do the same — not because of mimicry, but because her previous public statements show that she values this sort of use of public land and she is not beholden to Five Points, if they decide to oppose it (as I hope they won’t.)

Three votes are necessary to approve Section 2.  If Five Points has no objection, getting a third vote — or more likely a unanimous Council — should be simple.  If Five Points wants to object, things would be more tricky.  This matters because if Irvine isn’t willing to donate land to the state for the cemetery, then AB 1453 can become an almost meaningless shell.  Without Section 2, AB 1453 would say “hey, it would be nice if someone built a veterans cemetery.  With Section 2 — although see my discussion a few paragraphs below — AB 1453 becomes the vehicle that ensure that WE WILL BUILD a veterans cemetery!  And that’s why Sharon Quirk-Silva has been working hard to make sure that the Irvine City Council won’t just give theoretical support to such an enterprise, but will provide the land to the State that will allow the State to obtain funds from the federal government, THIS YEAR, to design and build it!

So if as expected the City Council divides the two Sections for separate votes, Section 2 is the vote to watch.  Irvine’s passing Section 1 has no more effect than if Buena Park does so.  Irvine’s passing Section 2 probably — and any deficiency could still be fixed — means that this will happen.  Quirk-Silva controls the Vets community and Democrats won’t stand in her way.  Lou Correa — probably with a Republican co-sponsor such as Mimi Walters or maybe even my old chum Bob Huff — will get it through the Senate.  And Governor Jerry Brown has already indicated his interest in signing it.

Like I said: the stars are aligned.  We can’t count on such a favorable environment in 2015, 2016, 2018 … or any future year.  “The iron is hot” — so it’s time to strike!

Mayor Steven Choi would have the hardest choice to make.  As a South Korean immigrant who came here as an adult (about which he spoke movingly at the City Council when it unanimously approved allowing Occupy Orange County to protest on the Civil Center Lawn in the autumn of 2011), he has as much or more reason than anyone else on the Council to appreciate and be grateful to the U.S. military.  On the other hand, he is part of a traditional culture that values principles of feng shui.  (I’m informed by Korean friends that this is more of an issue for those of Choi’s generation than “first-and-a-half” or second/third generation immigrants.  That’s certainly true of my own household, where my Filipina wife is much more attentive to feng shui considerations than are my daughters.  My wife favors a cemetery without hesitation, by the way.)  I honestly could understand, even without agreeing with it, his feeling compelled to vote no.  But if Choi could find it within himself to embrace the honor — and yes, it is an honor — of Irvine holding a veterans cemetery, that would defuse the entire conflict.  That would be showing true leadership.  Blocking this proposal, on the other hand, would be a huge burden for his reputation.  I’ll bet on his being a leader.

If Choi did not provide a third vote, it would fall to either Jeff Lalloway or Christine Shea.  I truly think that one of them will do so — even though the two of them have sometimes been sharply at odds this past year.  Lalloway is a really smart guy and a gifted politician — and I can’t believe that he would want to be the deciding vote in wanting to dismiss the legitimate interests of veterans.  Shea is less ideological than Lalloway and, my sense is, more populist and sentimental.  While she’s not up for re-election this year, I just have a hard time seeing her voting no.  I think that, apprehensions aside, both of them will do both the wise and the right thing — and vote “yes.”

If somehow all three vote against it, then expect something like Krom also voting “no” for tactical reasons — it would allow her to bring the item up again on March 25 for reconsideration — and then expect two weeks of concerted lobbying.  As a Democrat, that might be the best case for me — but it’s not what I want.  I, and I think my mostly Republican friends in OCVMP — would prefer to see a unanimous vote, with party completely left out of the issue, just as it should be.  (When you get me, Bill Cook, Don Wagner, and Lou Correa, and Tom Daly together on the same side of an issue — it’s probably widely accepted!)

The main danger I see, at this point, is that the federal Department of Veterans Affairs might find that the language of Section two isn’t strong enough.  The land does not need to be given over to the State for us to be able to apply; Irvine just has to indicate its intent to give the state such land if it is needed to “seal the deal.”  Section 2 is close to that — and maybe it’s enough.  (Unfortunately, I don’t think that the DVA will answer this sort of question in the abstract.)  It’s also written ambiguously enough so that if Irvine was given another site — say, the federally held FBI Training Headquarters land not too far away — then that land could house the cemetery (there are arguments for and against preferring it), which might hopefully disarm feng shui concerns.

If Item 4.3 Section 2 passes on Tuesday, then I expect that by a week or so the legislative people working with Quirk-Silva will know if the language is enough to make the deal fly.  (It will truly be a boon to the Great Park, to Irvine, to Southern California, to the whole state, and to the whole nation, because 13 million people live here and in LA County, and weekend visits to the Great Park to honor loved ones should become common events.)  If the language is somehow not enough, but the will is there, then there will be enough time to fix it.

Back at the beginning of December, the timeline of approval, before funds for construction were even approved, might have optimistically been measured in a decade.  Now, we are literally talking about the possibility of it happening in less than six months!

Tuesday could be a red-letter day in Orange County, a day for celebration transcending all lines that divide us.  I hope that the Irvine City Council has the votes for it — and I hope that the people of Orange County will show up and let them know that they want this to happen.  Our veterans deserve it, their families deserve it, and the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine is the perfect symbolic place to have it!

I’ll be there — and I’m going to try to bring my sailor daughter! — and my colleagues in OCVMP will be there.  Will you?

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)