Irvine council rejects changes to Friendship Cities program

A split vote of the Irvine council this week sent proposed amendments to the city's suspended Friendship Cities program back to the city manager's office for revisions.

The changes pertained to a country's human rights record and came about in response to a protest over a proposal to enter into a "friendship" with a city in Vietnam.

The council, minus Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Lalloway, voted 2 to 2 on Tuesday on a revision that called for a review of several established human rights indexes, including annual reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the U.S. Department of State when considering cities to have a relationship with.

The city manager's office drew up the proposed amendments in response to nearly 600 people showing up at an April council meeting to protest a proposed friendship with Nha Trang, Vietnam. While Councilman Larry Agran had already pulled his proposal to start a friendship with the Vietnamese city, the council that night decided not to enter into a relationship with Karachi, Pakistan, or Baoji, China.

Instead the council members voted 3 to 2 to create new rules regarding Friendship Cities, including whether to consider municipalities in countries that don't respect human rights or democratic values, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"Your proposal is not practical," resident Darakshan Malik told council members during public comments Tuesday. She noted that a good portion of Nha Trang's residents have ties to China, Taiwan, Japan, Iran, India or Pakistan.

"None of those countries, including the U.S., have a clean human-rights record," Malik said. "Please consider the proposal and make it fair, inclusive, and base it on community involvement."

Remarked Dinah Frieden, who introduced herself as a 35-year resident of Irvine: "The word friendship implies openness. The policy change recommended closes doors rather than opens them. What has been proposed is a step backward, not forward. Please look for ways to strengthen our global relations, not abandon them."

Resident Steve Greenberg suggested friendships with cities in Scandinavia, Ireland, Scotland and Italy.

"Right now, we don't have any European cities as a friendship or sister city," he said. "Let's choose one of these cities and not one of these undesirable Third World areas."

Irvine's Friendship Cities program "may include the exchange of correspondence between mayors, members of the City Council and other community leaders regarding areas of mutual interest," according to the city's website.

Irvine has Sister City relationships with Tsukuba, Japan, Hermosillo, Mexico, Taoyuan, Taiwan, and Seocho-gu, South Korea. Its one current Friendship City is Nowon, South Korea.

"There is currently, and has been for over a year, a [State Department] travel warning for Mexico," Councilwoman Beth Krom said in rejecting the proposed amendments, "and we have a sister city in Hermosillo, Mexico. So should we say to our sister city, 'It's been nice knowing you, but there's a travel warning and we no longer want to play in the same sandbox as you'?"

Agran agreed, saying, "Virtually every country is in trouble with respect to human rights at one time or another, and that includes the United States. I don't think we could have a friendship with another American city under this standard."

"This is a basic guideline," Mayor Steven Choi said before the council took a vote. "It's at least some guideline for cities to consider. I thought this was pretty solid and well thought out."

"It's a practical matter," added Councilwoman Christina Shea. "We have a responsibility to protect our residents. If our State Department is telling people that they shouldn't be traveling there, we shouldn't be supporting and suggesting cities that would endanger our community."

The amendments could come up again at the council's July 8 meeting.

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