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Great Park travails show the travesty of politics

By Steven Greenhut

One of the great fallacies of our modern world is the idea that development decisions should largely be made through politics and public input. That way all the “stakeholders” get their say and the end result – following city council motions, public votes and bureaucratic oversight – expresses the will of the people.

I’m always looking for ways to illustrate why this is not so – i.e., why letting developers just develop stuff (provided they follow basic rules) is the most harmonious approach. For example, all the voter-approved no-growth restrictions in San Francisco have ensured that only trust-funders can afford to live in that particular dog-eat-dog housing market.

But why go to San Francisco, when Orange County’s 22-year battle over the redevelopment of the decommissioned El Toro Marine Corps Air Station offers an example? In 1994, voters approved an international airport plan. The ensuing eight years were filled with strife, culminating in a 2002 vote that rezoned the location for an Orange County Central Park and Nature Preserve.

The Great Park was born, but 14 years later, it still hasn’t grown out of its infancy. This political process hasn’t created the world-class park we were promised. For years, barely anything happened there, although park officials ran a well-oiled public-relations machine. In recent years, the park has gained modest attractions.

But this was a project that was supposed to rival Balboa Park or Central Park. At the going rate, it might be a decent regional park, of the type you visit for a kids’ soccer game. An 8-year-old Register article reminded me of the grand visions pitched to the voting public of “a majestic, 1,300-acre central park, where military runways, hangars and chain-link fences are transformed into expanses of sports fields, eye-catching natural landmarks and cultural gathering points.”

Orange County is the nation’s premier spot for master-planned communities. A developer could have built something magnificent in the ensuing nine years. By now, the acreage would be a privately financed showplace. Instead, the main thing Californians have to show is an endless local political battle that has even dragged in state officials.

Last year, the Orange County Grand Jury released “Irvine Great Park: A Legacy of Hubris.” It blasted a “lack of progress” over a decade and raised questions about the project’s transparency. “Unfortunately, what the public got bears little semblance to the pipedreams they were sold,” the grand jury explained.

Irvine annexed the park back when Democrat Larry Agran controlled the City Council. Republicans had long accused him and his allies of mismanaging the park. When they finally took control of the City Council in 2013, they conducted an audit of the project. The 157-page report painted a damning picture.

“It has been said many times in defense of the decisions made from 2006 to 2009, that it was the recession or the state’s dissolving redevelopment that killed the Great Park. This is false,” according to the city’s audit. “The Master Plan was killed not by the recession or the loss of the redevelopment funding, it was killed by its own hubris.”

Continue reading at the Orange County Register…

O.C. REGISTER: Dueling Audits

Orange County Register Editorial

The state auditor released its own audit of the Irvine Great Park audit this month that was highly critical of the methods and practices the city and its auditor employed, arguing they “compromised the review’s credibility.” Yet, what the audit doesn’t seem to take much issue with is the Irvine audit’s actual findings.

To be sure, when politicians get involved, politics ensues. But what remains to be seen for us is why the state Legislature chose to sic the state auditor on the city of Irvine now, while turning a blind eye for more than a decade to the largesse at the Great Park.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature was nowhere in sight while $200 million in development funds was spent to complete less than one-sixth of the project to convert the closed El Toro Marine Corps air base into a huge regional park. Neither was the Legislature’s interest piqued by Great Park audits conducted during the years of Democratic control, which found nothing amiss.

It seems that the Legislature only jumps into action when Gafcon Inc., a one-time donor to Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who proposed the state audit to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee three times, is threatened, not when millions in taxpayer dollars were seemingly wasted at the 688-acre park site.

Irvine council debates, then mostly sides with grand jury on Great Park report

By Matt Morrison

In a formal response to an Orange County Superior Court judge, the city of Irvine mostly agrees with the findings and recommendations of the grand jury report “Irvine Great Park: Legacy of Hubris?” released June 30.

With only three exceptions, City Council members agreed wholly or in part with the 14 findings and eight recommendations but there was some heated debate on some of the issues.

City Manager Sean Joyce and his staff were charged with drafting the recommended responses to be submitted in an official letter to Superior Court Judge Glenda Sanders. Options of agree, disagree, or further consideration were offered by staff for council consideration.

With the Great Park audit itself now under scrutiny by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee in Sacramento, Assemblyman Don Wagner (R-Irvine) and former assemblyman and state Sen. Dick Wagner both attended the meeting. Each voiced support for the audit findings and the current Republican council majority during public comments.

“I saw both an audit and a grand jury report that essentially say the same things and essentially confirms, in my mind, that there has been some problem and there has been some mismanagement,” Wagner said afterward.

Councilwoman Beth Krom, the only Democrat among a 4-1 Republican council majority, used her time in discussion to continue disputing the legitimacy of the audit and the grand jury report before ultimately excusing herself from the dais.

“I think it’s hubris on the part of the grand jury to essentially take information that was in the audit, which was largely what they cite and attribute it to Aleshire & Wynder (the legal firm hired to conduct major portions of the Great Park audit),” Krom said.

Continue reading at the Daily Pilot…

O.C. REGISTER: Sacramento Riding to Rescue of Irvine Democrats

Orange County Register Editorial

Only now, when long-awaited progress is being made at the Orange County Great Park, the result of a political shift at Irvine’s City Hall, do concerns over an audit of park finances, and the park’s role as a political tool, warrant intervention from Sacramento.

Despite two failed attempts to prod the state’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee to sign off on a state audit of the city’s Great Park audit, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, prevailed Tuesday when the Democratic-controlled panel finally concurred.

Ms. Gonzalez insinuated that politics determined the conclusions of the audit, pushed by the officially nonpartisan Irvine council’s current Republican majority, which criticized the years of park development managed by the council’s former Democratic majority.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature was nowhere in evidence while $200 million in development funds was spent, as the Register recently noted, to complete less than one-sixth of the project to convert the closed El Toro Marine Corps air base into a huge regional park. Neither was the Legislature’s interest piqued by Great Park audits conducted during the years of Democratic control, which found nothing amiss.

But if Ms. Gonzalez’s goal really was to determine whether politics played a hand in wasteful spending on the Great Park – by comparison, the current council has spent about $1.5 million on its audit – the examination’s findings made the answer abundantly clear.

Recall the testimony of Mike Ellzey, former Great Park CEO and current director of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, about when he questioned a $100,000-per-month public relations contract for the undeveloped park with Newport Beach-based firm Forde & Mollrich.

“We’ve got to reduce that. I mean, that’s way too much. We’ve got to reduce that,” Mr. Ellzey recalled telling two Great Park staffers in a sworn deposition to city-hired auditors last year.

“They literally laughed,” he recalled. “I asked them, ‘Why are you laughing?’”

Their reply? “Good luck on that.”

Continue reading at the Orange County Register…

Could The Great Park Be Built ‘Ahead of Schedule’?

By Adam Elmahrek

If all goes according to plan, an Irvine developer this summer will begin early construction phases to build hundreds of acres of the Orange County Great Park, a timeline that city leaders and a representative of the builder say is more than a year ahead of schedule.

“It’s gonna be exciting,” said Councilwoman Christina Shea. “Within a year we’re going to be out here and look at close to 500 acres of the park developed.”

However, not everyone is happy about the news. Members of the City Council faction that previously controlled the park say the development represents the commercialization of what was to be a purely public vision.

Construction of the 1,300-acre park project – or lack thereof – has been the most hotly debated issue in the city since the political battle 15 years ago over whether to turn the shuttered El Toro Marine Air Base into an international airport.

The Democratic council majority that previously controlled the park was sharply criticized for being too slow to develop the project, while spending large sums on costs like public relations and no-bid contracts. The Democrats have countered that they activated the park with special events and that stalled construction was caused primarily by the housing bust and Great Recession.

The frustration came to a head in 2012, when Republican candidates flipped a seat on the council and gained a three-member majority. The next year, they signed off on a deal with FivePoint Communities, which is building thousands of homes around the project, to construct 688 acres of the park in exchange for approval to build more homes.

Construction phases slated for this Summer are beginning earlier than promised in the deal, a PowerPoint presentation made by representative Patrick Strader at a council study session in April.

Among the plans is a 175-acre sports park that includes dozens of soccer fields and baseball, volleyball and tennis courts. There will also be a 40-acre bosque, a wooded recreational area with trails; a 36-acre “upper bee” canyon, which is a more modest version of the man-made canyon in the master plan; and a 178-acre wildlife corridor. The man-made canyon previously in the master plan would be replaced with a 188-acre golf course.

Shea says the sports park could be completed by the fall of 2016.

Those amenities would be in addition to the 88 acres of public space now available at the park, including soccer fields and a palm court complex, among other things.

Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway said the construction fulfills a promise made to the voters to “finally build out the Great Park.”

“To accelerate [construction] faster than origninally anticipated shows we are dedicated to providing these amendiites and fulfilling these promises when we make them,” Lalloway said.

Currently, most of the development is focused on underground infrastructure, officials say. FivePoint has also removed at least four million square feet of the runways, according to Strader.

That presentation also claims grading for the upper bee canyon and bosque was supposed to start June 1 and that grading for the sports park would begin July 15. Whether those dates are still accurate is unclear. The developer did not respond to questions submitted by Voice of OC.

Councilwoman Beth Krom, the only Democrat remaining on the council, says the developments come with significant caveats, mainly allowing the developer to alter a public metropolitan park to make it a more profitable venture.

For one, the sports park would be “pay-to-play” whereby leagues would pay for access to the fields and occupy them often for tournaments, she said. The previous vision for the park was to have free access to the public, according to Krom.

Continue reading at the Voice of O.C.

San Diego Politician Seeks To Undermine OC Great Park Audit

By R. Scott Moxley

In Legally Blonde 2, Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) works to pass anti-animal testing legislation. But her sly boss, a congresswoman (Sally Fields), secretly sabotages the effort on behalf of a money-hungry campaign contributor. Though naïve and ditsy, Woods uses her charm to turn once contemptuous politicians into admirers, wins a new law and everybody, including her Chihuahua Bruiser, lives happily ever after.

It’s a feel good Hollywood tale that doesn’t quite mirror reality, at least in Sacramento. On April 22, Assemblywoman Lorena S. Gonzalez tried to play the role of an Elle Woods-type do-gooder by advocating that the state auditor open an investigation into the City of Irvine. Her issue? In a rambling, semi-coherent statement, Gonzalez said the legislature has “a responsibility” to determine if the audit of Orange County Great Park spending was performed “for political reasons.”

The reason for the audit is obvious. Flabbergasted Irvine residents wanted to know how city officials spent about $250 million in park funds without building a single, major, promised feature of the proposed project. And the answer is most definitely political, but not the way Gonzalez is spinning the issue.

Gonzalez is a San Diego Democrat. The crew that wasted the $250 million–in part by giving their own political operatives lucrative, no-bid contracts–are Democrats: Beth Krom, Larry Agran and Sukhee Kang. The folks Gonzalez wants audited are the people who complied with public sentiment and ordered the spending review that documented widespread mismanagement, incompetence and cronyism: Christina Shea, Jeff Lalloway and Steven Choi, all Republicans.

Yesterday, a shameless Gonzalez asked the state’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC), a Democrat-controlled panel, to shift at least $250,000 in funds intended to inspect wasteful state agencies and spend it on auditing Irvine’s legally-authorized audit. Her reasoning is breathtaking in its absurdity.

“You could Google ‘Gafcon’ and ‘City of Irvine’ and see some of the things that were done along the way–the releasing of depositions on a website prior to the audit being completed,” she testified.

Sounds horrible like a risque leak to TMZ, doesn’t it? But the website was the city’s public website and, as best I can tell, residents appreciated investigator Anthony R. Taylor’s commitment to public disclosure. The only people who didn’t like the release of the depositions as they were completed were the likes of Agran and Krom because the information revealed the depths of mismanagement at the park.

Continue reading at the OC Weekly.. 

Tainted Irvine Democrats Hope Sacramento Pals Will Rescue Them In Great Park Scandal

By R. Scott Moxley

Ever want to see politicians simultaneously argue two sides of one stance–and pretend they are consistent? Go to Irvine and see Beth Krom and Larry Agran in action. More than a year ago, Krom and Agran devised a two-pronged communications strategy to undermine the independent audit of how their political machine spent in excess of $200 million without building a single, major, promised feature at the Orange County Great Park.
The first prong involved trying to rile up the public by describing the audit as a waste of taxpayer funds, which was never a concern when their machine ran the proposed park and handed out $165,000 a month in no bid, no benchmark contracts to their own political consultants. Booted from power by 2012 voters, the pair suddenly discovered the notion of frugality.

Once one of California’s largest and most anticipated public works projects, the Great Park idea under the leadership of Krom and Agran devolved into a cesspool of incompetence, mismanagement and cronyism you’d expect from two local politicians, one a housewife and the other a lawyer who has never held a private sector job, pretending they possessed the expertise to create a $1.6 billion, “world class” park.

Continue reading at the OC Weekly

Final Audit Report Shows Larry Agran’s Great Park Plan Was A Debacle From Outset

By R. Scott Moxley, O.C. Weekly

Twelve years ago, Larry Agran, Irvine’s career politician and mayor who’d never built anything, issued bold statements about his ability to build a “world-class” government park at the mothballed Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, and people, especially journalists, believed him.
“Move over, Manhattan,” wrote an excited Christian Science Monitor reporter in April 2003. “Stand aside San Francisco. In Orange County, the final hurdle has been cleared for a ‘county great park’ that will exceed the size of Central Park and Golden Gate Park put together.”

The reporter–who didn’t know the mayor and his political scheming actually would be the final hurdles–went on to echo the mayor’s oral machinations, declaring that “the area is considered America’s leading laboratory of ‘post suburbia’ . . . ”

Agran also provided the money quote, “We are finally moving forward with a plan that will transform the future of Orange County.”

In pure Agranista form, the paper unquestioningly repeated his biggest lie in the title to a chapter in the article: “No cost to citizens.”

Add you own exclamation point!

Those of us who for 12 years closely watched Agran and his Democratic political machine operate dictatorial control over the project didn’t fall for the empty hype. Their operatives received lucrative, no-bid contracts for a public park that didn’t yet exist. They wasted nearly $50 million on a park design plan that was laughably unattainable–a huge, man-made canyon and waterfalls!–the moment it landed on paper. Paranoid of being caught in various scandals, they treated park records with NSA-type secrecy. Agran conducted park spending business through his wife’s private email account. Despite claiming otherwise, they planned to use a special tax scheme to boost park coffers until Gov. Jerry Brown killed such tactics. They ran fake Republican candidates to dilute their opponents’ election strength. After years and years of spending several hundred million dollars without building a single, major promised feature, the Agran finally alliance lost power in 2012.

What happened? Agran and Beth Krom, his robotic sidekick, blame the economy on their wild spending spree that emptied park coffers. Nobody but the pair’s Kool-Aid drinkers ever bought that falsehood.

Continue reading at OC Weekly…

Larry Agran Can’t Recall if He Can Recall

By R. Scott Moxley, OC Weekly

Until reality caught up to him last November and shattered his heavily concocted image as a good-government activist, Larry Agran served as the leader of a political machine that for a dozen years dictatorially controlled Irvine and the Orange County Great Park project.

The ugly reality includes Agran’s penchant for secrecy, cronyism, narcissism and mismanagement, especially at the Great Park, a noble idea the career politician slyly converted into a biennial election tool to keep his council alliance in power, a circumstance that allowed him to give $167,000 per month in no-bid, public-relations contracts to his own political operatives.

After skipping a scheduled February deposition and demanding conditions such as taxpayers must pay for at least two lawyers defending him as he dodges potential criminal charges, Agran finally sat on March 13 with Anthony R. Taylor, the Aleshire & Wynder attorney conducting an independent audit of Great Park shenanigans.

Not surprisingly, the failed 1992 presidential primary candidate’s paranoia emerged at the outset of the deposition, with Fred Woocher, one of Agran’s lawyers, asking if anybody not present in the room was listening via a wire. Taylor said no, and then had to entertain the same question two more times.

Next, Agran’s team encouraged Taylor to employ the California Public Records Act as a weapon for stalling journalists from reading the deposition for at least two weeks, claiming city officials would need 10 business days to find it.

“No,” Taylor replied. “You have to produce a public document that’s in the city’s possession, of this nature, when it’s requested. . . . If a member of the media, a member of the public, if they say, ‘You have this transcript in your possession; I’m walking into City Hall, and I want to look at it,’ they have the absolute right to look at it.”

With such preliminary, Nixonian worries out of the way, Agran declared his commitment to “transparency” and tried to convert his deposition into a commercial of his greatness, even though he and Democratic Party allies Beth Krom and Sukhee Kang spent $200 million in taxpayer funds at the Great Park without building one major facet of the project they’d originally proposed.

But Taylor’s first major question wiped the arrogance off Agran’s face: Were you as chairman of the Great Park aware of prior audit findings by Lend Lease Corporation (formerly Bovis Lend Lease) detailing government contractor “billing irregularities”–contractors selected by Agran, contractors that contributed to Agran’s campaigns, contractors that routinely piled on “change order” costs to tasks.

“No,” Agran replied.

“The concern here I have, Mr. Agran, is that this letter from [Lend Lease’s] attorney talks about . . . millions of dollars being paid due to billing irregularities and abuses by the [Agran-selected] Design Studio.”

Agran disputed any knowledge of serious irregularities, blamed questionable disbursements “allegations” on his desire to have “layers of checking and double-checking and triple-checking” of spending, and grew terse when pressed, saying, “I’ve told you what I know.”

Please continue reading at OC Weekly…

Download the complete deposition here.