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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…

The Great Park: Hot Air?

Originally publish August 19, 2010

Thanks to Larry Agran, a few people have gotten very rich from the county’s proposed $1.2 billion, still-not-built park

By R. Scott Moxley

Stand dead-center on the 2-mile runways at mothballed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, like I did recently, and look around. You’ll see the past: long-abandoned, dilapidated structures—massive jet hangars, an aircraft-control tower, barracks and assorted military-support buildings whose origins trace back to the 1941 Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s as if time has forgotten the place Lee Harvey Oswald once called home. Listen for evidence of modern life: Though you’re surrounded in the distance by some of the busiest highways in the world, the soundtrack is the steady whistle of an inexhaustible breeze. Rabbits and squirrels—apparently unaccustomed to sharing these 4,700 acres abandoned by the Pentagon 11 years ago—dart into ubiquitous patches of tall, rust-colored weeds beneath a royal-blue sky made enormous by the flat terrain. It’s impossible not to feel awe.

Like Orange County, this property — North America’s largest lima-bean field before World War II — is a monument to contradictions. It’s ironic that a spot where men trained to kill for half a century is, at least by outward appearances, such a peaceful spot now. It’s even more ironic that its tranquil appearance is an illusion. Even today, this land is steeped in conflict. Today’s combatants don fine suits and chow on $29 plates of spaghetti while directing the moves of platoons of public-relations flacks and lawyers.

One last irony: Like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public is oblivious to the vicious tug-of-war over this soil. The Irvine property, which could play a dominant, positive role in Southern California’s future, as well as make or break the reputations of a number of politicians and real-estate developers, remains in a puzzling limbo.

You can thank the current inactivity on the manipulations of Irvine’s most-powerful politician: City Councilman Larry Agran, the 1992 Democratic Party presidential candidate who controls the city’s 3-2 council majority and thus the conversion of the Marine base into a public/private partnership called the Great Park. Agran—the county’s most-prominent progressive figure until 2005, when all local news outlets here documented his penchant for secrecy, half-truths and reckless spending—sounds defensive when asked about the continual delays.

“I don’t know where the idea materialized out there that somehow we would have the great metropolitan park developed full-scale within a matter of a few years,” Agran told The Orange County Register in May. “Nobody ever promised that. . . .”

Continue reading at OC Weekly…

O.C. REGISTER: Grand Jury Confirms Great Park Failures

By Dick Ackerman

The third time is the charm. The Orange County grand jury recently issued its third report reviewing the Great Park, its progress and governance.

The city of Irvine is required by law to respond to the report with specific action items addressing the findings. Our new City Council has spent 18 months auditing how over $250 million was spent on Great Park planning. Other than reams of pie-in-the-sky plans sitting on a shelf and some free concerts, there is little to show for our money.

As the city prepares its mandatory response to the grand jury report, I encourage them to include the findings of the Great Park audit as evidence of the reforms that have been implemented. The new council understands the depth of the problem created by others. I am confident that they are on the path to correcting the issues.

Over the past decade, the Irvine City Council was controlled by Larry Agran and Beth Krom. They ran the Great Park with an iron fist, hiring their friends, favorite consultants and passing out public money at a feverish pace – and they ran the project into a ditch.

Early in the report, the grand jury calls out the Agran and Krom by saying, “There is strong evidence of serious mismanagement of the Great Park project, costing taxpayers significant amounts of public monies.”

For the past 18 months, the city has undertaken a forensic audit of the Great Park planning process and spending. A unanimous vote – including Agran and Krom – authorized the audit. Many of the grand jury’s findings echo the findings of the Great Park audit.

I believe the grand jury is correct in its conclusion that there is strong evidence of mismanagement and squandering of public funds.

This is the third grand jury report on the Great Park. In 2006, the grand jury criticized the lack of transparency; in 2010, it questioned the park’s financial structure; and this year, it highlighted questionable expenses, including over $12 million for the Orange Balloon, and its $1 million annual operation budget.

The grand jury censured the old City Council for suppressing the true cost of the park, first telling the public it would cost $1 billion, and hiding from the public two subsequent estimates of $1.6 billion, and finally the true cost of $3 billion to $5 billion.

I am confident that new City Council’s majority will heed the advice of the grand jury and implement long-needed reforms, including a 10-year Great Park Master Plan that is grounded in the realities of today’s economy.

As a former city councilman, mayor, Irvine’s assemblyman, and state senator, I have never seen $250 million squandered in this manner by any city. The contrast is stark: The old council spent money trying to win awards for plans, and our new council is building the Great Park.

We now have three grand jury reports and a detailed forensic audit condemning Beth Krom and Larry Agran’s wasteful mismanagement of $250 million. They should be held accountable for their misdeeds.

PHOTO CREDIT: OCDaily

Judge orders former Irvine mayor Larry Agran to testify about Great Park

By Sarah de Crescenzo

An Orange County Superior Court judge has ordered former Irvine mayor Larry Agran to answer questions about any quid pro quo arrangements with Great Park contractors or consultants.

Judge Franz Miller issued a minute order last week, tentatively ruling that Agran must respond in writing to questions submitted by Anthony Taylor, the city of Irvine’s attorney on Great Park matters. The testimony will be sealed.

But the judge denied the city’s request to hold Agran in contempt and to make him pay attorney fees.

The city hired Taylor to investigate the $251 million spent through 2014 on the park project, which critics have called an overly ambitious and poorly managed fiasco, and he questioned Agran in March.

During the deposition, Taylor asked the longtime politician to name any companies that did work on the Great Park and also volunteered for Agran’s political campaigns from 2005-12.

Continue reading at the Orange County Register…

GRAND JURY: Develop a plan to pay for next phase of Irvine’s Great Park

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE GRAND JURY REPORT

By Sarah De Crescenzo

To avoid the “questionable decisions” and political interference that have plagued the development of the Great Park in its first decade, Irvine needs a strategy for the next 10 years, an Orange County grand jury says.

The grand jury on Tuesday released a 46-page report titled “‘Irvine Great Park: A Legacy of Hubris?” in which it says the city should develop and publish a 10-year plan for completing the park.

The report accuses the City Council that oversaw the project of poor management, faulty oversight and a lack of transparency.

The findings echo details published earlier this year in a pair of reports about Great Park spending, issued by firms hired by the city to investigate allegations of mismanagement.

Taxpayers “did not get their money’s worth regarding the Great Park investment during this first phase,” the grand jury report states.

Of the 1,347 acres of the former El Toro air base slated to become a park, 205 acres are considered developed, although about 117 of that are used for agriculture. That developed land also includes the Heritage and Aviation Exhibition in a former aircraft hangar and an arts complex.

At the end of 2014, spending tallied $251 million, a price tag the grand jury said would have been smaller had the city not overreached by crafting a plan to develop the park all at once instead of in phases.

The grand jury suggested the dissolution of the Great Park Corporation, because its Board of Directors also acts as the council, which would continue to oversee the project. The Great Park is run by the city of Irvine.

The panel also recommends adopting an ordinance to limit council members’ influence on city operations and the reduction of “extravagant expenditures,” such as the operation of the iconic orange balloon.

Continue reading at the Orange County Register…

Irvine Seeks Contempt Charge Against Ex-Mayor For Evading Great Park Questions

By R. Scott Moxley

The City of Irvine has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to issue a contempt order against former mayor Larry Agran for refusing to answer questions under oath about financial benefits he may have received from Orange County Great Park contractors when he controlled the $1.6 billion project.

Anthony R. Taylor, the city’s special counsel, filed the superior court case this week in hopes of forcing Agran, a 1992 Democratic Party presidential primary candidate, to field questions he adamantly refused to answer during a March deposition.

Failure to obey a court order could result in jail time.

Agran–a lawyer and longtime boss of a political machine that ran Irvine and its proposed Great Park project for 12 years until 2012–has had troubled explaining how he spent $250 million in taxpayer funds without building a single, major planned feature.

Read more at OC Weekly…

No need to ‘audit the audit’ of the Great Park

By Orange County Register Editorial

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, made a formal request to the state Joint Legislative Audit Committee for an audit of the Orange County Great Park audit. Ms. Gonzalez said she acted out of concern for the way the audit had been conducted and that it “could set a troubling precedent for municipal audits in the future.”

While a majority of the committee voted in support of the request, the motion failed procedurally because it did not earn a majority from both houses of the Legislature. Ms. Gonzalez vowed to try again.

But really, Ms. Gonzalez; thanks, but no thanks.

After nearly a decade of mismanagement at the 1,347-acre site, things look to be progressing toward that long promised Great Park. Why now does the San Diego area Democrat care about how business is done over at Irvine’s City Hall?

Ms. Gonzalez insinuated that politics were at play with the outcome of the audit, pushed by the Irvine council’s current Republican majority and which criticized the years of park development by the council’s former Democratic majority. One could ask, however, why neither Ms. Gonzalez nor the Audit Committee expressed any concerns about Great Park audits conducted during the years of Democratic control in Irvine and that found nothing amiss even as more than $200 million was spent with precious little to show for it.

Read more at the Orange County Register…