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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.

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…

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…

Following Scandal, Irvine City Council Shows How To Run, and Fix Government

By Katy Grimes

Conservatives on the Irvine City Council have abolished a million dollar business license tax, to reduce the taxes levied on local businesses. This move followed the council’s recent vote overturning the city’s mandated “living wage” ordinance. Mayor Pro-Tem Jeffrey Lalloway authored the issue, with votes in support from council members Christina Shea and Lynn Schott, all Republicans.

While the business tax amounted to only $51 per business, these changes are exactly what every city and town in the State of California should be doing – whittling away at business-killing regulations, policy, taxes and fees.

In an interview with Irvine City Council member Christina Shea, she explained the City of Irvine now has large reserves and a growing economy, thanks to the fiscal conservatives on the city council, whose goal is giving back the community their own money, while remaking the city to be business-friendly. Shea describes Irvine as an island unto itself, in the business unfriendly state of California.

Irvine Then and Now: Corruption vs. Prosperity

Former Democrat Mayor Larry Agran was an Irvine councilman or mayor for all but eight years since 1978. Agran and his council clan spent more than $200 million earmarked for the development of the Orange County Great Park — but not on the park. “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,” the Voice of OC reported.

The Irvine Great Park land, formerly the El Toro military base, was given to the city of Irvine by the U.S. Navy following base decommission, along with $200 million provided by The Lennar Corp. Lennar made a winning bid of $649.5 million for El Toro. Immediately after escrow closed on July 12, 2005, Lennar agreed to transfer 1,347 acres to Irvine for a park and to pay $200 million in development fees for park construction.

However, over the course of seven years, Agran authorized spending the park money on numerous large unrelated contracts, which had little to do with development of the Great Park. Lennar also pledged to spend another $201 million for joint infrastructure and facilities such as roads and utility connections. The $201 million would come from a Community Facilities District bond sale secured by the property. Homeowners in a CFD (also known as a Mello-Roos district) pay a special tax, in addition to their customary county property tax, for infrastructure and other improvements, according to a Grand Jury report.

Continue reading at the Flash Report…

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.

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…

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..