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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…

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…

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.. 

Secret Battles Cost Great Park Millions

By David Whiting

Despite the financial waste, failed oversight and greed detailed in last week’s Great Park audit, there also is clear evidence the public had a champion who quietly turned that culture around.

At least there is comfort in knowing that – sometimes – people who fight for public trust get their due.

I ride the elevator down to the basement archives in the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum – yes, a basement of all places – to find out who should be pilloried for promising voters an impossible Great Park dream, allowing hundreds of acres of land to lay vacant for years and squandering millions of public dollars.

Perhaps like you, I want justice.

Because of the gross mismanagement Mike Ellzey inherited when he arrived in 2008, the former El Toro Marine base in Irvine today has far more acres of weeds and cracked asphalt than the sports fields and bike paths we were originally promised.

Sitting across from Ellzey, newly appointed head of the Nixon library and former Great Park CEO, I ask for names of the bad guys.

But like many who clean up others’ messes, Ellzey shakes his head, looks at me and makes clear he’s not going to name names. Instead, he even reaches out to heal wounds by saying elected leadership such as former Irvine mayor and Great Park helmsman Larry Agran were “well-intentioned.”

The Great Park audit puts it differently.

The audit – which Agran claims needs its own audit – states Agran early on was told by the architect the project would cost $1 billion (an estimate other experts would later put at “multi-billions of dollars”). But the report then states Agran turned around and told the public the cost would be less than half the architect’s estimate.

So let’s start by allowing the 157-page audit to speak for itself.

“Mr. Ellzey coming in with fresh eyes was willing to look realistically at what was feasible,” the audit concludes. “This was not easy given the political environment Mr. Ellzey described in his deposition.

“It appears that Mr. Ellzey ultimately acted with some courage given the threats which were made against him.”

Yes, threats.

Continue reading at the Orange County Register…