Controversial Great Park Contract on Chopping Block

The iconic Great Park balloon at a recent event held at the park. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

The Orange County Great Park's no-bid, $100,000-per-month public relations contract with Forde & Mollrich — which has been a prime target of critics of the park's leadership over the years — could be slashed in half if park directors adopt the Great Park's proposed budget at Thursday morning's board meeting.

That isn't the only no-bid contract park CEO Mike Ellzey has proposed cutting. Contracts with master designer Ken Smith and with Gafcon, a finance management firm, are on the chopping block. Smith is now an adviser to the park working on a $10,000-per-month retainer. Gafcon, the Great Park Design Studio's former finances manager, was the subject of a scathing audit that questioned the firm's oversight.

“I think it's a good thing that we're finally getting our budget under control, but I still think we have a long way to go,” said Jeffrey Lalloway, a City Council member and park director.

Great Park critics have long pointed to the Forde & Mollrich contract as a symbol of the waste and mismanagement they say has been endemic under the park's leadership. For years, the firm collected several million dollars in consulting fees as construction at the 1,300-acre park remained at a standstill.

“These council members in [the city of Bell] have been getting a hundred thousand dollars a year for serving, and they have a city manager who gets $800,000 a year. But the Great Park has a Forde & Mollrich contract where they get a $120,000 a month,” said former Republican Councilwoman Christina Shea in a 2010 interview.

Irvine Councilman Larry Agran and other park boosters have said the critics are naysayers whose real agenda is to stop development of the park for political gain.

"Given that this park will build out on the order of $1.1 billion, is it unreasonable to spend $1 million a year to inform the public?" Agran asked in an interview with the Orange County Register in 2008.  "If we're going to tell an accurate story of what is happening, we have a duty to invest in public information."

The park's various no-bid contracts have been the focus of contentious debate between the council's Republican minority and the Democratic block led by Agran, who is widely seen as having controlled the park's board since its inception nearly a decade ago. The cutting of Forde & Mollrich's contract and eliminating others could reignite that dispute.

Critics have argued that contracts were handed out to Agran's political benefactors, many of whom gave tens of thousands of dollars for slate-mailer campaigns credited with helping to keep the Democratic majority in power. Campaign finance records show that Forde & Mollrich, Gafcon and Ken Smith all contributed money to campaign committees that funneled significant sums to the slate-mailer campaigns.

What Forde & Mollrich actually does has remained largely shielded from public view. The firm has been a consultant to the park's design manager, WRNS Studios, thereby allowing records like contract documents to remain private. The firm's contract documents, which were eventually leaked to the media, list a slew of tasks, ranging from government relations to forming public-private partnerships, something that San Francisco-based consultant Strada Investment Group was also hired to do.

Other public records, including emails and memos involving Forde & Mollrich staff, show that the firm is involved in many aspects of the park, including signs, brochures and consulting on federal grant opportunities.

Spending at the Great Park returned to the spotlight in recent months as it became apparent that Gov. Jerry Brown's effort to end redevelopment in California would succeed. Park leaders had been counting on $1.4 billion in property tax revenue via its designation as a redevelopment area.

Lalloway unsuccessfully pushed in January for a review of the park's spending after the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Brown's plan. But the Democratic council majority — Agran, Beth Krom and Mayor Sukhee Kang — voted down Lalloway's proposal.

According to budget documents, Forde & Mollrich is to be paid $900,000 for the 2012-13 fiscal year. Lalloway said he's been told that $300,000 of that cost would be dedicated to reimbursable expenses, making the actual compensation to the firm $50,000 per month.

But what services will be cut is unclear, and neither Lalloway nor Mayor Sukhee Kang could answer that question.

“That remains to be seen, and we can find out that answer tomorrow,” Lalloway said.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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