Great Park Board Approves Funding for Solar Decathlon

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The Orange County Great Park will be receiving $1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy grant to hold the 2013 Solar Decathlon, a national collegiate competition to build solar-powered homes.

The park’s board of directors last week approved an agreement for the funds. The first phase of the funding, $375,000, is to be budgeted for planning and outreach for the event, which has been held at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., since 2002.

But as with many park issues, the approval did not come without controversy. The lone dissenting vote was cast by Jeffrey Lalloway, a park director and Irvine city councilman, who criticized a $38,550 no-bid contract awarded to Fred Smoller, associate professor of political science at Chapman University.

Smoller, who is credited with pushing the idea of pursuing the decathlon event for the park, will be hired to set up community meetings with officials from universities, arrange fundraising for the event and measure the event’s economic impact, according to park officials.

“Right away he [Smoller] imagined how this might be a terrific exposition at the Great Park,” said Larry Agran, the Irvine councilman and park director who is the park’s most powerful backer.

The park’s leadership has faced consistent fire from critics for awarding no-bid contracts. Many of the contracts have been awarded to companies and individuals who have contributed to campaign committees that have funded the slate-mailers credited with keeping the Irvine City Council’s majority in power.

“Colleagues, the credibility of the Great Park is threatened by continued actions like this,” said Lalloway, who has assumed the role of the Irvine council’s Republican critic on almost all issues relating to Great Park spending.

The biennial decathlon challenges teams from universities to “design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive,” according to the competition’s website. The 10-day competition attracted 350,000 visitors last year, the website states.

“The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency,” says the website.

The event is scheduled to be held at the park in October 2013.

Park Director Miguel Pulido, also Santa Ana’s mayor, said the competition is an opportunity to create a larger, more imaginative event. He suggested inviting other cities with interesting energy projects, staging solar-powered vehicle races and inviting scientists like Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist who has appeared on television shows.

“I think if you’re going to dream, dream big,” Pulido said.

The total budget for the event will be $2 million, according to a staff report. Half of the funding will be provided by the Department of Energy, while the other half is to come from sponsorships and in-kind contributions.

Lalloway questioned whether using federal funds on a no-bid contract for Smoller violated federal contracting rules. City Attorney Phil Kohn said that, while it appeared so far that the Department of Energy does not object to such a contract, he would check further into the matter.

Lalloway also asked that the city attorney craft an ethics rule that would bar city and park contractors from contributing to candidates’ political campaigns.

The only park director to respond to Lalloway during the meeting — although indirectly — was Beth Krom.

“I think this [event] will get a lot of people to transcend a lot of what … are the counterproductive local distractions,” Krom said.

Agran and Smoller did not return phone calls seeking comment.

— ADAM ELMAHREK

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