Orange County Great Park directors at a Monday afternoon special meeting publicly slammed a new Republican Irvine City Council majority’s proposals to cut four directors from the board and terminate contracts with two park consultants, calling the plan a destructive “power grab.”
At Tuesday night’s council meeting, the council majority is expected to cut the membership of the nine-member park board — all five council members and four independent directors — to include only the council members.
The council is also likely to order a forensic audit of park contracts and terminate a controversial public relations contract with Forde & Mollrich and lobbying contracts with Townsend Public Affairs.
Great Park board directors in 5-0 votes recommended against cutting the contracts and trimming the board’s membership. The Republican council members of the board did not attend, and Director Miguel Pulido left the meeting early.
The new council majority’s plans were proposed within weeks after Republican council candidates in November successfully unseated a Democratic council majority that had reigned for 12 years. Republicans say they now have a voter mandate to bring accountability to the 1,300-acre park’s finances.
Park critics have questioned how the city spent more than $200 million in public funds without building more impressive amenities than what currently exist.
Democratic council members said the Great Recession effectively killed redevelopment plans they had for the park. They pointed to construction and the recent opening of park space as evidence that they are overcoming unexpected hurdles.
Board directors argued that the proposal to remove the four independent directors would erase countywide representation and undermine the will of the 340,000 voters who passed Measure W in 2002. The ballot measure killed plans for an airport at Irvine’s former Marine Corps air base and instead called for the park.
Directors also took issue with the contention that the council majority has a voter mandate, saying that the Republican council candidates did not campaign on a pledge to cut representation on the board.
“We need to remain true to the larger commitment to the voters,” said Pulido, who is Santa Ana’s mayor.
Park Director Bill Kogerman gave the most impassioned speech, saying that he and his deceased wife mortgaged their house to sponsor Measure W. He called the plan “insulting” to board directors and county residents.
Townsend officials argued that they have already saved the city nearly $200,000 by consolidating state and federal lobbying contracts for both the park and the city. According to documents provided to the board, Townsend helped the city and the park obtain $3.4 million in public grant funds.
Republican Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway said the goal of terminating the two Townsend contracts, which total approximately $200,000, is to consolidate those services.
Lalloway also said that despite the planned move to cut the board to comprise only Irvine council members, the council will include voices from other parts of the county.
“What that looks like, the structure of that influence, whether it be a committee or otherwise, we don’t know yet,” Lalloway said. “But we are certain to include the opinions of people from outside of Irvine.”
Park directors strongly defended the Forde & Mollrich contract, which allowed the consultant to collect $100,000 per month until the compensation amount was halved last year.
According to Irvine Councilman Larry Agran, the firm is responsible for bringing in 763,000 visitors to the park last year and is expected to help attract more than 1 million this year.
Directors said Forde & Mollrich will provide vital promotional services for the upcoming Solar Decathalon, a federal Department of Energy expo that board directors say could provide a much-needed profile boost for the park by shining a national spotlight.
Directors and park staffers said that losing Forde & Mollrich, which they said was instrumental in getting the Solar Decathalon, could mean the loss of a rare opportunity to make the park into the country’s solar-power development “capital.” The city would have to issue a new request for proposals for a new marketing consultant, a process that could take several months, according to staffers.
“I don’t see how you can pull this off” without Forde & Mollrich, said Agran, the park’s longtime former power-broker. “We’re in the middle of brain surgery.”
Park CEO Mike Ellzey said that if Forde & Mollrich and Townsend are axed, he’s “unsure exactly how we would kick things off Wednesday morning” and that losing the services comes during “one of the most dramatic and far-reaching initiatives this city has ever produced,” a reference to the Solar Decathalon.
Despite being hired to promote the park, Forde & Mollrich’s day-to-day work was for years a mystery to news reporters.
That led to a Voice of OC analysis of public records from 2005 to 2010, which revealed that that Forde & Mollrich did do work: designing glossy postcards, managing the installation of vinyl banners, assisting with applications for state grants, giving park tours, writing surveys and other tasks.
There are, however, questions whether that was worth the reported $100,000 a month in consultant fees.
Great Park Manager of External Affairs Tim Shaw described Forde & Mollrich as a “traffic manager” for various marketing tasks.
These tasks, such as printing and news releases, are funded by a separate, $300,000-per-year reimbursable budget, Shaw said. Under its retainer, Forde & Mollrich collects $600,000 annually in addition to the reimbursable budget.
After the meeting, consultant principal Stu Mollrich defended the services as worth the money, saying that Forde & Mollrich had previously helped city officials negotiate the Great Park Neighborhood’s development agreement with Heritage Fields and was involved in long-term financial planning.
Forde & Mollrich is also credited with successfully selling Measure W to the voters and managing the international design competition that led to the selection of a master designer.
“You look at any consultant, any attorney on a project, and say, was the work worth it?” Mollrich said.
Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway, who proposed axing the Forde & Mollrich contract, argued that the compensation is a waste of public funds.
A city staff analysis found at least $16 million spent on the consultant, he said. He has been “assured that it will be a seamless transaction to replace all the services provided by Forde & Mollrich,” Lalloway said.
“Many can be performed in-house by highly qualified staff, and the few needed to go outside, we can work with the current contractors and consultants we have to provide services,” Lalloway said.
“We print many publications; we hire outside people to design them and print them. That will be a tremendous cost savings for the Great Park.”
Lalloway also said he has many questions for city staff that sprang from his review of the public records Voice of OC posted on Monday, including a 2009 document that shows Forde & Mollrich was to collect $1.8 million for six months of work, far more compensation than has been made public.
And as for generating crowds of visitors, Lalloway also pointed out that Forde & Mollrich has also attracted negative news accounts because of the size of its sole-source contract.
“They take credit for the good things, but then don’t take credit for the bad things,” Lalloway said. “This is about cost savings.”