Irvine’s new Republican City Council majority wasted no time Tuesday in asserting its new direction for the Orange County Great Park, pursuing a forensic audit of expenses, terminating controversial consultant contracts and removing non-elected directors from the park board.
Council members approved by a 5-0 vote a motion to obtain proposals for an audit. Cutting the board membership and terminating the consulting contracts passed by 3-2 votes, with council members Beth Krom and Larry Agran dissenting.
The council majority removed Walkie Ray, Bill Kogerman, Miguel Pulido and Michael Pinto from the nine-member park board, saying they wanted to ensure the park is accountable to the elected leaders of Irvine. The City Council now serves as the entire board membership.
The council majority also terminated the controversial $50,000-per-month public relations contract with Forde & Mollrich and lobbying contracts with Townsend Public Affairs.
For park critics, the Forde & Mollrich contract is symbolic of what they allege is a culture of waste and corruption that plagues the park’s management.
Council members also approved obtaining proposals for a compliance audit of contracts exceeding $50,000 and a forensic review of a 2009 audit that found, among other problems, a possible $15,500 double billing by a former design subconsultant that was working for San Diego-based Gafcon Inc.
The moves are part of a wave of accountability that the new council majority, which unseated the previous Democratic council majority in November, has promised to bring to the 1,300-acre park project. Critics complain that more than $220 million in public funds have been spent with few amenities to show for it.
Proponents of the former council majority’s management say that the Great Recession effectively killed redevelopment plans they had for the park. They point to construction and the recent opening of park space as evidence that the park is overcoming unexpected hurdles.
About 30 people spoke Tuesday night, most against the new council majority’s plans, particularly the removal of four independent park directors. The speakers said that independent representation on the board ensured representation from outside the city.
Some critics also argued that reducing the board’s membership violates the intent of Measure W, the 2002 countywide ballot measure that killed an airport plan at the city’s former Marine Corps air base and substituted a park. The Great Park is supposed to be for all county residents, not just those in Irvine, critics said.
“They [independent directors] are my voice, and that’s important to me,” said Yorba Linda resident Melanie Schlotterbeck, who is outreach coordinator for the nonprofit Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks.
The debate lasted well past midnight with members of the council minority passionately defending their stewardship of the park over the last several years.
Councilman Larry Agran, seen as leader of the previous council majority, presented a slide show depicting park visitors enjoying amenities as evidence that critics of the park are wrong. More than 768,000 residents attended the park last year, according to Agran’s slideshow.
Agran also defended spending $50 million on park designs by pointing to a pile of documents and rolls of maps on the council chambers floor, saying that the park’s leadership has been implementing the award-winning design piecemeal.
Councilwoman Beth Krom called the council majority’s move to cut the board a “power play.”
Mayor Steven Choi, who proposed removing the park directors, said that not enough has been built at the park. He scoffed at Agran’s emphasis on the number of visitors, many of whom came for park events such as concerts. City leaders need to focus on building the park, not throwing lavish events, he said.
“Are we in the park construction business, or are we in the entertainment business? Of course when you throw a party, people will come,” Choi said.
In defending Forde & Mollrich, Agran said the firm will provide vital promotional services for the upcoming Solar Decathalon, a federal Department of Energy competition that board directors say could provide a much-needed profile boost for the park by shining a national spotlight.
Park CEO Mike Ellzey said he will formulate a transition plan with a $125,000 budget to cover the loss of Forde & Mollrich services for the competition and expo. The services include handling social media, writing newsletters and helping obtain media sponsorships, according to Tim Shaw, the park's manager of external affairs.
Forde & Mollrich has been a consultant to the city since the late 1990s and is credited with helping defeat the airport plan. Since then, it has provided long-term strategic and financial planning and has been responsible for branding the park, according to city staffers and Forde & Mollrich officials.
“The truth is the value of their participation in the project far exceeds anything we’re going to compensate them,” Krom said.
But the contract, which allowed the consultant to collect $100,000 monthly until the contract was halved last year, was always a source of controversy for the park. Lalloway said at the meeting that the firm has received approximately $20 million.
Critics expressed suspicion that the sole-source contract was in return for campaign contributions toward slate mailers that promoted the former Democratic council majority.
On the forensic audit, Krom and Agran questioned whether Councilwoman Christina Shea’s proposal that a two-member council subcommittee receive updates about the audit might influence the auditors' conclusions.
Shea said the subcommittee would only receive updates from the auditor and nothing more. Choi said, however, that the subcommittee could tell the auditor which discrepancies to investigate further and which to ignore.
Agran also said that there should be a cap on spending for such an audit. “I don’t want to spend millions of dollars searching for an unaccounted ham sandwich,” he said.
The council action appropriated $250,000 in park funds for the effort.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that San Diego-based Gafcon Inc. possibly double-billed the Great Park for consultant work. In fact, the potential double-billing was by a Gafcon subconsultant.