More Jousting on Irvine Council Over Great Park Probe

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Councilman Larry Agran was having none of it.

Told at Tuesday night’s council meeting that his speaking time had expired on the contentious Great Park forensic audit, the longtime Irvine city leader did something few – if any – elected officials have done in Orange County.

He submitted a comment card, and – after some amused reactions from the council majority – walked down to the speakers’ podium and addressed his colleagues as a member of the public.

Holding up a packet of invoices, Agran said he was entering them into the public record “so that people can begin to get some idea of where the dollars have been spent so far on this political witch hunt masquerading as an audit.”

“Let the transparency begin,” he concluded.

It was just one of several dramatic moments Tuesday night between the council’s Republican majority and Democratic minority, where the contentious Great Park forensic audit was center stage.

The audit by Hagen, Streiff, Newton & Oshiro Accountants, now in its 19th month, is investigating more than $200 million in spending when Agran, Krom and others oversaw the Great Park.

The new Republican council majority and other critics say what has been accomplished at the park doesn’t merit the amount spent, with much of that money steered to no-bid contracts for consultants who helped bankroll the Democrats’ election victories. And auditors in their preliminary report claim to have already found major waste and abuse.

However, Agran and Democratic Councilwoman Beth Krom say the investigation is a ploy by their opponents to win elections, generate headlines and justify privatizing hundreds of acres of the park. This smear campaign, the Democrats argue, tarnishes Irvine’s carefully honed public image.

On Tuesday, the council majority sought a cost increase of $333,000 for auditors and consultants to finish their final weeks of work – bringing the total price tag to just over $1 million.

Agran and Krom argued that the council majority had failed to adequately account for the extra spending. The majority had not provided a breakdown, for example, of how the funds would be spent – or disclosed the amount of the proposed increase before the meeting.

“We don’t know what the scope of work has been for the auditor. We don’t know what deliverables have been received from the auditor,” said Krom. “We don’t know what those hours are being spent doing. And yet we’re being asked for more money.”

Councilwoman Christina Shea shot back that the increase was crucial to understanding what really happened at the park.

“They’re reviewing thousands and thousands of contractual agreements,” said Shea, with auditors still needing to depose about 20 more people.

“All these comments you’re making are just smokescreens, because there were a lot of things going on at this time that were probably very much questionable,” said Shea.

The city’s administrative services director, Ken Brown, later added that auditors have been submitting invoices describing their activities, how long they took, the hourly rate and which person in firm did what.

Council members ended up voting 3-2 to approve the extra $333,000. Agran and Krom opposed.

Also on Tuesday, council members unanimously supported a ballot measure that mandates many of the existing transparency policies surrounding the Great Park.

“The people of Irvine should have the ability to” put safeguards in place “with regards to fiscal reform and increased transparency,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Lalloway, who suggested the measure.

The proposed measure comes back to the council for approval at their next meeting on July 22.

They also directed City Attorney Todd Litfin to add language that would enable the council to eventually disband the Orange County Great Park Corporation board, which now consists solely of city council members.

Agran said it was inappropriate for council members to receive an $800 per month stipend for sitting on the board.

“Now that everything has been folded in to the city – and now that the design and development of the 688 acres of the Great Park are left to FivePoint Communities – frankly the Great Park board does almost nothing,” said Agran.

“And therefore I believe the $800 a month that we have been collecting is entirely inappropriate.”

Shea, meanwhile, supported the stipend, telling Agran that if he didn’t want the money, “don’t take it.”

Council members spend two to three hours per month at the board meetings, Shea said, in addition to “hours and hours and hours” working on last year’s Solar Decathlon.

“I don’t think you’re working out there as much as you used to,” she told Agran, adding that “maybe that’s justified” for him to forgo the stipend.

Public commenters at the meeting were mixed about the audit, with some arguing for it and others against.

Steve Greenberg said the Great Park “needs to be fully investigated. $260 million was spent with very little to show for it.”

He also noted that a former Great Park board member, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, is under investigation for a property swap with a city contractor.

“I hope the auditors are speaking with him” about his involvement at the Great Park, Greenburg told the council.

Resident Fred Judd argued that the Great Park’s finances have already been documented in financial reports.

“What is disgusting to me is that the current city funds are being expended on another experiment,” Judd said.

Another resident, Tyler Holcomb, referenced Agran’s description of rising audit costs as “eye-popping” in suggesting that scale of questionable spending on the Great Park far outranks the cost of the audit.

Counting the audit’s cost increase as one “eye-pop,” Holcomb said the increases to Great Park contractor Gafcon amounted to “57 eye-pops.”

And city Finance Commissioner Allan Bartlett said it was “ridiculous” that the politically-connected firm Forde & Mollrich, which was paid about $20 million for Great Park work, refused to cooperate with the audit.

“The initial findings were shocking enough. Now we need to see what the whole picture looks like,” said Bartlett.

Throughout Tuesday’s meeting, Agran and Krom peppered colleagues with questions about how the audit was being conducted and criticized the council majority for shutting them out of much of the decision-making process.

A two-member audit subcommittee has “unilaterally hired contractors, changed legal counsel and simply announced that” at council meetings, said Krom.

“I’m very concerned about the way that this audit has been conducted.”

Shea replied that the audit work was placed in the hands of professionals, with minimal involvement by the subcommittee of herself and Lalloway.

“We are not day-to-day involved in it whatsoever,” said Shea.

The Democratic minority also attacked the auditor’s January preliminary findings, claiming they contained two major errors.

Auditors found that $38 million wasn’t accounted for, said Agran, who argued that the funds actually were for a housing set-aside and that auditors could have clarified that with a phone call to city staff.

“That gross misstatement…one phone call, 30 seconds would have taken care of that,” said Agran.

He also claimed that the $12,000 auditors said was spent on changing one word in a Great Park report “has never been substantiated.”

Shea said that Krom would “have every right” to criticize the audit’s findings once the final report came out.

She later indicated that Agran’s involvement at the Great Park was being closely examined by auditors.

Agran had been very involved at the park, Shea said, “which will all be pretty visible soon.”

City officials also announced that a host of records being examined by auditors will be released to the news media and public within a week, in response to a series of Public Records Act requests.

Calling it a release of “raw data,” the city’s outside counsel, Anthony Taylor, said it will include source documents as well as deposition transcripts.

Krom challenged the records’ release.

“When you say raw data, that sounds a little like raw sewage,” said Krom. “Somehow there’s a major urgency to just release bits and pieces to the press.”

Taylor replied that the city had a legal obligation under the California Public Records Act to release the records to anyone who asks.

While it’s unclear what will happen after the audit is finished, which Shea said will happen at the end of August, the council majority has hired a law firm to consider whether to sue former contractors.

“I believe we will all be very interested to hear what the conclusions are,” Shea said of the audit.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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