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The Orange County Great Park Board of Directors Thursday approved a fiscal year 2012-13 budget with significant cuts to no-bid contracts, including the $100,000-per-month compensation for public relations firm Forde & Mollrich.
Under park CEO Mike Ellzey’s proposed budget — which still requires Irvine City Council approval before it goes into effect — the compensation for Forde & Mollrich would be cut to $50,000 per month. Master designer Ken Smith’s $10,000-per-month retainer would be eliminated, and so would the park’s former finances manager, Gafcon.
Other consultants would also take cuts, including San Francisco-based Strada Investment Group, which the city hired last year to put together public-private partnerships.
With the cuts and approximately $11.6 million in revenue from Heritage Fields El Toro, which plans to develop 10,700 homes around the park, park leaders approved a nearly balanced $16.4-million operating budget.
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 millions of dollars in consulting fees as construction at the 1,300-acre park remained at a standstill.
And beyond the Forde & Mollrich contract, there have been insinuations that contracts were handed out to Irvine Councilman Larry Agran’s political benefactors, many of whom gave tens of thousands of dollars for slate-mailer campaigns credited with helping to keep the Democratic council 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.
Agran, who sits on the park board, and other park boosters have said the critics are naysayers whose real agenda is to stop development of the park for political gain.
Cutting costs at the park took priority after the state Supreme Court upheld Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to eliminate redevelopment, which was to generate $1.4 billion in property tax for the park over 40 years and be the park’s primary source of revenue.
City leaders believe the park is still entitled to the funds, but they acknowledge that the court’s decision has cast greater uncertainty over whether the park will ultimately capture the revenue stream.
Athough the board unanimously approved the proposed budget, there were sharp divisions among board members regarding the timing and speed of the budget approval, which comes two months earlier than in recent years.
Agran had pushed to postpone approval of the budget for at least 30 days, arguing that the fate of redevelopment funds could be clearer by then.
“There is an element of panic and retreat associated with this that puzzles me a bit,” Agran said. “Mindful of all these uncertainties, many of which will be resolved at least partially, I think it would be absolutely foolish for us to adopt a budget.”
Director Miguel Pulido, who is also mayor of Santa Ana, agreed with Agran, saying he feared the unintended consequences of making cuts to the consultants and wanted to better understand the implications. “I just need a little more time with staff,” Pulido said, “just to understand the logic and the thought process and where we want to go with these reductions.”
Pulido’s sudden interest in consulting the staff is a break from his usual routine. “He [Pulido] doesn’t attend briefings,” Ellzey said. “Director Pulido apparently chooses to do his own research.”
After it became clear that Agran would not be able to postpone the budget approval, he pushed for — and got — cuts to other consultants Ellzey said were key to his management team. Some insiders viewed the move as payback for Ellzey’s proposed cut to the Forde & Mollrich contract.
Ellzey bristled at Agran’s proposal, saying: “I would find it very difficult recommending [the budget] to this body with the same fervor should my team be decimated.”
Strada Investment Group’s payment was cut from $180,000 a year to $100,000. Strada head Michael Cohen has ties with Ellzey going back to at least 2000, when Ellzey was the CEO of the Golden Gate Park Concourse Authority and Cohen worked for the San Francisco city attorney’s office.
Optalytics LLC, headed by the park’s retired finance director, Kurt Mowery, was cut from $120,000 to $70,000. The Orange County Register reported last year that Mowery had retired, collecting his pension and a salary as an independent consultant, increasing his overall compensation by more than $70,000.
Director Steven Choi, also an Irvine councilman, said that the cut to Forde & Mollrich should go further and proposed reducing the compensation to $20,000 per month. However, only Director Jeffrey Lalloway, who with Choi are the only Republican Irvine council members, supported the move.
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 such as contracts to remain private.
The firm’s contract documents, which were eventually leaked to the media, list a slew of tasks, including government relations and forming public-private partnerships. Strada Investment Group was also hired to form public-private partnerships.
Other public records, including emails and memos involving Forde & Mollrich’s staff, show that the firm is involved in many aspects of the park, including signs, brochures and consulting on federal grant opportunities.
Under the proposed budget, Forde & Mollrich would contract directly with the city, a move Ellzey said was intended to provide the public with greater oversight.
What services would ultimately be cut because of the possible reduction to Forde & Mollrich’s contract remains unclear. Ellzey said it would be the result of negotiations with the firm after the budget is finalized.