Over the past generation, as Irvine completed its transformation from an early twentieth century lima-bean ranch to the quintessential master-planned city, Larry Agran has been a fixture in the town’s political scene.
Tuesday, Agran’s career on the City Council — which stretches back to 1978 — might have come to an end as voters cast him out by a wide margin.
In a race for two open council seats, the 69-year-old Harvard law-school graduate who once had presidential ambitions came in fourth place with less than 20 percent of the vote.
Such a finish would have been unthinkable just a few years ago when the mercurial and indefatigable pol was the undisputed leader of a Democratic council majority and had a strong fundraising machine behind him.
But the ongoing Great Park scandal and Republican wins in the 2012 City Council race marginalized Agran in recent years and gave local GOP leaders the opening they’ve long been waiting for to bury him with an avalanche of campaign spending.
Using testimony from the depositions of former and current Great Park staffers taken in the Republican council majority’s investigative audit, a campaign heavily funded by developer Heritage Fields El Toro, LLC stuffed voters’ mailboxes with material alleging gross mismanagement and waste at the massive park project.
The day after his defeat, Agran said he is proud of his accomplishments over the decades, in particular pointing to the set-aside of thousands of acres of open space and wildlife preserve.
Irvine under Agran’s leadership has in many respects been a model for how a suburban city should be run. The city boasts high-quality schools, low crime and a healthy bottom line, which allowed the city to survive with little sacrifice during the Great Recession. And despite the city’s sprawl, resources were devoted to public transportation during Agran’s tenure.
Yet overshadowing all of that is the Great Park, which critics argue is among the biggest public project boondoggles in the county’s history.
It is certainly ironic that the seeds of Agran’s downfall were sown with his most notable achievement. It was Agran who led the progressive charge to turn the shuttered El Toro Marine Base into an iconic park rather than a new airport, which many in the county’s Republican establishment wanted so the impacts of John Wayne Airport could be shifted away from Newport Beach.
Agran envisioned a 1,300-acre jewel that would rival New York’s Central Park and stand as his grand legacy. But as the years went by and tens of millions were spent, city leaders failed to show progress at the park.
Then came the media reports showing that the park was burning through cash on consultants who were close Agran allies and helped finance the campaigns of his council majority. Meanwhile, park construction stalled.
Rather than acknowledge the mistakes and heed calls for transparency, Agran and his allies in the city closed ranks and lashed out against the media and other critics of their stewardship.
This gave county Republican leaders the opening they’d been looking for ever since the airport proposal was rejected.
In 2012, GOP council candidates, running on a platform of fiscal accountability for the park, won the council majority. They initiated and led an investigative audit of park spending that has so far carried a narrative of leadership dysfunction and gross mismanagement.
To this day, Agran and his council ally Beth Krom refuse to acknowledge fault in the Great Park debacle, framing the criticism and investigations as part of a larger conspiracy.
From their perspective, the Democrats and their consultant allies dared to attempt a fantastic public project that would take decades to build, and the Republicans, through a campaign of “smears and lies,” destroyed that dream to win elections and implement a scheme to privatize the park.
“The narrative was that we had somehow squandered the money when in fact the audit, which is really a political witch-hunt masquerading as an audit, has not identified one dollar” misspent or unaccounted for, Agran said.
With the Republicans in control, the immediate plan is to have the surrounding housing development manager FivePoint Communities build 688 acres of the park, including a large golf course that wasn’t in the park’s master plan.
“It’s gonna be for sports and other facilities, it’s gonna be pay to play, it’s not just open to the general public,” Agran said.
Agran’s critics say it was he who doomed the park from the beginning by hiring consultant allies who answered solely to him, particularly Arnold Forde of Forde & Mollrich, the firm that helped pitch the idea of a park instead of an airport to voters.
The firm at one point raked in $120,000 per-month for public relations and strategic advice, becoming the symbol for waste and corruption at the park. With Forde at the top, he became a de facto project manager when he had little to no experience, according to sworn in depositions the audit.
“[Agran] was willing to do almost anything to retain control, which then creates problems in a city like Irvine with an educated population,” said Republican council majority leader Jeffrey Lalloway. “They get to see through these antics.”
Perhaps nobody fought Agran more along the way than Republican Councilwoman Christina Shea, who for years sat in the minority on council and loudly criticized what she says were signs of corruption and mismanagement.
“Larry has been from day one, when this Great Park process began, has tried to manipulate it, has tried to control it for his friends’ financial benefit,” Shea said. “It’s unforgiveable. It really is unforgiveable.”
Agran and Krom scoff at the notion that little has been built at the park. In answering such criticism, Agran has repeatedly rattled off a list of accomplishments that include soccer fields, a reflecting pond, a farm and food lab and other park features.
When asked if he would have done anything differently, Agran replied that “it’s hard to know,” but suggested that city leaders could have waited out the Great Recession – which long delayed a housing project and property tax revenue stream that was the lynchpin to the park’s funding plan – and sat on its initial $200 million pot of money instead of spending it.
“I was proud we went the other way,” Agran said. “I said no, we’re going to push ahead even if FivePoint [the housing developer] is virtually bankrupt, and the state of California was reneging on its redevelopment promises and policies.”
Whether he will run for office again remains to be seen. He was defeated once before in 1990 and didn’t return to the council until 1998.
But Agran plans to remain in city’s University Park neighborhood where he’s lived with his wife Phyllis since 1976 and stay active in civic life. And he made a point of saying he doesn’t rule anything out.
“We’re not going anywhere.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the neighborhood where Larry Agran lives. We regret the error.