As residents of the Great Park area have started asking for more representation in the development of Orange County’s largest civic construction project, one their special taxes largely fund, Irvine City Council members have largely remained silent on the issue.
Calls started growing after a series from Voice of OC outlined that homeowners surrounding the Great Park are on the hook for just over $1 Billion in future special taxes on their property that go towards the development of the park.
Without any say on how it’s used.
While the residents were aware of the special taxes, many didn’t realize they were going towards funding city projects at the Park and not their own neighborhood’s development.
“When we bought a house, nobody told me my taxes were actually paying for Great Park facilities,” said Irvine resident Eugenio Zheng at a city council meeting in March.
“I thought all we were paying was for the schools, for the best amenities exclusively used by residents. Now I realize that all the money goes to the ice rink and to the water polo project,” Zheng continued.
“We’re just like a cow being milked.”
“If the facilities are for public use why isn’t the taxes from all of the residents of Irvine paying for them?” another commenter said at the Great Park Board’s April meeting.
When called for comment, four of the five council members either declined to comment or did not return calls from Voice of OC.
The council is also responsible for managing the Great Park’s development as the only voting members of the Great Park Board, which meets once a month before the council’s meeting later that night.
Council members Melissa Fox, Mike Carroll, and Anthony Kuo did not return requests for comment from Voice of OC.
Mayor Christina Shea declined to comment on the issue, directing reporters to speak with Councilwoman Farrah Khan, who also serves as chair of the Great Park Board.
Khan said that she was in full support of an advisory committee of residents, but she would have to look into how adding a new member to the Board would function.
“I would love to get more input from Great Park residents on the agenda items presented at the Great Park board. We don’t have as much input as I’d like to see,” Khan said. “This is a huge project, and it affects the people living there. It would be helpful not only to us but for future development happening there.”
The council’s only other comments have come from the dais, and have largely taken a hands off approach.
After multiple requests for residents to have a seat on the Great Park Board during public comments, Shea said the city council cannot appoint a Great Park resident to the board because of a ballot initiative passed in 2014 that restricts the board’s membership exclusively to the city council.
Titled the Great Park Fiscal Transparency and Reform Act, the initiative was put on the ballot by the council and was shown as a chance to implement annual audits of the Park’s finances to reign in spending.
But under one subsection of the initiative, there is a clause that says the park cannot receive any funding unless the Board is only composed of the city council.
The initiative received bipartisan support on the ballot from the council, a rare instance in the history of the park’s development, and passed with over 80% of the vote.
“We hope that you will join with us in voting in support of (the initiative) and locking into place these significant financial and operational safeguards,” the council wrote on the ballot calling for votes.
The city council had already voted in Jan. 2013 to remove the other members of the Great Park Board, but the initiative sealed it in stone so that later councils could not overturn that decision.
Since 2013, the city council has approved over $1 billion in potential debt for the Great Park homeowners with just under five minutes of discussion, a vote always taken before homeowners moved to the area.
All the votes were done in public session, but the only outside approval the city needed to establish the debt was FivePoint Holdings, the city’s partner in developing the park who would ultimately receive the funds to build the Park.
The initiative also requires that the Great Park Board of Directors recommend all actions taken to the city council, but since both groups are made up of the same members, their votes rarely change in the few hours between the board’s meeting at 2:00 and the council’s official meeting just two hours later.
The only way to change the rule keeping the council as the only members is via a second initiative, which could come with a signature petition from residents or by the city council placing the issue on the ballot for a public vote in November.
The only other interaction the city has had with Great Park residents on the issue came in a letter sent out to Great Park homeowners in May criticizing the Voice of OC series. Voice of OC stands behind its reporting, and issued a rebuttal.
The next meeting of the Great Park Board is at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.