After years of asking for a voice on how their taxes are spent, Great Park residents got their wish when the Irvine City Council announced they would create a resident task force with the power to officially advise the council on what residents wanted at the city’s crown jewel.
Now, nearly half the Great Park Task Force’s original members are gone after a series of resignations, one firing and one who simply hasn’t shown up.
Those who resigned say they left because the task force accomplished “little to no work,” and that nearly all their questions to city staff on project costs have gone unanswered.
Some also alleged an environment of bullying and political interference dominated the early days of the task force’s work, with no substantive discussion of the park’s future.
“We quit the task force because of internal disruption, making it impossible to study various issues,” said Pat Kennedy, one of the task force’s former members. “It felt like a railroad track down a one way lane.”
The remaining task force members say that those who resigned are the problem, and the toxic environment came because several members from the same resident group wanted control of the discussion.
“We’re trying to make the neighborhood better, they’re playing politics,” said Parrisa Yazdani, the task force’s chair. “They want to play the victim card at this point.”
City manager Oliver Chi said he was “a little surprised,” at the feedback from the task force members who left, saying the task force’s work has led to big changes in the park’s traffic plans and that staff have worked hard to accommodate them.
“We’ve made really significant changes in our designs based on what we heard from residents,” Chi said in a phone interview. “Our approach has been we’re here to support the task force in whatever manner they feel is necessary.”
The task force was approved by the city council on May 24, with each council member getting to appoint three Great Park residents to serve on the board.
Task Force Disagreements
But nearly four months after the task force was approved, it’s unclear how much of a voice they’ve had in creating the new framework plan the city is using to guide the park’s development.
Residents have called for a greater voice in the park’s development for years, pointing to the special Mello-Roos taxes they pay that go directly toward funding the park’s construction.
When the city council unveiled the new development plan for the park, co-chair of the task force Christine Sisto came out and said the advisory committee supported the new plan.
“Thank you for giving us an opportunity to speak as members of the neighborhood,” Sisto said. “We support the framework.”
But the task force never discussed signing off on the new plan according to multiple former members of the task force interviewed by Voice of OC, who claim there was never an official vote taken to endorse it.
“What began as a fair way to represent our community has just been derailed by decisions without our consent,” said Kendra Chao, another member of the task force who resigned.
Chao said the speed of the Great Park’s new plan troubled her.
“It’s also moving along at a pace that’s troubling. It’s moving at a really quick pace we are not giving approval toward, with questions yet to be answered.”
Yazdani disputed that, saying there was a vote, but several members were absent from that meeting, and sent reporters a vote that showed nine of the task force’s members voted in favor.
Kennedy said she asked multiple questions of staff on how the projects in the new plan would be paid for and what traffic studies had been done.
But she said she never got a response before contracts went out.
“It was very difficult to get statistical information to take a look at,” Kennedy said. “The final straw for me was we were on a time crunch … I just think it’s being rushed, and whenever something gets rushed, something bad happens.”
Chi said that many of the task force members were asking for data that wasn’t available yet because the city hadn’t figured out what the final numbers were on various projects.
“We’ve been providing some top level information and internally there’s been a lot more being refined,” Chi said.
Yazdani called the departing members “lazy,” saying they refused to take no for an answer from city leaders on questions about the financing.
“Because they weren’t getting it from the manager, they had problems and wanted to stir the pot,” Yazdani said. “They were expecting like how much is this going to cost for us to do. And you can’t get an itemized estimate until there’s a plan that’s approved. (Chi) was very upfront and open about that.”
The first two resignations came at the end of August, when Mayor Farrah Khan removed her appointee Camiar Ohadi without providing a reason to the task force.
Initially, the task force took a vote acknowledging that while it was Khan’s decision whether or not to remove Ohadi, they wanted an answer on why she wanted him removed.
Khan did not answer the question, and the task force reversed course, voting to drop the issue, while Ohadi sent a letter of resignation to Khan and city manager Oliver Chi.
Khan did not return requests for comment asking to speak about the task force.
“On July 21, 2022 the GPTF voted that they wanted me to stay. The group wrote an email July 22, 2022 to you letting you know of that decision. You did not respond for 11 days,” Ohadi wrote in the resignation letter. “At this point I feel that the best thing is for me to remove myself from the GPTF.”
Naveed Siddiqui, another member of the task force, resigned in protest over how Ohadi was removed.
The next wave of resignations came on September 16, when Kennedy, Kendra and Daniel Chao and Jason Aguilar jointly announced their resignations, all raising concerns about the pace of the new plan’s implementation and the work environment of the task force.
“We are not comfortable with the pace by which the framework is being implemented,” they wrote in a joint statement. “We are truly disappointed that this opportunity to work with a group to represent and better the Great Park was lost.”
Aguilar posted a letter to a private Facebook group that was shared with Voice of OC, saying he resigned because “it just seemed impossible to get anything done because of hostile environment.”
“(The task force) in my view, was bound to fail. Committees are normally provided a structure, duties, and powers. We were not provided with any of these,” Aguilar wrote. “I cannot attach my name or support to this team any longer.”
David Lingerfeldt, one of the remaining members of the task force, said he felt there was a large ideological split from the start.
“There seems to be two kinds of people on the task force, some who want to check the box and do what we’re asked to do, I’m in that camp. Let’s just give feedback, we don’t really have that much power,” Lingerfeldt said in a phone interview with Voice of OC, adding that the task force should focus on its advisory role.
“There’s others that started the Great Park Resident Council who are kind of looking to make this more permanent, they want seats on the board.”
Many of those who resigned are members of the Great Park Residents’ Council, one of the community groups within the park.
Ohadi, Saddiqui, and Kendra and Daniel Chao are all founding members of the residents’ council, which released a statement following the wave of resignations from the advisory committee.
“The framework presented by the City Manager seems to be well thought-out … however, the framework, in its form today, continues to raise questions,” the residents’ council wrote. “The current Task Force seems under pressure to rush some form of ‘approval’ for certain preferred projects.”
Yazdani claimed that the resignations only came because the Great Park Residents’ Council wanted control over the task force.
“They tried to be the bigger voice,” Yazdani said. “It was very much only when it benefited them they wanted to hold policy, and when it didn’t benefit them they wanted to throw a fit.”
The city council’s next discussion on the Great Park will be on September 27, with plans to discuss getting started on designing a potential amphitheater in the park that would be “Orange County’s Hollywood Bowl,” according to Chi.
Khan has also requested a discussion to extend the task force’s lifespan another six months.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.