Orange County leaders are lambasting their own staff publicly for ramming through a $328 million loan to overhaul Dana Point Harbor without proper time to vet the deal.

County supervisors were told last week they could have more time to review a complicated financing package before they signed off. 

But then, in a public about-face an hour after supervisors delayed the item, they were told they needed to approve the deal right away.

It was the latest frustration point in the county’s decades-long project to revitalize the neglected harbor, which has drawn a lawsuit from boaters challenging slip fee increases that nearly doubled the price in some cases.

The supervisors’ latest frustration in many ways mirrored boaters’ concerns about a lack of vetting around the county’s “public-private-partnership” with the private firm Dana Point Harbor Partners.

“I feel manipulated,” said Supervisor Andrew Do, after staff told supervisors last Tuesday there was more time to review the issue over the next couple weeks – only to later reverse course and say supervisors had to approve it right away.

Do said he was frustrated county staff couldn’t cite any concrete harm that could happen if supervisors took a couple more weeks to review hundreds of pages of documents they were being asked to approve.

“County staff completely flipped their opinion” during the meeting, Do said.

That was handled “in very poor form,” he added, calling it “very troubling” and “jamming one of our colleagues” – Supervisor Katrina Foley.

“I don’t actually trust the answers to the questions today – because right now I’m not getting accurate information during the hearing,” said Foley, adding that “nobody told me this was like a matter of urgency, we can’t do it any other day.

“It’s very complicated. And to only get a few days to embark on this seems unreasonable,” she added.

Supervisor Don Wagner echoed those concerns about county staff and the development company.

“I’ve got to question why you guys wait til the last minute and give us something,” Wagner said.

“Because it’s not unheard of that we have questions. That you give us something, and [say that] it’s got to be done right way – and if it doesn’t, the wheels fall off the bus,’ ” he added.

“But that is the position – or I guess with Dana Point [Harbor] Partners, the boat – you put us in. And I, for one, share Supervisor Do’s displeasure at being put into that position.”

Wagner added that the representative of the development firm was “utterly unprepared” at Tuesday’s meeting.

The frustrations centered on a 325-page document supervisors were being asked to approve for a $328 million bank loan that would be issued to Dana Point Harbor Partners to fund improvements at the county-owned harbor.

When the item was first called up on Tuesday, Supervisor Katrina Foley said she still hadn’t received answers to questions she posed to staff five days earlier – and asked for the item to come back a couple weeks later at the next supervisors meeting to provide time to get answers.

County staff said that wouldn’t cause any problems for the project.

“No,” said Brian Bauer, the staffer representing the county’s real estate office.

“It’s not critical that they get it approved today, but it would be nice to get it approved. And continuing it one board meeting won’t impact them adversely.”

Supervisors then voted to delay the item to their next meeting, and the issue seemed over for the time being.

But that all changed about an hour later.

Staff said it needed to be approved that day, or else there was risk of higher costs for the private developers from a delay.

“I came into some additional information. And I apologize,” Bauer told supervisors.

“The mistake is mine. But the truth is, there’s financial impacts to the partners.”

Supervisor Do was livid at the flip-flop, saying he felt “manipulated.”

Foley said that in her discussions before the meeting with County Counsel Leon Page, she was left with the impression that approving the document would block the county addressing the boaters’ concerns about slip fees.

County Counsel Leon Page later told her that no, the approvals do not change the ability to address the slip fee concerns.

But she remained frustrated that no one had previously flagged this as an urgent item that needed to be approved Tuesday.

“Nobody told me this was like a matter of urgency, we can’t do it any other day,” Foley said.

The item ultimately was approved 4-to-0, with Do abstaining and Foley saying she was “reluctantly” voting yes despite her concerns because she didn’t want to delay the project.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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