By Jeremiah Dobruck
8:45 PM PST, January 5, 2013
Irvine's new City Council majority has positioned itself to clean house on one of the city's signature projects: the Great Park, intended to be the century's landmark municipal park.
Since its inception more than a decade ago, 200 of the planned 1,347 acres have been developed. Conservative members of the council say progress has been bogged down by mismanagement and misspending
Firing longtime consultants, reforming leadership of the nonprofit that manages the park and performing a forensic financial audit of the project are all on the table for the council's first meeting of the year.
Opposing council members, recently relegated to the minority, say the move is a witch hunt disrupting a massive construction project that's been plagued by a bad economy and state government money grabs.
Voters instigated a reversal of power in November when they elected Christina Shea, a Republican councilwoman who has held council positions on and off since 1992.
Now, members in the conservative majority — Shea, Mayor Steven Choi and Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Lalloway — have each added items to Tuesday's council agenda picking apart decisions made by the previous majority.
Choi proposes reducing the Great Park Corp. Board of Directors from nine members to five, eliminating four "at large" positions intended to represent stakeholders outside Irvine. The panel's other five directors are Irvine's five council members.
Lalloway proposes ending contracts worth $1.1 million annually by firing the park's consulting firm, Forde & Mollrich, and its public relations and lobbying firm Townsend Public Affairs Inc.
Shea proposes hiring an outside firm to conduct a forensic audit of the park's finances, asking for a comprehensive report on what money has been spent and what's been produced in return.
"I think we just want to make certain that the public has confidence of where we are in the park and that there haven't been any problems, whether it be cronyism or criminality," Lalloway said of the proposals.
Councilwoman Beth Krom contends the new majority's moves are politically motivated showboating.
"I think any time you suggest that a forensic audit needs to be done, it's either because there's some gross impropriety or you'd like to create the impression of some gross impropriety," she said. "I believe this is the latter."
Krom, who is also the board chairwoman, and Councilman Larry Agran have been involved with the park's development from the beginning. Conservative council members have criticized them — especially Agran — for delays and mismanagement.
"This [Great Park] board has failed in achieving the goals of building a park," Lalloway said Friday.
Irvine was originally promised $200 million from a private developer to help fund the park, but those plans were put on hold when the housing market crashed.
In the midst of its own fiscal crisis, California also grabbed $1.4 billion of redevelopment funds from the project.
Krom said the park has progressed despite those setbacks.
"I'm proud of what we've done for the last 12 years," she said.
Choi positioned the realignment of the Great Park Corp. board as a streamlining that holds members directly accountable to voters. Krom contends it is simply a power grab.
A repeated conflict has been the $600,000 paid annually to Forde & Mollrich that was originally awarded for marketing and other support services with a no-bid contract.
Krom did not completely dismiss Lalloway's proposal to fire the firm. She said it's possible the money could be better spent.
"That's a reasonable conversation for us to have," she said.
But she defended Forde & Mollrich and Townsend saying the two have been instrumental in raising the park's visibility and securing major events such as the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon scheduled in the park for October.
Lalloway has long contended that the contracts are bloated with waste and unneeded overlapping services.
"Many of the things that they do perform, the city of Irvine can do just as well if not better," he said.
Newport Beach resident James "Walkie" Ray, a well-known developer, is vice chairman of the Great Park Corp. board. As one of the at-large directors, he will likely lose his seat after Tuesday's vote.
Contacted Friday, he was disappointed at the possibility, but he said that decisions is the new majority's prerogative after November's election.
"I think everyone kind of expected there would be some significant changes," he said.
Cutting consultants is an easy target for cost savings, one he could sympathize with, he said. And his opinion on the audit: "Go for it."
He cautioned the majority, though, against being overzealous with its newfound power over the massive project.
"My only hope is that they don't throw out the baby with the bathwater," he said.