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Orange County

Private Control of Great Park Opposed

Nonprofit created by Irvine to develop 1,300 acres of El Toro may skirt disclosure laws, supervisors say.

August 24, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Four Orange County supervisors want Irvine to reconsider its plans to hand over 1,300 acres of public land and as much as $400 million in fees to a private agency that would develop and run the city's proposed Great Park at the former El Toro Marine base.

They worry the nonprofit group, though formed by the city, would be exempt from public accountability laws for other government entities.

City officials say the corporation's formation is necessary to protect Irvine's general fund from exposure to Great Park expenses. Plans call for improvements to be funded through fees and assessments paid by companies that buy and develop the remainder of the base. Officials have repeatedly said they don't expect the park to need or use public funds.

The Irvine City Council, which created the corporation in June, is scheduled to approve its bylaws Tuesday.

Mayor Larry Agran said he expects that the final bylaws will ensure compliance with state open-meeting, public-records and conflict-of-interest laws. "Those [concerns] will be addressed to everyone's satisfaction," Agran said. "We obviously want public oversight and accountability."

Supervisor Bill Campbell, whose district includes Irvine, has asked the city to change the proposed makeup of the corporation's board. He wants the board broadened from city-only appointments to include the supervisor representing the area and the county treasurer.

Under the city's proposal, five of seven members would be appointed by the council, with two more appointed from among City Council members, commissioners or staff. Board members would not be subject to term limits and would choose who would fill future vacancies.

"I would hope that the annexation would not be adopted if they keep with this self-perpetuating scheme," Campbell said.

Supervisor Chris Norby said he believes the park should be operated by a government entity, either the city or a joint-powers authority, a view shared by Supervisor Chuck Smith. Norby said Irvine officials didn't discuss the private corporation proposal before county officials agreed to allow Irvine to annex the base property.

"The Great Park should not be owned by a private entity that's not accountable to the public," Norby said. "I'm not comfortable with it."

Supervisor Tom Wilson said he has asked the Local Agency Formation Commission, the government panel that must approve the annexation, to research whether it can require the city to keep the park in public hands. Under the city's proposal, the land would be leased to the corporation for $1 a year.

"There needs to be checks and balances on something of this magnitude," said Wilson, who sits on the annexation panel with Smith. "The county still has a fiduciary responsibility for this public asset."

Agran said some council members and others have made suggestions that will be discussed Tuesday. Among those proposals are expanding the board to include the five City Council members and limiting terms for members. He said he also supports making the corporation comply with the state public contracts code, which regulates the awarding of government contracts.

"A lot of people have a lot of ideas, some good and some not so good, but we're going to try to work our way through this," he said. "I think we're going to be successful."

The Navy, which still owns the property, plans to sell about 3,700 acres of the former base at a public auction next year, with the requirement that the buyers then deed portions -- 1,336 acres in all -- to the city for public use. The remaining 2,350 acres will be privately developed into such projects as golf courses, an exposition center, homes and businesses. An additional 1,000 acres already has been set aside by the federal government for wildlife habitat.

The park plan was conceived by Irvine as an alternative to a commercial airport at the former Marine air base. Last year voters changed its zoning from an airport to parkland and open space. The Navy then decided to sell the property and agreed with Irvine that some of it should be developed as parkland at the expense of developers.

Irvine officials based their plan for park management on "similar proven models successfully governing large metropolitan parks such as New York's Central Park," according to a staff report. Great Park backers frequently cite Central Park as a model for what they hope to achieve at El Toro.

The private corporation running Central Park, however, does not lease that park's 843 acres nor does it set policy for its operations. The city of New York controls the park, with improvements requiring public review through the city's Commission on Parks and Recreation, according to the management contract between the city and the Central Park Conservancy.

The conservancy manages the day-to-day operations and raises funds to cover most of those costs under an eight-year contract with the city's parks and recreation department. Park revenue flows into New York's general fund, which also pays park costs not covered by the conservancy.

The Central Park partnership is a better way to provide public accountability on park operations while still allowing a nonprofit group to support it, said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles and author of California's Political Reform Act of 1974.

Private nonprofit corporations lack the same public-openness requirements as government, he said. Voters, for example, cannot reshape the board or influence decisions when membership is closed, and actions can be taken without public hearings or public votes, as Irvine's proposed bylaws allow.

The problem is compounded, he said, by Irvine's desire to funnel developer fees paid to the city into private hands.

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