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Orange County

Ethics Policy Takes Root With Great Parks Board

Vendors involved in the Marine base makeover must declare their links to members of the panel.

September 24, 2004|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Members of Irvine's Great Park Board of Directors adopted a conflict-of-interest policy Thursday after complaining that Mayor Larry Agran appeared to be directing business to one of his political contributors.

Directors unanimously adopted the ethics guidelines after learning that city staffers had been directed on behalf of Agran to work with Raphael "Ray" Chaikin, who holds an interest in nurseries, on providing trees for the proposed Great Park.

"There are very clear and obvious improprieties, in my mind, going on here," said Councilwoman Christina Shea, who serves as a director.

Agran's efforts on behalf of friends should have been disclosed, said Chairman Chris Mears, an Irvine councilman and former Agran ally.

Agran rejected the concerns, but voted to strengthen the ethics policy by requiring vendors to declare relationships with board members. Agran said he has had many contacts with people who want to do business at the park -- and there's nothing wrong with it.

He said the issue was raised to smear him as he runs for a City Council seat in November.

Irvine created the Great Park Corp. to oversee the spending of $400 million in developer fees to turn the former El Toro Marine base into parkland, sports fields, homes and businesses. The board includes the City Council and four public members.

The park governing board hasn't decided how 3,700 acres of the base will be built nor asked for companies to submit bids to compete for contracts.

In a memo to public works officials in January 2001, City Manager Allison Hart said Agran wanted city staffers to meet with Chaikin to draw up a list of trees suitable for the park. Public Works Supt. Steve Bourke met with a representative of Duncan & Davies, a New Zealand nursery in which Chaikin has an ownership interest, and asked the company to identify trees they could provide.

Agran said Thursday that he simply wanted to gather the best thinkers, businesspeople and growers to learn how to build the park. "Obviously, I have no business interest" in the companies he contacted, he said.

Chaikin later created three companies to sell trees and landscaping materials to the park, the Great Park Tree Farm, formed in July 2002, and two others in February. He formed one of the companies with arborist Tom Larson.

Chaikin, who now lives in Alaska, said in an e-mail that the tree issue has been overblown by the mayor's political enemies to attack Agran's integrity before the Nov. 2 election.

Chaikin said his landscaping companies were set up to "do business" at the park. But the overriding intent, he said, was the broader goal of helping the city create parkland from what is a fairly barren landscape.

In a July 22 memo, a city secretary reported to Hart that Chaikin called City Hall and dictated a letter for Agran's signature to be sent to Monrovia Growers in Azusa.

"At the request of Ray Chaikin and Tom Larson, I am pleased to advise you that I am recommending to the Orange County Great Park Corporation that Monrovia Growers be included in the consortium of nursery people that we anticipate will be providing plant material for the Great Park," it said.

The City Hall memo noted that "LA said he would sign it." Agran changed his mind but called Monrovia and invited the company to join an "interest list."

Agran said Thursday that Chaikin was wrong to call the city and dictate the letter.

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