Four of the five Irvine City Council members leave today for an all-expense-paid, nine-day trip to Barcelona, Paris and New York City as part of their role in planning a 1,000-acre park at the former El Toro Marine base.
The cost of the trip is still being calculated, but the itinerary includes two nights at the five-star Grand Marina Hotel in Barcelona.
Traveling are seven members of the Orange County Great Park Corp. board -- including the Irvine council members -- a consultant and five members of the park board staff. Their mission is to check out parks in Europe and New York City built by the three design firms chosen as finalists to create the park. They are also visiting two firms' home offices.
Park board members have said the trip is key to their selection. "You really can't get an appreciation for the work of these firms until you see it," said board spokeswoman Marsha Burgess, who will be on the trip.
The board has taken steps to meet the requirement of the state's open meeting laws even though they will be thousands of miles from home.
A park board agenda for the trip includes the time and location of each leg, including a time for public comment. All five council members will be in New York, but council member and park board chairman Larry Agran will not join the group in Europe.
Park board officials said the agency's attorney approved the meeting through a provision in state law that allows public boards to meet out of town when viewing real estate projects.
The notion that Orange County residents would travel to Europe to participate in a meeting is ridiculous, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition.
"This strikes me as a really expensive junket," Scheer said.
Scheer also pointed out that the travelers had posted a park board agenda but not one for the City Council while its members are abroad, despite having a quorum and deliberating on matters of interest to the city.
"They're stating that all of the activities they're doing abroad on this boondoggle are public," he said, "and that's really laughable."
Four of the five Irvine council members will attend the Barcelona and Paris legs, with the entire council on hand for the New York City portion. Those going on the entire trip are Mayor Beth Krom and council members Stephen Choi, Sukhee Kang and Christina Shea.
Council members could not be reached for comment Monday on the eve of their trip.
The agency received one call of complaint after the trip was questioned in a local newspaper, Burgess said.
The design firms have hired local photographers to videotape each portion of the trip, Burgess said, which will be posted every two days on the Orange County Great Park Corp. website at www.ocgp.org.
The traveling party will visit finalists Ken Smith of New York and EMBT of Barcelona. They will visit parks designed by EMBT in Barcelona and Paris, as well as a park designed by Royston Hanamoto of Mill Valley, Calif., the third design firm.
Next month, the officials will travel again, visiting the Northern California offices of Royston Hanamoto from Dec. 6 to 8.
Officials said the trips would be financed by money from the $401 million in developer fees the city will collect from Lennar Corp., which bought the base this summer from the Navy and will be developing most of the land.
At its Oct. 10 meeting, the park board approved the trip and final destinations, saying traveling to Europe, New York and Northern California was necessary to get a feel for the finalists' parks and how each community uses them.
One former member of the Irvine council said the park board discussed visiting the overseas parks last year but contemplated sending only a few board members separately to each location.
"It's a lot of money to go look at a park," former Councilman Mike Ward said.