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O.C. Grand Jury Slams Irvine Control of Great Park

June 17, 2006|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

In a biting report aimed at efforts to build one of America's largest urban parks, the Orange County Grand Jury suggests the ambitious plan could founder if left in the hands of Irvine city leaders.

The Orange County Great Park, which would take shape at the former El Toro Marine base, has gained national attention for its ambitious scope, and landscape artists from around the world recently competed for the right to design it.

In its report, the grand jury recommends that either an elected board chosen from across the county take over development of the 1,300-acre park or that the county sue to get the property back from Irvine. The land was turned over to the city after Orange County voters killed plans for an international airport in 2002 and replaced it with park zoning.

Without a way to ensure countywide participation in the development, jurors concluded, the park has become merely the "Irvine Great Park."

The 11-page report, to be publicly released Monday, decries the Irvine City Council's move in April to assume authority over the park and the $401 million in development fees and assessments to build it.

Even the jurors' title for their report takes a shot at Irvine: "The Orange County Great Park: Whose Park Is It?" The subtitle then quotes Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Mayor Beth Krom said she was disappointed with the report's conclusions given Irvine's commitment to building the regional facility. She said she would have been happy to share the park's successes with jurors but wasn't interviewed.

"I'm always disappointed when things are done for political motivations instead of the public interest," said Krom, who said she had not seen the report.

The report said that a three-member majority voting bloc on the Irvine City Council controls the fate of the park, not the nine-member independent body created by the city in 2003 to fulfill its promise of countywide control over the base. Irvine officials had promised Orange County residents that the park would be governed by an independent board to which the city would lease the land and provide the money for development.

Moving the park in-house creates a potential conflict, jurors said, between the interests of the city and the interests of the park. For example, they said, if the city was asked to build a swimming facility at the park, City Council members could balk because they wouldn't want to compete with the city's aquatic complex.

Krom said that was a spurious worry. "It's a pretty weak argument when measured against the city of Irvine's very concerted and laudable effort to ensure this project," she said. "This project is being handled very well and public resources are being invested wisely. Anyone can come up with hypotheticals."

Bill Campbell, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, declined to comment on the report Friday because it hadn't been formally released.

Jurors were critical of the board for turning the base over to Irvine instead of ensuring that the wishes of voters were honored by keeping the property under county control. Both the county and the city must prepare formal responses to the report's findings and recommendations.

But the bulk of the report's ire was aimed at Irvine for backing away from its promise of countywide governance for the park. By making the park just another city project, money could be siphoned off for other city needs, jurors said. "Even with careful financial controls and frequent audits, placing Great Park funds in the city general fund is questionable fiscal policy," they said.

Jurors also were critical of several no-bid contracts awarded for public relations, legal representation and a recycling center at the park.

Since its creation, the nonprofit Orange County Great Park Corp., composed of all five Irvine council members and four directors from outside the city, has spent about $30 million to hire a master park designer, an administrative staff and public relations consultants.

In April, a council majority voted to make the park board advisory only. Krom and City Council members Sukhee Kang and Larry Agran, who chairs the park board, said the move was merely clarifying the city's control over the park. City Council members Christina Shea and Steven Choi opposed the move, saying the city was betraying promises made when the board was created in 2003.

Krom said the rules of the game changed when the Navy announced that it would sell the abandoned base at auction to the highest bidder. If the land had stayed in the county's hands, she said, no one would have been interested because of the restrictive park zoning.

"We have an interest in seeing this project fully realized," she said. "We have no reason to apologize after the city of Irvine put $27 million on the line to kill the airport and advance the Great Park vision."

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