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Irvine City Council overhauls oversight, spending on Great Park

A newly elected council majority authorizes an audit of the more than $220 million that so far has been spent on the ambitious project.

January 10, 2013|By Mike Anton and Rhea Mahbubani, Los Angeles Times
  • With the park's balloon in the background, children play as the sun sets at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine.
With the park's balloon in the background, children play as the sun… (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)

Capping a raucous eight-hour-plus meeting, the Irvine City Council early Wednesday voted to overhaul the oversight and spending on the beleaguered Orange County Great Park while authorizing an audit of the more than $220 million that so far has been spent on the ambitious project.

A newly elected City Council majority voted 3 to 2 to terminate contracts with two firms that had been paid a combined $1.1 million a year for consulting, lobbying, marketing and public relations. One of those firms — Forde & Mollrich public relations — has been paid $12.4 million since county voters approved the Great Park plan in 2002.

"We need to stop talking about building a Great Park and actually start building a Great Park," council member Jeff Lalloway said.

The council, by the same split vote, also changed the composition of the Great Park's board of directors, shedding four non-elected members and handing control to Irvine's five council members.

The actions mark a significant turning point in the decade-long effort to turn the former El Toro Marine base into a 1,447-acre municipal park with man-made canyons, rivers, forests and gardens that planners hoped would rival New York's Central Park.

The city hoped to finish and maintain the park for years to come with $1.4 billion in state redevelopment funds. But that money vanished last year as part of the cutbacks to deal with California's massive budget deficit.

"We've gone through $220 million, but where has it gone?" council member Christina Shea said of the project's initial funding from developers in exchange for the right to build around the site. "The fact of the matter is the money is almost gone. It can't be business as usual."

The council majority said the changes will bring accountability and efficiencies to a project that critics say has been larded with wasteful spending and no-bid contracts. For all that has been spent, only about 200 acres of the park has been developed and half of that is leased to farmers.

But council members Larry Agran and Beth Krom, who have steered the course of the project since its inception, voted against reconfiguring the Great Park's board of directors and canceling the contracts with the two firms.

Krom has called the move a "witch hunt" against her and Agran. Feuding between liberal and conservative factions on the council has long shaped Irvine politics.

"This is a power play," she said. "There's a new sheriff in town."

The council meeting stretched long into the night, with the final vote coming Wednesday at 1:34 a.m. Tensions were high in the packed chambers with cheering, clapping and heckling coming from the crowd.

At one point council member Lalloway lamented that he "couldn't hear himself think."

During public comments, newly elected Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer chastised the council for "fighting like schoolchildren." Earlier this week he said that if the Irvine's new council majority can't make progress on the Great Park, he would seek a ballot initiative to have the county take over.

And Spitzer angrily told Agran that his stewardship of the project had been a failure.

"You know what?" he said. "It's their vision now. You're in the minority."

mike.anton@latimes.com

rhea.mahbubani@latimes.com

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