The Great Park: Hot Air?

Thanks to Larry Agran, a few people have gotten very rich from the county's proposed $1.2 billion, still-not-built park

Numerous efforts to interview Kang and Agran for this article were rejected. “He and the mayor will pass,” replied city public-affairs director Craig Reem.

*     *     *

At an August meeting of the Irvine City Council, Agran (dressed in a gray suit accented by an eggplant-colored tie) sits on the dais and nods in agreement with Dan Slater, a droning city bureaucrat who is ripping the Orange County grand jury. Though Slater sounds like a humorless lawyer reading pages of the fine-print legalese on a credit-card application, Agran smiles in appreciation because his staffer is essentially calling members of the grand jury stupid.

In June, the panel compared Agran’s Great Park operation to an Alice In Wonderland fantasy. Specifically, they worry about a $134 million shell game involving the city, the city’s redevelopment agency and the park board. They also suggest the money could be masking significant flaws in the project and that Agran—who controls the council, the redevelopment agency and the park board—has created his own personal kingdom.

“Despite [Agran’s] pledges that no new taxes would be needed to build the Great Park, much of the park’s proposed funding will come from new taxes and the redirecting of increased property taxes,” the grand jury observed after its investigation.

The panel also noted, “It is difficult for differing views to be adopted in Great Park planning because the five people who are City Council members are also the redevelopment agency board members as well as the majority of the Great Park board.” They labeled the situation, “Five heads, three hats.” For a healthier process, the grand jury recommended that each agency gain independence from the others.

“Beyond the financing issue is the matter of whether there was adequate transparency and candor by Irvine city officials in keeping taxpayers informed of the full consequences of the park-financing structure,” the panel said.

Needless to say, the report infuriated Agran and his allies. Slater opines that having the same group of people controlling each body “is not a conflict of interest” because most California cities practice the same arrangement.

“The grand jury was off-base on that finding,” says Slater, who recommends the council “reject” all of the grand jury’s findings and recommendations as “unwarranted and unreasonable.”

Krom—who eight years ago campaigned on a pledge to “make the Great Park great!”—suggests the grand jury was playing cynical politics near an election. Kang lamely assures the public that despite the council’s terse rejection of the grand jury’s report, “We will continue to listen to the public.” Shea and Steven Choi, her Republican colleague on the council, say the grand jury has raised “real concerns” and should be treated with respect, not “aggression.”

But a now scowling Agran—who has never hidden his contempt for the grand jury—unleashes his fury. The mayor pro tem calls the report not just “off-base,” but also “absurd,” “false,” “regrettable,” “nonsense” and “a diatribe.”

He says his anti-new-taxes pledge for park construction and maintenance has “never” included a promise to not seek federal and state tax funds, even though, as I type this, I am looking at a 2004 written pledge by Agran, Krom and Kang that they—the self-appointed “Great Park Team”—are “committed to using private funds to develop a world-class park at El Toro.”

Concerning the $134 million loan, Agran opines that he would have been “foolish” not to take advantage of redevelopment loopholes to benefit the park.

“All of our Great Park work has been guided by outstanding lawyers and consultants,” he says. “We’ve put together an action plan that allows us to move forward.”

Agran acknowledges his park operations could look “counterintuitive and complex,” adding, “but that doesn’t mean anything is awry. To the contrary, it’s sound. That ought to have been the finding of the grand jury. . . . Anybody with an ounce of sense knows that.”

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The soundness of Agran’s park operation was revealed in a 2009 random professional audit. It documented proof that the county’s current largest public-works project at $1.2 billion is ripe with incompetence, corruption or, worse, both. Those findings included:

• Missing and incomplete records;

• Loose management controls;

• Questionable records for invoices, time keeping, travel and entertainment;

• Systematic bypassing of accounting rules for questionable spending;

• A “suspicious movement” of unallocated public funds between Great Park consultants.

Plus, the audit found that the park’s records system seemed created to thwart access by legitimate outside inspection, and in at least one instance, financial records were blatantly falsified.

The Great Park board’s response? As with the recent grand-jury report, it called the audit unfair and suggested it was possibly motivated by a secret, nefarious anti-park sentiment. Besides, maintaining a decent records system wasn’t practical because, it was argued, building a park is “inherently a creative exercise.”

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