Photos by Jack GouldWhether you love him or hate him, if you're an Orange County taxpayer, your money will be used to keep Larry Agran's political machine in control of Irvine and its Great Park.
Not formally, of course. Using their positions on the board that controls lucrative Orange County Great Park construction contracts, Agran and his City Council allies have cobbled together deals that will put the county's most powerful political consulting firm to work on a PR campaign designed to highlight the "successes" of what Agran calls "the Great Park Team."
With fellow Democrats Beth Krom and Sukhee Kang, Agran is set next week to approve the final stages of a $1,339,000 no-bid deal with the political firm of Forde and Mollrich. That money will arrive just ahead of the 2006 elections in which Irvine residents will vote on three of the city's five council seats. Mayor Krom, freshman Kang and frequent Agran critic Christina Shea face re-election. A Shea victory coupled with a loss of either or both of the other seats creates a nightmare scenario for Agran and his control of the $401 million Great Park budget.
Hence the speed and secrecy surrounding the Forde and Mollrich deal. Before approving the first phase of the PR deal in May, Agran eliminated the park board's finance subcommittee so that he could exercise greater personal control over spending.
"Time is of the essence," Krom said during a rambling speech at a park board meeting. "I think we have to ask ourselves: Do we think the next six months the more important investment of time and energy is to move intelligently forward on all the issues that are going to be priorities or to divert time, money and resources to bid contracts, um, you know, based on a desire to . . . [pause] . . . to, to make . . . [pause] . . . to make the interpretive intent of the process more important than what it is we need to get done?"
Krom's monologue—which blasted the local media for doing "very little" to trumpet her work—lasted more than 15 minutes. She never noted that her re-election message mirrors the one she told Forde and Mollrich to sell: park leadership has been "so successful."
Nobody disputes that the biggest issue in that campaign will be management of the Great Park project. But Agran's team now has an invaluable asset in Forde and Mollrich. According to strategy documents filed at City Hall, the firm has assured the Krom-Agran-Kang team of their mission: "promote creation of the Great Park" as a "model" government endeavor.
Between now and the election, the firm will spend more than $400,000 in public funds to give residents (and thus local voters) glossy pamphlets hailing Agran & Co. as leaders in "creating America's greatest park in the heart of Orange County." More than $200,000 in additional funds will be spent on surveys, polling and press conferences. * * *
Krom: feeling unloved
Arnold Forde and Stu Mollrich frequently dine with Agran, according to multiple sources. City records show the men also often meet privately. Such proximity to Irvine's most powerful politician has been lucrative for the firm. They routinely win government contracts in Irvine without facing competitive bids. For example, several years ago Agran and his alliance handed the firm a $50,000-per-month retainer for PR work on the Great Park. Staffers at Irvine City Hall call the retainer the "just breathe and get paid" deal.
But Forde and Mollrich's specialty isn't PR. The firm is best at direct mail and cutthroat electioneering. They've been involved in dozens of candidate, initiative and proposition campaigns in the last three decades. In 1995, an Orange County Superior Court judge blasted Forde and Mollrich for "hoodwinking" the public with "fraudulent" fund-raising tactics. According to the LosAngelesTimes,they didn't give a statewide anti-tax campaign a dime after raising more than $738,000 for the cause. Judge Donald E. Smallwood called the scheme "reprehensible," but allowed them to escape legal liability because they'd found a loophole in California's Political Reform Act.
But the firm was also helpful in winning countywide passage of Measure W—the 2002 campaign that created a Great Park instead of an international airport at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. In that campaign, Forde and Mollrich were paid several million dollars in taxpayer and private funds.
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There seems no end to the Forde and Mollrich gravy train. Of the $1.4 million in PR spending, the park board will give the firm at least $739,000. But Agran has been working secretly to renew for another year the firm's $600,000-per-year, city-funded retainer, which expires this month. As it's planned, this new no-bid contract would allow the firm to take over a portion of the city's public information office. Discussions have also included giving Forde and Mollrich an additional fee equal to 15 percent of the entire Great Park PR budget.
Agran hopes to thwart any public backlash over the generous contracting by burying debate over the new Forde and Mollrich deal in a July 12 City Council meeting that one city official described as a "heavily orchestrated celebration" of the park's sale to homebuilder Lennar.
"Larry thinks the public will focus on the celebration and skip any meaningful review of what he's doing with Forde and Mollrich," the official said.
That kind of scheming frustrated ex-park director Dick Sim. Known as a no-nonsense real estate developer during his time at the Irvine Co., Sim's rsum includes such large-scale projects as the Irvine Spectrum. But Sim suddenly resigned from the board in May, saying he could no longer tolerate Agran's wild spending and dictatorial style.
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Sim's resignation has given the Agran camp no pause. According to park-board records, Forde and Mollrich's payday is dependent upon "four specific objectives": conduct public surveys, encourage public participation in the park's design, remind citizens of the "progress of the design," and promote the concept of a park with "local, regional, national and international significance." They also promised to give occasional PowerPoint presentations to the board, write press releases that "highlight" the development's "central location" to freeways, plan a groundbreaking party and "position the Great Park as a national treasure."
But there's no park yet to position and won't be for several years. Instead, there's a highly toxic, abandoned military runway surrounded by weeds and rundown buildings. The first phase of the park isn't scheduled to open until 2008 or, perhaps, 2009. If all goes well, the entire project will be finished in 2011.
Orange County's Great Park may not, as Agran repeatedly promises, rival Manhattan's Central Park. But the publicity around it will be world-class. And after a six-year, $8 million PR campaign (based on the current spending rate), it's almost a certainty that the elfin Agran will be 6-foot-3 and 10 years younger.