Irvine's first majority Republican city council meeting in more than a decade kicked off last night and the winds of change raged like a hurricane.
With the five-member body focused on the Orange County Great Park, the new council voted for sweeping changes including a restructuring of the park's governing board, the termination of two lucrative, no-bid public relations contracts as well as a forensic audit of the park's finances going back ten years.
The marathon session, which ran 8 1/2 hours, endured more than two hours of public comments, thanks to an orchestrated campaign by liberal groups unable to believe that Larry Agran and Beth Krom, now in the minority on the council, are wrong about their opposition to the restructuring.
For the past nine years, the Great Park's board of directors has been composed of nine members, five from the democratically controlled city council, and four allegedly independent members, all of whom were political allies of Agran and Krom.
Last night the council, led by Republican Mayor Steven Choi, voted 3-2 in favor of eliminating the four at large members of the board.
"The buck stops at the city council," said Choi who lamented the jibing he receives from other city officials who jokingly ask him "Where's the Great Park?"
Critics have long decried the cost of the park, slated to be built on more than a 1,000 acres of what was once the El Toro Marine Air Base, arguing that despite more than $200 million spent, county residents have little to show for the money aside from a large orange balloon.
Last night, Agran showed slides demonstrating what he said was the park's progress including a merry go round and palm court as well as several images prominently featuring the park's most iconic landmark — the balloon — from different angles and at different times of the day.
County Supervisor Todd Spitzer wasn't impressed.
During public comments, Spitzer glared at Agran and loudly declared the park's slow process stemmed from sole source, no-bid contracts handed out to Agran's political allies who won lucrative jobs mainly "because they did the political bidding for people who wanted to stay elected in this city."
The visibly angry Spitzer added "I don't think a palm court, merry go round and balloon is the vision I expected."
In addition to a restructuring of the governing board, the city council voted 3-2 to terminate contracts with two public relations firms Forde & Mollrich and Townsend Public Affairs. For years, the city has handed over hundreds of thousands of dollars every month for consulting work while promised structures at the Great Park remain unbuilt.
Krom, who joined Agran in opposing the vote, said she was concerned about the marketing and fundraising both companies have done in anticipation of the upcoming solar decathlon. The great park was chosen by the Department of Energy to host the event this October.
"I hate to see us cut off our legs before we have the crutches to hobble out of the room on," Krom said.
But Republican councilman Jeff Lalloway wasn't concerned. "I think we're going to be just fine," he said. "For a Facebook and a website, I think we can handle it."
Just before 1:30 a.m. the council took its final vote, unanimously supporting a forensic audit of the Great Park expenditures. Krom took exception to the forensic classification saying it suggested corruption or impropriety. Prior to casting their votes Councilwoman Christina Shea reminded Krom that in 2009 when a great park auditor had concerns about an unreconciled $1 million, Krom refused a detailed follow-up audit.
Impressively, as the night dragged on and council members began to fade and complain of fatigue, Agran, sitting in his chair ram-rod straight, appeared indefatigable. Many critics, including our own R. Scott Moxley have accused Agran of abject corruption, the most recent offense pertaining to his attempted theft of the mayoral race. But if he was even slightly concerned tonight about what an audit might reveal, he didn't show it.
"I'm prepared to support this [vote]" he said smiling. "In fact, I'm mildly enthusiastic."