Never mind that Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran is six years late and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget on his government-led plan to convert an old military airbase into the Orange County Great Park. Never mind that chunks of the nonexistent park's spending have landed in the pockets of Agran's pals, who've routinely nabbed lucrative, no-bid contracts from the public park board, which has been dictatorially controlled by Agran and his political machine since its 2003 inception. Never mind that Agran got voter approval for a massive public park supplemented by light housing and commercial development and is now pushing a massive housing and commercial development supplemented by a park that is half its originally guaranteed 2,800 acres.
On May 21, Agran used a Los Angeles Times column to reassure the public he can be trusted to manage Orange County's largest, most controversial pending public-works project. Agran would like us to believe that mounting complaints about construction delays and dubious spending are the ploys of his (unidentified) political enemies or, more absurdly, (also unidentified) people who hate parks. Please note that this 66-year-old professional politician has never held a private-sector job in his life—certainly not one overseeing a $1.6 billion construction project.
But 490 weeks of waiting for something to be built has prompted even the Times—the newspaper that traditionally has handed Agran's park plans its most glowing, cheerleading coverage—to finally write the obvious: There isn't just a missing park. After all these years, there isn't even meaningful construction of a park under way, and that's likely to be the case for years.
“There's a lot that's missing,” wrote Jim Newton, author of the Times Op-Ed column.
The Irvine Democrat who ran for president in 1992 despises criticism as much as he loves secrecy, so he reacted defensively to Newton's point.
“What do people expect?” asked Agran, insisting that only fools don't appreciate it takes 75 or 100 years to build a park.
It was, of course, Agran who personally created expectations to manipulate favorable public opinion for his takeover of the property from the federal government. In 2002 and 2003, he repeatedly assured voters the park would be built and ready for use by 2005. However, once he got control of the land and a budget, the master bureaucrat and liberal policy wonk by temperament focused on creating a bloated park bureaucracy. Bulldozers are conspicuously idle, but Agran's loyalists occupy cushy $200,000-per-year-plus park jobs, and his dinner pals enjoy no-bid contracts that have already depleted park funds by more than $315 million.
But there's a looming financial disaster. Great Park officials comfortably bankrolled the pre-park bureaucracy gravy train in the belief they could eventually use more than $1 billion in local redevelopment-agency funds for actual park-construction costs. But Governor Jerry Brown has proposed redirecting those monies to help solve California's massive state budget deficit. In perhaps the understatement of the year, Newton noted that Brown's plan would put “a crimp” in building the Great Park.
Don't worry, Agran told Newton. Sure, Brown's plan is “a dumb idea,” but he has everything under control. The park board has crafted alternative construction-funding plans.
Here's the most telling line from Newton's column: “[Agran] insisted that the board had a 'Plan B and a Plan C,' though he preferred not to disclose those publicly.”
Local liberals like to pretend Agran and the two subservient members of his machine, Beth Krom and Sukhee Kang, operate the most transparent government operation in Southern California. But here, Agran essentially concedes to my previous description of him as OC's most pathologically secretive politician since Richard M. Nixon.
Government bodies in this state are not allowed to debate or make decisions in secret. There are laws on this point: The Ralph M. Brown Act requires agencies to give citizens advance notice of meetings as well as unfettered access to the gatherings. The state's open-records act mandates that agencies share government documents with the public. There are a few exemptions from these requirements, but they have nothing to do with keeping citizens in the dark about how government officials plan to fund a public park.
Yet, in Newton's column, Agran stated unequivocally that the board has already devised secret alternative plans. In February, he told a Daily Pilot reporter the board had no alternatives, so between then and now, something must have happened in secret. A review of park-board agendas shows no discussion of alternate-funding plans.
This is not the first time Agran's penchant for backroom deals and deceit has emerged. In 2008, for example, Christina Shea and Steven Choi—two duly elected Republican members of the Irvine City Council—won a lawsuit that forced Agran to share with them official government documents he possessed but didn't want them to see. As it turned out, the documents proved Agran's ties to a candidate seeking the CEO job at the city's Great Park operation.
Based on all the years of Agran's flagrant corruption, I've consistently opined that Irvine's most dominant politician for the past three decades behaves as if the park is his personal property. He loaded the park board with his sycophants. He named himself chairman, and he recently handed the seat to his most loyal hack, Krom. He crafts lies about his maneuvers. He doles out public funds to his buddies, including Arnold Forde, who gets a whopping $120,000 per month to provide public relations for a park that does not exist.
Following the Newton column, Agran sympathizers are left with an ugly choice. Either Agran is conducting important public business in secret, or he lied, and there is no Plan B or Plan C. Reporter Adam Elmahrek at the Voice of OC came to the same conclusion. Elmahrek interviewed Great Park board members, including Krom, who said they didn't know what Agran was talking about. It's a bad sign when your closest allies don't obfuscate for you. Agran did not respond to an interview request for this story.
Building a park in housing-swamped central Orange County is a great idea. Having honest government officials manage the project is essential. At the next City Council meeting, Agran owes it to the public to come clean about whether the park board has crafted alternate funding sources. And given his shameless history, he should also reveal whether those options, if they exist, enrich his pals.
Perhaps it's worse if Agran was lying. That raises other serious questions: Why did he lie? What other important park issues are tainted with deceit? How long are his colleagues going to cover for him?
Better yet: Isn't it long past time this slimy character retired?
This column appeared in print as “Larry Agran, It's Time for You to Go: Recent interview inadvertently reveals the slimy side of Irvine's most powerful politician.”
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.