El Toro Reuse Officials Will Press to Pay Consultants : Bankruptcy: Irvine and Lake Forest officials decide at meeting of the base conversion group without O.C. that they will go to court if needed to get $198,000.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Irvine and Lake Forest officials said Monday they will appeal to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court if necessary to free up county-held funds to pay consultants working on conversion plans for the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

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Getting money for the consultants, who haven't been paid since September, confronted the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority at the first meeting since the county Board of Supervisors withdrew from its ranks and set up a rival organization to plan the future of the Marine base.

Irvine City Councilman Barry J. Hammond said "it will be very difficult" to get the consultants to continue working on a base reuse plan until they receive payment for their initial work.

"Beyond that, the moral and legal obligation is to get the people paid," Hammond said.

The authority seeks access to $198,000 held by the bankrupt county.

The county contends that Measure A passed by voters last November authorized construction of a commercial airport at the Marine base, which will be closed under military cutbacks, and mandated that the county take charge of the planning.

The mayors of Irvine and Lake Forest, the cities next to the base, have refused the county's invitation to take an advisory role, insisting that they want to continue in a decision-making capacity. Irvine and Lake Forest have invited the county to rejoin the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority.

Irvine and Lake Forest representatives on the authority said Monday they would not consider adding more South County cities to the authority's membership until March 15, the deadline they have given the county to come back to the table.

"Hopefully the county will see the error of their ways," Irvine Mayor Michael Ward said at Monday's meeting.

Authority members were concerned that, if each planning group goes its own way, it will result in conflicting positions on proposals made by various federal agencies, ranging from development of a new prison, to creation of a habitat reserve, and a land swap with the Irvine Co.

The Department of the Navy has set an April 1 deadline for the Marines and the local redevelopment authority to make recommendations on federal agency requests for the land.

Irvine and Lake Forest officials also said they were aware that, if the county does not participate in the authority, there is a danger that federal funding of the ongoing planning process will come to a halt.

The federal government to date has withheld recognition of either planning body, contending that it would prefer cooperation between parties.

A top priority of the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, Ward said, is to pay bills owed to consultants, headed by Miami-based Post, Buckley, Shuh & Jernigan.

Ward said the authority will apply to the Bankruptcy Court as one of the county's creditors, if necessary, to obtain funds to pay for consulting work.

He said the county has the funds, about $198,000, because the county was the treasurer for the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority. That money, which has been frozen by the county's bankruptcy proceedings, Ward said, was intended to pay consultants for the "first phase" of planning.

Melinda Stewart, chief of countywide projects for Tom Mathews, the county's director of planning, said Monday the county has agreed to take steps that would enable the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to release 30% of the funds earmarked to pay the consultants.

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"We are making every effort to get them (the consultants) paid," Stewart said. The request, she said, must be approved by the creditors and investors committees in the bankruptcy.

She also said the consultants will receive payments from an additional $222,000 in phase-one planning money soon to be appropriated by the federal government and unencumbered by the county's bankruptcy.

If the federal government withholds future funding to the authority, Ward said, the cities of Irvine and Lake Forest will complete the base planning process, estimated to cost up to $1.2 million in additional funds, with their own financial resources.

By contrast, Ward questioned whether the county is in a strong enough financial position to continue paying planning consultants without federal support.

"Why don't they (the county) take care of their bankruptcy and leave to us the planning of our own back yards?" Ward said.

Another sticky question, Ward said, is whether the county's planning authority or the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority has legal ownership of the documents produced by the first year's planning efforts.

And it is unknown whether in the future the planning consultants on the El Toro project will choose to work for the county or the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority.

"We would like to work with the group that receives official standing," said Bill Vardoulis, the project director. "Professionally you want to see to it the work you do that is paid for by the public is used and isn't cast aside because it has no standing."

Recently, the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority voted to reassign its consulting contract to Vardoulis' company, BV Engineering in Irvine.

Meanwhile, Lake Forest and Irvine have threatened litigation to contest the legality of Measure A.

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