Two Irvine City Council members are questioning how a national search for a new chief executive at the Orange County Great Park last month yielded two top finalists with ties to City Hall, fueling an ongoing controversy over how leaders for the massive public works project are chosen.
“I wonder if a search was actually performed,” Councilman Steven Choi said in an irate memo to city officials last month, closing with, “I will not tolerate being patronized any longer.”
Choi and Councilwoman Christina Shea have complained that the city has refused to provide them with basic information about Great Park candidates, including resumes of the remaining contenders for the position, for which the city received 150 applications.
“How did it happen that the top candidates lacked recreational or major public facilities engineering or construction experience, yet at least one possessed undisclosed ties to Chairman [Larry] Agran?” Choi wrote.
Irvine has faced criticism for its revolving door of Great Park executives, having had four in four years, as it works to convert the El Toro Marine base into a 1,347-acre municipal park at an expected cost of more than $1 billion in public funds.
Last month, the board that oversees the Great Park, composed of the five-member Irvine City Council and four members it appoints, abruptly scrapped plans to announce a new chief executive after both of the top choices declined the position.
The setback came two days after The Times revealed that the last chief executive, Marty Bryant, had pleaded guilty in 1989 to embezzling funds from San Juan Capistrano to buy cocaine. Irvine had promoted Bryant, a public works director with the city, to the top post without conducting a criminal background check.
The board’s first choice to replace him, Kurt Haunfelner, vice president of exhibits and collections at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, is a longtime friend of City Councilman Agran, chairman of the Great Park board, and is the brother of the late Mark Steven Haunfelner, a former Agran aide. The board’s second choice, Rod Cooper, a former parks director for Los Angeles County, is the Great Park’s operations manager.
Agran, who has seen the resumes because he is on the six-person search committee, said he did not want them provided to other board members because they might make the names public.
The job candidates, he said, “are people who in each and every instance hold great positions of stature and authority elsewhere, and in almost every case would not want their current employers to know they were looking for work at the Great Park.”
Shea said she had been repeatedly denied access after requesting to review the resumes of the top five candidates, who interviewed with the search committee in September. “I’m very discouraged by the amount of secrecy,” she said.
The Irvine City Council is divided into two camps. A three-member majority is dominated by longtime Councilman Agran. Shea and Choi constitute the two-member minority.
The controversy over appointing a new chief executive has been drawn along those lines, with Choi questioning why Agran’s relationship with Haunfelner was not disclosed to him, and Shea asking that Agran be removed from the search committee and that it be reorganized to include “balanced representation of the board.”
Agran said the search was conducted fairly and that of 150 applicants, only about 12 were people he knew or had heard of.
“This notion that Steven Choi has, which is that nobody should apply who has any historical connection to me whatsoever, is absurd,” Agran said.
In 2005, the city halted a national search for its second chief executive and appointed Wally Kreutzen, an assistant city manager, to the post.
Board member Dick Sim, a former Irvine Co. executive, later resigned in part because chief executives with experience in park development were not being hired.
Lisa Mills, a Santa Ana recruiter hired by the board, said the Great Park chief executive search was one of her higher profile searches, comparing it with her recent recruitment of Santa Monica’s city manager.
Mills is a former Santa Ana councilwoman and former executive director of the Orange County Transportation Authority.
She advertised the position on professional websites and trade publications, mailed the job listing to more than 150 California parks administrators and contacted potential candidates suggested by board members.
Haunfelner was one that Agran and other board members had suggested, according to Agran and Mills.
Assistant City Manager Sharon Landers has held the top park post on an interim basis since Bryant left in June.
The board will discuss as early as January how to proceed with the search and may vote on whether to allow its members the right to review resumes, said City Manager Sean Joyce.
Terry Francke, legal counsel for Californians Aware, a Sacramento nonprofit promoting open government, said it would be “irregular and foolish” to deprive board members of access to resumes for a hiring decision they will vote on. “As a matter of good public management, I don’t see any reason why they should not be given that information.”