Irvine’s most prominent political leader is denying testimony from former Great Park executives that millions of dollars tied to the ambitious project were wasted through dysfunctional leadership, poor budget planning and incompetence under his watch.
Among the allegations are that powerful consultants, one with close political ties to Councilman Larry Agran, were authorized to run the project without interference from the city staffers who had been charged with overseeing the municipal park plan.
The plan to transform the old El Toro Marine base into America’s next great municipal park with a canyon and a landscape of forests, gardens and hiking trails was largely put aside after the city spent more than $200 million with little to show for it. Several hundred acres were developed, and a builder has now agreed to finish the job — though with a more recreational design — in exchange for the right to develop hundreds of homes around the park’s rim.
An audit of the Great Park was ordered when the makeup of the City Council changed, leaving Agran in the minority. The allegations leveled at Agran and others were revealed July 21 with the release of testimony taken over the last three months as part of the ongoing forensic audit.
Agran served as chairman of the Great Park Corp. for five of the seven years covered by the audit. The corporation was folded into city operations in 2013.
“It’s the kind of gossip and backbiting that’s part of any major project,” said Agran, who said he had not read the depositions.
Assistant City Manager Mike Ellzey, who functioned as the Great Park chief executive, told investigators he immediately encountered an unusual power structure in which consultant Arnold Forde, under a contract to his firm Forde & Mollrich, had more decision-making power than he did as CEO. Forde has served as a strategist in several of Agran’s City Council and mayoral campaigns and is a well-known California political consultant.
Ellzey said with Forde as his right-hand man, and Yehudi Gaffen of the design management firm Gafco, Agran created a “triumvirate of power” within the Great Park Design Studio, which was drawing up plans for the park. He testified that the design studio routinely operated ahead of proper oversight by city staff members.
“That was just wrong,” Ellzey stated in his June 18 deposition. “It was just wrong that a contractor/consultant was directing a public body.”
Ellzey said excessive contracts and sloppy invoicing churned through millions of Great Park funds. Forde & Mollrich was paid $100,000 a month for public relations work — a figure Ellzey said was hugely excessive.
The release of the depositions hasn’t moved Agran from his stance that the forensic audit is nothing more than a “political witch hunt.”
“Bottom line: We made tremendous progress on the Great Park with an award-winning master design and projects completed on time,” Agran said. “The audit has yet to reveal a single dollar that is unaccounted for or misspent.”