Irvine council takes park reins

Recently elected Irvine Mayor Steven Choi initiated Tuesday's City Council meeting with New Year greetings, but not much good cheer appeared to be on the minds of council members when three controversial motions passed early Wednesday — each about the Orange County Great Park.

The cacophonous eight-hour-plus meeting was pockmarked with heckling, cheering and audible disgruntlement that at one point provoked Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Lalloway to comment that he "couldn't hear himself think."

With a new majority taking hold in November's election, the council voted 3 to 2 to reconstitute the Great Park's board of directors and bring control in-house. Per the mayor's proposal, this move axed four at-large non-elected directors from different parts of the county.

"The buck will stop at the City Council," Choi said. "We are ultimately responsible."

Labeling this "the first slice in a thousand little cuts," Councilwoman Beth Krom dissented, as did Councilman Larry Agran.

The council was similarly split regarding the immediate termination of the city's contracts with public relations firm Forde & Mollrich and lobbying group Townsend Public Affairs Inc. Once again, the motion carried 3 to 2, with Krom and Agran opposed.

"We need to stop talking about building a Great Park and actually start building a Great Park," Lalloway said.

The council's conservative voices asserted that Irvine is not in a position to dole out $1.1 million in combined fees, which returning Councilwoman Christina Shea deemed "outrageous."

Meanwhile Agran, a Democrat, expressed chagrin that this decision could jeopardize the quickly approaching Solar Decathlon, which is scheduled to be hosted at the Great Park in October.

He also made a presentation — with statistics and pictures of people frolicking in the park — that loomed over stacks of document boxes and rolled up construction plans. Both, in his view, demonstrated that the city had received its "money's worth," having catered to an annual turnout of 763,813 people at the Great Park.

In response, Choi said, "Of course, when you throw a party, people will come."

Both council factions have been up in arms about the direction of the 1,447-acre Great Park, which once housed the now decommissioned El Toro Marine base. The park is to be outfitted with arts and sports facilities, forests, a wildlife corridor and other features to resemble New York City's Central Park.

Despite toiling away for 10 years and spending $220 million, only about 200 acres are accessible to the public, half of which is operated as a farm.

"The fact of the matter is that the money is almost gone," Shea said. "It can't be business as usual."

Shea also introduced the last in a series of contentious motions, which requests proposals from auditors who would go over the Great Park's accounts.

Despite having stamped this as "witch hunt," Krom declared her support for an independent, responsibly conducted audit. Citing online research that a "forensic" audit typically suggests corruption, fraud, extortion, bribery and the like, she called for an end to the "semantics," urging Shea to clarify whether any "untoward behavior" was being alleged.

The agenda's sole unanimous motion was passed at 1:34 a.m. in front of a dramatically thinner crowd.

Newly elected County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who earlier this week suggested having the county assume responsibility of the Great Park if the council continued to make no headway, was one of nearly 30 public speakers who took the floor. He addressed the council, especially Agran, with discernible outrage and called their "fighting like schoolchildren" both "unfathomable" and "unconscionable."

"It's their vision now," Spitzer said. "You're in the minority."

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