Great Park to start charging for rides

The Orange County Great Park once again raised the Irvine's City Council's hackles.

The carousel and balloon rides starred prominently at Tuesday's meeting, as did the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

These items, pulled from the meeting's consent calendar, led to a heated debate, pockmarked with insults, from both factions of the divided council.

The lengthy discussion, in which the audience was given yet another walk through the park's history, ended in a 3-2 vote; Larry Agran and Beth Krom dissented.

Starting April 1, the Great Park will charge $2 for carousel rides, and $10 general admission for a flight on the balloon, while children ages 6 to 16 years old will be asked to pay $5. The money will go toward the Solar Decathlon and related energy-XPO events, which is anticipated to cost $3.3 million.

Amid Krom's accusations of the Solar Decathlon being a "subterfuge," and the Great Park being reduced to a commercialized amusement park, the council decided to keep more resources in its coffers by doing away with the park's annual New Year's Eve and anniversary parties, 5K Runway dash and other events. The total savings exceed $2 million.

"Irvine charging for merry-go-rounds will make us a laughingstock and rightfully so," Irvine resident Jane Olinger said during the meeting. "For the first time in my 42 years living here, I'm embarrassed by the majority of our council."

According to Agran, who used PowerPoint slides at the meeting, the Great Park is in good fiscal health.

"This idea that we are running out of money, that's nonsense," he said. "We are not $2 million behind the eight-ball on the Solar Decathlon — we are $20 million or even $35 million to the good."

In January 2012, the United States Department of Energy selected the Great Park as the site for the 2013 Solar Decathlon — the first outside Washington, D.C. Irvine was granted $1 million to host 20 international collegiate teams that will design and build solar-powered houses, putting on public display the benefits of renewable energy, from Oct. 3 to 13.

"This Solar Decathlon and XPO matter is really being used as a pretext to totally upend the policies, the direction in which the Great Park has been going," Agran said. "This is a fantastic opportunity for our city, yet it is being treated now as something akin to a burden and a license to attack our staff and the Great Park management for mismanagement, running out of money [and] wastefulness."

Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Lalloway argued that he found no money the last time he looked under his bed.

"Thirty-eight million dollars of our $270 million has been put into infrastructure. That, that, citizens of Irvine, is a sad statement," he said, citing a Los Angeles Times article from October.

"As much as I hate to say it, there is no free lunch at the Great Park," he said. "Our choice is not whether to charge or not [for the balloon and carousel], that's a false choice. Our choice is whether to eliminate it or not and I choose not to eliminate it."

Agran made a substitute motion, which failed, that would supplant park fees with a stakeholders fundraising summit, featuring entities like Irvine's Chamber of Commerce, Samsung, Kia Motors, hoteliers and others.

"If there's anyone you should be upset at, it's not us," Lalloway said, referring to the recently seated conservative council majority. "Be upset at the people that wasted $220 million-plus."


Audit RFP

The Great Park caused a similar uproar at an eight-hour-plus meeting Jan. 8 — Mayor Steven Choi's first meeting at the helm of the city — when various aspects of the Great Park's management were taken to task.

Taking cue from the council, city staff drafted a request for proposals to solicit applications from leading accounting firms, which Agran added to the agenda on the night of March 12.

This discussion also came hand-in-hand with in-fighting, with Choi telling Agran, "I'll give you two minutes."

"You won't give me anything," Agran shot back.

The council was once again split 3 to 2 on the issue of the park's imminent audit; Krom and Agran voted against the motion.

"We just need to let this go forward the way it was designed, the way we all enthusiastically voted for it, and not try to micromanage the process," Lalloway said.

Twitter: @RMahbubani

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