By R. Scott Moxley
We once could have imagined The New York Times sending a future reporter to a completed Orange County Great Park in Irvine for an awe-inspiring article in the paper’s “Great Homes & Destinations” section. Don’t laugh. There’s no shame in being fooled a decade ago. That’s when Irvine political boss Larry Agran promised OC that the decommissioned El Toro Marine Air Corps Station wouldn’t just be filled with new houses.
The failed, 1992 Democratic presidential candidate said the development plan included man-made canyons, waterfalls and wildlife corridors; an architecturally impressive sports stadium and amphitheater; breathtaking university buildings; botanical gardens and a conservatory; and Smithsonian-caliber museums. Agran even guaranteed the Great Park would be bigger and more impressive than Manhattan’s Central Park and San Diego’s Balboa Park. All Irvine voters had to do to reap that historic milestone was to keep him and his political machine in control of the city.
This month, a Times reporter with “Great Homes & Destinations” did focus on Orange County, though the story wasn’t about the Great Park–at least directly. That’s no surprise. During Agran’s 12-year reign, not a single major proposed feature was built even though $200 million evaporated from the park construction kitty.
Where did all that taxpayer money go?
Well, there is an orange balloon hovering over the property, a public-relations stunt Agran laughably hails among his major accomplishments. There’s the $125,000 playground set that, when Agran’s consultants finished submitting change orders, cost $1.25 million. There are the untold millions of dollars used for glossy mailers telling residents around election times that the park will go down in history as a model of foresight and efficiency. There’s also the $47 million spent on wildly unrealistic conceptual drawings.
Such wasteful disbursements make sense only when you understand that Agran’s objective for seven consecutive elections was remaining in power by capturing publicity for proposing a park, not actually building one. Each election, he called his political machine “The Great Park Team” and, as time progressed, told voters, who weren’t seeing progress, that construction was imminent. Said the 69-year-old man who has never bothered getting a private-sector job and hasn’t built anything tougher than a tool shed, public parks are really, really complicated projects.
Given the proposal suffered setback after setback under Agran’s incompetence and mismanagement, it took magic to keep him in power, and for that feat, we can thank Arnold Forde, his private campaign adviser who co-owns Forde & Mollrich in Newport Beach. A onetime consultant to Jerry Brown, Forde grabbed a no-bid, no-benchmark contract to take $100,000 per month in park funds in exchange for allegedly performing public-relations tasks. Never mind another successful, veteran PR firm volunteered to do the job for $85,000 less per month. The Forde deal wasn’t so much about skill–how difficult is it to promote a park?–as it was about ties to Agran, who, with the aid of loyal, robotic, sidekick Beth Krom, separately funneled another $67,000 per month to two additional pals, Democratic operatives Chris Townsend and George Urch. Townsend and Urch, by the way, also enjoyed no-bid steals. If you’re counting, those three sweetheart pacts dwindled park construction coffers by $167,000 per month.