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Time for answers on Great Park spending

The decommissioning and subsequent fight over the reuse of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro sparked what can only be referred to as the Great Civil War of Orange County. The strategic battlefield move that won the war, and killed the possibility of an airport on the site, was the promise to the voters of Orange County to build the “first great metropolitan park of our generation,” the promise of the Orange County Great Park.

More than 10 years and more then $200 million dollars later, the Irvine City Council was recently presented the Orange County Great Park Forensic Contract Performance Review by the audit firm of Hagen, Streiff, Newton & Oshiro Accountants.

It paints an ugly picture Consultants and contractors seemed to have engaged in a feeding frenzy for Great Park dollars. Just some of the findings in the review showed contracts that contained excessive use of change orders, large amounts of sole source contracts, city policy not followed while vetting contractors, no defined deliverables in contracts, and invoices that paid for items not in the contract. There seems to be a possibility that no references were actually obtained or verified for the members of the team used for the park design and project management.

One contract for the “Preview Park” had over 100 change orders, ballooning the original contract amount from $1.7 million to $9.4 million. Another contract, for the care and maintenance of donated trees, grew from $347,000 to $1.4 million. The cost to change one word in a contract? $12,000.

Most appalling is the fact that those contractors who ended up with the most money at the end of the day refused to cooperate with the audit firm performing the review.

The Design Studio received almost $50 million for the park design. Forde & Mollrich, a public relations and communications firm, had multiple contracts with the Great Park Board for years. A $50,000-a-month fixed-fee contract grew to a $100,000-a-month contract for strategic planning, communications and government relations services. Total monies to Forde and Mollrich appear to come close to $20 million. Neither firm, as well as the Former Great Park employee who handled invoicing for Forde & Mollrich, would speak with the auditors. The one statement the park employee who processed those invoices did make was that, “Nothing good can come from me talking to you.”

Over the past year, as president and CEO of the Orange County Taxpayers Association, I have been attending Irvine City Council meetings and listening to discussions and presentations on the park. It is an understatement to say that the City Council is divided into two camps.

The current majority is completely aghast over what has been built to date and the amount of money it has taken to build what is there. On the other side are those that have no problem with what has been received for $200 million. They are extremely proud of the progress and can’t believe that anyone questions the process.

I have watched multiple times the same slideshow, showing the balloon, food farm, palm court and more, as a way of trying to justify what was actually built for the $200 million. I have listened to how hard it is to deconstruct a military base, that the bottom fell out of the economy, and if only redevelopment agencies were still alive, as if there is no obligation to act prudently with the money the taxpayers have entrusted to you, as long as there is a never-ending stream of tax dollars coming in.

This preliminary review took a year to complete and raised a lot more questions then answers. In response, the Irvine City Council majority recently voted to have a more in-depth audit performed and to potentially use subpoenas to compel consultants and contractors to speak with the auditors.

Orange County taxpayers should not have to wait yet another year for their questions to be answered.

By Carolyn Cavecche, President & CEO of Orange County Taxpayers Association

Published in the Orange County Register, Feb. 14, 2014

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