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The Orange County Great Park was envisioned as becoming the “first great metropolitan park of the 21st Century.” According to Park Designers, the Great Park should represent the next evolutionary step in park design now that the pace of the park has been “quickened with exercise, sport, and more active forms of recreation.” After reviewing the recently released audit of the Great Park, perhaps the park’s Board of Directors should add gross financial mismanagement to this list of characteristics. After all, that certainly seems to be the most significant overarching theme from the audit by the firm of Hagen, Streiff, Newton, and Oshiro Accountants. The report was commissioned in an attempt to figure out how a decade of time and $200 million in funds could have been dispensed without the result of any “Great Park.” Its contents are disturbing, to say the least.
This accounting firm pored through Great Park documents dating from 2005 to 2012 with the hopes of ascertaining the answers to these questions. Those under examination sure didn’t show any desire to cooperate with the endeavor. The report details how the Design Studio (which received $46.9 million to create a master plan and schematic design) refused to speak with the auditing firm. Additionally, this group failed to provide requested documentation regarding payments to its subcontractors. The report also identified Marsha Burgess as a non-contributor. Burgess, the Great Park employee responsible for reviewing invoices from the public relations and strategy firm of Forde and Mollrich, refused to provide any information. The report also highlights a number of requests for information to the city of Irvine that were denied because the requests exceeded the scope of the firm’s investigation.
Despite these barriers, the auditing firm did identify a number of concerns, inconsistencies, and questionable practices throughout the development of the Great Park. The first big question involves $6.5 million in missing funds. Of the original $200 million given by Lennar Corporation to fund the Great Park, only $193.5 million was found to have reached the park’s funds. The city of Irvine explained that the other $6.5 million was used to pay for park-related costs incurred but rejected the auditors’ questions on the specific uses of these funds.
Another glaring problem in the administration of the Great Park was the use of no-bid, “sole-source” contracts. Of 83 contracts valued over $100,000, 30 of these were sole-sourced rather than opened for public bids. The auditing report describes the use of theses sole sourced contracts as “improper at times” and recommends that regulations be put into place to limit their use in the future. Even contracts put out for bid were not without problems as the auditors found an alarming trend of excessive change orders which significantly increased the cost of a number of projects. When reading about the consistency of these problems in the contract awarding process, one cannot help but wonder about the qualifications and oversight ability of the Great Park staff in charge of this process.
Another glaring error in the administration of the Great Park project was the failure of the city to significantly vet Gafcon, a San Diego-based construction firm. This is particularly concerning when you realize that Gafcon was responsible for the invoicing, record keeping, and subcontractor management of the Design Studio, the group provided with $46.9 million in funds. One would think that more care would be put into vetting an organization given such an essential task. However, care and due diligence do not seem to be features of this project, as auditors also found that the city paid for numerous invoices that were actually rejected for being outside the project’s scope.
A final alarming trend raised by the auditors’ report was the direction of funds towards certain associates of Board of Director and Irvine Councilmember Larry Agran. One such associate is Arnold Forde, whose public relations and strategy firm of Forde & Mollrich received $7.2 million from the Great Park. Of this amount, $6.3 million was included under design contracts, which the auditors noted seems a stretch in scope for a PR firm. Another PR consultant (what park doesn’t need multiple?) and associate was George Urch, who was hired as a subcontractor. In combing through invoices, the auditors found that Urch performed work for individual city council members and billed it to the Great Park. This accounted for $33,810 in Great Park expenditures.
Further information and details regarding a decade-long string of concerns and questionable decisions can be found within the 50-page write-up from the auditors, which can be viewed online. The sad result of this is that the Orange County Great Park now finds itself in fiscal danger, with the achievement of the original plan questionable at best. The Great Park should be the crown jewel of Orange County, a place where residents and visitors alike can come to celebrate and enjoy all that the area has to offer. However, due to the mismanagement detailed in the auditors’ report, the Great Park currently stands at 230 acres (at a price of over $850,000 per acre), less than a fifth of its intended 1,300 acres. For the citizens of Orange County, the current version of the great park is much more park than it is great. And the recent report makes it clear that they have their representatives to thank for this.