Auditor Blasts Irvine’s|$250 Million Project

     IRVINE, Calif. (CN) — The city of Irvine’s decade-old “Great Park” project had become so controversial and expensive by 2013 that officials ordered an audit, which two years later disclosed rampant mismanagement. On Tuesday, the California state auditor issued an audit of that audit, finding it was mismanaged, too.
     The carefully worded but hard-hitting auditor’s report concludes that “poor governance of the park review, which ultimately cost the city about $1.7 million, compromised the review’s credibility.”
     State Auditor Elaine M. Howle declined to describe Irvine’s investigation of the troubled park project as an audit because the city “did not require the independence or rigor intrinsic to an audit.” Her 57-page report refers to the city’s effort as a “review.”
     Howle found that the city did not follow good contracting procedures in hiring an accounting firm and a law firm to conduct the review, and that its “disjointed contract management” undercut transparency about the review’s cost and scope and fostered cost overruns.
     The city’s review of the Great Park project found even worse failings, including cronyism, secrecy and political pressures.
     In other findings, the state auditor’s report says:
     — The City Council used unfair and shifting bid processes to pick the consultants who conducted its review, which “unnecessarily cast doubt on the impartiality of the selection process.”
     — The city’s initial request for proposals “all but guaranteed” that the winning bidder “would receive a second, no-bid contract” to do more work on the project. After bids were in, the city modified its selection process to boost the score of the accounting firm that won the contract, without informing other bidders.
     — A two-member City Council oversight subcommittee — small enough to escape open-meeting requirements — did very little and almost never reported to the full council. “We found little evidence that it added any value to the park review,” the state auditor found.
     Howle’s tough report adds to the years of problems, criticism and political pressures that have bedeviled the Orange County Great Park since it was planned in 2002.
     Set on part of the former U.S. Marine Corps Air Station El Toro — where President Richard Nixon landed on trips to his Western White House — the park was envisioned as a multifaceted recreational space as large as New York’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park combined.
     After more than a dozen years of false starts, inactivity, and financial problems brought on by the 2008 recession and a major reversal of state urban planning regulations, a new majority on the Irvine City Council came in and demanded an audit.
     That review, released last year, is what Howle’s office audited. In it, consultants said the city had spent about $250 million to develop only 88 acres of the 1,347-acre proposed park. It blamed poor budgeting, cronyism, secrecy and plain bad management.
     The grand plan for the park “was killed … by its own hubris,” the review said.
     Politics played a part in the controversy. The park plan and development had been controlled by Democrats on the City Council. The new council majority, which demanded an audit, was Republican.
     The audit of the audit was sparked by a former park consultant who was criticized in the city review, and persuaded a Democratic legislator, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, to bring in Howle’s office.
     In an 11-page response attached to the state auditor’s report, Irvine Mayor Steven Cho also cited political pressure. He said Howle failed to “convey the magnitude” of Irvine citizens’ concerns about the park’s high cost.
     The demands and the review itself “were extraordinary and unique,” Cho wrote.
     He disagreed with several of Howle’s findings, though he said the city would adopt many of her recommendations.

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