By SEAN EMERY
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
IRVINE – A recent report critical of the Great Park's long-term financial prospects was "seriously flawed," Irvine officials argue in a written response to grand jury findings that city leaders claim misled the public.
In a detailed draft response to grand jury findings that questioned a key source of Great Park funding and pointed to potential conflicts of interest among the elected leaders overseeing the park project, Irvine officials accused the watchdog agency of crafting a report that is "inaccurate and misleading."
"Regrettably, the Grand Jury's lack of understanding of the facts and California redevelopment law, its selective reading of documents provided to them by the city and the (redevelopment) agency, and its unfortunate use of insinuation and sarcasm, compromised the value of the Grand Jury report and had the effect of misleading the public," city officials said in Irvine's written response.
Faced with the complexity of the Great Park plan, the grand jury chose to focus on plans to raise the more than $1 billion needed to construct the park, rather than the more than $100 million spent on the project so far.
In its June report titled "Financing the Great Park: Now You See It, Now You Don't," the grand jury focused much of its attention on the Irvine Redevelopment Agency's ability to pay back a $134 million Great Park loan, as well as the fact that the five-member Irvine City Council also oversees both the city redevelopment agency and the Great Park Board of Directors.
The grand jury report didn't point to any specific wrongdoing by Great Park or city leaders, but did question whether there was "adequate transparency and candor by Irvine city officials in keeping taxpayers informed of the full consequences of the park financing structure," a passage that drew a sharply worded reaction from city officials.
"We have involved interested parties from the entire county through an open, public and inclusive process," Irvine officials wrote in their response. "The grand jury, however, revealed the tone and tactics it intended to employ by speculating – and then simply leaving hanging in the air – that city officials have kept taxpayers in the dark about the financing structure for the Orange County Great Park."
The city response signals that Irvine leaders will not be adopting any of the grand jury's five recommendations, which include:
•Having the Irvine Redevelopment Agency commit to repaying the $134 million Great Park loan. The city argues that the agency already has every intention of repaying the loan.
•Revising the redevelopment agencies' revenue projections to take into account economic turmoil. The city argues that they already analyze economic factors and adjust accordingly.
•Informing residents that new taxes or increases in existing taxes will be needed for Great Park construction. City officials deny this is the case, arguing that tax increment funds drawn from private development, as well as federal stimulus funds, shouldn't be considered new taxes.
•Making the boards of the Great Park Corporation, the Irvine City Council and the Irvine Redevelopment Agency independent of one another. City officials argue that such an arrangement is common in California, and does not represent a conflict of interest.
The Irvine City Council on Tuesday will discuss whether to officially sign off on the city response and send it on to the grand jury.
"I think our commitment is to move forward with the Great Park project in the best possible transparency," Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang said. "Right now we are constructing the park, so I think time will tell, and all this effort that is being invested in achieving the biggest public works project in the country will be realized. That is our dream. That is our plan."
Councilwoman Christina Shea said that while she hadn't had a chance to see the city response, she was concerned that the council majority would ignore the grand jury findings.
"They have raised some very definitive concerns, serious concerns, and to just brush it off or imply that they are seniors who should be playing shuffleboard is unfair," Shea said.
This is the second time the Great Park has come under grand jury scrutiny.
A grand jury investigation in 2006 accused Irvine leaders of betraying the public's trust by assuming control of the Great Park, suggesting the county sue to regain some authority. The recommendation was ignored by both city and county leaders.
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