Tuesday, June 30, 2009

California Court of Appeal rebukes Great Park Corporation and its Chairman, Larry Agran

This is an actual "Ben's Law" moment - i.e., where Ben made law.

I and my firm, Enterprise Counsel Group, represent Steven Choi and Christina Shea, two members of the Irvine City Council and, therefore, directors of the Orange County Great Park Corporation. Unfortunately, directors Choi and Shea are in the minority. The opposing bloc of Democrats - Larry Agran, Beth Krom and Sukhee Kang - control both the Irvine City Council and the Great Park Corporation Board.

The Great Park Corporation has had a notoriously difficult time finding a qualified CEO - four different CEOs in its first four years, each with prior connections to Irvine City politics. For years, Christina Shea and another former director, Richard Sims, have tried to get the Corporation to hire a professional, qualified and independent CEO. In mid-2007, the Corporation's controlling bloc finally bowed to public pressure and began what it styled as a true nationwide search for a professional CEO. The Corporation hired a professional recruiter, paid her nearly $20,000, and received approximately 150 resumes from all across the country and some foreign countries.

However, the selection process was always controlled by Larry Agran and his political allies. Accordingly, of those 150 candidates, the "search committee" returned only one for the entire Board to interview. That candidate, Kurt Haunfelner, eventually turned down the job. However, shortly after he turned down the job, the L.A. Times ran a story disclosing that Mr. Haunfelner's brother was a former aide to Larry Agran. Agran had not disclosed his relationship with Mr. Haunfelner's family to Choi or Shea.

The search committee's second choice was an existing Irvine City staffer, Rod Cooper. He quickly withdrew his name from contention.

Choi and Shea wondered publicly why the Great Park Corporation spent $20,000 for a nationwide search when the search returned two finalists both with existing ties to Larry Agran. They demanded to see all 150 resumes and all documents concerning the search. The Great Park Corporation refused. Beth Krom made a motion on January 10, 2008:

that the board ratify and affirm our intent that the ad hoc search committee should maintain the confidence of the identity and personal information, including resumes, of candidates for the Great Park CEO position until such time as a recommendation of a candidate is made to the board and then, only as to that specific candidate being recommended.

The resolution passed 7-1, with Shea the only "no" vote (Choi had to leave for a personal appointment before the vote).

Choi and Shea sued to enforce their rights as directors to inspect all the CEO search documents. The day before the hearing, the Great Park Corporation capitulated, agreeing to give Choi and Shea access to every document they requested and a continuing obligation to allow Choi and Shea to inspect any and all future documents generated or received.

Having prevailed in enforcing their basic rights as public servants, Choi and Shea sought to recover their attorneys' fees from the Great Park Corporation. Incredibly, the trial court denied their (i.e., my) motion. The trial court found that Choi and Shea hadn't achieved their goals in the litigation - an absurdity - and had done the public no good, merely viewing the documents in a closed room.

For most people, this needs no rebuttal. The public benefits when elected officials have access to basic information to do their jobs, whether it is behind closed doors or not. Does the public not benefit when Congress oversees the CIA in closed-door, Top Secret meetings?

Anyway, the California Court of Appeal just corrected this injustice.

This is an important victory for democracy here in Orange County, throughout the state, and definitely for the Great Park Corporation. If Choi and Shea had to bear the expense of a lawsuit to enforce their basic rights to see all the relevant documents and information they felt necessary to make an informed vote on who to hire as the Corporation's CEO, they could not long afford to do their jobs. Only the independently wealthy, willing to pay for expensive litigation to enforce basic rights inherent in their elected positions, would or could ever run for political office. Moreover, Agran et al. would surely continue to deny Choi and Shea - and any other political opponent - access to basic information, knowing they could not afford continuous lawsuits to enforce their basic rights. Without this victory, neither Choi or Shea, nor any other Agran opponent, would ever see a Great Park Corporation document ever again.

Hopefully, this stinging rebuke will cause Irvine voters to finally throw Agran out of office.