Ongoing tensions within the Orange County Transportation Authority have begun to bubble over in recent weeks as several county supervisors, who also serve on the OCTA board, are going public with their discontent regarding how the $1-billion agency is being run.
The group of supervisors — Chairman John Moorlach, Shawn Nelson and Pat Bates — have ratcheted up their challenges to OCTA staff and board majority as the board undergoes a major transition with 10 of its 17 seats changing hands this month.
Moorlach, in a recent edition of his email update to supporters, described a "pushy, bullying pattern of the majority running roughshod over the minority" that he says has emerged at OCTA.
Specifically, the board in recent weeks has apparently violated the state's open meetings law and disregarded the staff recommendation on a mammoth program management contract. And OCTA’s cancellation and reissuance of a request for proposals in reaction to a complaint from former board member and former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle has also raised flags.
The alleged open meetings law violation came in November when the board voted to appoint Darrell Johnson to replace the outgoing Will Kempton as CEO of the agency. Johnson’s appointment was approved in a special board meeting, but the Brown Act prohibits considering pay for executives at special meetings.
Bates caught the violation and thus started a political controversy over the appointment that won’t be resolved until after the New Year.
Some board members complained they were left out of the decision-making loop because a small committee headed by board Vice Chairman Gregory Winterbottom had essentially chosen Johnson to replace Kempton.
But it isn't just the Johnson appointment that has the minority block upset.
Last week the board rejected a staff recommendation to award a multimillion-dollar program management consulting contract for the Interstate 405 widening project to New Jersey-based Hill International, opting instead to award the contract to Pasadena-based Parsons Transportation Group. Parsons was ranked highest by an outside consultant who was brought in to confirm that the bidders were qualified for the contract.
The consultant — Peter Lee, manager of the Bay Area Toll Authority Program — ranked Parsons’ consulting team at the top and Hill International’s team at the bottom. A separate, six-member ranking committee composed of staff from OCTA and other agencies, ranked Hill International as the highest bidder by a narrow margin.
But the board didn’t receive Lee’s rankings until Supervisor Shawn Nelson pushed for disclosure of the report, angering some of the OCTA directors. Kempton argued that Lee was only supposed to qualify the firms, making the consultant’s rankings irrelevant.
“The key conclusion in this statement is that, in Mr. Lee’s opinion, all of the candidate teams are qualified for this work,” Kempton wrote in a memo to the board.
Nonetheless, the board unanimously approved awarding the contract to Parsons, with directors citing various reasons, like expertise on right-of-way issues and previous experience with the agency.
Moorlach in his update also questioned an Oct. 17 internal audit report that found the agency lacks important controls over how promotions and raises are awarded. And he wrote that reappointing Winterbottom, the board’s public member for nearly 20 years, “seemed odd.”
Supervisor Bill Campbell, who voted for the Johnson appointment, said that recent board decisions against staff recommendations show a healthy attention to detail.
“The alarm would be if the board rubber stamped everything that staff did, and the board is not doing that,” Campbell said. “That means an active board that is paying attention to what’s going on.”
Huntington Beach Mayor Don Hansen, who stepped down from the OCTA board as part of the turnover, said the supervisors’ concerns stem from their recent experiences at the county, which has been under siege with accusations of cronyism and the scandal involving former county Public Works manager Carlos Bustamante, who has been charged with sex crimes.
“I would chalk it up to once bitten, twice shy,” Hansen said. “I think the supervisors are coming off a tough year. … They don’t want to be embarrassed.”
Yet Moorlach expressed suspicion about potentially larger problems.
Moorlach, who said he is “slowly starting to get angry” with the sequence of events at the agency, wrote in his update that during new board member orientation, the directors were told, “It’s the councilmembers against the Supervisors.” Although Moorlach declines to confirm it, other sources say that the comment came from an OCTA staff member.
Of the 10 new directors, nine are from city councils.
“Really? When did this fractionalization occur?"' Moorlach wrote ".Or was it there all the time and it’s just starting the lose its subtlety? Maybe it’s just me and I should keep my thoughts to myself, but I’m just starting to wonder out loud.”
Nelson said that he has not been especially rebellious lately, and he doesn’t agree completely with Moorlach’s remarks. But he said that some members of the board receive more information than others. The way an ad hoc committee had attempted to decide the Johnson appointment is particularly troublesome, Nelson said.
“I have never been part of a board who hired a chief executive where every single person on the board wasn’t involved in the hiring process,” Nelson said. “A lot of this is about some people getting all the info and some people not. And that’s just bad form.”
In a recent interview with Voice of OC, Kempton said his staff keeps the board well informed. He says recent decisions don’t signal that some board members are losing confidence in staff.
“There may be a couple members who have some concerns that they’re not getting all the information," Kempton said. "From my perspective, I honestly believe that not to be the case. We try to provide as much and any information that we can to the board. If you wanted to keep count, the board follows staff recommendations much more frequently then they overturn them or do something differently.”