A previously secret spreadsheet released late last week by the public agency that manages Orange County's toll roads shows a number of consulting contracts awarded to high-profile political players both locally and at the state level.
Strategy, advice, media relations and public affairs consulting were common themes under the Transportation Corridor Agencies or TCA contracts, which did not require approval by the agency's board and had been kept out of public view.
They were handed out to at least a dozen consultants, including firms involving former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, Republican insider Matt Cunningham and former Gov. Gray Davis.
Most of those agreements and amendments, totaling $593,582, were awarded in 2013, when the agency faced significant public resistance to its plan to extend the Route 241 toll road 5.5 miles south. Critics had alleged it was part of a larger plan to extend the road down to Interstate 5, going through parkland and near a popular surfing spot known as Trestles.
The agency last December also refinanced the Route 241 construction bonds. Although annual payments were lowered, the plan was heavily criticized for adding to the debt and extending the time it takes to ultimately make the road free to the public.
The spreadsheet shows contracts that only acquired approval from the agency's CEO, or the CEO plus board chair. Agency officials at first refused to release the document but relented late in the day Feb. 14.
County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, a member of the TCA board, relied on the spreadsheet’s information to publicly argue his case that a 2008 contracting authority delegated to the board chair of the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency — one of two agencies that form the TCA joint powers authority — had been abused.
Typically, contracts of more than $25,000 must be approved at a public meeting by a majority of a full board. The CEO, however, can approve contracts less than that amount, and the chair can sign off contracts more than that amount if they have a legislative purpose — an unusual level of authority for a single board member.
According to Spitzer, the intent of the chair authority was to shield contracts from the full boards and public at large. He said he and others were “taken aback” by the volume and scope of contracts approved under the chair's and CEO’s signing authority.
In an email to Voice of OC counsel Terry Francke, who successfully requested the document after it was denied to a Voice of OC reporter, spokeswoman Lisa Telles wrote that the spreadsheet “shows the breadth of contracts the agencies utilize to manage TCA’s business.”
“TCA’s business model is to maintains [sic] a minimal staff with the use of contractors to extend staff for specialized purposes and manage fluctuations in workload,” Telles’ email states.
In a sharply worded statement intended to counter criticism of the contracts, Foothill/Eastern board chair Lisa Bartlett — who is also mayor of Dana Point and running for a seat on the county Board of Supervisors being vacated by Pat Bates in 2015 — said that the controversy was drummed up by the agency’s critics.
She said the advocacy contracts are for a public and media relations strategy for the Route 241 extension similar to the one that stopped the El Toro Marine air base from being converted to an international airport.
“Now, some are undermining the will of the voters by exposing our strategy,” her statement reads.
Bartlett also pointed out that she supported forming an ad hoc committee — a type of body that meets behind closed doors — to review and improve contracting procedures for “transparency and accountability.”
Here are highlights from the spreadsheet:
- Gable PR: This contract in 2007 started at $20,000. The Foothill/Eastern board chair has approved extensions to the contract that in 2013 totaled $517,793. According to the spreadsheet, the current contract is to “ensure balanced [media] coverage” and to “increase support” for the Route 241 extension.
- Canyon Strategies: This contract in 2012 started at $27,000 but has been increased twice to $243,000 using the Foothill/Eastern chair’s authority. The consultant is to “identify interest groups; and build consensus for completion of SR241,” the spreadsheet states.
- Loeb and Loeb: Former Gov. Gray Davis firm was awarded a $30,000 contract under Bartlett’s authority to “provide legal advice and counsel,” the spreadsheet states. Spitzer alleges that the contract was outside Bartlett’s authority, because the contract isn’t for a legislative purpose.
- Curt Pringle & Associates: Pringle’s lobbying and public affairs firm received a $25,000 contract last year to “review current toll road extension proposal” and “review other strategic opportunities for the agency.”
- Pacific Strategies Corp.: Cunningham’s firm received a $25,000 contract last year to “perform community outreach and public affairs services in support of the agencies’ transition to all electronic tolling.” The contract was amended days after it was awarded to clarify that Laura Cunningham, Matt Cunningham’s wife, would be the one providing the services.
- Richard Katz Consulting: This contract awarded last year to former Assemblyman Richard Katz started at $23,400 but grew to $79,200 with approval from Bartlett. It is to “provide strategy development related to Agency issues and policies to meet the goals of the Agency,” according to the spreadsheet.
- California Strategies: This CEO-approved $25,000 contract is “to develop strategies for community support, legislation,” help in getting a permit and “other long term strategies to help reposition the agency and its leadership.” Spitzer publicly singled out the contract because it was awarded while the firm was under investigation by a state watchdog agency.
- Robert W. Naylor Advocacy: Former Assemblyman Robert Naylor’s $50,000 contract awarded last year, which received an increase granted by Bartlett, is to “provide strategic, legislative and administrative advocacy services,” the spreadsheet reads.
- The Oftelie Co.: This consulting firm owned by former Orange County Transportation Authority CEO Stan Oftelie received a $25,000 contract last year to “provide advice to the CEO regarding opportunities for the Agency to play a more effective role in resolving regional traffic and transportation issues,” states the spreadsheet.
- Vectis Strategies: The firm was founded by former Republican U.S. Rep. Ron Packard and received a $25,000 contract last year to “assist in CEO outreach, implement media strategies, improve public opinion of agency and additional initiatives as directed,” according to the spreadsheet.
Clarification: A previous version of this article could have left the impression that the TCA contracts spreadsheet only shows contracts approved by both the CEO and board chair. The spreadsheet includes contracts approved by the CEO, or the CEO plus board chair.