Did Politics Trump Quality in Vote on Orange County Landfill Contract?

David Carr was excited as he got up to speak at last week's county Board of Supervisors meeting.

His environmental firm, ECORP Consulting, had tried in the past to get a county contract for biological services at South Orange County landfills, though wasn’t chosen. But this time around, a competitive bidding process by the county ranked ECORP as the best vendor for the service, and county staffers were recommending approval.

“Our company has been in the county for almost 10 years now, so we’re very excited to work with the county,” Carr told supervisors just before their vote last Tuesday. “We feel like we have the right skills, and [are] glad to be a part of this.”

But Carr's excitement quickly turned out to be misplaced.  Supervisors ended up voting unanimously to stick with current vendor, LSA Associates, Inc., a firm long connected to the higher echelons of Orange County politics.

LSA has "done some outstanding work on this project,” getting state environmental regulators to shorten the processing time for approvals, said Supervisor Lisa Bartlett.

Bartlett, who appeared to be referencing written notes as she spoke, went on to say that given the stage of the permitting process with the state, it’s “very important to have that continuity with the current vendor.”

That was the extent of the public discussion.

LSA's contracting with the county goes back to at least the 1990s, when the firm was paid $2.6 million for environmental and technical reports regarding the ultimately doomed bid to build an airport at the former El Toro air base.

The company's current chief executive, Les Card, drew conflict-of-interest questions in early 1990s over his role as both a traffic consultant to the city of Irvine and his lobbying of city staff on behalf of a group of developers and landowners seeking to loosen building restrictions.

LSA also played a prominent role in the attempt to privatize the Orange County fairgrounds in 2009.  More than $150,000 in lobbyist and lawyer contracts were secretly routed through a parking lot development contract with LSA without any public action or vote by the fair's public board.

A subsequent investigation by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas found no criminal wrongdoing in the affair.

A search of political contributions found that since 2010, LSA has given at least $3,700 to members of the Board of Supervisors. Donations to current supervisors include: $1,450 to Chairman Todd Spitzer; $500 to Shawn Nelson; and $250 each to Bartlett and Michelle Steel.

There is no record of ECORP making contributions to supervisors, dating back to at least 2010.

The value of the county’s new landfill contract has yet to be publicly disclosed, as negotiations were slated to begin after the board’s approval last week.  A 2009 contract for biological services at the same landfill was worth up to $1.2 million.

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.