County Contracts Are Going Dark Under New Policy

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Orange County Board of Supervisors agendas posted outside the hearing room.

Orange County supervisors are ending public disclosure of some taxpayer-funded contracts as they come up for approval, under a new policy adopted earlier this month.

The move increases the bottom threshold from $100,000 to $200,000 per year for contracts to require supervisors’ approval and appear on public agendas. Instead, these contracts will be approved by county staff, with supervisors continuing to oversee the agreements outside public meetings.

The change resulted from closed-door meetings involving two of the five county supervisors, Lisa Bartlett and Andrew Do, through what’s known as an ad hoc committee. Supervisors approved it unanimously earlier this month during a public meeting.

“At the most general level, [transparency about government contracts] allows the public to exercise its right to know how money is being spent, which is one of the most fundamental objectives of transparent government – to keep an eye on expenditures,” said Terry Francke, a statewide expert on government transparency who serves as general counsel of Californians Aware.

“It also serves a purpose of finding out what kind of contracting is being done and with whom,” said Francke, who is also Voice of OC’s open government consultant.

A Voice of OC review of supervisors agendas over the past year found several examples of contracts in the range that would not appear on future agendas under the new policy. They include fingerprinting services ($144,000), training of coroners who determine causes of death ($168,000), a Sheriff’s Department wiretapping system ($162,000), and funding for at least two homeless shelters ($150,000 and $120,000).

In their public comments before approving the changes on Aug. 13, county supervisors did not say the county would continue publishing such contracts publicly.

This past week, Do said the county will stop publicly reporting contracts between $100,000 and $200,000 before they’re approved.

“No, the state’s legal limit has been raised, we are meeting those limits, as such these contracts do not have to be approved by the Board,” Do said in a text message to Voice of OC.

The public explanation for the change was to save money from staff no longer preparing public agenda documents, and a new state law supported by California State Association of Counties that gives counties the option of raising their threshold from $100,000 to as much as $200,000.

“It’s going to save money through our departments with more efficiencies in place,” Bartlett said. She didn’t return phone messages asking what her statement was based on.

While taxpayers may not be seeing these kinds of contracts publicly, supervisors said they planned to still monitor them.

“The increase will not in any way surrender the oversight that we provide as a board,” Do said just before voting for the changes. He cited internal audits and quarterly reports to supervisors about some of the contracts.

“I know our department heads are always good at providing additional information when it comes time for these contracts and procurements to be reviewed,” said Bartlett.

If supervisors are getting that information, the public should too, Francke said.

“While it may not be any longer required to put $100,000 contracts or those in that neighborhood on the agenda as action items, it certainly wouldn’t cost that much to put them on the board [agendas] as reports – information items indicating that they’re being considered and what they consist [of],” Francke said.

“The supervisors are going to be knowing about something. They’re going to be alerted to the contract. They’re going to be getting information about it. Why can’t the public?” Francke said.

“Of course, it’s all the more important to make sure this sharing is done because an appeal to the supervisors to do something [about these contracts] is being unplugged,” Francke said.

The increased contract threshold was approved by all five supervisors: Bartlett, Do, Michelle Steel, Doug Chaffee, and Don Wagner.

Do was the only supervisor to return messages seeking comment. Asked if there is any downside to listing the contracts in informational reports on public agendas, he said the county’s new policy is “good enough for the entire state” and declined to answer.

Bartlett previously said it costs “tens of thousands of dollars” for staff to prepare agenda items for public works contracts, which brought pushback at the time from then-Supervisor Todd Spitzer.

Referring to when he and Do were DA prosecutors, Spitzer said at the March 2017 meeting: “Whether we had 30 cases or 50 cases, our salaries didn’t change. It is a fixed cost by our staff to produce these [agenda] documents.”

Avoiding public disclosure over contracts has already led to accountability problems in the recent past.

From 2009 to 2014, an OC Parks executive steered nearly $1 million in taxpayer contracts to a consultant through 13 separate agreements that each were under the then-$100,000 threshold requiring a vote by county supervisors, according to a 2014 internal audit.

About $640,000 in taxpayer money was paid to the contractor, though a lack of documentation made it hard for anyone outside of the department to justify the payments, auditors found.

“There was no indication that either [contractor Ahmad Iqbal’s firm BPM Advisors] or OC Parks prepared any detailed time estimates or associated budgets for any of the stated deliverables or elements identified in the contracts’ scopes of work as a basis for setting the contract award amounts,” auditors wrote.

Four OC Parks officials, including an executive who was on track to become county CEO at the time of the audit, were involved in approving the contracts, the audit found.

Orange County is not the only place officials are increasing the threshold for supervisors’ public approval of contracts. Last month, supervisors in Los Angeles County also raised their approval limit from $100,000 to $200,000.

Public reporting of contracts is key for the public to track if their elected representatives have conflicts of interest, Francke said.

“The state of California has gone to considerable lengths to construct a reporting system, a disclosure system, that tries to minimize conflicts of interest,” he said.

“If a whole level of proposed contracting goes dark in effect, it doesn’t make any difference how [many] financial interests are reported by the supervisors if the public doesn’t know what is being funded by public money.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.