Orange County officials, in response to questions and ongoing news coverage from Voice of OC, this week publicly summarized hundreds of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus response money – much of it through contracts approved in secret.
In response to Voice of OC’s reporting on the records released so far – which showed more CARES Act spending on sheriff staff than health workers – officials publicly acknowledged spending another $140 million on contractors with the Health Care Agency.
“The vast majority of the spending on public health [has] been the service contracts,” county CEO Frank Kim said at county supervisors’ regular meeting Tuesday, after public questions and at the prompting of Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do.
Many of those contracts have been signed privately by Kim and other county executives under emergency powers granted to him by county supervisors.
“So all of our testing centers that the residents are getting access to, the additional public health nurses that we’ve hired – those types of contracts we’re doing via a service agreement,” Kim said.
He then publicly noted, for the first time, how much in total CARES Act money the county has spent on public health.
“There was over 220 million [dollars] from the CARES Act that supported the public health response,” Kim said. At least $140 million of it was on contracts, according to information his officer later provided.
Much of that money was approved secretly under the emergency contracting authority delegated by county supervisors to Kim, which he in turn has often delegated to Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the county Health Care Agency.
In ten months of the official pandemic emergency being declared, county supervisors have never held a detailed public discussion about how specifically these monies have been invested.
At a supervisors’ meeting earlier this month, the board’s chairman briefly mentioned that “hundreds of millions” in coronavirus-related contracts have been delegated to county staff to approve without first appearing on public agendas.
“The delegation to [the county] CEO is no different than the emergency delegation that we gave him eight months ago. And he has been doing all kinds of things under our name: testing, healthcare, housing,” Do said at the Jan. 12 meeting, while defending the secret approval process for a public relations contract to promote vaccines.
“And so the idea that all of a sudden now – after all that hundreds of millions – that delegating to you the use of a PR firm is so offensive or inconsistent with good governance. I don’t get it,” Do added.
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Kim said that kind of delegation to staff is crucial to move quickly to get services out during an emergency.
“It’s about expediency. We’re in a crisis, and the reason why those types of options exist within public contracting is to – [the] most quickly as possible, during a period of emergency – respond to a crisis,” Kim told Voice of OC.
“Imagine the typical government contracting policy, if you follow all the rules it would take you 6 months to 9 months to issue a contract. It would not be appropriate for the public to wait 6 to 9 months for a new nurses contract” to come online, or testing at the fairgrounds, he said.
“All those things to expedite the timing, to serve the public. On these rare occasions, the board will delegate that authority to me. And that is the same in every other large [county] that I’m aware of.”
As for why such contracts have not been disclosed publicly on board agendas – even after they’re signed – Kim said he does do overall briefings on coronavirus response during board meetings and to individual supervisors’ offices, which typically do not get into the details of contracts.
“I don’t know that it’s that secretive. I have conversations with the board publicly about what we’re doing in our response to Covid,” Kim said, adding he also has a board subcommittee and briefs board offices monthly. All of those meetings are out of public view.
“We’re having dialogue regularly. But it’s not fair to say that the board members absolutely understand the name of every vendor or the exact terms and conditions of every contract,” Kim said.
“And that is what has been delegated to me. And I’m very careful with that, and I don’t want to misuse that authority, because it is an incredibly important component of how government works. And I think you’re right that there is an importance and a reason for that transparency. But there’s also a need, in a time of crisis, to work as quickly as possible.”
Voice of OC has filed a Public Records Act request for the secretly-approved contracts.
So far, in response to prior requests from Voice of OC, county officials have provided a list of how much CARES Act money went to each contractor, which did not include details about what the contractors did for that money.
In response to a follow-up request this month, county officials provided brief summaries of what the top 11 vendors did for the funds.
And on Wednesday, Kim’s office provided a summary of CARES Act spending on public health, which showed millions of dollars in broad categories like “Public Health Expense” and “research.”
Voice of OC asked follow-up questions early Wednesday afternoon seeking more detail on what the money went towards. Answers weren’t provided as of the end of the day.
In his public comments Tuesday, Kim pushed back on the notion that the county spent more CARES Act money on sheriff staff than public health workers.
“So if you’re looking at straight salaries, the sheriff have more staff that are in jails, they’re operating our [emergency operations center],” Kim said.
“From a public health side, most of it is done through contracts.”
Until his then, the only department-by-department spending breakdown the county had released showed $93 million on payroll at the Sheriff’s Department and $58 million on payroll at the Health Care Agency.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.