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Orange County officials have secretly approved at least $222 million in taxpayer contracts since last March, when county supervisors set up a behind-the-scenes process for emergency spending without public disclosure of where the money is going, according to records obtained by Voice of OC.
The coronavirus-related contracts, which are now being detailed publicly for the first time, include over $40 million for testing, $11 million for contact tracing, and $2 million for marketing by a separate firm from the one known to have a coronavirus PR contract.
The other $169 million is among 115 separate contracts with various companies and nonprofits. Much of the spending was funded by federal coronavirus response money the county received in April.
While county supervisors have gotten monthly lists of such contracts, the public has not – until now.
Voice of OC obtained the database from the county through the California Public Records Act, and is publishing it for the public to have a chance to review how their tax dollars are being spent.
In response to Voice of OC’s requests, county officials also have now disclosed the largest of these secretly approved contracts.
[Click the following links to download contract documents for secretly-approved contracts worth $1 million or more: Health Care Agency contracts and OC Community Resources contracts. File sizes are large.]
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After county officials complained about Voice of OC reporting on coronavirus spending and publicly hinted at the scale of their secret coronavirus contracts in mid-January, the news agency filed a public records request seeking the county’s database of them.
Twelve days later, county officials provided it.
The secrecy around these contracts is generating criticism from taxpayer advocates.
“I don’t understand why the county doesn’t just release, on a regular basis – maybe monthly – the amounts and who the contracts have been let to,” said Carolyn Cavecche, the former mayor of Orange who now serves as president and CEO of the OC Taxpayers Association.
“It’s very simple,” she told Voice of OC. “Why wait to be asked for it? Why not proactively release the contract information to the taxpayers?”
Details of the secret contracting flew under the radar until Voice of OC’s reporting prompted county officials to reveal its scale in January.
It’s the kind of information OC’s top official doesn’t want reporters asking lots of questions about.
At the most recent supervisors’ meeting two weeks ago, Chairman Andrew Do publicly complained about Voice of OC’s record requests.
“When comments are made citing purportedly news sources, as to the county being secretive or lacking in transparency, I feel the need to respond to that,” Do said at a supervisors’ meeting two weeks ago, in response to public commenters citing Voice of OC’s latest story on secretly-approved contracts.
“I want to let the public know that we receive no less than two or three public record requests every day,” Do said, adding the county health officials are bearing “the brunt” of requests from what he called “the Noise of OC.”
While complaining about the information requests, Do said the information is available to anyone who asks – despite county officials often taking weeks to provide records.
“For anyone that says that there’s [a] lacking in transparency, to them I say: choosing to remain ignorant does not mean that they don’t have access to information. All they have to do is ask,” said Do, who publicly defended the secret contracting approach in January.
A Voice of OC review of county supervisors’ public meeting agendas showed none of the largest contracts – worth $10 million and $20 million – have been publicly posted for taxpayers to review.
In pre-pandemic times, such contracts would normally be publicly posted on these agendas – providing an opportunity for the public to review proposed spending and comment publicly on it.
Among the secretly-approved contracts was one for $1.2 million to create the county’s vaccine scheduling app Othena, which faced widespread complaints about glitches and outages after it was launched in mid-January.
Some got vaccine appointments through Othena, only to be turned away when they arrived at a vaccination center.
The $1.2 million Othena contract was signed by county health officials in November, but wasn’t disclosed publicly until January in response to a Public Records Act request from Voice of OC.
While the contract called for Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Korean translations, the app wasn’t available in any languages besides English when it launched. It would take nearly a month after the app launched for Spanish to be added earlier this month.
At a meeting in mid January, Do defended such secret contracting when one of his colleagues questioned plans to enter into a secret PR contract that Do supported with the firm Idea Hall.
“Hundreds of millions” in contracts had already been approved since supervisors delegated emergency authority to county staff last year, Do said at the Jan. 12 meeting.
“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 told fellow Supervisor Don Wagner.
“We’ve heard enough,” Do said of the discussion.
The county has not publicly released the $2 million work plan for the PR contractor, Idea Hall. But Voice of OC obtained a copy showing it includes a taxpayer-funded advertising campaign trying to build a “love affair” between the public and top county officials.
Such secret spending isn’t sitting well with the residents who come speak at the supervisors’ meetings.
“If you’re wondering why Orange County is losing the trust in this board, this particular $2 million PR contract is why. So Board of Supervisors, could you please do better than this?” said Kimber P., a commenter at the most recent board meeting on Feb. 9.
“You’re not disclosing to the public what you’re doing with our money,” said another commenter, who gave her name as Patty H.
“If you’re trying to better your image, start looking at the people when they come here to talk to you. Looking down at your [computer] screen and stepping away does nothing for your public image,” she added.
“You shouldn’t have paid $2 million. ‘Cause you could have done it for free.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.