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When County of Orange officials announced last month that they wanted to hire a PR firm to help boost their image during a problematic COVID-19 response and vaccine rollout, it was presented as a brand new contract.
The single-sentence motion Chairman Andrew Do put forward – which he and other supervisors approved on Jan. 12 – directed county staff “to enter into a contract with Idea Hall for the County of Orange’s COVID-19 response and vaccine public health communications.”
Like much of the county’s spending of $540 million in federal relief funds, there was little transparency about how county staff decided on one PR firm, the Costa Mesa-based Idea Hall.
Yet there was something else Do and county health care officials never mentioned.
It turns out the county already had secretly hired the firm for COVID-19 outreach months earlier in July – and secretly expanded the contract by $500,000 in December to add services like vaccine outreach.
A fuller picture about the contract emerged in contract documents Voice of OC obtained through the California Public Records Act.
It’s just one of dozens of secret taxpayer-funded contracts – totaling tens of millions of dollars – that county officials have approved during the pandemic without ever disclosing them publicly. That has started to change after Voice of OC filed records requests for them in recent weeks.
Taxpayer groups across the state have been asking questions about such secret contracting during the pandemic. And in the case of Orange County, groups like the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the OC Taxpayers Association have started to ring alarm bells about secretive contracting.
County Supervisor Don Wagner also said he first found out about the earlier, secret contract with Idea Hall from a Voice of OC reporter who contacted him in recent days.
In a text message, Wagner said he had “No idea” about the earlier contract and expansion until the reporter contacted him.
“I did not know about the prior contract,” Wagner added in an interview. He was the one supervisor to vote against hiring Idea Hall on Jan. 12. The newer contract was approved on a 3-to-1 vote, reaching the minimum-required support from three supervisors in order to be approved.
“My objections to the way the deal went down remain,” Wagner added.
Now, amid frustration among some county officials about Idea Hall’s work plans – which also have kept secret by the county – there are indications their $2 million ad campaign proposal may be scaled back.
“I don’t know that we are going to be moving forward that aggressively with Idea Hall at this point, based on some conversations I’ve had,” Wagner said.
“I think we’re intending to scale it back. Details remain to be worked out,” he added.
“The conversation I had with them was not particularly satisfactory. The draft proposal I’ve seen from them does nothing to satisfy my concerns. And I’m hoping that we will be scaling back on it.”
Supervisor Doug Chaffee, who was a crucial vote for the new contract, has also been expressing frustration with Idea Hall’s work.
“I would like it to go faster,” Chaffee told Voice of OC in late January.
“I’ve met with them twice now – Monday of last week, and yesterday, for a brief chat to see how they’re doing, specific to my needs, if they’re moving forward on that. So I’ll see where they are…next week.”
Rebecca Hall, the president and CEO of Idea Hall, didn’t return a phone message for comment about the supervisors’ concerns.
County executives declined interview requests, including chief spokeswoman Molly Nichelson and Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the county Health Care Agency.
Chau referred comment to Nichelson, saying he was in meetings and the earlier Idea Hall contract isn’t under his department.
The contract documents show otherwise.
While declining to discuss the contracts by phone, Nichelson emphasized that county staff have been authorized by supervisors to sign secret contracts during the pandemic.
“Given the [March 2020] emergency declaration by the [Board of Supervisors], it allows the CEO authority to execute contracts such as this,” Nichelson said.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Idea Hall is based in Costa Mesa, not Irvine.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.