Amid public concerns about tens of millions of dollars in secretly-approved taxpayer contracts, Orange County’s top elected official is publicly complaining that reporters are asking too many questions and requesting too many public records.
The controversy centers on dozens of large contracts related to the pandemic – in some cases involving multi-million dollar amounts funded by taxpayers – that county officials approved without publicly reporting out who they were hiring and for how much.
That has started to change in recent days after officials responded to public records requests from Voice of OC for information about the contracts – information that would normally be posted publicly.
One county supervisor said Voice of OC’s reporting last week is how he learned for the first time about $750,000 in county PR agreements signed last year.
Now, those transparency requests are being criticized by county supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do – who in turn is now facing criticism from taxpayer advocates.
“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 Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, 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.”
“[There are] reams of data that we have to go through every day to answer these questions – in addition to all the responsibilities that we have,” he added.
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,” Do said.
Voice of OC has been asking for information, and it often takes weeks if not months to get it.
Across multiple months last year – including May, October, November and December – the news agency asked county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson how the federal CARES Act funds had been spent, including who was paid and how much.
The first comprehensive list of contractors was provided in January.
And it took nearly two weeks after a January records request from Voice of OC for the county to disclose its list of pandemic contracts issued under emergency authority, totaling tens of millions of dollars. Such lists have been provided to county supervisors on a monthly basis.
Taxpayer advocates are pushing back on Do, saying the public has a right to know their dollars are being spent – rather than officials keeping it to themselves and then complaining about records requests.
“That’s part of being a public official, to respond to questions and to respond to requests for information. It’s part of the job,” said Carolyn Cavecche, president and CEO of the OC Taxpayers Association.
“So I’m not sure why anyone in office – especially in a crisis situation as we are with Covid-19 – why anyone would be questioning that,” she said.
“One of my specific concerns is still for the [vaccine PR] contract that was let for the tune of several millions of dollars I believe, to try to convince people to get the vaccine – when they’re having a hard time getting the vaccine out and people are waiting weeks and weeks and weeks in line to get it,” Cavecche added.
“This doesn’t seem to be the time to spend money on that. Especially money you don’t have budgeted.”
Do, who hasn’t returned messages for comment in months, didn’t return phone messages seeking comment for this article.
Among the secretly-approved contracts was one 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 until nearly a month after it launched, when Spanish was added this week.
“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,” Cavecche said.
“It’s very simple. Why wait to be asked for it? Why not proactively release the contract information to the taxpayers?”
Do and other county supervisors have been getting monthly updates on the secretly-approved contracts, but have not posted them publicly.
“Democracy doesn’t work without voters having access to the truth. And the media’s our representatives who have to demand that information and provide it,” said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University who studies local government.
“You can’t make informed decisions about public policy issues without access to all the information. And it’s [the media’s] job to get it for us. And it’s our job [as the public] to read it and to support you guys financially so you can represent us. That’s what the First Amendment’s all about,” he added.
“That’s why the framers [of the Constitution] put it in the First Amendment. They understood democracy could not function without the public being informed about the range of decisions being made by government leaders. They could never properly assess the policies or the people enacting those policies.”
Accessing public records is essential to democracy itself, says Voice of OC’s publisher.
“The people’s right to know is a foundational aspect of any functioning democracy – especially ours,” said Norberto Santana Jr., who also serves as board president of Californians Aware, a statewide group that advocates for government transparency.
“In California, the standard has been clear since 1953 with the establishment of the Ralph M. Brown Act. It clearly states that government is a function of the people not the other way around,” Santana added.
“We don’t serve them, they serve us. And giving people accurate records is the only way to have a real democracy. Subverting those rights should be anathema to every single elected official.”
The public’s right to access government records is enshrined in the state Constitution, noted David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition,
“This is a fundamental constitutional right in California. And it disturbs me when I hear public officials talk about this right, and the obligations that flow from it, as a hassle and as something they wish they didn’t have to deal with,” Snyder said.
It’s a hassle and it takes resources. But it’s the law and it’s essential to democracy, he added.
“I’d say maybe most laws that local government has to follow are a burden. But it’s a burden that they’re simply obligated to take,” Snyder said. “That burden is a healthy one, ultimately.”
While Do says OC has been burdened with records requests, a nearby county said they’ve re-assigned staff to make sure records are turned over promptly during the pandemic.
Riverside County, which has about two-thirds the population of OC, has transferred one full time and two part time staff to specifically be dedicated to handling Covid-related record records, according to a spokeswoman.
“We’ve certainly seen a significant increase in public records requests since the start of the pandemic,” said Brooke Federico, the top spokeswoman for Riverside County.
“Our normal public information staff in [the] public health department would, in non-pandemic times, handle these public records requests. And of course they now are completely dedicated to sharing public information about the pandemic response as well as the vaccination efforts, so we have needed to bring on additional staff to handle these public records requests, specifically.”
“That was one additional person full-time, and two additional people part-time, where their duties were essentially re-assigned to public records requests related to the pandemic,” Federico said.
That staffing level “has worked for us at this point to be able to review all of the requests that have come in,” she said.
It’s unclear what steps, if any, Orange County has taken to respond to records requests in a more timely manner. Orange County’s chief spokeswoman Molly Nichelson, didn’t have an answer Wednesday on how many staff are dedicated to records requests and whether that’s increased during the pandemic.
Voice of OC has repeatedly asked Orange County officials for information about coronavirus spending during the pandemic, which often takes weeks to get a response – if any at all.
Voice of OC also asked for records showing how the Sheriff’s Department spent over $90 million in federal coronavirus response funds.
The records turned over in response were filled with general statements that the money went to “COVID-19 related expenses,” with little explanation about what the money paid for.
Large county contracts usually are required to appear on public meeting agendas, allowing taxpayers to understand how their money is being spent. But since March 2020, county supervisors have allowed tens of millions in coronavirus response contracts to be approved in secret by county staff, according to records obtained by Voice of OC.
In an interview last month afternoon, county CEO Frank 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.
“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.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.