County of Orange officials have reversed course and committed to publicly posting all upcoming coronavirus contracts – following a public backlash to the county’s top official criticizing Voice of OC’s record requests for $220 million in secretly-approved coronavirus contracts that were never posted on public agendas.
At public meetings in recent weeks, supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do defended the secret contracting process, complaining that too many questions and too many public records were being requested by the news agency – which he called “ignorant” and “the Noise of OC.”
A series of Voice of OC stories on the behind-the-scenes contracting prompted demands from residents and taxpayer advocates for the county to be more transparent.
County officials have now changed their approach. Last week, county staff started posting on public agendas a list of upcoming coronavirus contracts they plan to sign.
Going forward, county staff will continue doing so on the supervisors’ twice-a-month public agendas, county CEO Frank Kim confirmed to Voice of OC.
The county is now posting “a summary of what I plan to execute,” Kim told Voice of OC on Friday.
“That way the public and the Board [of Supervisors] can see a summary of the contracts,” including the vendor’s name and dollar amount, he added.
If contracts come up between meetings that weren’t on the prior meeting’s list, the next meeting’s list will include the contract, Kim said.
Up until last week, county supervisors were getting regular monthly updates on contracts that had been signed behind the scenes under an emergency authority.
The public was not.
That’s until Voice of OC filed a public records request for a full list of the contracts in late January.
“It’s very simple,” she added. “Why wait to be asked for it? Why not proactively release the contract information to the taxpayers?”
Earlier this year, Do publicly defended the behind-the-scenes contracting process when one of his colleagues questioned plans to enter into a secret PR contract that Do supported with the Costa Mesa-based 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.
Do didn’t return a message seeking comment on the county’s new move to publicly post the upcoming contracts.
Two of his colleagues told Voice of OC they welcomed the move to be more transparent with the public.
“I am happy about posting and more disclosure,” said Supervisor Don Wagner, who reacted early last week to Voice of OC’s coverage by calling for more proactive disclosure of the contracts.
“I believe we have nothing to hide so we shouldn’t look like we are or do.”
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said she has “always been an advocate for openness, transparency and accountability in government.”
“It lends itself to better public policy decisions and keeps all stakeholders informed and engaged in the process,” she added.
Supervisor Doug Chaffee didn’t return requests for comment.
Asked if the county will post on its agenda the $220 million-plus in coronavirus contracts that have not yet been on a public agenda, Kim told Voice of OC he will consider it.
“If helpful, I will consider that,” Kim said, adding the county had already disclosed the list to media outlets in response to their public records requests.
Voice of OC started asking last May which vendors were getting coronavirus funds from the county.
A comprehensive list wasn’t provided until January.
After Voice of OC posted the spending records, readers questioned spending like $1.1 million to the Angels baseball team company, owned by billionaire Arte Moreno, for two contracts on suicide prevention and Covid-19 health “advertising.”
Residents also spoke up at the Board of Supervisors meeting last week, calling for more transparency on how their tax dollars are spent.
“Secretly-approved contracts should not be the norm here,” said Karenita Hernandez, in a written comment read aloud by the county’s chief lawyer, Leon Page.
“Transparency, accountability, truth and owning your repeated mistakes would help save some public trust of the [Board of Supervisors]. Perhaps next time consider that,” Hernandez said, adding she was joining the OC Press Club’s call for Do to apologize for his criticism of journalists’ record requests.
“It feels good to do the right thing. You should try it sometime, Mr. Do.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.