While county officials are shifting to now post upcoming coronavirus contracts, there was one more contract increase they quietly signed beforehand – which had no public disclosure of its terms until Voice of OC learned of its existence and asked about it. 

The increase, signed on Feb. 19, grants an extra $2 million to the PR firm Idea Hall to help market the county’s “[the] County’s COVID-19 response and vaccination efforts,” including buying digital and print advertisements.

It stems from a January vote by county supervisors to have staff hire Idea Hall for undisclosed vaccine and pandemic marketing services. The terms and cost were to be worked out later and signed secretly by county staff, under the process advocated by county supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do and approved by his colleagues.

The contract terms, which were signed Feb. 19, were secret until Voice of OC learned the contract had been signed and filed a Public Records Act request for it.

Without that records request, the contract’s cost and terms would not be known publicly.

The $2 million contract increase says the budget, work plan and schedule have yet to be worked out. It was supposed to be done by Friday, though it has not been released publicly.

Records obtained by Voice of OC prompted questions about whether county supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do was pushed to hire the PR firm to make himself and other county officials look good in the middle of the pandemic.

An internal proposed work plan obtained by Voice of OC showed the county and its PR contractor were planning a taxpayer-funded advertising campaign to build a “love affair” between the public and top county officials.

The campaign’s goals include to “Increase trust in the OC [Health Care Agency], the County of Orange and its leaders,” and personalizing county leaders to “recreate America’s love affair with Dr. Fauci.”

Do so far has declined to comment on whether the taxpayer-funded PR work is about boosting his reputation.

The new $2 million increase, which was signed Feb. 19, adds on to an existing PR contract the county has with Idea Hall, for a new total of $2.75 million. While the original contract was signed last July and expanded in December, it was never disclosed publicly until Voice of OC revealed its existence earlier this month.

That’s started to change, after Voice of OC filed public records requests for the spending documents – prompting public criticism from the supervisors’ chairman, Andrew Do, who said reporters have been asking too many questions and seeking too many records.

That then sparked public backlash at Do for criticizing the record requests for $220 million in secretly-approved coronavirus contracts that were never posted on public agendas.

On the heels of calls for more transparency, county officials reversed course and committed to publicly posting all upcoming coronavirus contracts.

The new disclosure policy applies only to future contracts, not past ones that never appeared on public agendas – like the $2 million PR increase.

When its broad outlines were discussed in January, the vaccine PR contract generated pushback from Supervisor Don Wagner, who has noted vaccines already are in high demand and the county’s existing distribution partners – like the county Fire Authority and Disneyland – have their own public relations ability to promote it at no cost to the county.

Do has defended the PR contract, saying it’s important to do outreach in high-risk communities to encourage them to get the vaccine. And he’s supported approving it through a behind-the-scenes process where the contract is not disclosed unless the public or press asks for it – a departure from the county’s more public approach to contract disclosure before the pandemic.

Ultimately, supervisors voted 3-to-1 in mid January to authorize county staff to work out the contract terms and secretly approve it.

An Idea Hall executive declined to comment when reached by phone Monday, saying the firm has been told not to speak to the press.

“Unfortunately, at this time we have no comment,” said Randy Hall, the firm’s co-owner and principal.

“I’m sure [the questions are] about the Orange County Health Care Agency [contract], and we’ve been directed not to comment.”

In exchange for helping the county with its ad campaigns, Idea Hall will receive a 15% commission on the ad spending, plus hourly fees for the consulting on the ads’ designs, according to the contract amendment..

At the 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 [staff] the use of a PR firm is so offensive or inconsistent with good governance. I don’t get it,” Do told Wagner.

“We’ve heard enough,” Do said of the discussion.

Taxpayer advocates, including the leader of the OC Taxpayers Association, have questioned why the county didn’t release regular updates on its own about the contracts they secretly approved.

“It’s very simple,” the association’s president, Carolyn Cavecche, told Voice of OC last month.

“Why wait to be asked for it? Why not proactively release the contract information to the taxpayers?”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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