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Following a torrent of public criticism sparked by Voice of OC’s revelation of hundreds of millions in secretly-approved taxpayer contracts during the pandemic, Orange County’s top officials say they’re ending that practice when it comes to new projects.

The secretive authority will continue for existing projects.

At the urging of Chairman Andrew Do, existing multi-million-dollar projects can still be secretly extended and expanded by county CEO Frank Kim, without their text ever appearing on the supervisors’ public agendas.

“For projects that have already been previously approved by the Board as part of this emergency contracting authority, I would suggest we let those continue on with Frank – and that we will revoke the emergency contracting authority only as to projects that are initiated after today’s date,” Do said at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

The rest of the board unanimously approved Do’s proposal to keep the emergency authority for existing projects.

That means the county can continue to extend existing contracts without putting their text on the supervisors agenda – like they’re doing with a $3.8 million contract expansion for the county’s controversial vaccination app Othena.

A leading taxpayer advocate says the supervisors are grandfathering in non-transparency.

“The fact that they’re still grandfathering in the [contracts] that already had this issue of no transparency doesn’t change how we do this,” said Carolyn Cavecche, president and CEO of the OC Taxpayers Association.

“OC Tax never had a problem with the CEO having emergency authorization to provide contracts. We understand that in crisis, that is how a bureaucracy works. The problem we had was the no transparency on his actions,” she added.

County officials have faced a steady wave of public criticism over all the secret contracting going on during the pandemic with Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do publicly grousing about too many public records requests from reporters.

At last week’s meeting, Supervisor Katrina Foley questioned whether, going forward, the county would be posting online all of its emergency-approved contracts.

Do replied from the dais that they already are attached to the public meeting agendas.

But the agendas themselves do not mention the emergency-approved contracts or include their text.

After public backlash to the secret contracting, county officials started putting a brief summary of such contracts deep within the dozens of links within the county’s general Covid update, within a document simply titled “Status Update.”

Nowhere in the agenda or attachments is there the actual text of the emergency-approved contracts – which is an exception from the county’s normal practice.

Do, who has been the most vocal supporter of the emergency contracting authority that enables secrecy, said it should be continued for existing projects so that those that have been started under the CEO can stay under the CEO.

“If we do not grandfather in, basically, actions that have already taken place but not through the completion, we will have a situation where part of the action is under the CEO, but now going forward part of it will be approved by the board,” Do said at last week’s supervisors meeting.

“So to make it clean, what we want to do is have the revocation – or the repealing – of our emergency contracting authority to be prospective [for new projects] only.”

But keeping existing projects under the CEO just means the public doesn’t get transparency, says Cavecche.

“To me the issue of board authority and CEO authority is a misnomer. The board always has authority over what the CEO does.

The CEO and his staff report directly to county supervisors and their staff, including in closed-door meetings the public can’t attend.

Do and most of the other supervisors didn’t return phone messages for comment.

In a phone interview this week, Foley said she will be following up to make sure all of the emergency-approved contracts – including their text – are posted online.

Foley said she was told by county staff that’s already happening.

But a Voice of OC reporter pointed out that’s not the case for the most recent update on emergency contracts – buried deep within the general Covid update last week – which did not include the actual text of the agreement or link to it.

“Any contract that’s signed needs to be posted on the website,” Foley said.

“They need to post it. That’s my belief. And I’ve already told this to the CEO and he’s agreed to do so,” she added.

“I’ve been told that we’re doing that. So I’m going to check on that to make sure it happens.”

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

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