As the vaccination effort in Orange County gets more complicated, the county’s pricey public relations effort to help with that seems to have stalled out.

Despite taxpayers paying up to $2.5 million in secretly-approved PR contracts, officials aren’t answering basic questions about how the money has been spent so far.

Last year, with no public disclosure, the county brought in the PR firm Idea Hall to help, saying publicly that the contract was to help with vaccine hesitancy.

Yet when county supervisors brought on the Costa Mesa-based firm, many observers questioned whether the PR firm was really for promoting top county officials rather than just vaccinations.

Those questions were triggered by an internal county document obtained by Voice of OC showing the plan included personalizing county leaders to “recreate America’s love affair with Dr. Fauci.”

Months later, there’s still little information about where the money is going.

County spokeswoman Molly Nichelson, who’s overseeing the PR contract, struggled Monday to provide concrete information about how much has been spent.

After pressing from a Voice of OC reporter – in three separate texts sent throughout the day on Monday asking about spending details – Nichelson finally released two pages of documents, again, short on details.  

Nichelson couldn’t say much about the contract other than that it’s “active.”

Nichelson ultimately provided invoices totaling $187,000 for February and March, which readers can review here.

But the bills contain no specific information about what services were provided.

People close to the county have indicated much of the work has stopped – put on hold, without an official cancelling of the contract.

Two county supervisors – one Democrat and one Republican – say they’re not using the contract at all, with one complaining the firm takes too long to do its work.

Another is using it in a limited way.

The other two – Andrew Do and Lisa Bartlett – didn’t return phone calls and text messages.

The PR firm isn’t talking.

Idea Hall’s owners, Randy and Rebecca Hall, didn’t return a phone message for comment.

“I feel that they were a little slow. We were able to do things frankly a little more quickly and better ourselves. And we got tired of waiting,” Supervisor Doug Chaffee told Voice of OC on Monday, adding that the contract is still in place in case he needs more help.

“The product they do, once they get it out, isn’t bad. But it takes forever,” Chaffee added.

“We needed to move more quickly. And we can and we did [with our own staff].”

“I haven’t felt the need to use Idea Hall,” said Supervisor Don Wagner.

“My office is doing active outreach with our community partners, such as vaccine clinics with CalOptima, as well as working closely with the Health Care Agency to provide as many resources as possible to our District.”

Supervisor Katrina Foley, who was sworn-in in March, was the only supervisor to say she’s still working with the firm.

“They are preparing some vaccine clinic ads to go in Spanish language and other papers to get info out about [the OC Fairgrounds vaccination site and] clinics, Foley said Monday, adding that no appointments are necessary to get vaccinated at these sites.

“They are also helping us with a Covid town hall with state and [federal] public health experts.”

The five supervisors each got up to $200,000 from the contract funds to use for vaccine ads in their district.

“Board [of Supervisors] offices were allocated funds and it’s within their discretion to use it or not,” said county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson.

Idea Hall’s work on vaccine outreach started with a secretly-approved $500,000 agreement county officials signed in December without any public agenda item.

The next month, county supervisors agreed with a proposal by Chairman Andrew Do to have staff hire Idea Hall for undisclosed vaccine and pandemic marketing services – without mentioning they already had a half-million-dollar contract for similar work.

The terms and cost were to be worked out later and signed secretly by county staff, under the process advocated by Do and approved by his colleagues.

Without a public records request from Voice of OC earlier this year, the contract’s cost and terms would not be known 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.”

The terms of the $2 million contract expansion, 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.

After the contract expansion was signed, county officials quietly redirected $1 million of the $2 million contract to supervisors’ offices to spend under the PR contract.

That change of plans wasn’t announced, and when Voice of OC learned about it from sources, county officials acknowledged it – as well as the fact they had omitted that from the budget documents they turned over to Voice of OC in response to a Public Records Act request.

The county’s secretive approach to contracting has started to change, after Voice of OC filed public records requests for the spending documents – prompting public criticism from 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.

And at the urging of 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.

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.

“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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