This tumultuous year has proven the essential nature of nonpartisan local news. Every day we bring you news critical to staying informed and active in the community. Join us with a tax-deductible donation.
After years of fighting for more renewable energy in Orange County, advocates rejoiced when the city of Irvine announced they’d be launching the Orange County Power Authority, opening the door for homeowners to choose clean energy.
Now, some worry that dream is being corrupted, with big concerns over a lack of transparency from a clean power agency that has yet to actually publicly discuss clean power.
Ayn Craciun, a policy advocate working for the Climate Action Campaign, a key leader in bringing the agency to life in Orange County, most recently raised concerns publicly about the agency’s activities.
“These actions we’ve seen are concerning because of the lack of transparency. We want to continue to promote (community choice energy), but we believe OCPA is not centering the community and is not being transparent,” Craciun said at the agency’s last board meeting. “We’re very much invested in OCPA’s success…but we will call out issues as we see them.”
The agency’s CEO Brian Probolsky – and his $239,000 annual salary – has picked up the most attention from activists, raising questions about his lack of relevant experience in the electrical utility field along with several ethics investigations during his time working for the county government.
Probolsky also spiked concerns at the agency’s most recent meeting after seeking authorization from the board to independently negotiate and sign over $60 million worth of contracts without their review, writing a total of five pages informing the board of staff plans.
This isn’t the first of these agencies to run into problems.
After just over a year putting out power, Riverside’s Western Community Energy closed its doors in May, filing for bankruptcy as it’s board of directors admitted the agency “does not have sufficient financial resources,” to keep moving.
San Francisco’s public utilities chief Harlan Kelly, who oversaw CleanPowerSF, resigned at the end of last year after being charged with corruption for allegedly accepting bribes from a local construction company in return for insider information.
Those events have put a spotlight on Orange County’s power agency, which at launch will be one of the largest programs in the state.
One board member – Buena Park City Councilwoman Susan Sonne – has already publicly attempted to revisit the agency’s rules, capping how much money staff can spend and limiting board members’ terms.
What Is Community Choice Energy?
The Orange County Power Authority is a community choice energy program, a public utility that allows an option other than Edison for people to buy power from. Depending on how the utility chooses to purchase its power, it can offer more renewable energy to customers and potentially lower their electricity bill.
Currently, the cities of Irvine, Buena Park, Fullerton and Huntington Beach have all signed up for the agency, while other cities including Laguna Beach are still considering whether or not to take the plunge before the program officially launches in spring of next year.
Residents in those cities will be automatically enrolled in the program unless they choose to opt out, and the agency’s staff project they’ll launch with 313,000 customers already on the books. The exact options on what types of energy residents get hasn’t been decided yet.
What Do Agency Leaders Think About Transparency?
Irvine City Councilman Mike Carroll, who also serves as chair for the agency’s board of directors, disputes the concerns being raised.
“I think we’re being very transparent, we’re just over six months old and posting videos of our meetings, we’re fully compliant with the Brown Act,” Carroll said in a phone call with Voice of OC on Thursday. “We’re excited to get as many communities as possible in for energy choice and local control.”
Carroll points out that the agency records and posts their public meetings.
But the OC Public Power Authority only took that action in June after residents complained.
Currently, none of the meetings from the agency’s founding in December through May are available online.
Who’s Running The Agency?
Agency CEO Brian Probolsky, is a long time political operative in Orange County, one who triggered multiple investigations into his work for the county government.
In 2015, he was sanctioned by county investigators who found he was clocking hours in his job as a business practices manager while also working as a board member for the Moulton-Niguel Water District.
According to sources, Probolsky threatened county HR investigators with political retribution at the time, pointing to his work as chief of staff for both county supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Andrew Do.
In 2016, Probolsky’s hours were again called into question, this time for his work on Do’s reelection campaign while also receiving a full time salary from the county. He was never formally reprimanded, but left the supervisor’s office shortly after the election.
Probolsky was nominated by Ryan Baron, the agency’s legal counsel from Best Best & Krieger, who said the board looked at “various individuals and resumes,” but ultimately landed on Probolsky and their chief operating officer Antonia Castro-Graham because their experiences balanced out the team.
“When you’re building a startup, you’re wanting to have people with both government experience and connections to the community,” Baron said. “Between the two of them, their knowledge of all the cities and elected officials who may be interested was a real asset.”
Baron declined to comment on whether or not the board discussed Probolsky’s work history, saying it fell under a closed session discussion.
How Does The Agency Handle Its Funds?
Clean energy advocates primarily are nervous over how the agency approaches its contracts.
At the agency’s last meeting on June 22, Probolsky asked the board to give him the power to “negotiate, finalize and execute,” a $50 million funding contract and a $14.3 million contract for data management and a call center without their review.
While the staff reports included a general statement on the final terms of the contracts, neither included any final language or set terms.
Public commenters fought back against that request, saying multi-million contracts needed to be discussed out in the open.
“We want to do due diligence,” said Kathleen Tresder, a UCI biology professor and member of the city council’s Green Ribbon Environmental Committee. “This is something the public needs to be able to weigh in on.”
When asked about the contracts last Thursday, Probolsky said it was a “stylistic question.”
“It’s very common for contracts to go to staff, price and term were discussed. It’s just contract language, I’m happy to go either way,” Probolsky said in a phone call with Voice of OC.
After answering a question on the contracts, Probolsky left for a meeting, and did not return later requests for comment.
The board ultimately ordered Probolsky to negotiate the contracts and bring them back at a later board meeting for final approval.
“I’m not a financial expert…and I would like to get in plain English terms the terms, the details, the covenants, all of it,” said Buena Park City Councilwoman Susan Sonne, the city’s representative on the board, at the meeting. “That’s what I need to understand all this better.”
Sonne has been one of the loudest voices on the board asking for more explanations and transparency from staff, asking for the board to revise their founding documents and establish a cap on how much spending staff can approve without prior board approval and questioning board members’ term limits.
Under the current set up, each participating city appoints a city council member to the panel for four years. But that term persists even if the council member fails to get re-elected, meaning cities could end up with representatives that are no longer elected officials.
It remains unclear if the board will discuss that in future meetings.
The board meets next Tuesday at 10:00 a.m., and the agenda can be viewed here.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.