The Orange County Power Authority adopted a new conflict of interest code Tuesday, laying out stricter disclosure requirements that left a few loopholes unaddressed.
While the agency hasn’t started providing power to anyone yet, its first few months have been marked by controversies over funding, transparency concerns and questions over what residents can expect.
According to Ryan Baron, the agency’s legal counsel, the edits were made after they spoke to county supervisors’ staff, who mostly focused on questions about what consultants would have to reveal in their conflict of interest forms at the agency’s board of directors’ meeting.
While Baron did not name the supervisor who asked the questions, Supervisor Katrina Foley has repeatedly brought up concerns about the agency’s original conflict of interest code.
“They only had two individuals subject to the conflict of interest, so I wanted to understand better if they are going to have employees or consultants,” Foley said in a phone call with Voice of OC last month after the first delay. “More disclosure is always better.”
Under the original plan, the agency’s CEO Brian Probolsky would have had the power to choose what consultants were required to disclose without the board’s oversight, leading to concerns that power could be abused since nearly all the power authority’s staff currently work as consultants.
Under the new plan, certain consultants will have explicit disclosure requirements, but part time consultants will still be handled at the CEO’s discretion.
Staff also said that while the CEO is not listed as an explicit position in the conflict of interest forms, they will have to file conflict forms under the state’s requirements.
Baron said that while he’d never seen requests for changes in conflict of interest codes before, the agency’s new requirements went “above and beyond,” in efforts to be transparent and they were always going to be revised.
“They’re a snapshot in time of the current position that you have. They are not forward planning documents,” Baron said during the meeting. “There were no other positions identified at that time.”
The power authority is 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.
Residents in cities that have signed up will get automatically enlisted in the program when it launches next year, unless they choose to opt out.
Currently, the cities of Irvine, Buena Park, Fullerton and Huntington Beach have signed up for the agency, while other cities throughout the county are studying the issue and deciding whether or not to sign up.
The agency originally approved its conflict of interest code back in February of this year, but it never received a sign off from the county Board of Supervisors, who are required by law to approve the final draft.
The new code also added half a dozen new senior staff positions, but Baron said those may or may not be filled as the agency continues to grow.
The item received a sharp focus from the public, many of whom waited over two hours during the board’s closed session to speak about their concerns with the code.
“There’s every reason for OCPA to ensure the maximum possible transparency here,” said Ayn Craciun, a policy advocate with the Climate Action Campaign who called on the board to adopt broader disclosure measures. “This is one way to do that.”
Some commenters left early, citing work or personal reasons in the live chat preventing them from attending at midday on a Tuesday.
“This is ridiculous,” said commenter Jeremy Ficarola. “I can’t stay on. Work obligations. Congratulations panelists. You iced me.”
Once the open session started, power authority staff froze the comments thread as criticism of the board continued flowing.
During its closed session, the board was reviewing Probolsky’s work performance, along with Antonia Castro-Graham, the agency’s COO, according to their agenda.
But Probolsky has borne the brunt of the public’s concerns with the agency, as advocates question how he landed a leadership position with a $239,000 salary — despite no experience in the electricity industry or a college degree.
Ultimately, the board took no action on either officers’ contract after the closed session.
Irvine Councilman and board chair Mike Carroll apologized for the delay at the end of the meeting, pointing out the board was legally required to do performance reviews behind closed doors to protect employees’ privacy.
“We were doing our job in there, and we apologize it took the length that it did. Probably did not need to last as long as it did,” Carroll said, before calling to adjourn the meeting.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.