The Orange County Board of Supervisors could become the newest members of the county’s first clean energy agency that’s been under fire from clean energy advocates and transparency advocates.
The Orange County Power Authority was launched late last year by the cities of Irvine, Fullerton, Buena Park and Huntington Beach — creating a utility that allows an option other than Southern California Edison for people to buy electricity from.
While the agency hasn’t started providing power, it has come under intense scrutiny from the public in its early days after a series of transparency concerns, and it still remains unclear what the actual price of power will be from the new supplier.
Over the past year, the agency has been caught up in multiple controversies, including questions over conflict of interest paperwork, a delayed banking contract and ongoing litigation with the California Public Utilities Commission, the chief state regulators for the agency.
When residents questioned why the agency wouldn’t discuss the litigation with the commision publicly or state what it was about during public comment last week, Ryan Baron, the agency’s chief legal counsel, said it couldn’t be discussed publicly.
Baron said discussing it behind closed doors was the most transparent option available because it was shown on the agenda.
“It can be done through a confidential attorney client privilege memo…none of that would be public, none of that would be noticed,” Baron said in his report to the staff before their discussion.
“Here, we are using the Brown Act and citing the relevant exemption to allow you to talk confidentially about the particulars of a [utilities commission] proceeding while also giving the public notice,” he said.
Some of the biggest complaints about the power authority have been directed at Brian Probolsky, the agency’s CEO and a former top county staffer who served as chief of staff to both Supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Andrew Do.
While working for the county In 2015, he was sanctioned by county investigators who found he was clocking in hours at his job as a business practices manager while also working as a board member for the Moulton-Niguel Water District, which he still serves on.
According to sources at the time, Probolsky threatened county HR investigators with political retribution, pointing to his work as chief of staff for both county supervisors Bartlett and 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 took over the top job at the Power Authority in 2020, bringing home a $239,000 annual salary despite no experience in the energy utility industry.
Baron, the power authority’s top lawyer, also worked in the county counsel’s office as a senior deputy counsel for 12 years. He left the county in 2016 to go work for Best Best & Krieger as a utility and environmental lawyer according to their website.
If OC Supervisors decide to join the authority, they won’t be able to vote on the agency’s operations until 2023.
Under the agency’s bylaws, supervisors would be granted ex-officio status until they began receiving power, meaning they could observe and discuss, but not have a final say in what direction the authority heads.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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