Orange County’s green power agency is about to get audited by Irvine, the city that created it, as members start to question the leadership of the agency.
The review comes as a majority of the Orange County Power Authority board wants a meeting to discuss ousting CEO Brian Probolsky, a divisive figure in Orange County politics who has filed a whistleblower complaint against multiple board members alleging corruption after they tried to have him removed.
While the board members haven’t convened to talk about firing Probolsky in the wake of his letter, that hasn’t stopped individual member cities from talking on the issue.
The biggest concerns with Probolsky come after a series of public stumbles for the agency, including raising electricity rates after promising cheaper power, the abrupt resignation of their chief operating officer last year and questions on whether or not he’s qualified to run the agency.
So far, the cities of Huntington Beach, Irvine, Buena Park and Fullerton are onboard with the program, along with the county government.
Irvine Moves to Audit Power Authority
Of all the cities in the agency, Irvine has the longest history with the Orange County Power Authority as it spearheaded the effort, funded the startup costs entirely out of its own pocket and brought in other cities.
But on Tuesday night, it was clear council members weren’t satisfied with the current state of the agency.
“We were promised three things,” said Councilman Larry Agran, who’s been calling for an audit of the agency for months. “First, OCPA promised to deliver cleaner electricity … second, OCPA promised to deliver cheaper electricity … and third, OCPA promised transparency.”
“I regret to report that each of these promises has been broken.”
Mayor Farrah Khan, who sits on the agency’s board of directors, said she’s been unable to place items on the agency’s agendas, and called on city staff to review “if the approach being taken by OCPA staff is an appropriate legal approach.”
As the founding city and primary investor, Irvine has the power to conduct an independent audit of the agency’s launch, looking at the financials before the agency’s commercial launch in April.
Half an hour into the meeting, Probolsky sent the council an email with answers to a list of questions Agran spelled out in his memo for the item, and repeatedly defended the agency’s work under his supervision.
“OCPA is a transparent organization,” Probolsky wrote. “Continued attempts to make it look like OCPA is not being transparent because we follow the law are disingenuous at best.”
But in his response, Probolsky also refused to answer many questions the city council had.
When asked who serves on the staff for OCPA and how much they’re paid, Probolsky listed the total number of staff but said he would need a “more specific request,” to do anything else.
The council also asked for copies of the power purchasing agreements the agency had signed, but Probolsky said he can’t share those with the city.
Instead, he said individual board members can be briefed on them by staff.
Other city leaders dove into the issue as well, with Laguna Beach City Councilman George Weiss calling into Irvine’s meeting on Tuesday night to voice his concerns with Probolsky, though he made it clear he was not speaking on behalf of the full council.
“I know there are other cities like us who’ve been looking for some time and naturally want to join Orange County Power Authority but are unable to because of the concerns we have with management with the organization,” Weiss said during public comments.
Weiss said he was concerned about Probolsky’s honesty.
“My own interactions with Brian Probolsky early on when he took this office were troubling,” he said. “I don’t feel we have a person here who can deal with people in a way that’s respectful and honest.”
The council ultimately voted 4-0 to conduct the audit.
Irvine City Councilman Mike Carroll, who also serves as the chair of the agency’s board, was absent from the meeting.
The council is scheduled to hear an update on the audit at their June 28 meeting.
Huntington Beach Considers Suing Power Authority
Hours after Irvine’s meeting wrapped up, Huntington Beach City Council members passed a vote of no confidence in Probolsky on Tuesday night and gave their city attorney a green light to sue the agency, though it was unclear exactly what they would be suing over.
Councilman Dan Kalmick, who took over as the city’s representative for the agency last month and was one of the leading voices in the effort to fire Probolsky, said the agency is “opaque for the sake of being opaque.”
“I’ve been running into a brick wall,” Kalmick said at Tuesday’s meeting. “For an agency that’s designed to provide light and power, they sure do a great job at keeping people in the dark.”
Mike Posey, the city’s former representative on the agency’s board, decided against the no confidence vote in Probolsky, saying he wanted to see the results of the audit before making any statements, but supported the lawsuit and asked for city staff to support Irvine’s audit.
“If we were to look at Irvine’s forensic accounting audit, maybe we work out something where we can cooperate with Irvine instead of having parallel tracks,” Posey said.
Councilmembers Kim Carr and Erik Peterson were absent from the meeting.
Despite repeated criticisms of the agency during the meetings, Kalmick said the situation can be improved.
“I believe wholeheartedly this is fixable,” Kalmick said.
OC Supervisors Move to Review Power Authority
Orange County Supervisors were the first ones to call for a review last week, when Supervisor Katrina Foley asked county staff to look at any risks associated with remaining a member of the agency.
“The OC Power Authority has recently faced a litany of issues that have spilled into the public,” Foley said. “When I asked our CEO and county counsel some questions I was reminded this item was approved last November so it didn’t go through the traditional…review. We didn’t have a lot of vetting.”
Supervisor Don Wagner, who serves as the board’s representative at the agency, disagreed with Foley’s characterization that there was no vetting.
He supported the review because he said it will show “the risk to the county is not there.”
That review of the county’s involvement is set to return to supervisors within a month.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.