Orange County’s green energy agency could lose its CEO and chief lawyer this week, with the board of directors set to discuss firing them behind closed doors on Wednesday.
The discussion around firing CEO Brian Probolsky comes after a month of chaos at the agency, with multiple members approving an audit, topped off by a grand jury report released last week stating the agency was suffering from a lack of transparency and poor leadership.
Probolksy himself has also filed a whistleblower lawsuit calling out board members, who are in turn protesting his leadership.
Originally, Probolsky was the only staff member under discussion for removal.
But Ryan Baron, the agency’s chief legal counsel, is now also drawing questions after he refused to recognize Huntington Beach City Councilman Dan Kalmick’s appointment to the agency’s board, blocking the board majority from holding a special meeting to discuss firing Probolsky earlier this month.
Baron was hired even before Probolsky was, and according to the grand jury report was the one who recommended him for the job without bringing any other candidates for the board to interview.
Probolsky had no experience working at an electric utility or a college degree when he was hired and was investigated for ethics violations in previous jobs at the county government, leading to questions over whether his presence is hurting the agency’s reputation.
“I’ve also spoken with some other cities and they’re confident they’d be willing to join if there was a change in management,” Kalmick said when asked about the initial push he led to discuss firing Probolsky. “Our residents and businesses don’t know who the power authority is and our public agencies we’d like to have join…don’t have trust in the organization.”
Some cities are talking about potentially getting out of the agency altogether, with Buena Park set to direct staff “regarding the City’s participation in the Orange County Power Authority,” on Tuesday night.
However, some on the board have defended Probolsky’s work. Board member and county supervisor Don Wagner said he doesn’t think you need electrical experience to be CEO of the program.
“The role of CEO is chief executive, he’s not responsible for day to day energy choices.” Wagner said in an interview with Voice of OC on Friday. “That doesn’t take a power guy, that takes a competent administrator.”
However, on Probolsky’s LinkedIn page, Probolsky says “he is responsible for the day-to-day management of the Orange County power authority, including…power planning and procurement.”
Concerns over Probolsky’s lack of expertise dominated a 24 page report titled “Orange County Power Authority: Come Clean,” released by the Orange County Grand Jury last week, questioning how someone with no experience got a job with such little oversight.
“OCPA cannot claim it has effective oversight of its contractors with a CEO who had no prior relevant energy industry experience, no COO, no Director of Power Purchases, and no other senior level employee with the appropriate expertise for hands-on oversight,” the report stated.
Even board members have struggled to get information on the agency, repeatedly requesting documents from their staff that weren’t turned over. The board was also supposed to establish a Risk Oversight Committee to review Probolsky’s work, a committee the jury claims never got created.
“There has been a pattern of failure and/or resistance to providing information to the Board, even when the information has been specifically requested,” the jury wrote.
The report also brought up concerns that a lack of bylaws detailing the roles of the CEO and the board could lead to conflict, and that a general opposition to transparency is weakening the agency.
The report directly quoted board chair and Irvine City Councilman Mike Carroll, who said at a meeting last December, “We’re not a typical agency: this is about as private as a public agency can get.”
The grand jury disagreed.
“Transparency, particularly financial transparency, helps keep corruption in check, bolsters public confidence in government, and promotes fiscal responsibility. In the case of OCPA, a hint to the attitude of the CEO and OCPA Board Chair is reflected by the Chairman’s comment,” the jury wrote. “OCPA is not a private agency.”
Carroll did not respond to requests for comment on this article Monday morning.
To read the full report, click here.
While the agency’s board of directors has yet to issue an official response to the grand jury, Probolsky sent one out through the agency’s PR firm last Friday.
“We want to provide you with accurate information to address some of the factually incorrect information and impractical assertions,” the letter with Probolsky’s name stated.
The letter listed 13 instances where power authority staff alleged the grand jury improperly represented the agency’s work, but some of their answers also didn’t tell the whole truth.
The agency took issue with the grand jury report pointing out how the increased price of the power authority wasn’t pointed out on the notices it sent out to local businesses when it launched in April, saying they were “in full compliance with pre- and post- enrollment noticing.”
“Exact pricing is not included on the mailers since there are many different rates that are unique to specific customers,” the agency stated.
But the disclosures stated “that OCPA rates are competitive with SCE rates,” despite the default rate that customers were automatically opted into being more expensive than Edison’s base rate.
“To make things convenient, your business will be automatically enrolled. You’re all set—there’s no need to do anything,” the disclosure said.
To review a copy of the disclosure, click here.
The agency also claimed that three of their four cities choosing the 100% renewable energy option, the most expensive one offered by the agency, was not financially benefiting the agency.
But last year, when cities were setting their rates, they were warned by the OCPA staff that if they didn’t choose the 100% renewable as the basic rate for their residents, they would not be able to offer a rate that could directly compete with Edison.
However, that increase still wasn’t enough to keep their competitive prices long term, as the agency listed in its budget this week it’s expected to raise its cheapest rates by 5% in July 2023, promising it would be the last increase until 2028.
The agency also claimed that the city of Irvine only spent $152,000 helping start the power authority, and that the $7.5 million figure presented by the grand jury was not true.
But in their own budget reports for their upcoming meeting, the agency reaffirmed what the grand jury had said.
“On January 2021, OCPA borrowed $2,500,000 from the City of Irvine for working capital costs associated with OCPA’s pre-launch. On September 2021, OCPA borrowed $5,000,000 from the City of Irvine for cash collateral in the credit facility associated with OCPA’s launch,” the agency stated in its staff report.
The agency meets at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, and a copy of the Zoom link to view the meeting can be viewed here.
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.
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