When it comes to spending taxpayer dollars, local government approvals almost always come with a public disclosure of who’s getting the money.
That wasn’t the case last week, when it came to almost $10 million being doled out by an Orange County supervisor who’s facing a tight re-election battle.
County supervisors authorized their colleague Doug Chaffee to decide how to distribute $9.5 million in federal COVID relief dollars, without publicly naming which organizations would get the money.
“Sadly, I’m not surprised that the board continues to push transparency towards the bottom of their list of things to do,” said Carolyn Cavecche, a longtime leader with the Orange County Taxpayers Association.
“Where those dollars go is just as important as the speed in which they’re given out,” she added.
Chaffee’s plan marks another chapter of transparency concerns about how OC supervisors are spending federal COVID bailout dollars – much of which has gone to the Sheriff’s Department – while taxpayer watchdogs like Cavecche have called for more transparency.
The proposal – which Chaffee brought forward – calls for letting him dole out the money to unnamed non-profits and other local governments for programs like “infrastructure projects,” “education,” “healthcare,” gun buybacks, and support for veterans and homeless people.
The approval grants authority to spend the money, but doesn’t say which groups would get it, and doesn’t require Chaffee to publicly report out how the dollars are spent.
Chaffee wouldn’t answer questions about where the money is going.
He didn’t respond to a phone call and text messages from Voice of OC over the last week asking which organizations are receiving the $9.5 million.
“These are taxpayer dollars, and the community and the public should understand who’s getting the money and why they’re getting it. Especially if it’s going to nonprofits,” Cavecche said.
“Sometimes there are problems with nonprofits. How are the nonprofits going to disclose how this money is being used?”
Chaffee’s self-described mentor is Supervisor Andrew Do, who has publicly criticized public records requests for how supervisors have been spending federal COVID dollars.
Under a process Do championed, the county secretly approved $200 million in COVID contract spending over a year-long period, without the names or amounts of contracts ever appearing on public agendas like they’re usually required to be.
When Voice of OC filed public records requests to see how those dollars were spent, Do publicly complained that reporters were asking too many questions and requesting too many public records.
Reporters had been asking the county for months how federal COVID dollars were being spent, and it took months to get the answer.
Across multiple months in 2020 – including May, October, November and December – the news agency asked county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson how the federal CARES Act funds had been spent, including who was paid and how much.
The first comprehensive list of contractors wasn’t provided until January 2021.
Voice of OC asked all five supervisors why they didn’t believe the public doesn’t deserve transparency about which groups are getting the nearly $10 million Chaffee now has approval to distribute.
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett replied that there will be records the public can request after the money is spent, and that the spending will probably be audited by the federal government.
“When Supervisor Chaffee actually spends the funds there will be a required accounting of funds specifying recipients, use and dollar amounts,” Bartlett said in a text message.
“If he utilizes a third party firm to administer the funds or program there will be additional records,” she added.
But taxpayer advocates say the spending should be much more transparent than requiring the public to file records requests.
“This is not something where individual taxpayers should have to go file paperwork to find out how the money’s being spent,” Susan Shelley, vice president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, previously said about the county’s spending of federal COVID dollars.
“The public has had to jump through a lot of hoops, with the public records requests and all of that,” Cavecche said.
Supervisor Don Wagner disputed the notion that there’s a lack of transparency around the $9.5 million Chaffee is authorized to spend, pointing to the fact Chaffee has described categories of programs it would fund.
“[Supervisor] Chaffee has provided specific categories of recipients,” Wagner said in a text message, adding that supervisors have previously spent federal COVID dollars this way.
“As the funds are then administered, the specific recipients in each category are identified and disclosed,” Wagner added.
However, there do not appear to be any public agenda disclosures of how those dollars were spent.
Messages for comment were not returned by Chaffee, Do and Supervisors Katrina Foley.
Chaffee is facing a tight re-election in November, after he came in second place in last month’s primary to Sunny Park, who is the mayor of Buena Park and a fellow Democrat.
His chief of staff at the county, LaShe Rodriguez, is also his campaign manager for his re-election.
When asked how she manages both roles, LaShe has said she takes care of campaign business after 5 p.m. and on weekends, and during weekday lunches and 15 minute county work breaks allowed under state law.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.