Leaders of Orange County’s green power agency continue to defend themselves against concerns over a lack of transparency as they’re committing taxpayers to expensive power purchases and also automatically opting in nearly a third of the county’s residents into the new power agency.
On Tuesday, board members at the Orange County Power Authority took formal action disputing a grand jury investigation that concluded the agency needed to work on transparency when it comes to informing the public in a timely manner when making big decisions.
At the same time, board members approved over $200 million in power purchases without hardly any public discussion or details of the purchases, which were announced just before the holiday weekend.
OC’s power agency has wrestled with concerns over a lack of transparency since its inception, with questions from residents and elected officials over why so much of the agency’s work takes place behind closed doors.
Those questions have only intensified as the agency comes closer to its October launch for residents in Irvine, Huntington Beach, Buena Park and Fullerton, who will be paying a slightly higher price for power in exchange for more renewable energy.
The authority was also directly called out for failing to be transparent in a grand jury report released earlier this year titled “OC Power Authority: Come Clean.”
“No matter the mission of a public agency, the ability to see how that agency operates and utilizes public funds is of paramount importance,” jurors wrote. “OCPA has made significant improvements in terms of transparency … while the (grand jury) applauds those improvements, certain critical changes have not taken place.”
To read the full report, click here.
In their response to the grand jury’s findings, which encouraged the agency to open its doors and hire more qualified staff, board members disagreed with nearly every finding, arguing they were already transparent enough or that they’d already implemented the jury’s request.
Board member and Huntington Beach Councilman Dan Kalmick made a short comment at the board meeting on Tuesday before they approved the recommended response, saying that while he approved of the response the board would continue making steps towards increased transparency.
“It reads differently than one would personally answer, but we need to assert the authority of the power authority to operate,” Kalmick said. “I think (the responses) are addressing the concerns the Grand Jury had, but I think going forward we should work in the spirit of the grand jury report to effect some changes.”
Yet while board members committed themselves to a higher transparency standard moving forward, at Tuesday’s meeting they approved two power contracts with a combined worth of over $200 million without any questions from the board.
The only reason there was any discussion on the contracts at all came after Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan asked staff to provide a brief public explanation on one of the contracts, and thanked staff for the private briefings board members received on the contracts in advance of the meeting.
Most of the specifics of those contracts were also kept confidential, with the agency’s chief legal counsel Ryan Baron stating that under state law those contracts had information which could be kept secret for up to three years.
“Things like price, quantity, the location of the unit, and other commercial terms are considered market sensitive information,” Baron said during the meeting. “It’s a standard process, all the (community choice energy programs) do it.”
On the heels of the grand jury report, county supervisors also announced they were considering pulling out of the agency altogether unless they got an open book audit of its operations.
In a response issued Tuesday, the agency’s directors asked the county not to conduct a new audit but said they would assist if the county still wanted to move forward, adding that some information must still be kept confidential.
Supervisor Don Wagner, who serves as the county’s representative on the board, said he thought the response was appropriate.
“A full and open response is not thwarted by what we’re seeing here, the idea that some information must necessarily be kept confidential pursuant to state law,” Wagner said at Tuesday’s meeting. “This response should satisfy the board of supervisors that the board of this agency is being as transparent as reasonably possible.”
The exact details of who will conduct the audit or how extensive it will be are still up in the air.
County supervisors are set to discuss it in the near future, with a promise they will decide whether or not to jump ship by the end of the year.
In a Tuesday afternoon phone interview, county Supervisor Doug Chaffee, who chairs the OC Board of Supervisors and originally voted in support of joining the power authority, questioned how effective an audit without all the necessary information would be.
“If they’re telling me they can’t say how much they’re paying for power, that’s not much transparency,” Chaffee said.
Chaffee also said he was unclear about what the end goal of the power authority was.
“One of the curious things to me is what’s the purpose of this kind of power authority,” Chaffee said. “If they’re just brokering power that would’ve been sold by somebody else, they’re not really creating more green energy.”
It also remains unclear what it would cost for the county to pull out of the program now, with the agency’s staff claiming there was no way to separate the costs between the members.
Residents who don’t want to participate can opt out and remain with Southern California Edison, or opt for a cheaper tier with the agency that provides less renewable energy.
So far, the only notification most residents have received is a flyer in the mail, which some local leaders have pointed out might not be enough to inform people of what’s coming.
At their Tuesday meeting, CEO Brian Probolsky, who has an outstanding whistleblower complaint against several board members, told the board that the agency’s staff had been out at numerous community events over the last few weeks getting ready for the official launch in October.
“We’ve had thousands of customer interactions,” Probolsky said. “Staff has been out in the field a lot.”
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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