Irvine is set to remain a member of Orange County’s controversial green power agency for at least the next six months after a lengthy discussion about potentially pulling out on Thursday morning.
City Council members voted 3-2 to stay in and reevaluate the situation in six months, pledging to clean up the Orange County Power Authority after years of complaints of a lack of transparency at the agency – the very agency city leaders created.
“It’s not failing, and no matter how many crises people come up with it’s still a functioning organization,” said Mayor Farrah Khan, who made the motion to stay in.
“Can it be more transparent? Yes. Can it have better qualified personnel? Yes. Are we able to achieve those if we work collaboratively? Yes.”
Other council members said they’re worried that if they stay in, they’ll be the last ones in line to jump ship and end up paying millions in fees to try and get out.
Councilman Mike Carroll, who was the chair of the authority’s board for the last two years and one of its loudest proponents, voted against saying in, pointing out how OC Supervisors’ decision to pull out this month as Huntington Beach leaders are considering doing the same leaves Irvine “pushed to a wall.”
“The worry we have is that if we don’t do this, Irvine gets caught holding the bag at the end of the story,” Carroll said. “I don’t really see a way out.”
The overall finances of the agency are largely a mystery to the public, with power authority staff refusing to release over 90% of the agency’s financial paperwork to county auditors or answer questions on how much is being spent to procure power.
However, the agency recently released an audit from Pisenti & Brinker, an outside firm they hired to review their finances, that gave them a clean review earlier this month.
But that audit came before multiple members started talking about pulling out.
Last week, county leaders announced they’d be leaving in July 2023, and could possibly end up incurring $65 million in fees for leaving. That same night, Huntington Beach City Council members directed their staff to study what it would take for them to bail out.
County leaders pointed to a series of audits that included a grand jury report and two county commissioned audits calling out the power authority staff for a lack of transparency and experience, along with mismanaged contracts and a failure to answer questions.
With their vote on Thursday, Irvine leaders announced they’d be sending a letter to county supervisors asking them to reconsider their withdrawal decision.
If Huntington Beach and the county both followed through, that would leave Irvine, Fullerton and Buena Park as the only members of the agency, requiring the power authority and its member cities to divide up who owns which power contracts in the split.
Irvine was the city that started the power authority, and got the others to come onboard with the goal of providing an alternative to Southern California Edison that could provide more renewable energy options.
Power authority staff haven’t provided an exact dollar amount for what it would cost Irvine to leave, but city staff estimate it’s around $145 million according to Irvine City Manager Oliver Chi, and it would leave the city with a host of power contracts they’d have to find a way to sell or use.
“The safest option for the city financially would be to stay in and work through existing channels,” Chi told the council on Thursday. “The market makes identifying the precise liability difficult to understand.”
According to Chi, the same amount of power could sell for anywhere from $25 to $1,000 per megawatt hour depending on when it’s sold, leaving anyone looking to leave faced with a big question mark.
During public comment, people who came to the meeting from all over Orange County urged the city to stay in and fix any transparency problems.
“If members of this council are not happy, as we all know there need to be changes, then please get on the board and make those changes,” said Linda Kraemer, chair of the Orange County chapter for the Climate Reality Project. “We need competitive choice in California.”
Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder, one of the activists who led the way to getting the agency started that was just elected to the dais, agreed to stay in but said they needed to remove controversial CEO Brian Probolsky immediately or she could reverse course.
“I’m committed to fixing OCPA,” Treseder said. “I cannot in good faith allow the city to remain in OCPA as long as he is CEO.”
Councilman Larry Agran pitched the idea of announcing the city’s withdrawal, but pledging to come back if they agreed to implement a host of changes including Probolsky’s removal, an idea that never got voted on.
Agran said his colleagues’ decision to stay with the agency and urge new board collaboration is basically repeating what Irvine has been doing, calling the move “weak.”
“We have been trying to fix this thing from afar and what do we get? What did we get in return? We get stonewalling,” Agran said. “We’re going to get the business as usual response, which is ‘We don’t care what you want city of Irvine.’”
Councilwoman Tammy Kim, who ultimately voted to stay in, said it’s up to the city’s representatives on the board to make a change and criticized Agran for not stepping up to help fix the problem instead of leaving.
“You talk about being weak, ineffective, business as usual, in throwing stones, but you refuse to offer yourself up to help make change,” Kim said.
“So sitting up and saying words, that is weakness. That is ineffective. True strength is having the courage to actually make change, as difficult as it might be.”
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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