County leaders decided to bail out of Orange County’s first green power agency after years of  transparency concerns and a series of scathing audits. 

At their Tuesday meeting, a majority of OC Supervisors expressed concerns of whether or not the OC Power Authority will improve their transparency going forward and address lingering questions after the audits. 

It all led to one of the longest public discussions of the Power Authority’s operations in its two-year history, as county supervisors questioned CEO Brian Probolsky and other agency staff about the agency’s failures.

“There were just numerous problems that had occurred. We’ve got multiple audits, and questions have been asked. And I think the answers were, frankly, nebulous,” said Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who made the motion to pull out. 

She expressed her disappointment with the answers Probolsky publicly gave during Tuesday’s meeting.

“They weren’t answers. They weren’t answers, period,” Bartlett said. 

Probolsky said agency officials reviewed the audits and disagreed with some of the findings, but couldn’t point to any examples when asked by supervisors. 

“While I may disagree with some of the findings, I don’t think they’re unreasonable,” Probolsky said. “We’re willing to implement them where we can.” 

When pressed to answer which recommendations would be implemented, Probolsky said that in the week since the release of the audit they haven’t made any changes, and didn’t cite any specific changes that would be made in the future. 

While the Authority began providing power to the cities of Fullerton, Buena Park, Irvine and Huntington Beach earlier this year, the county wasn’t set to begin receiving power until the end of 2023. 

The county’s withdrawal came after the release of two critical audits of the OC Power Authority saying staff approved contracts without proper bids, failed to inform the public their electricity bills were increasing and had their board approve multi-million dollar purchases without reviewing the contracts. 

[Read: County Auditors Lambast OC Green Power Agency’s Contracting Failures]

Those audits were started after news reports and a grand jury investigation pointed out how the agency lacked transparency and failed to hire staff with experience working in the electrical industry. 

Supervisor Doug Chaffee, who lives in the city of Fullerton, said his biggest reason to get the county out was over how badly handled the public rollout was. 

“When I opted out, I found it a very difficult process,” Chaffee said. “My own experience tells me we need to get out.” 

Supervisor Katrina Foley, who was the deciding vote, said she wanted to start looking at joining a different program that would still let the county receive renewable energy, and that she’d already put the issue on the board’s January agenda. 

“I was so hoping I wouldn’t have to make this vote,” Foley said. “It boils down to trust and transparency for me, and I don’t trust the information. I don’t think we’ll be able to fix what I think are systematic operational issues.” 

Supervisor Don Wagner, who sits on the Power Authority’s board, was the loudest voice calling to stay in, claiming the agency was experiencing “growing pains,” and that all the problems could be fixed with time. 

He also encouraged his colleagues not to be pressured by “press reports,” detailing the problems with the agency.

“It’s at this point way too early I think for us to pull the plug on an agency that has demonstrated financial viability,” Wagner said. “Openness and transparency are fixable issues.” 

The biggest open question now is how much it’s going to cost. 

An estimate from internal county auditors puts it at as much as $65 million to pull out – if the agency refuses to take any mitigation measures to lower that cost. 

But OC Power Authority staff have refused to turn over 96% of the records justifying that price tag, opening questions on whether or not a legal battle between the county and the agency is in the near future. 

“If we end up pulling out and the power authority ends up cratering, we’ll expose this county and several cities in this county to financial risk, the level of which the auditor has said ‘I can’t tell you what it is,’” Wagner said. “At this point we’re operating in the dark. We don’t know what the risk is to our constituents to pull out.” 

In a statement following the meeting, power authority staff said they were “disappointed,” and pointed out that the county wouldn’t suffer any financial issues were the agency to implode. 

“The OCPA Joint Powers Authority (JPA) agreement creates a firewall between the County and OCPA finances and liabilities,” staff wrote. “OCPA is financially stable and delivering on its clean energy goals. We will have more information on the next steps in the days ahead.”

The county will remain with the Authority until July 2023, which is the end of the agency’s fiscal year, and could begin looking at joining a similar agency as early as January under Foley’s suggestion. 

Reporter Nick Gerda contributed to this story. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada. 

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