Orange County’s controversial green power agency is getting new leadership after a tumultuous year that saw three of its five member municipalities consider pulling out, with one taking the jump last month.
Those new board members are coming on after a series of scathing audits questioned the agency’s future, pointing to a systemic lack of transparency, poor oversight of contracts and a series of other structural issues that led county leaders to step away from the agency last month.
“I was so hoping I wouldn’t have to make this vote,” said county Supervisor Katrina Foley right before she cast the deciding vote to leave. “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.”
With the county’s exit, the cities of Fullerton, Buena Park, Huntington Beach and Irvine are the only remaining members, half of which are considering pulling out.
Huntington Beach leaders directed their city staff to study how much it would cost to leave, criticizing the automatic enrollment of every resident, which is required by state law.
Irvine leaders almost pulled out last month, but decided to give it another six months and reevaluate later this year.
While election years typically shake up dozens of boards that elected leaders sit on at regional agencies like the toll roads agency and the OC Fire Authority, the Orange County Power Authority is losing over half its board members.
The only returning board members are Fullerton Mayor Fred Jung and county Supervisor Don Wagner, with the latter set to leave later this year when the county’s exit is finalized in July.
But with new leadership at the power authority, some are hopeful there’s a chance to turn things around in the new year.
“I don’t consider the overall turnover a bad thing, I actually consider it a positive,” Jung said in an interview. “There’s a fresh outlook. New board members will have new priorities … inevitably, the agency will change.”
Jung said he wants to see a focus on implementing some of the recommendations from the audits, specifically pointing out how the agency’s advisory committee of residents is underutilized and should function more like a city’s planning commission, reviewing projects before they come in front of the board.
“They were kind of just doing this cursory, almost symbolic work and I don’t think that should be their role,” Jung said.
Jung and Irvine Councilwoman Tammy Kim also brought up searching for a new Chief Operating Officer, a position that’s been vacant at the authority since the abrupt departure of Antonia Castro-Graham at the end of 2021.
The shift in leadership also brings into question once again whether the agency’s controversial CEO Brian Probolsky and other top executives will remain in their offices.
While former board members discussed potentially replacing Probolsky multiple times over concerns with his lack of experience in the electricity field, they ultimately chose to leave him in the position with new guidelines that were not publicly released.
Irvine Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder has openly said if Probolsky stays she will recommend the city pull out of the agency.
In an interview with Voice of OC, Treseder said she’s already filed paperwork requesting the board vote to create a subcommittee with outside counsel to examine how they could fire Probolsky and Ryan Baron, the agency’s general counsel.
“We can’t make any other reforms as long as they’re in OCPA leadership,” Treseder said. “I’ll ask at a later meeting to agendize replacing Probolsky.”
Treseder requested the issue be discussed at the board’s January 17 meeting, but was denied by staff who said she submitted the paperwork too late.
Buena Park City Councilman Jose Trinidad-Castaneda also asked to hire special counsel for but said he wanted someone to review the county’s exit from the agency.
“Other (community choice energy programs) have multiple in-house Counsel staff that specialize in different matters,” Trinidad-Castaneda said in a text to Voice of OC. “I believe we should implement best practices.”
Other incoming board members have been less direct, but have indicated they’re open to change.
“We have to figure out who we’re going to purge first,” Kim said. We need to evaluate existing leadership and either get them on board or not. We need to all be rowing in the same direction.”
At a city council meeting last month, Huntington Beach Councilman Casey McKeon publicly called the authority a “burning dumpster fire,” adding “the CEO has zero experience.”
Despite his criticisms of Probolsky, McKeon said he wanted the chance to get more information before he made any decisions on whether or not the CEO goes.
“I don’t think it’s fair to make that judgment until I’ve met him and been through my first board meeting,” McKeon said. “But just on the surface, not having any experience, that concerns me. I don’t know what other industry you would hire a CEO who has no experience.”
When asked how he felt about a potential change, Jung said his priority was making sure any potential shift didn’t damage the agency further.
“As long as they’re done deliberately and don’t put the agency at risk, I’m sure those will happen in time as well,” Jung said.
Multiple board members also expressed hopes to improve the agency’s transparency, but precise measures beyond responding to concerns in the audit remain unclear.
“This is critical to gaining the public’s trust,” Treseder said. “We cannot succeed if the public doesn’t trust us.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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