Orange County’s embattled green power agency has a new plan to clean itself up and win back public trust after multiple scathing audits found systemic problems with transparency and contract oversight.
The 24-point plan approved by the OC Power Authority board of directors at their Wednesday meeting lays out a series of suggested improvements, including regular public reports on contracts and the board’s first set of bylaws that are all set to be implemented in the next three months.
To review the full plan, click here.
Fullerton Mayor and board Chairman Fred Jung praised the new plan, and asked for anyone with concerns about the agency to watch how fast they implement it.
“Utilize this as the measuring stick to which you are going to hold us accountable,” Jung said.
The proposed changes come as multiple member cities are requesting information on what it would take to pull out after county supervisors voted to jump ship last year, citing the findings of three audits that raised questions over the agency’s operations.
After the county left, state auditors released the most scathing review yet, pointing out millions that were spent on contractors with no evidence of a vetting or review process in 2021.
The City of Irvine is also set to release an audit of the Power Authority before the end of the month, which will mark the fifth and final audit of the agency for now.
Winning Back Trust
With the new plan, OC Power Authority leaders are looking at making some changes to repair public trust in the agency following those audits.
“I think it’s clear we have a new board and new leadership,” said Irvine Councilwoman and board member Tammy Kim at Wednesday’s meeting.
She added that new board leadership “has really pushed a cultural shift within OCPA that embraces transparency and wants to be as forthcoming as possible.”
Former California State Auditor Elaine Howle, who is currently contracted with the agency to help them respond to the audits, also said she was happy about the new board.
“We have to learn from issues and mistakes that were made and move forward,” Howle said during the meeting. “It’s in the past now. Let’s learn from it and move forward.”
One of the key points of that plan is to add a member of the board to the Power Authority’s risk management team, which up until now has been composed completely of staff, with no records kept of the meetings.
While that was initially scheduled to happen in May, board members asked it be moved up to happen as soon as possible.
The board is also in the process of adopting its first set of bylaws, which would set up new rules for how meetings are run and codify which staff are in charge of various responsibilities.
Agency staff also pointed to several parts of the plan that have already been implemented, including new measures to track how board agendas are created and publicly disclosing all contracts signed by the agency aside from power purchasing.
One point that was left off the plan was any potential future for Brian Probolsky, the agency’s CEO, who has faced repeated calls for his resignation from residents and activists over concerns about his qualifications.
County Supervisor and board member Don Wagner, who’s set to depart the board in July when the county finalizes its exit, said none of the changes would matter to the public.
“Until we fire Brian, we’re not going to satisfy the people out there no matter what we do with this improvement plan,” Wagner said. “ I’m not recommending firing Brian, but let’s be honest.”
Will Public Records Be Produced Faster?
The new plan also calls for the agency to document how they handle public records requests and implement new software to track records, which have been a frequent sticking point as residents and journalists tried to find out more about what was going on at the agency.
For example, Voice of OC filed a request for all communication between Probolsky, the board, and the agency’s one staff member at the time from January to early July 2021.
Nearly two years later, agency staff still haven’t finished releasing those records, arguing that because the agency is so small, responding faster would stop them from properly running the agency.
Buena Park Councilman and board member Jose Trinidad Castaneda complained about the “unreasonable” records requests from Voice of OC and the public, arguing the agency had survived “two years of nonstop negative media attention.”
“We are fiduciaries on this board and if we don’t make that clear to the members of the public, that we can’t be allotting valuable staff time and our own time to every single little request when the real substantive work is related to energy, then we’re setting unrealistic expectations,” Castaneda said.
Voice of OC has not received a request from agency staff to narrow or change a records request.
As the agency implements the new changes, they’re also faced with questions over which of their members will stay around long enough to see them through.
Huntington Beach city leaders have begun looking at what it would take to pull out, and Buena Park Mayor Art Brown formally requested a cost to pull out of the power authority at the city’s council meeting on Tuesday night.
Irvine has repeatedly gone back and forth over whether or not they’ll stay in the agency, with the swing vote resting on Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder.
While Treseder has said she’s optimistic about the new changes, she’ll still vote to leave if Probolsky isn’t gone in the next few months.
During the agency’s Wednesday meeting, Castaneda accused Irvine City Council candidates of going door to door trying to convince residents to opt out of the agency last year.
“I haven’t done anything like that,” Treseder said.
“I said candidates earlier, I said I had concerns and now I’m alleging it’s you,” Castaneda said. “I alleged that there are others.”
“Where’s your evidence?” Treseder shot back.
“I said it’s an allegation,” Castaneda said. “I actually used the word allegation.”
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.