Fullerton city leaders told their staff to take a closer look at the controversial Orange County Power Authority at their meeting on Tuesday night, and asked staff to come back with options for a potential study of pulling out of the agency altogether.
While council members were clear that this was not a decision to leave the power authority or even to initiate a full study of how much that would cost, they want more answers on what the power authority is doing.
“This is a more complex animal than many of us thought at first,” Councilman Bruce Whitaker said. “I do think much better communication is called for.”
Fullerton was one of the founding members of the agency, alongside the cities of Irvine and Huntington Beach, with the goal of providing residents with the option for cleaner electricity than Southern California Edison.
City staff estimated a review of the power authority would cost between $50,000 to $100,000, and also floated the idea of partnering with other cities who were looking to review the contracts to lower the cost.
The potential study comes after the agency received four failed audits, in which reviews from the OC Grand Jury, the county government and state auditors all found systemic problems with transparency and contract oversight.
The power authority’s new board of directors is arguing they’re trying to turn over a new leaf at the agency, unveiling a plan responding to the findings from the audits and committing to a new goal of transparency.
[Read: OC’s Controversial Green Energy Agency Tries Winning Back Public Trust]
Councilman Ahmad Zahra, the loudest proponent of a potential study to leave the power authority, said that after the audits he felt they needed to hold people accountable and that he hadn’t seen enough of that yet.
“To say we can excuse the issues that have come out with no accountability whatsoever … that’s where I have a big problem,” Zahra said. “We’re almost excusing this behavior just because we want this so badly.”
The loudest opponent of a study to leave the agency Tuesday night was Mayor Fred Jung, who’s also the chair of the OC Power Authority Board of Directors.
“Prior to joining, there were five Fullerton residents on renewable energy. Five. There are over 43,000 now. This is a clear and positive step,” Jung said. “If we believe this is the existential threat of our time, we should be mindful of doing something about it.”
Councilmembers Shana Charles and Nick Dunlap also voted in favor of looking at a potential study, but said the issue needs more discussion from the council before a final decision is made.
Whitaker argued the city should leave the power authority in place and “wash its hands,” leaving their residents to figure out what options they wanted on their own.
“I’ve learned recently that everyone individually has the opportunity to opt out,” Whitaker said. “But that hasn’t been well communicated at all … I do think better communication is called for.”
Fullerton is the second city in the agency to consider taking a serious look at their continued membership in the agency after Huntington Beach city leaders announced they wanted to review how much it would cost to pull out in December.
[Read: Cloudy Contracts, Audits and Lost County Support: A Rough Year For OC’s Green Power Agency]
Irvine and Buena Park are both still in, but Buena Park Mayor Art Brown has requested information on pulling out.
Irvine City Council members have taken multiple votes that narrowly kept the city in.
[Read: Irvine Councilwoman Reverses Course, Plans to Stay in Controversial OC Green Power Agency]
While the exact costs to leave are still unknown for Fullerton, county leaders say they think the penalties for pulling out aren’t going to be nearly as high as they once feared.
When county leaders announced plans to pull out last year, their internal auditors said they could end up having to pay as much as $65 million for that decision.
[Read: OC Supervisors Pull Plug on Green Energy Agency Over Transparency Concerns]
But at the OC Supervisors March 28 meeting, county CEO Frank Kim said a review conducted by a contractor hired by the county shows they likely won’t have to pay anything to leave as long as the power authority sells the electricity it bought on behalf of the county to another agency.
“The initial assessment is that the value of power today is greater than at the time power was acquired,” Kim said in a report to the board. “We do not believe we’ll experience financial impacts from the withdrawal.”
At their Tuesday meeting, Fullerton City Council members also unanimously approved signing a non-disclosure agreement with the power authority, which would let city council members and senior staff review the power purchase agreements the agency already made on their behalf.
“I’ve asked for this information over and over and OCPA is very adamant that there’s no way we’re going to be able to find this information from them,” Zahra said.
“I’ll be surprised if the NDA isn’t redacted beyond belief,” Whitaker said.
Zahra said he’s still holding out hope.
“I just hope we can get the answers we need.”
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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