Huntington Beach City Council members pulled the plug on the county’s renewable energy agency, marking the second departure from the fledgling utility after the County of Orange withdrew last year.
Surf City’s departure on Tuesday sets up tough questions for the OC Power Authority’s remaining cities – Buena Park, Fullerton and Irvine – on whether or not they’ll stay in the agency.
It also raises concerns on any costs that could be passed on to the remaining cities as Huntington Beach pulls out.
Over the past year, the authority has seen a wave of cities consider pulling out after a series of scathing audits from the county and state found the agency failed to communicate with the public and properly oversee contracts.
[Read: State Auditor Lambasts OC’s Green Energy Agency Over Transparency and Contracting]
Members of Surf City’s conservative council majority unanimously supported the move, with Councilman Casey McKeon, the city’s representative to the power authority, calling the agency “a total disaster and doomed for failure.”
“All these reasons listed above have made it abundantly clear it is time to pull the plug,” McKeon said after reading a laundry list of complaints against the agency, including the audits. “I advise a flight to safety back to Southern California Edison.”
With Huntington Beach’s exit, the cities of Irvine, Buena Park and Fullerton are the only remaining members of the agency, with the goal of delivering more renewable energy to residents as an alternative to Southern California Edison.
But that could change.
At Fullerton’s Tuesday City Council meeting, council members instructed the city manager to get a cost estimation from the OC Power Authority on how much it could cost the city to bail out.
During that discussion, Fullerton City Councilman Bruce Whitaker noted Huntington Beach was considering bailing out and raised concerns on what that could mean for the college town.
“One of these cities could withdraw and it could effectively leave us holding the bag,” Whitaker said.
After the release of the final audits three months ago, agency leaders pledged major reforms, moved to increase transparency and public access, and fired controversial CEO Brian Probolsky.
[Read: Orange County Power Authority Fires Controversial CEO After Two Years of Unrest]
Huntington Beach Councilman Dan Kalmick pointed to those recent changes as a positive sign, and said if the city leaves now, any of their residents utilizing the cheapest power options would see their costs increase and a potential fine from Edison.
“We’re going to all hold hands and jump off a cliff with no clue what this is going to cost,” Kalmick said. “It’s absolutely irresponsible. I don’t have any other words.”
Fullerton Mayor and Chair of the agency’s board Fred Jung put out a statement on Wednesday morning saying Huntington Beach made the wrong decision.
“We are deeply disappointed with the reckless action the Huntington Beach City Council has taken to withdraw,” Jung said in a statement. “Huntington Beach families and businesses want and deserve an alternative to the decades long fossil fuels powered SCE monopoly.”
While Councilmembers Natalie Moser and Rhonda Bolton voted to stay along with Kalmick, the rest of the council was unconvinced.
“I will not stand by while the OCPA shuffles the chairs on the deck of the Titanic,” said Mayor Tony Strickland. “This has indeed been a disaster from the beginning.”
McKeon also said the agency refused to turn over some of the power contract details he asked for, even with the city under a non-disclosure agreement.
“A simple non disclosure agreement became a four month, pulling teeth process until we finally received the contracts a couple weeks ago,” McKeon said. “We were denied this request, even under non disclosure agreements and public records request.”
About 15 miles north, Fullerton city council members raised similar concerns in their separate meeting.
“Due to the manner of confidentiality, I do find this matter … completely opaque,” Whitaker said.
But Jung said talks of bailing out are tiresome.
“I find that this is a ridiculous waste of our time … every city’s had this discussion,” Jung said at Fullerton’s council meeting.
Jung said it’s become a political weapon.
“There are state senators that want to be congressmen who utilize this, even now,” Jung said.
State Senator Dave Min, who’s currently running for Congress, repeatedly called on the agency’s board of directors to fire Probolsky.
While Huntington Beach voted to leave Tuesday night, their actual exit won’t take place until July 2024 under the power authority’s bylaws.
The financial impact of the decision, both on the city and on the OC Power Authority itself, is still a mystery, with multiple authority board members confirming no studies have been done on the impacts of any city pulling out – despite repeated warnings from Huntington Beach leaders that they wanted to leave.
During the meeting, Strickland and McKeon said that they believe the city will not be on the hook for any money after all the excess power is sold off.
“After talking with county officials and county analysis has shown we can sell back a lot of this energy, it gives us more confidence we can exit this disaster without exposing our residents,” Strickland said.
During the Huntington Beach city council meeting, Irvine released its council agenda for next Tuesday, with a discussion on pulling out of the power authority as the first discussion item of the night.
The power authority board meets Wednesday morning at 10 a.m., and can be viewed here.
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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