Leaders of the Orange County Green Energy Agency continue to defend themselves against concerns over a lack of transparency as they engage ratepayers in expensive power purchases and also automatically opt in to nearly a third of county residents in the new electricity agency.
On Tuesday, members of the Orange County Power Authority’s board of directors took formal action to challenge a grand jury investigation that found the agency must work on transparency when it comes to informing the public in a timely manner when important decisions are made.
At the same time, board members approved more than $200 million in power purchases with virtually no public discussion or purchase details, which were announced just before the holiday weekend.
The OC Electricity Agency has been grappling with concerns about a lack of transparency since its inception, with questions from residents and elected officials about why much of the agency’s work takes place at behind closed doors.
[Read: OC Businesses and Public Agencies Left in the Dark As Power Authority Rolls Out]
These questions have only intensified as the agency nears its October launch for residents of Irvine, Huntington Beach, Buena Park and Fullerton, who will pay a slightly higher price for electricity in exchange. more renewable energy.
The authority was also directly challenged for its lack of transparency in a grand jury report released earlier this year titled “OC Power Authority: Come Clean.”
“No matter the mission of a public agency, the ability to see how that agency operates and uses public funds is of paramount importance,” the jurors wrote. “The OCPA has made significant improvements in terms of transparency…while the (grand jury) applauds these improvements, some critical changes have not taken place.”
To read the full report, Click here.
In their response to the grand jury’s findings, which encouraged the agency to open its doors and hire more qualified staff, board members disagreed with nearly all of the findings, arguing that they were already sufficiently transparent or that they had already implemented the jury’s request.
Huntington Beach Board Member and Councilman Dan Kalmick made a brief comment at Tuesday’s board meeting before approving the recommended response, saying that even if he did approve the response, the board would continue to take steps to increase transparency.
“It reads differently than one would personally answer, but we have to assert the authority of the electrical authority to operate,” Kalmick said. “I think (the answers) address the Grand Jury’s concerns, but I think going forward we should work within the spirit of the Grand Jury’s report to make some changes.”
Yet while board members pledged to a higher standard of transparency going forward, at Tuesday’s meeting they approved two power contracts worth more than $200 million combined. without any questions from the board.
The only reason there was a discussion about the contracts came after Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan asked the staff to provide a brief public explanation on one of the contracts and thanked the staff for the private briefings that board members received on contracts prior to the meeting. .
Most of the details of those contracts also remained confidential, with the agency’s chief legal counsel, Ryan Baron, saying that under state law, those contracts contained information that could be kept secret until further notice. at three years old.
“Things like price, quantity, unit location and other trading conditions are considered sensitive market information,” Baron said during the meeting. “It’s a standard process, all (community choice energy programs) do it.”
On the heels of the grand jury report, county supervisors also announced they were considering pulling out of the agency altogether unless they get an open-book audit of its operations.
[Read: County Demands Investigation of OC’s New Green Power Agency, Under Threat of Withdrawing]
In a response published on TuesdayAgency directors asked the county not to re-audit, but said they would help if the county still wanted to move forward, adding that some information still had to be kept confidential.
Supervisor Don Wagner, who is the county’s representative on the board, said he thought the response was appropriate.
“A full and open response is not thwarted by what we see here, the idea that certain information must necessarily be kept confidential according to state law,” Wagner said during Tuesday’s meeting. “This response should convince the oversight board that this agency’s board is as transparent as reasonably possible.”
Exact details of who will carry out the audit or its scope are still pending.
County supervisors are expected to discuss this in the near future, with the promise that they will decide whether or not to jump ship by the end of the year.
In a Tuesday afternoon phone interview, County Supervisor Doug Chaffee, who chairs the OC Board of Supervisors and originally voted to join the electrical authority, questioned how an audit would be effective without all the necessary information.
“If they tell me they can’t say how much they’re paying for electricity, it’s not very transparent,” Chaffee said.
Chaffee also said he didn’t know what the electricity authority’s end goal was.
“One of the curious things for me is what is the purpose of this kind of power authority,” Chaffee said. “If they’re just trading electricity that would have been sold by someone else, they’re not really creating more green power.”
It’s also unclear what it would cost the county to pull out of the program now, with agency staff saying there’s no way to separate costs between members.
Residents who don’t want to participate can opt out and stay with Southern California Edison, or upgrade to a cheaper tier with the agency that provides less renewable power.
So far, the only notification most residents have received is a flyer in the mail, which some local leaders say may not be enough to let people know what’s to come.
At their Tuesday meeting, CEO Brian Probolsky, who has an outstanding whistleblower complaint against several board members, told the board that agency staff have attended many community events over the past few years. weeks to prepare for the official launch in October.
“We’ve had thousands of customer interactions,” Probolsky said. “The staff have been out in the field a lot.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and a body member of Report for America, an initiative of Groundtruth. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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