City leaders turn on Orange County Power Authority, alleging lack of transparency, poor leadership

Orange County’s first community choice energy program is embroiled in controversy.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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Since the Orange County Power Authority was formed less than two years ago, the county’s first community choice energy program has faced scrutiny for transparency issues and poor leadership.

After facing mounting pressure from the public, the Irvine City Council this week voted 4-0 to conduct an audit of the program and investigate whether the agency is adequately responding to public information requests. Councilman Mike Carroll, chairman of the board of the power authority, was absent from the Tuesday meeting.

Councilman Larry Agran, who proposed the audit along with Mayor Farrah Khan, repeated some of his prior criticisms about the agency during the meeting. He took aim at the agency’s alleged lack of transparency and a few other issues.

“I said when the Orange County Power Authority was being established ... we were promised three things,” Agran recounted of his prior statement. “First, OCPA promised to deliver cleaner electricity generated from non-fossil fuel sources, such as solar and wind, thereby reducing our carbon footprint. Second OCPA promised to deliver cheaper electricity as compared with our current provider, Southern California Edison. Third OCPA promised transparency, so we would know everything we needed to know about its operations ... I regret to report that each of these promises has been broken.”

Agran proposed that staff come back with a progress report on the audit on June 28.

Khan, a board member of the power authority, added items to the motion requesting a review of whether the agency has been lawfully responding to public information requests and asked that the city attorney or staff determine if power authority staff‘s approach to denying agenda items requested by the majority of the board is legal.

“This is very important because, in addition, my request to add items to the agenda have also been previously denied,” Khan said.

When the power authority was formed, it was seen as an important step toward increasing the use of renewable energy in the county, its first community choice energy program, or CCE, which provides cities with an alternative to major energy providers like Southern California Edison, the energy titan serving most of Orange County and the region. So far, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Buena Park, Fullerton and the county of Orange are all members of OCPA.

In addition to the transparency issues, the agency’s chief executive Brian Probolsky has faced mounting criticism largely due to his lack of experience in the energy sector. In a letter sent to the council during the meeting, Probolsky defended the agency as “a transparent organization” and said that he is “proud of the Orange County Power Authority’s financials and [welcomes] all inquiries and audit requests.”

“The City of Irvine has asked us to provide power purchasing agreements,” Probolsky wrote. “The law makes the details within these documents confidential. This is not a decision of the board or of the management of OCPA, it is the law. Transaction details within power purchasing agreements are confidential contracts that cannot be provided to cities or the public. Even if it was legal, doing so would work against our mission and disadvantage OCPA in the marketplace. Continued attempts to make it look like OCPA is not being transparent because we follow the law are disingenuous at best.”

The council’s decision came two weeks after Probolsky claimed in a whistleblower complaint that Huntington Beach council members Dan Kalmick and Mike Posey, who have both been on the board of the power authority, are conspiring to oust him from the agency. The complaint alleges that Kalmick is spearheading the effort to get Posey to take the helm of the authority. Kalmick denied the claims as “categorically false.”

Following the decision from the Irvine council, the Huntington Beach City Council on Tuesday night decided to direct City Atty. Michael Gates to consider legal action against the power authority. The council also took a vote of no confidence against Probolsky, which passed 4-1, with Posey dissenting and council members Kim Carr and Erik Peterson absent.

The council also decided to support Irvine’s audit and to offer the city’s assistance in the investigation.

Kalmick listed a number of transparency issues with the power authority during the meeting, including that power pricing, the organization’s staff and Probolsky’s salary are not readily available on the agency’s website. He also said that there have been a litany of public information requests that have gone unanswered and there’s a lack of public trust in the agency.

“That’s the biggest issue for me is that it’s a public agency and should be open to the public and as transparent as possible,” he said.

Councilwoman Natalie Moser said that she’s concerned that there’s a lack of experience within the power authority.

“It’s important that we have an agency that the public can trust,” she said. "... It’s important that the leadership of the power authority and also the staff that are hired there have a deep well of experience that’s relevant, qualified, transparent and responsive to the community, to its board and to our residents as well.”

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