Orange County‘s government run power company is losing members following political turmoil over its chief executive officer and transparency concerns.
Orange County Power Authority, forged as a competitor to the investor-owned, monopoly energy provider Southern California Edison, is one of dozens of public power companies various California cities and counties built to buy cleaner power and at a more affordable price than the state’s three investor-owned utilities. They are often run by a board of appointed elected officials representing each participating community.
Orange County Power Authority initially included the communities of Buena Park, Fullerton, Huntington Beach, Irvine and the unincorporated areas of the county. It’s akin to Clean Energy Alliance, which serves seven North San Diego County cities, and San Diego Community Power, which serves seven others including the city of San Diego and unincorporated San Diego County. But as turmoil enveloped the Orange County company, its membership began to waiver.
Orange County’s saga, closely chronicled by reporter Noah Biesiada at the nonprofit newsroom Voice of Orange County, began in the summer of 2021 as climate activists raised questions over the public power company’s new CEO, Brian Probolsky. Activists opposed his hiring since the longtime political operative had no experience at an electric utility or a college degree and was previously investigated for ethics violations during his time working in county government.
Probolsky was the only candidate the board interviewed for the job, and was recommended by the company’s general counsel Ryan Baron of Best Best & Krieger law firm, a point later highlighted by an Orange County Grand Jury in an audit of the company. Baron is also the general counsel for San Diego Community Power.
Probolsky sought board permission in June of 2021 to negotiate and sign $60 million worth of power contracts without review. Irvine City Councilman Mike Carroll argued transparency concerns weren’t valid because Orange County Power Authority was just six months old and posted its meetings online.
New troubles sprouted. Before Orange County Power Authority produced any energy, its leaders quarreled over rules that let the CEO decide which consultants had to declare conflicts of interest while working with the company. Virtually all of the company’s staff at the time worked as consultants.
Then, the company didn’t have enough money to start providing electricity to residents, the city of San Clemente bailed on joining it in October of 2021 and, for a moment, considered teaming up with the San Diego-based Clean Energy Alliance. The City Council punted that decision in part because it was still wary of Orange County’s controversies, according to reporting by the San Clemente Times.
Months later, the company’s chief operations officer, Antonia Castro-Graham, abruptly resigned after a hot mic caught a heated exchange between her and Probolsky, where she shared concerns about the CEO’s behavior.
The board considered firing both Probolsky and Baron, but an attempt to meet and discuss was thwarted after Baron reportedly refused to recognize a board appointment thereby blocking a majority of the board’s wishes to hold that meeting. Probolsky, in the meantime, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging two board members were engaging in double dealing and corruption.
Orange County Power Authority failed two other audits from outside agencies, including one by Orange County’s Board of Supervisors released just before the county itself decided to pull its customers out of the agency in December. County auditors said the company wouldn’t give up or didn’t properly keep documents on energy contracts or hiring processes.
Biesiada writes in his latest piece that the overall finances of the power company are largely a mystery to the public as its staff refuses to release 90 percent of its financial paperwork to county auditors or answer questions on how much is being spent to procure power.
The county may have to pay $65 million in fees to leave its namesake power company, a figure that county auditors warned in their report requires further research and substantiation. Elected leaders in Irvine, Orange County Community Power’s largest customer, narrowly recommitted to staying in and cleaning up the company in December – a decision its City Council will reevaluate in six months. The decision for a few councilmembers hinges on whether Probolsky stays at the helm or not.
“It’s not failing, and no matter how many crises people come up with, it’s still a functioning organization,” said Irvine’s Mayor Farrah Khan.
Carroll, former chair of the power company board and one of its loudest proponents, Biesiada writes, voted against staying in, pointing out how Orange County’s decision to pull out this month as Huntington Beach leaders are considering doing the same leaves Irvine “pushed to a wall.”
“The worry we have is that if we don’t do this, Irvine gets caught holding the bag at the end of the story,” Carroll said. “I don’t really see a way out.”
In Other News
- A bit of positive climate news that affects San Diegans and Earth dwellers alike: The ozone hole, initially gouged by a use of a class of chemicals in refrigerants and aerosols before being banned in 1987, is on the mend and slated to heal by 2066. (Associated Press)
- Residents receiving city of San Diego trash collection on Wednesdays will get their new green bins to collect food waste starting this week. It’s part of a statewide effort to reduce planet-warming methane gas created by rotting food waste that’s leaking from landfills. (Times of San Diego)
- In other gaseous news, SDG&E warned residents to prepare for an awfully-high gas bill this month. (Voice of San Diego)
- Lots more rain in the forecast for Tuesday as a subtropical-fueled storm heads for the Western coast. (Union-Tribune)