Fullerton’s CCA, the Orange County Power Authority (OCPA), got off to a rocky start after being founded in November 2020; joining in partnership with Irvine (which did the original legwork and provided beginning funding) were the cities of Fullerton, Huntington Beach, Buena Park, and Lake Forest. The board members of the group were council members of the participating cities. On January 12, 2021, the board hired the first CEO, Brian Probolsky, and COO Antonia Castro-Graham. However, these actions were questioned because, although Castro Graham had extensive education experience with government positions and CCA’s, Probolsky had none.
The OC Power Authority Board selected Probolsky as CEO at an annual base pay of $239,000, with only a high school level education, no qualifications, and no experience in clean energy, electricity utility, or the energy industry. Probolsky, the former Chief of Staff for OC Supervisors Andrew Do and Pat Bates was presented as the only candidate for the position by OCPA General Counsel Best Best & Kreiger. Similar to Fullerton’s disastrous “acting city manager” Steve Danley, Probolsky came through a board member’s recommendation rather than an official search.
Castro-Graham was hired as COO at a base pay of $189,000. Her qualifications included a Master of Public Administration degree with a concentration in Public Finance and a Master’s degree in Sustainability. She previously served as Fullerton Deputy City Manager under Ken Domer. Before her work in Fullerton, Castro-Graham was assistant to the city manager of Huntington Beach, in charge of managing energy and sustainability projects. She helped set up the beginnings of the power authority in 2017.
Lake Forest dropped out of the partnership in February 2021, leaving just four cities involved until the OC Board of Supervisors signed on in December 2021 for the unincorporated parts of the county.
Castro-Graham, who had characterized her new position as her dream job, resigned in December 2021 after reports of conflicts with Probolsky. (She is now Regulatory Affairs Manager of the California Choice Energy Authority, establishing CCA programs statewide.)
OCPA began providing power to commercial customers in April 2022. The following month, the June 2022 Grand Jury report “Orange County Power Authority: Come Clean” laid out significant leadership and transparency concerns, including that the CEO had “virtually no employment experience with CCEs or energy purchase and trading before joining OCPA,” and yet he oversees a $34 million budget, with “significant signing authority, little meaningful oversight, and no OCPA governing bylaws.” The report concluded that if the issues were fixed, the OCPA could be successful.
The City of Irvine ordered an audit in June with some of the same issues included in the Grand Jury report.
In October 2022, OCPA services to residential customers began.
After the County of Orange completed two audits in December 2022, the county dropped out of the partnership, and several other cities considered doing the same.
The State of California Audit noted customer opt-out rates were higher than expected. OCPA participation rates for residential registered at 77% and for commercial customers at 88%. “This is below rates of participation of other CCAs and could hamper the ability to provide power for the lowest price,” stated the report, which laid out problems and solutions. OCPA is required to update the CA Auditor on its progress toward implementing its recommendations. Read the full report at http://www.auditor.ca.gov/reports.
The February 28, 2023, state audit found a pattern of deception and mismanagement, including suspicious contracts and lack of accountability, lack of staff with sufficient experience to oversee the consultant that manages its power procurement, and insufficient oversight by the board. A list of recommendations included following policy that all new contracts of over $50,000 be reported at the next board meeting and contracts of more than $125,000 be brought to the board; requiring documentation and following competitive bidding processes; evaluating contractor performance; providing quarterly reports showing dollar amounts for each service, contractor, and any unpaid amount owed, and more.
The CA Public Utilities fined OCPA $1.96 million in April 2023 for failing to purchase adequate electricity to avoid service interruption during the summer of 2022. Also in April, following months of complaints from environmental groups, four failed audits, a critical OC Grand Jury report, and the threat of Irvine pulling its major participation in the agency, the OCPA board terminated CEO Probolsky’s contract in a 3 -1 vote (Jung abstaining).
According to Probolsky’s contract with the agency, in the event of termination “without cause,” he was due six months of severance plus vacation and benefits. Still, he received $450,000 after the board unanimously approved a May 2023 agreement. The final deal between the OCPA and Probolsky includes a clause of no admission of liability on either side. It has each promising not to sue, to release all claims, and to keep confidentiality and non-disparagement obligations.
Conclusion: Upward & Onward The board appointed OCPA Communications Director Joe Mosca as Interim CEO in June.
Things are already beginning to look up as OCPA works to correct the issues discussed in the various audits and reports. Hopefully, the agency’s mishaps have been lessons learned, ushering in a new era where all four participating cities can help make a dent in climate change by encouraging renewable energy on a larger scale while bringing less expensive electricity to residents.
For more information www.ocpower.org/