Bring county contracts out of the shadows
By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist
Orange County voters are notoriously alert when it comes to watching out for their tax dollars. So voters here might be both surprised and dismayed to find out that our county has been a poster child for insider deals and rigged bidding processes that have awarded lucrative deals to campaign donors and cronies of high-ranking officials. Assembly Bill 1250 will bring county contracts out of the shadows, allowing the public and the news media to scrutinize them in the light of day. A one-month window remains for the Legislature to pass bills and Gov. Brown to sign them this year. Protecting taxpayers from waste with AB1250 should top their priority list.
Today, county governments are exempt from the same commonsense standards that protect taxpayers from pay-to-play abuses when our state government, libraries, school districts and community colleges contract with the private sector to deliver services. This bizarre loophole, and county supervisors’ unique role serving as both the legislative and executive branch of local government, combine to make county tax dollars ripe for abuse. Supervisors vote not just to spend the taxpayer money, they also select the contractors who profit from privatization, casting suspicion on the decisions made to spend tens of millions of our tax dollars.
Register readers may remember that the Orange County supervisors approved a massive contract with Xerox in 2013 after accepting $180,000 in political contributions from the company, its lobbyists and their clients. The five-year, $132 million contract to overhaul the county’s phone and computer networks was plagued by Xerox’s failings from the start. By 2015 the Register reported that the county was considering a lawsuit over poor performance, “broken promises and cost increases.” In fact, performance by Xerox was so poor that it required non-stop workarounds and fixes by the county’s own IT staff — dedicated professionals who clearly should have been performing the work in the first place.
The costly Xerox deal is far from the only pay-to-pay deal involving Orange County. In 2014 Orange County Auditors discovered not only that nearly $1 million in no-bid consulting contracts had been awarded to a friend of a high-ranking parks official, the contracts were intentionally split up to avoid scrutiny. Auditors found the payments were unjustifiable, lacking details, budgets or scopes of work. In similar instances across the state, county supervisors and officials have abused their power to steer taxpayer dollars into the pockets of friends and cronies.
AB1250 would remove the cloud of “play-to-play” suspicion from county contracting by requiring open, competitive bidding and evidence that a contract will save taxpayers money over its full term. Counties’ arguments that their ability to find savings or expand capacity by outsourcing work don’t hold water when you consider that California already has more than $36 billion in open contracts under virtually identical transparency rules.
Now AB1250 is the target of an expensive and time consuming campaign by Orange and other California counties to maintain the status quo. They’re fighting reasonable transparency measures so they can continue to award contracts without an open bid and with little public scrutiny. Counties have spent more lobbying against this common-sense transparency reform than they have spent supporting legislative action to aid foster children, improve public safety or improve indigent health care.
Local governments, not unions or corporations, spend the most money to influence politicians in Sacramento, and they’ve made defeating transparency and accountability measures in AB1250 their top priority this year. Orange County taxpayers should ask, if counties are going to such lengths to keep contracting in the shadows, what are they trying to hide?
Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.
Publication Date: August 25, 2017