The politically charged push to open California's only county-run health insurance call center will reach a crescendo Friday afternoon with a legally questionable closed meeting of Contra Costa supervisors followed by a likely decision on the deal despite no public vetting of the financial risk.

At issue is one of three call centers planned for the state as part of President Barack Obama's health care reform legislation. The centers will provide consumers comparison information about health care plans.

In California, the state is responsible for operating the centers, but under what we're told was a Sacramento deal with labor unions, one of those centers is to be run by a county.

It makes no sense. The center is supposed to serve residents across California. That should be a state government function, especially when the state's numbers apparently show that subcontracting will be more expensive.

From the county's perspective, it's telling that it was one of only two that expressed interest. Since the state opted for Contra Costa, the two sides have been negotiating terms while key campaign contributors here have been trying to influence the outcome to benefit themselves.

The whole deal seemed dead when county labor unions tried to hold out for more concessions for the anticipated 200 new workers. But a last-minute agreement this week resolved the dispute over pay and work conditions.


Advertisement

Meanwhile, county officials had said that the contract with the state would fully cover the county's costs. We're now learning that's not necessarily so. It turns out no one had carefully crunched the numbers until this week.

As of Friday morning, just hours before the vote, there was still no publicly available financial analysis telling supervisors and Contra Costa taxpayers what risk they would be taking on.

At the same time, owners of two office buildings, one in Richmond, the other in Concord, have been trying to win the county lease to house the call center, a selection with about $2 million of leasing income at stake.

So far, the Richmond site would not only be cheaper for the county, it would best meet the specifications the state says are needed for security and patient confidentiality. But the Concord-based Garaventa family, best known for its garbage collection company, is clearly the more politically influential property owner, holding sway with at least three supervisors, Karen Mitchoff of Pleasant Hill, Mary Piepho of Discovery Bay and board Chairman Federal Glover of Pittsburg.

On Thursday, as county staff members were scrambling to financially analyze the cost and risk of the call center plan for a meeting expected Tuesday, Glover suddenly called a special board meeting for 4 p.m. Friday.

We're told it was scheduled at least in part to accommodate Piepho's schedule for next week. If only three of the five supervisors solidly back the Garaventa site, her presence could be critical.

The meeting is to begin with a closed session, officially so supervisors can meet with their property negotiators. Such a meeting would be a farce, violating the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of the state's open meeting law.

The law allows a government board to meet in closed session "to grant authority to its negotiator regarding the price and terms of payment." The idea of that law is to shield the board from tipping its hand and keep competitors from knowing the details of its bid.

But, in this case, all the key details of the competing proposals have been publicly reported by the county. Indeed, the two property owners have had access to the opposing offers and have been given until noon Friday to refine theirs. There's no need for secrecy.

In other words, this has been an open competition so far, but, suddenly, when it comes time to make the controversial and critical property selection, the supervisors want to hide behind closed doors.

It's shameful.