Politics trumped risk to local taxpayers when Contra Costa supervisors on Friday approved a deal to run one of the state's health insurance call centers.

The centers, a key part of President Barack Obama's health care reform legislation, will provide consumers comparison information about insurance plans and help them sign up for coverage.

The state plans to run two of the centers and has been negotiating with Contra Costa to run the third. County supervisors had promised that there would be no cost to the general fund, that they would only sign a deal if the state fully covered the cost.

But in the end, supervisors reneged. They ignored staff members' repeated warnings of uncovered legal liability that could prove very costly to the general fund. Kathy Gallagher, county director of employment and human services, was blunt: "We're very concerned about the risk to the county."

She noted that the state steadfastly refuses to protect the county from financial risk in case of lawsuits stemming from operation of the center. She warned that the risk was real, and the magnitude immeasurable. Yet that risk was not factored into the finances of the deal.

Supervisors not only irresponsibly approved the contract with the state but also agreed to lease Concord office space for the operation from a politically powerful campaign contributor -- even though the ever-changing numbers suggested that a Richmond site would be a better deal.


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For all the public debate in the past month about the call center, the key information needed to analyze the contract with the state and compare the two sites was withheld until the last moment. There was no public vetting before the special meeting.

Blame county staff for waiting until the last minute. Blame Supervisor Federal Glover, the board chairman, for calling the meeting on just one day's notice. But, most of all, blame politics.

While the call center will bring 200 jobs to Contra Costa, there is no rational reason for the county, or any county, to run one-third of a state operation that will serve residents across California. This isn't a county function; it's a state responsibility. But a Sacramento political deal with labor unions reportedly drove that decision, even though a county-run center will be more expensive.

As for the Concord site selection, it too was about influence. The final analysis prepared by county staff wasn't really an apples-to-apples comparison. The numbers for the site owned by the Concord-based Garaventa family, best known for its garbage collection company, made assumptions that didn't comply with the state's requirements. The same flexibility was not extended to the owner of the Richmond site.

None of that really mattered to Supervisors Glover, Karen Mitchoff and Mary Piepho. They backed their financial backer from the onset. They ignored the financial risk to the county.

No offense taxpayers, it was just politics.