Orange County Fair officials have found their next permanent CEO in Michele Richards, a former executive staffer who’s promising a new era of transparency for the state agency amid years of controversy leading to the October ousting of Richards’ predecessor, Kathy Kramer.

The Board of Directors for the fairgrounds, known officially as the OC Fair and Events Center, made the decision to appoint Richards in closed session at the beginning of their Thursday meeting. Richards had been filling in as interim CEO after the Fair Board voted to fire Kramer after a closed session meeting on Oct. 24.

Kramer’s leadership faced much scrutiny since she joined the state agency in 2015, over issues like a potentially illegal severance agreement with a fired employee and allegations of retaliatory investigations into her staff.

Most recently, Voice of OC reported that Kramer sat on the fundraising board for Vanguard University — the private Christian college across the street — while the fairgrounds gave money to the school in sponsorship deals and contracts.

“We express our appreciation for some changes that we’ve seen recently and also express that we’re committed — and Michele is committed — to operating in a different way, In a way that’s more transparent and involves more communication,” said Fair Board Director Andreas Meyer after the directors came out of closed session.

While Richards, who worked under Kramer, declined after the meeting to comment on Kramer’s leadership of the state agency over the past couple of years, she made frequent efforts throughout her first meeting as CEO to signal ways things would change with her leadership.

For much of Thursday morning she touched on key issues like whether the state agency should increase ticket prices to keep up with labor and pension costs, and chimed in at certain points to mention that some items on the agenda were put on there to address mistakes made by staff at earlier meetings.

“When we find that an error has been made, we shed light on it, on why it happened, correct whatever it is, and move forward,” Richards said. “There’s nothing to be gained by trying to hide it.”

Richards also said during the meeting she plans on addressing the concerns raised by some Fair Board directors and watch dogs about giving major spending approvals for certain projects a second look.

Frequent Fair Board meeting observer Beth Rufakis and Fair Board Director Andreas Meyer said spending approvals for projects aren’t the same thing as project approvals, and that potentially leads to issues of some Fair Board directors finding issues with a project after already having approved the spending for it.

Richards said during the meeting that while staff is bound to make some mistakes, “As your new CEO, I want to assure this board and the public” that — for issues like not properly examining spending approvals for certain projects — “if that was done in the past, it certainly won’t be done in the future.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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