Leaders of the Orange County Power Authority have a big decision to make: will they keep Ryan Baron, their top lawyer and first ever employee, or risk losing 40% of their customers?
It’s a question they’ll have to answer before Valentine’s Day, or Irvine City Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder plans to make the decision for them.
The agency has been in turmoil for months after a series of audits pointed out transparency issues and poorly vetted contracts, with county supervisors pulling out of the agency rather than risk what lies in an uncertain future.
[Read: Cloudy Contracts, Audits and Lost County Support: A Rough Year For OC’s Green Power Agency]
Irvine city leaders almost followed them out the door on Dec. 28, but Treseder cast the deciding vote to stay, pledging to clean up the agency by changing its leadership and saying if they couldn’t get it done, the city should get out now.
[Read: Irvine Councilwoman Threatens To Pull City Out of Green Power Agency if CEO Isn’t Replaced]
Treseder pledged that if she hadn’t seen some sign of progress by the Irvine City Council’s February 14 meeting, she’d call for the city council to pull out and vote in favor.
Fullerton Mayor Fred Jung, who also serves as chair of the agency’s board, confirmed he’s scheduling a special closed doors meeting in the next couple weeks to discuss removing Baron at Treseder’s request.
“I assume it happens within the next ten days,” Jung said in an interview.
“What’s important for the public to understand is if indeed change is necessary that it’s done deliberately, that it’s done in a pragmatic manner,” he said. “In this particular case, I think the board has taken deliberate action.”
It’s unclear whether or not the agency will bring in outside legal counsel to advise them during their discussion of firing Baron, with Jung saying it would be up to the board.
While much of the focus on the power authority’s problems has fallen on the shoulders of controversial CEO Brian Probolsky, Baron has also played an integral role in the development of the agency.
A partner at Best Best & Krieger, he’s played a big role in the development of both the power authority and San Diego Community Power, a similar community choice energy program that lets residents buy more renewable energy and an alternative to companies like Southern California Edison.
Baron was the one who recommended board members hire Probolsky instead of conducting a search for candidates, which led to a wave of questions from community activists on why the agency chose to move forward with a top executive who had no experience in the electrical industry.
Baron was also the agency’s first ever employee, signed on after advising Irvine on how to create the agency through the city’s contract with BB&K.
While the board has discussed firing Probolsky numerous times, Baron’s potential dismissal only came up once last year in a meeting behind closed doors.
Baron’s legal decisions during the agency’s board meetings have also frequently led to some big debates between board members.
After Huntington Beach Councilman Dan Kalmick replaced Mike Posey as Huntington Beach’s representative on the agency’s board last June, he called for a vote to discuss firing Probolsky, with board members Susan Sonne, Farrah Khan and Jung agreeing to schedule the vote.
But Baron refused to let the special meeting move forward, saying that Kalmick didn’t have the power to call a special meeting even with a majority of the board behind him.
After Baron blocked that special meeting, Probolsky filed a whistleblower complaint against Kalmick and Posey, alleging they had violated public meeting laws in an effort to oust him.
[Read: Chaos Grips OC’s Green Power Agency, CEO Under Fire, Files Whistleblower Complaint]
After that was filed, the board decided not to pursue firing him until they finished a review of his complaint. While the investigation was completed last year, its results have not been released to the public.
[Read: OC Green Power Agency Holds Off On Firing CEO and Legal Counsel, Citing Investigation]
Baron’s work was again called into question in Dec. 2021 when the county board of supervisors joined the board.
Originally, board members had adopted rules that allowed interested cities and agencies to join the board, but they wouldn’t have a vote until they actually began receiving power, a process Baron oversaw as the agency’s legal counsel.
But when Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner joined the board, he had the same powers as every other board member, despite the county never receiving power from the agency.
When questioned about why Wagner had full voting powers, Baron argued that the board hadn’t properly adopted the rules banning him from making a vote, and that because it was adopted as a policy rather than an amendment to the organization’s bylaws it was unenforceable.
Nine months later, the agency officially changed the policy so that Wagner could continue voting without any controversy, but Wagner continued to vote through that entire time.
The special meeting to discuss removing Baron has yet to be scheduled, but is expected before Feb. 1 according to Jung.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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