OCPA General Counsel Ryan Baron Resigns Under Pressure
In a letter dated February 6, 2023, Ryan Baron, the general counsel for the troubled Orange County Power Authority (OCPA), resigned from his position with the OCPA. Baron had become a controversial figure and a target for new OCPA Board member Kathleen Treseder, who demanded his termination as well as that of CEO Brian Probolsky as a condition for her support for the City of Irvine to remain in the OCPA. At the OCPA Board meeting on January 7, 2023, newly elected OCPA Vice Chair Treseder said, “In order to reform OCPA, the first steps are to replace the CEO and the general counsel,”
The resignation of Ryan Baron has preempted a likely vote to terminate him at a future closed session of the OCPA Board of Directors. Baron’s resignation letter states, “…the unprecedented personal attacks on myself have created a situation where the bright future of OCPA as a leader in California has been put at risk. As general counsel for OCPA, I must maintain a position of trust as a legal advisor to the Board that helps advance the interests of the organization, particularly as the Board endeavors to keep the members working together. Given the current situation, I believe that the Board will be better served with another individual in the role of general counsel, and I regret to inform you of my decision to step down as General Counsel of the Orange County Power Authority.”
According to Baron, “Nicholaus Norvell, who has general counsel experience with community choice energy and other joint powers authorities, has agreed to step into the role of interim General Counsel to help guide the agency.” It is unknown, at this time, how this selection was made and by whom.
Nicholaus Norvell is an Attorney at Best Best & Kreiger (BBK) LLP Special Districts and Municipal Law Practice Groups. He serves as a general counsel and special counsel services for several California water, energy, and wastewater agencies. In addition, Mr. Norvell serves as general counsel for the South Bay Irrigation District in San Diego and interim counsel to the East County Advanced Water Purification Joint Powers Authority.
Local Groups Demand Change at Power Authority
Many local environmental groups, activists, and concerned residents, some who helped create the OCPA and still support the idea of Community Choice Energy (CCE), have now become some of the more vocal critics of the power authority.
In a letter sent to the OCPA this week and signed by a coalition of 24 local environmental and community groups demanding change, they wrote, “We are writing to you today regarding the urgent need to replace Orange County Power Authority (OCPA) CEO Brian Probolsky and General Counsel BBK as soon as possible as key steps to restoring trust in this critically important agency, and eliminating the failures and corruption permitted by the former Board and remaining leadership.”
“Replacing BBK and Probolsky is the critical first step to reforming OCPA and making it an institution the community can trust. The Board must terminate its service agreement with vendor BBK, terminate Probolsky, and appoint qualified interim replacements until permanent staff can be identified through a public recruitment process.”
“In keeping with principles of democracy and open government, these critical decisions must occur in open session to provide transparency and rebuild community trust, which Probolsky, BBK, and the former Board have destroyed.”
The coalition listed many specific complaints, including member exits and additional potential exits, rate-setting, employee harassment, costs, operational and vendor selection failures, governance, energy contracting, and transparency.
The Troubled OCPA
The Orange County Power Authority has moved from one controversy to another since its creation. For example, one of the first decisions made was to hire Brian Probolsky, who had no energy experience and lacked academic credentials. That decision was made without considering other candidates and is said to have been orchestrated partly by former political power broker Melehat Rafiei and general counsel Ryan Baron and was supported by then OCPA Board members Farrah Khan and Mike Carroll.
Irvine Watchdog raised concerns about the hiring of Probolsky as well as the OCPA’s Brown Act violations, the lack of transparency, failure to comply with the California Public Records Act in responding to requests for public information, and the alleged incompetence, possible corruption, and poor business practices and governance of the OCPA.
Last year the Orange County Grand Jury published a report titled “Orange County Power Authority: Come Clean,” also widely condemned in an OC Grand Jury (OCGJ) Report, citing Irvine Watchdog as one source, for hiring unqualified leadership and a cascade of other related failures.
The County of Orange conducted both, an internal audit of the OCPA, and an independent audit, which enumerated a list of serious concerns over the governance, practices, and leadership of the OCPA. The County’s internal auditor report is available here. To read the outside contractor’s report, click here.
In response to the audits, the Orange County Board of Supervisors (BOS) voted to leave the OCPA. At a meeting of the BOS, Supervisors were not satisfied with the answers to questions from OCPA CEO Brian Probolsky and general counsel Ryan Baron. Supervisor Foley said, “I was so hoping I wouldn’t have to make this vote… it boils down to trust and transparency, and I don’t trust the information. I don’t think we’ll be able to fix what I think are systematic operational issues.”
In response to questions asked by the BOS, Supervisor Bartlett said, “There were just numerous problems that had occurred. We’ve got multiple audits, and questions have been asked. And I think the answers were, frankly, nebulous…they weren’t answers. They weren’t answers, period.”
With the County exiting from the OCPA, both the City of Huntington Beach and the City of Irvine are considering leaving the agency unless the demanded changes are made. Council member Treseder was the deciding vote for Irvine to remain in the OCPA.
In January, Irvine City Council voted 3-2 to stay in the OCPA and to try to make changes in the next several months or to then consider withdrawing. However, because of their vote to delay the decision to withdraw, the City of Irvine cannot exit the OCPA until the summer of 2024.
At the time of the Irvine City Council vote, former OCPA Chair and Irvine City Council member Mike Carroll said, “The worry we have is that if we don’t do this, Irvine gets caught holding the bag at the end of the story…I don’t really see a way out.”
Council Member Larry Agran, a long-time critic of the OCPA, said, “We have been trying to fix this thing from afar, and what do we get? What did we get in return? We get stonewalling… We’re going to get the business as usual response, which is ‘We don’t care what you want, city of Irvine.'”
Mayor Farrah Khan, who made the motion to stay in the OCPA said, “It’s not failing, and no matter how many crises people come up with, it’s still a functioning organization.”
Stay tuned for more on this developing story…
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